Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Monday, February 11, 2013

'Returning to India': Conversing with a Book

This does not happen often, so this is special. I read a book from cover to cover in a flight. The flight was late, by an hour, as the SpiceJet workmen hovered around looking lost for a long time before my flight to Bangalore departed from Kolkata. But that's not the reason I could read: It was one of those books which I could have a conversation with, that kept me awake and busy, despite an early start in the morning.

This is a book about coming back to India. Written by Shobha Narayan, whose writing I have not read before, but could easily connect with her crisp, well-honed, journalistic style. Indeed, I should have been disappointed: This was an impulse purchase for reading during the flight, but I expected a story of what happened when one returned to India. Instead, this is an immigrant's chronicle of deciding to move back, the doubts, the debates and the challenges. In a way, this was better, closer to my lived experience, and not just an empirical list of disappointments and wins after the plunge, which is still theoretical for me. 

There are many differences indeed with the writer's world and my own. She wanted to move back to stay close to the parents, who did not want to come and live in America. While I go through similar tribulations with my father, he openly says that he wants me to live in England, because 'there is nothing to come back to in Kolkata'. To be honest, here is the second difference between the story and my real life: I have now committed myself to Education, and India seems to present the biggest opportunity for education innovation that there is anywhere in the world. [In the story, Shobha's husband, Ram, was in Asset Management, and India was a mere backwater compared to his position in Wall Street] 

True, India is daunting and difficult: The combination of tight regulation and failed implementation have ravaged India's education sector. In fact, education, particularly post-compulsory education which is my specific interest area, seems to be last bastion of babu-raj in India, and almost impregnable because of its joint ownership (between state and union governments) and comparative low priority given to it so far by the policy-makers. But, India's low enrolment ratios and growing population create a tempting case for intervention and innovation. There are some stellar enterprises in the sector, but none very innovative, because India's attempts to get world class higher education was, so far, about importing the disease - cost disease - that ails global education. Indian institutions tried to rent reputation (which comes at a huge price and does not work) and fly in various big name professors by paying them exciting salaries and perks, all resulting in a quick cost climb up. [On the other hand, not much has happened in building reputation, and rather, reputations, such as IITs' and IIMs', have been leveraged in various towns, with a great risk of brand dilution.] This presents a great opportunity for anyone trying to do something innovative, though the challenge will remain in how to stand up amid the cacophony of mediocrity, where tall claims are being made and little delivered.

This possibly reflects the biggest challenge in India, particularly from an outside-in perspective: That most people do not care about doing a good job. Shobha Narayan also laments the lack of civic spirit among Indians, recounting, memorably, an imaginary case where an Indian will trouble to carry home-made food for a distant relative and turn up at the railway station at an ungodly hour just because his/her train is stopping by at the station, but then have no qualms about discarding the packaging right on the station platform without caring to look for a trash can. While I read this, the thought flashing across my mind is that this is a problem that can be fixed with education, but I know that would be counter-intuitive in India.

Coming back to the book, I have this conversation every day with myself, and reading this book just accentuated the thoughts. Indeed, I love this country and would want to stay near my father, whatever sacrifices he may want to make for the sake of my happiness; I love Bengali books and literature, and would want to enjoy the expected revival of bengali culture industry, as and when it comes, because of the opening of markets in Bangladesh; I love Kolkata as a city and would, some day, want to make a photo feature walking around Kolkata's streets and retelling their stories; and above all, I love the house I grew up in and enjoying an quiet winter morning standing on its terrace has always been the pinnacle of my ambition. 

But this book reminds me of another thing, too: That return is another journey.  Indeed, I never left, or never left with finality. I left my books untouched and constantly reminded my father that they need to be cared for. I tried to build another flat in the city, not to rent or sell, but to live if I need to. I only wanted to have a bit of adventure, study abroad and expand my mind. However, eight years is a long time and life grows around you: Friends, family, habits and possessions have rooted me down in a way I never foresaw. So, return is another journey, which has to be plotted and planned, and lived through. And, it is hardly easy - something that this book brings out vividly and all its complexity. 

I have my usual criticisms too: Parts of it sound too cliched, one can almost see an editor's hand in highlighting some portions to appeal to an Indian audience. The fact that the author spent time with gay artists but when confronted with the prospect of a same-sex marriage in a friend's family, started thinking that this would be averted if only she lived in India, is a bit over the board for me: In fact, she might as well have thought that if her child turns out to be gay, she might have faced much greater social problems, exclusion and even legal persecution (the incident was several years ago) if she chose to live in India. But, despite a few things like that, she writes in a very practical way I could connect to: She talks about taking on an American passport just as taking life insurance, so that one could come back if things don't work out, a practical discussion most immigrants will do. She talks about the identity issues with her children, the conversations with Korean Dry-Cleaners, Polish shopowners, all of which could have happened in Britain, and I could have been her.

So, I shall recommend this book to all my neighbours and friends now, those of us who talk incessantly about going back, but never sure how to do it.

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