Sunday, August 24, 2008

India Meets The World

I am travelling for the first time in three months and my first flight - Gatwick to Dubai - was usual, tiring and boring. I saw two movies and listened through two audiobooks! One of them was Grassroots Management, a feel-good business book which tells the story of a fictional garden and explains how tp create an innovative, involved workplace. It is okay to listen to - the production and all that was good - but hardly makes a new revealation. I also did A Tale of Two Cities, just to explain how boring the last part of the flight was, and saw a movie called 88 minutes, a complex thriller starring Al Pacino. However, it is indeed the other movie - Outsourced - that I intended to write about.

I liked the movie, and I shall suggest anyone involved in outsourcing, or who has any part to play in making the world flat, should see it. It was a story of an American salesman, Todd, whose department gets outsourced to India and he comes to the country to train the new agents. It is Todd's Discovery of India - where he lives through hell, in all the chaos and squalor that India projects to the world - but finally discovers it, led by a fellow american's advise 'Don't resist India and it will come to you'. Set in a small town outside Mumbai, it has a very real feel and lively characters, Future Call Centre Manager, Puru, the 'discovering herself' agent Asha, the Guest House owner Auntiji among them. Having seen some of the call centre set-ups, this film feels right - with a cow tied in the backroom and water flowing in from the nearby field to submerge the work-floor. And, despite the squalor, the poverty, the relatively primitive infrastructure that the film shows in abundance, focusing on those will be wrong. The film passionately tells that India is people - it shows the dignity of people despite poverty, resilience in the face of difficulty, ingenuity at the time of a total breakdown. The film had its poignant moments too - when Asha stares down an irate american customer, when she talks about her 'only holiday in Goa', when Todd's boss tells him that the company has decided to move the call centre etc. I shall not spoil anyone's party telling the story any further - I shall say this one is a 'Must-See' for people like me and I am glad I chose to see it today.

However, for me, the movie reaffirms another important message. I am reading Jeremy Seabrooks' Consuming Cultures and through his discourse, questioning the validity of one global culture. This is a particularly European thought, that human civilization is what the white Europeans [and now North Americans] define it to be, and this is a somewhat 'superior' form of culture than any other local culture. As an extension of Churchill's Iron Curtain thinking, modern G8 leaders often talk in terms of a Civilization Divide, and talk about exporting 'superior' western cultures, democracy and free market for example, to other nations devoid of such things.

The extension of this thought is that all other nations, cultures, must model themselves after the Western Nations, and if I may use the word, benchmark themselves against the standards set by America or Britain. Seabrook passionately argues that this is wrong; local cultures and way of lives need to be protected and nurtured, because they represent what people really are. Besides, while Western nations made huge progress in terms of material production and wealth creation, the progress in terms of social cohesion, morality and ethics have been conspicuously limited.

This is something which this movie talks about, though it does not consciously makes the point. It is important for Indians to get more culture conscious - I have a feeling that we did much worse there compared to the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians - and try to define what India is and should be, in new terms. Such self-consciousness is a pre-requisite of being a developed nation.

The sad truth, of course, is that there is no nation in the world which is as self-oblivious as the Indians. Particularly so in last sixty years since Independence, we systematically wanted to be something else. Recently, I have re-read Sunil Khilnani's brilliant narration of the story of Indian cities [in his Idea of India]. He talks about how the great Indian cities - Delhi, Surat, Murshidabad - gave way to the colonial trading posts like Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and the cantonment cities like New Delhi. He compares their structure and function - and among other things, reveal startling facts like that though these colonial cities were modelled behind the European cities, they were not designed to have public squares, an essential ingradient of the European city life and an enabler of public discourse on social and political issues. So, essentially, the colonial cities were structured to be just that, colonial, inhabited by the rich and the educated, who respected the european norms of public and private spaces and behaved accordingly. He also talks about the Indian villages, which surrounded these cities and fed and nourished them, but who never got the message of the cities, the individuality of it, the facelessness, the code of conduct. This set in motion the essential conflict which defines India today - one of the village and the city - where the city dwellers remain forever disgusted with the ignorance and squalor of the 'villagers' [in fact, this is a form of abuse in Indian cities]. Khilnani explains the brilliance of Gandhi's strategy - bringing the village at the centre of his politics and dressing up as one, defying the norms of city behaviour set down upon us by the British. Gandhi saw the village as anti-British, the true India which the British neither ruled nor affected. He talked about the development and empowerment of the villages, an economic system aimed at strengthening village economies, while encountering the British cities with his political tactic of non-violent non-cooperation.

It is sad that Gandhi's message never reached his colleagues, who built modern India. Nehru was an idealist, but somewhat imperial and out-of-touch, and he seemed to have never understood Gandhi. In fact, the vision of modern India was built around its cities, in being 'like the west', towards the prosperity of city economies.

I do think that's where we got it wrong. Sustainable economic development can not happen at the expense of the majority of our population and alongside the demise of our culture. New India, if it has to happen, has to start in our villages. India would meet the world, indeed - but not as a client state mimicking the 'global' culture, but in its own time and its own terms.

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