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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

The Meanness of Mean India

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by Kamal Wadhwa

Even a cursory glance at the daily newspaper reveals the economic mindset and the manipulation of that mindset into losing its sense of balance and well-being by the plethora of reports, articles and stories on the economic life of the Indian nation. There are all sorts of stories, statistics, credit appraisals, banking trends, FDI investment couched in the jargon of the modern economy that, curiously enough, seems to be so incongruous with the rickety jalopy that is the real India—the India we see as we step out of our apartments to commute to VT, Marol or Nariman Point in Mumbai. We hear with utter disbelief of educated young women who have perished by the travails of the daily commute and the eight hour workdays that follow it. Similarly, the television screen shows us a new freedom and permissiveness among young people who have healthy bodies and good eating habits. The very pulsating physiques of young stars and starlets seem to tell us that at last Indians are becoming complete human beings like our Nawabi cousins across the border with their handsome builds and striking countenances!

Yet we are again shamed by the pinched and worried look of young people travelling on the city buses even though they put up a gallant show of casualness with extended conversations on the mobile phone. There is real hunger here; not just the fashionable slimness that the well-fed, corpulent elders so admire in the young generation! Even the bashes on Page Three of The Times of India elicit no glints of recognition in young eyes; they only underscore the vastness of the gulf between the favoured few children who have inherited the ideological mantle of their elders with the attendant idleness and publicity, and the rest of youthful Indians who must hearken to work—come rain or shine!

In a nutshell, we observe that very little has changed in urban India except that prices have gone higher and that there is no escape from the tins of processed foods on shop shelves that are identified as the symbols of true modernity and correct lifestyles. Most young couples still cannot marry on their own; they need their family’s help, a scooter, an apartment, to do that—and accept the sullen obedience they must accord to the traditional order! Many young working girls hold jobs to save money for the dowry that cannot be avoided to attract a potential life partner. Here, there is no talk of love and meaningful relationships; nothing of romance nor even of an occasional tryst on the beach! All are resigned to the monotony of forced conversations, the little flirting that soon lapses into awkwardness, and the shop talk that is central to the success of every couple’s conversation!

Many young people drift willy-nilly into marriage because they do not want to miss out on the marital pleasures and the children they result in. There are no great love sagas here; no sacrifice of ties with kith and kin to elope with the loved one. Only the dreadful ticking away of time that seems to announce the end of youth and beauty so that even those most insensitive to the transience and impermanence of youth, feel they must act, to do something before it is too late! Hence, that manic act of stumbling into a forced marriage from which no one ever recovers—in mind, body or even economically! Much of young India is in sore marital distress on both sides of the communal divide and there is no escape from this tangle because of the force of custom and the awesome control exercised by the community elders!

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The secular fabric of independent India has been crushed in no mean measure by nearly a decade or so of rampaging Hindutva. The new regime, alas, shows no energy because the Ministers are drawn from an earlier era that has no relevance to the new order. They cannot or will not undo the damage done to the body politic by their predecessors because they are civil and gentlemanly—quite useless in this age of mob violence and raging criminality.

And there is no ideology or polemical baggage in the hordes of graduates, post-graduates and Ph.Ds thrown up by the universities every year. No real will or ambition to change the world and mould it according to the heart’s desire—only a mad rush to succeed at all cost! Many cannot see that they can never succeed as entrepreneurs or businessmen in spite of having fancy MBAs that are modelled on the latest syllabi of elite American universities. Entrepreneurship is driven by hunger, deprivation and need; not just the staple diet of the Philip Kotler and Arindam Chowdhury theories! A lot of illegitimate income has also surfaced in the economy and gone into creating dubious businesses where young people are given jobs, but no work! Then again, there are scores of hoary ideologues with fantastic stores of unaccounted wealth ready to emerge from the shadows and wreak havoc and mayhem on the body politic if they can just find those needy young men in search of pocket money and meals!

The rise of economic aspirations, especially among the educated youth who traditionally were fountains of social capital and served as a vital bridge between the government, society and the masses, has left a social and cultural vacuum in the nation. There are no other role models of any note; hence the fascination of all classes of society for the tinsel town of Bollywood even when the stars dish out pedestrian films and tuneless melodies—and commit serious indiscretions against law and order. This is the convenient morality of Shining India where crimes and offences against the public interest can be atoned for by paying in cash or donating to the policemen’s welfare fund!

The economic mindedness of the print media and television to some extent, with their optimistic projections on the Indian economy, is cleverly couched in savvy language and the analytical vocabulary of management literature. It is periodically buttressed by carrying interviews with leading scholars and intellectuals from Harvard and Yale. All literate Indians feel that maybe the nation is embarked on some great economic enterprise and endeavour; so convincing is the language of the new breed of Americanised journalists! That very persuasive language of the media masks the underlying demonic and barbaric reality—that Shining India is now up for all grabs; that the well of distrust and suspicion that separated the elders of the earlier generation is now dividing the youth of post-reform India also! That while the elders of all ideological and political hues are closing ranks and retreating behind the walls of air-conditioned and luxury bungalows in New Delhi and elsewhere, the vast majority of young Indians are resiling and turning away from each other by bitter feuds and drawn-out wrangling by the forced pace of competition over everything that counts in life materially! That the elders have taken everything and left nothing for posterity except the poisonous cant and rhetoric of their useless lives that will surface again in their political heirs to torment us and again push young Indians to the margins of society.

That is the tragic mask of modernity; it is really an entrenched traditionalism that is being peddled in the guise of modernity; so great is the fascination of the elders with technology and information science. India is fast losing its youth to the computer and call-centre!

Kamal Wadhwa is an Honours Graduate in Literature from the University of Chicago and now a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He can be contacted at wadhwa.kamal@gmail.com

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