Thursday, August 20, 2009

Light At the End of the Tunnel

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-Robert Frost

India celebrated her 62nd Independence Day. Do we have independence in India today? Before discussing the topic, the most important thing that needs to be defined is what is ‘independence’? According to the Oxford English dictionary, being independent is being free from outside control or influence, self-governing or not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence. And, what is ‘civilization’? ‘Civilization’ is an advanced stage or system of human social development. The dynamics of human society implies that there is a social network in which individuals are dependent on each other in varying degrees. Human beings are social animals who cannot live in isolation. This defies the very definition of ‘independence’. We cannot have a society that is completely ‘independent’ in the true sense of the term. So what is all this about independence that we talk about so often? An attempt will be made to gain a bit more insight into this.

The word independence needs a context. Independence from what or whom are important questions that have to be answered. The next question is why is that independence important or necessary? In India’s case, the most oft referred meaning of independence is independence from British domination. India was a colony of the British empire before independence. The roots of colonialism go deep down into the ground, and like the roots of a Banyan growing beside a mighty concrete wall, these roots dig deep into the wall itself to make it crumble. India wanted freedom from that colonialism of mind and soul. And with Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech about India’s tryst with destiny, we finally threw off the shackles of colonial rule. How far did we succeed? This would require a background of Indian history together with the history of modern India after independence.

India was not what it is today before the British came here to rule for more than 200 years. She was divided into smaller kingdoms that loosely existed as independent states, occasionally fighting against each other, and sometimes facing foreign invasion. At times, a strong emperor conquered most parts of what we now know as India, or demanded obeisance in return for political independence. Before the British, all the conquerors who came to India from outside, either left soon after the spoils of the conquest had been gathered, or settled down in India to become ‘Indians’. It was only when the East India company was established that a different kind of scenario emerged. The company ruled Indian territory on behalf of the Queen of England and existed for the profit and prosperity of the British. In short, as with all forms of colonialism, the purpose was economic exploitation. But together with the British came the idea of India.

The Indian subcontinent drifted in ancient times and collided with the Chinese mainland where we have the Himalayas today. People came to India from various parts of the world, and there were the indigenous people. Then kingdoms were formed. The loosely connected states that had been independent unless a stronger power gobbled it up suddenly had a common oppressor to deal with. Thus, this huge country, with so many languages and cultures, had the necessity to unite and search for a common identity. From looking for ones identity the idea of independence, freedom and individuality is born.

Were we independent before? Yes and no. Are we independent now? Yes and no. Why this contradiction? Well, for one, India has and continues to be a land of paradoxes, where the opposite of something is equally true. This is a result of our multicultural and multiethnic society, where different religious beliefs and languages crisscross and overlap in infinite proportions. The pursuit of a national identity and character are unique stories for all nations, and determines the course of history. We do not have a common language, we do not have a common religion, there are so many castes, and we cannot deny that all Indians have multiple identities. We identify with our inner group, with the people who speak the same language or the region we live in. Our strength is our diversity; it can also be our undoing. Also, with freedom comes responsibility.

With the advent of the age of communication and internet, pan-Indianness has taken a stronger hold. Mobility of the population to various parts of India, epitomized by cosmopolitan Bangalore and its IT revolution, has given us better sense of a common identity. So, Mr. A who stayed at place X and had the same religion etc. as Mr. B who stayed at place Y, did not identify with each other before the modern age of computers, mobile phones and internet. But, since mobility of population has increased in recent times, so has the feeling of pan-Indianness. Now is the time as never before to define what is ‘Indianness’.

The above is the historical background. How has India shaped after independence? Every Indian is likely to give a different answer to this same question. Given the size of India’s population, it would mean over a billion different answers.
Until the economic reforms in 1991, India had a 3% growth rate on an average. With the opening up of the economy this growth rate surged to new highs. But poverty and problems in education, especially primary education continue to hamper growth and throw up a darker side of India that we all want to run away from. Indians, despite the increasing sense of pan-Indianness, are still in the process of figuring out their identity. This is a huge factor that is not discussed so often. The engineering and management schools are throwing up smart techies and business people who have a zip in their stride according to Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat. And, more and more Indians are coming up who do not feel the same identity as that of their ancestors.

Consider the case of Mr. Z. His parents had been educated in the local language. They had a secure lifelong job and their dream was to give Mr. Z the best English education possible. Mr. Z has grown up on a diet of English books and novels, uses English as his main language of communication. He may have Pizza for lunch and listen to hip hop music. Yet he is neither an American nor an Englishman but very much Indian. He has the freedom of choice to pursue his career and communicate with people across the globe.

The IT revolution, call centers and BPO’s have thrown up a plethora of opportunities for the young confident Indian who aspires to make it big. But how big can he make it? At present, most of the innovation is done in the United States. We have made big strides and in a few more years it would be time to take the next big leap towards innovation. Not just made in India by Indians but dreamed up and designed in India. Other than that, we also need more Olympic gold medalists in various events. That is the kind of India where true freedom can have a place.

We still have ‘promises to keep’ and ‘miles to go’. The IT sector in India comprises just 0.1 percent of the Indian population. The figure may be a bit outdated but still it is not enough to sustain the entire nation. What this shining sector has managed to do is fuel ambitions of more Indians. The time has come to not just do the back office work but a lot of R&D stuff as well, for the next quantum leap towards a full-fledged Knowledge Economy. Unless that happens, a recession in the US would always send the Indian industries reeling. We have to see that this does not happen in future. Some Indian IT companies have shown resilience in maintaining profits even with the US in recession. But, we do not have complete ‘independence’ yet.

Sunil Khilnani wrote in an article, “A central test of India’s international brand image will be how it deals with its own internal conflicts. And be assured, these will proliferate and multiply in years to come. One illusion we should disabuse ourselves of is that the anticipated period of economic growth and development will somehow have a pacifying effect, that it will reduce conflicts, and that politics will become less important, replaced by technocratic solutions. This is at best wishful thinking. As the Indian economy grows, as there is more at stake to struggle for and over, so too will potential subjects of conflicts. Economic growth and modernity, especially when it occurs within an already complex society such as India’s, is not homogenizing: on the contrary, it will spawn further differences. And, as Indians gain more autonomy over their lives as result of economic prosperity, so too will we see more and more experiments in living, sometimes incompatible and in tension with one another.”

We have maintained democracy for so many decades and achieved financial independence to some extent in some sectors of our economy. But before we can say we are truly ‘independent’ we must achieve self-sufficiency in key areas, tap our brains more effectively, achieve 100% literacy, basic education for all, proper nutrition for all, basic social security and health services for all, sufficient electric power and safe potable water for all. Also, the top heavy existing education system requires a much needed revamping. A lot of things are happening in India today. In Vineet Nayar’s words in a different context, “We need to learn to listen closely and recognize these new pulses of life. We need to amplify these signals and connect the dots rather than fall into the trap of projecting a linear future on trends of the past.” Only in such an India can we have true development of the mind, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, Where knowledge is free…”, and where, ‘truth alone triumphs.’

Note: Quotations from Rabindranath Tagore, Sunil Khilnani, Vineet Nayar and Robert Frost. Satyameva Jayate, meaning truth alone triumphs , is the national motto of India.

Rajdeep Seth
Originally written on August 14, 2009 (Friday), on the eve of India's Independence Day.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Remembering Hiroshima

“A Doctor’s Journal Entry for August 6, 1945” by Vikram Seth

The morning stretched calm, beautiful, and warm.
Sprawling half-clad, I gazed out at the form
Of shimmering leaves and shadows. Suddenly
A strong flash, then another, startled me.
I saw the old stone lantern brightly lit.
Magnesium flares? While I debated it,
The roof, the walls and, as it seemed, the world
Collapsed in timber and debris, dust swirled
Around me – in the garden now – and, weird
My drawers and undershirt disappeared.
A splinter jutted from my mangled thigh.
My right side bled, my cheek was torn, and I
Dislodged, detachedly, a piece of glass,
All the time wondering what had come to pass.
Where was my wife? Alarmed, I gave a shout,
‘Where are you, Yecko-san?’ My blood gushed out.
The artery in my neck? Scared for my life,
I called out, panic-stricken, to my wife.
Pale, bloodstained, frightened, Yecko-san emerged,
Holding her elbow, ‘We’ll be fine,’ I urged –
‘Let’s get out quickly.’ Stumbling to the street
We fell, tripped up by something at our feet.
I gasped out, when I saw it was a head:
‘Excuse me, please excuse me – ’ He was dead:
A gate had crushed him. There we stood, afraid.
A house standing before us tilted, swayed,
Toppled, and crashed. Fire sprang up in the dust,
Spread by the wind. It dawned on us we must
Get to the hospital: we needed aid –
And I should help my staff too. (Though this made
Sense to me then, I wonder how I could
Have hoped, hurt as I was, to do much good.)
My legs gave way. I sat down on the ground.
Thirst seized me, but no water could be found.
My breath was short, but bit by bit my strength
Seemed to revive, and I got up at length.
I was still naked, but I felt no shame.
This thought disturbed me somewhat, till I came
Upon a soldier, standing silently,
Who gave the towel round his neck to me.
My legs, stiff with dried blood, rebelled. I said
To Yecko-san she must go on ahead.
She did not wish to, but in our distress
What choice had we? A dreadful loneliness
Came over me when she had gone. My mind
Ran at high speed, my body crept behind.
I saw the shadowy forms of people, some
Were ghosts, some scarecrows, all were wordless, dumb –
Arms stretched straight out, shoulder to dangling hand;
It took some time for me to understand
The friction on their burns caused so much pain
They feared to chafe flesh against flesh again.
Those who could, shuffled in a blank parade
Towards the hospital. I saw, dismayed,
A woman with a child stand in my path –
Both naked. Had they come back from the bath?
I turned my gaze, but I was at a loss
That she should stand thus, till I came across
A naked man – and now the thought arose
That some strange thing had stripped us of our clothes.
The face of an old woman on the ground
Was marred with suffering, but she made no sound.
Silence was common to us all. I heard
No cries of anguish, or a single word.

1. The first ever A bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945, vaporizing thousands of innocent men, women and children in less than an instant. Human beings are capable of many things but the capacity for destruction is the one that will always be the one of shame.

2. Vikram Seth is a poet and novelist. Born in Calcutta (1952). Educated at Oxford and Stanford University.
Literary awards: 1. Commonwealth Poetry Prize; 2. Sahitya Academy Award; 3. 2001 EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award) for Best Book/Novel An Equal Music