Monday, May 06, 2013

A Journey of Metaphors

I am travelling - covering seven cities in three weeks - and this is the reason for relative silence on this blog. It is not the paucity of time, but the excitement of the real work; not the difficulty of Internet connection, but the abundance of real conversations and friendships, that made me write less and talk more in the last few days. But, the journey so far was full of discoveries, insights and indeed excitement, events and opportunities that make me question my assumptions and desires, and stoke my aspirations and encourage me to raise my activities to a wholly different level.

When I was in Dubai airport, on my way to Dhaka, transiting as usual, the air-conditioners in Terminal 3 gave away. Water poured down like a huge cloudburst, closing the shops and dispersing the crowd, blocking the main lobby of the airport. I was lucky as I was sitting in a coffee shop at a distance, so the whole affair looked like a surreal rain rather than the wet mess it was for the people caught out. As it happened, the lights went off and the passengers disappeared as if by magic, and instead, the army of workers, in fluorescent yellow jackets, appeared from nowhere running around for buckets and mops. The orderly veneer of Dubai gave in to the chaos of an Indian street, the assorted European accents were replaced by the buzz of Hindi and Urdu, and the shiny modern edifice of the airport was suddenly covered by plastic buckets and mops as the workers tried hard to contain the water flow. Dubai was melting, as I thought it would one day.

In Dhaka, I had to do my work in the middle of a civil unrest. As I reached the airport, the hotel sent its transport with police escorts: The country is in the middle of a deep public unrest where its young population has been sharply divided into two warring camps of Bengali and Islamic identities. I did indeed land inside a 'Hartal', the ever so present General Strike that Bangladeshis have now learnt to endure, but this time, it is more serious than the usual political powerplay. The government did indeed set in motion this schism, by attempting to prosecute the 'war criminals' from Bangladesh's War of Independence, which spawned one of the most terrible genocides of the modern era, perpetrators of which managed to remain free and unpunished. There was no reconciliation in Bangladesh: The young country could never capitalise on its economic opportunity and enterprise of its people because of the deep divide and confusion about its identity. The government's latest attempt, instead of putting the issue at rest, has indeed backfired and exacerbated the division: This is primarily because the due process was not followed: The government chose to set up a court which they tried to influenced openly, making it look partisan and destroying the legitimacy of the process. So, as of today, the country is under siege: From inside by the 'nationalists', who are occupying a public square in Dhaka and demanding execution of all the 'collaborators' and 'traitors', and from the outside by the Islamists, who have now marched on Dhaka and cut the city of from rest of the country, by blocking its roads and overwhelming the administration, demanding punishments of 'aethists' and 'bloggers'.

So, the metaphor for Bangladesh is 'collapse', which happened when I was in Dhaka. A building, with a few thousand workers inside them, caved in. More than 500 people died, displaying in abundance the callousness with which human life, particularly of those with less money, is treated in Bangladesh. The ensuing conversation, rather expectedly, focused on how to maintain Bangladesh's Garment trade, which contribute a lion's share of the country's foreign exchange earnings, rather than on the Health and Safety issues, and the implicit slavery that goes on in the country's garment factories. The live telecast of the collapsed building, tragic as it was, was again almost a metaphor, a country caving in quickly and callously, because of its as-yet-unresolved foundation and the cruel indifference of those who have the say.

Thereon to India, where I traveled to business schools almost exclusively in the smaller cities, which is part of my strategy to get quick traction by leveraging the market knowledge I gained over many years. But I did underestimate the chaos in Business Education in India, which, because of its recent expansion, has lost all the semblance of order. Despite the freshly built infrastructure and often impressive marketing campaigns, the human disarray was all too apparent: Most, though not all, looked bereft of ideas, tutors and curriculum. Students are indeed indifferent, having been exposed to nothing but meaningless education, being sold just the promise of a degree minus an educating process. The feel inside the schools were that of the roads, everyone beeping madly, jostling forward, without a clear aim, decency or any sense of order, not to mention the broken state of the road itself.

'Chaos' then is my metaphor for India at the present time, where the government seems to be imploding, and despite the promises outside, the structure seems broken inside. A colleague, who always projected an optimism that India would indeed overtake China as the world's fastest growing economy in a few years, started musing privately whether this is really possible. Indeed, after seeing the roads, visiting the schools and watching the news, such doubts are quite rational. India, as of today, definitely offends the Western sense of order; the great Indian ability of living through difficulty usually appears as callousness to a visitor.

However, I shall sign off with an optimistic note: A melting Dubai, a collapsing Bangladesh and a chaotic India are bad and good at the same time. In each case, the models have failed and the countries will be forced to look at how they operate. Nothing short of a complete implosion, that throws out the people in power and makes space for new ideas to emerge, can actually change ways of operating. Dubai needs to learn to live with the desert; Bangladesh needs to reconcile what laws they want to follow, but then respect that rule of law; and India must not let its tolerance turn into apathy. In this journey of metaphors, I remain the dreamer: I shall see the peeling away of the artificial layers of Dubai's world, the building of new dreams in a redefined Bangladesh and a new, engaged, India, a born-again nation which leaves its insecurities aside and engage with itself. This is the final metaphor then, of journey, the grand narrative of chaos sculpting the order and destruction germinating creativity - a transformation from my traveller's history to a people's narrative.

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