Future past. Impressions of an exile. India 2.

One of the books I am reading now is Santosh Desai’s MOTHER PIOUS LADY, a compilation of columns he has written over the years observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of middle class India. It is funny, full of sharp observations and often nostalgic about Gen X growing up in a pre-globalised India. One reviewer likened it to RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons. Those who grew up in India and still live there know what I am talking about. The hardships, the ‘can-do-must-do’ attitude, the emphasis on dignity, the little treats once-in-a-while, the first time a family bought a television/scooter/refrigerator/electronics/even a Prestige cooker, arranged marriages, native villages as origin and end etc. Most of all the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Now that has changed. Liberalised, aspirational middle-class India does not know that eating ice-cream happened only at wedding receptions (Cassata anyone?) and on rare occasions otherwise. Or that trunk calls used to be made from post offices and generally meant bad news; otherwise people sent telegrams. We used to get post cards for 25 paise-I am not sure they are around any more. Still, this is not an exercise in nostalgia. Economic liberalisation, free-trade market, globalisation and related states were inevitable. Young Indians look into the future with positivity. The mobility, entrepreneurship, consumption, independence and individuality-to some extent. They seem to have it all. Yet the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Grounded in complacency and denial. Perhaps I have a ‘Western’ outlook to discourse and democratic responsibility and I want analysis. Every time I argued about civic process, populism and the relationship of the polity with the populace I was told ‘You have stayed away too long’, ‘We are an emotional people, we don’t like change’, ‘New Zealand is a small country so run differently’, ‘We should give the people what they want’ etc. No doubt India is a tough country to govern and Indians are complex. The culture does not make it easy either. Isn’t that precisely why Indians should be more self-aware? Shouldn’t the easier access to knowledge, information (not government process-but that is another story) and communication make us argumentative for the better?

In one of his articles Desai observes that Indians change at a pace that is comfortable with small, almost invisible steps which do not seem to disturb the status quo but actually is. Fine. But the pace at which ambition, aspiration, consumption and social behaviour is zooming such small steps create a massive disparity and inability to deal with the situation. Thomas Friedman, the great propagator of free market and author of THE WORLD IS FLAT praised India’s liberalisation and could only foresee a bright future (=money+material). There was no analysis of the social and cultural impact on Indians so deeply rooted in their traditions and structures. Here is what I thought.

Young India cannot deal with the material glut because there is no precedence. Then it turns to the past. There it is safe, there is reassurance, solidness and warmth like a mother’s bosom. Then we can chalta-hai, be like-this-only complacent because there is no need to examine the disparity between what we have, how it affects us and how we react. Because apparently everything will be alright!

The world maybe flat but Karma is not.

It comes back to bite you in the bum.

I have just finished reading Thomas Friedman’s ‘The World Is Flat’. It was an informative read. I now know what captains of the globalised world think. It’s all great stuff, the corporate language. I learnt a lot. The book is full of big names in business and government-all those that decide how the world works. They think the world is flat. I agree somewhat. This flattened world has been good to me. Considering I am a digital migrant. I got my first computer in 2001 now I get frustrated that I cannot update on Twitter from my mobile phone because it is not free in New Zealand. I can connect with old friends and make new friends, network and even date online because the world is flat. I can write this blog from my eee pc, sitting on my bed, because of my home hub and because the world is flat. How cool is that?

Two days ago I came across this is in the book ‘The Power Of Seduction’ ( by Jean-Claude Hagege). He talks about cosmetic surgery and advertising. ‘The insane acuumulation of images, no matter how beautiful, are lures to catch the buyer…and the sum total of these images behaves like a subculture with its own references, its winking, its provocations and even its scandals.’  The gist of Friedman’s book is akin to that. Creating a flat, capitalist world that justifies its existence on the basis of increasing consumption without a thought to side effects or after effects.  Maybe only I can see this connection? Or is it my politics? I mean I am probably not as smart as all the big names in the book who talk about globalisation, war, politics, business etc without talking about people and human behaviour. Displacement, disenfranchisement, destruction…they all lead to disruption and that, according to this book, is not the problem of the big businesses. It is the problem of the people themselves if they want to be left behind. It is the problem of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, it is the problem of despotic governments. They need to sort it. Not a word about American imperialism (yeah yeah some superficial reference to foreign policy etc) or even the hegemony of multinationals. I drink tap water and buy stuff at op-shops or on Trade Me, I guess I don’t know.

Perhaps this is beyond the scope of the book, perhaps I am seriously ignorant because I have never read any of Friedman’s work so don’t have any context. I’ve never run a business until now, I don’t belong to a business family and I am a single, brown female who thought computers were for engineers while I was growing up. Funny that the book has no reference to what my culture could possibly be as an end user in the post globalised world. Honestly I get upset when I come to know any of my relatives are working in call centres or outsourced back offices in India. Where is the personal growth there? Aren’t these kids, with their big salaries and faux American accents being turned into consumers? What is there to get so gung-ho about outsourcing? Just because lots of businesspeople are making money?

I am not against globalisation or outsourcing or insourcing or any of those other business terms used in the book. It is the condescending tone of the book that is troubling. It is problematic from page 1. So I started making notes as questions. I cannot give references about the exact page numbers or fully elaborate on the argument but my notes went something like this:

  • How does the concept of nation-states fit in the flat world?
  • What is the role of religion? (And not just fundamentalist Islam which is plentiful in the book.)
  • What is the impact on female empowerment?
  • What about those who cannot access the flat world?
  • Is outsourcing not another form of colonisation? (Please refer  to documentary John And Jane by Ashim Ahluwalia.)
  • Lateral thinking v/s herd mentality and rote learning.
  • Friedman talks about multiple identities in the end user that are now existing because of Google. *Laughs* Seriously? Did they not exist before Google? I think everyone except businesspeople know inherently that they have several identities. It is not the multiple identities per se but the negotiation of those identities that is important. Multiple identities become a problem when one is denied for the sake of the other. That is when the ‘socialist’ ideas of the need for equality in existence kick in.
  • What are the socio-cultural benefits? Where is the discourse, say, in India? How do they balance Jhumri Tilaiya with Saks Fifth Avenue or Karva Chauth with mini skirts? Again, how does all this affect attitudes towards women?
  • Is it normal for a flattened world to be fragmented?
  • What explains the caste system being carried over into this world? If everyone is happy with the money and the benefits why is there a caste system?
  • How has the flattened world helped democracy? How does one have critical discourse?
  • Parochialism v/s globalisation v/s unions v/s equality and egalitarianism. Unions can be protectionist (not good) yet helpful against exploitation (good).
  • What about protectionism in agri-industries? Did you (Friedman) take into account war and recession? Greed?
  • I don’t believe in job protection but the way society is structured needs re-shaping. Media has the power to do that but media is controlled by big businesses. How does the flat world affect messages from media? And audience reception. Not use, reception!
  • What about people skills and the safety of workers?
  • Is a stable middle class crucial to geopolitical stability or does it lead to ennui and stagnation? What is the definition of stable?
  • Why invoke God? (Friedman tells about his rabbi interpreting a story about the Tower of Babel.) Doesn’t invoking God reduce the argument about ‘flatism’ to being a divine decree? George W confabulated with God!
  • What is the proof that ‘civilisations’ to which the Muslim world once felt superior-Hindus, Jews, Christians and Chinese are doing better?
  • If oil is one of the reasons for terrorism and the backwardness of the Middle East what has stopped the U.S. government from trying to bring about democracies in that region?
  • Is China going to implode with ‘prosperity’? Will the Chinese people seek democracy openly?

I found Friedman’s view of the world blinkered and uber capitalist. Yet he goes on to quote Karl Marx in a positive way! The arguments don’t even touch on how people have changed the world. It is insidious, just like fundamentalist ideology that obfuscates references to make converts.

No one can control greed. That is why there is such economic turbulence now. After creating consumers for decades and deliberately keeping the masses stupid and dumb, there is a revolution breeding here.  Karma goes in circles, that is just the nature of this universe. The flat world will have to find a balance.