Monday, May 18, 2015

Approaching India - India in the World

I am now in Mumbai, the sprawling commercial capital of India. 16% of the country's GDP is in this one city, where 70% of its capital transactions take place. This is one of those big populous metropolis, home to more than 20 million people, that represents whatever the popular perception of India is. Even before the flight touched down, a perceptive traveller can clearly see the islands of California-esque prosperity in the middle of Sub-Saharan poverty, the apt expression Amartya Sen used to describe India.

Professor Sen surely touched a raw nerve when he said that. The comment came just before the last year's General Elections, at a time of resurgent Indian nationalism. He was accused of selling out, undermining India in front of the world for personal gain. Anyone flying into Mumbai can indeed see what Professor Sen meant - the metaphor would appear quite literal - but such acts of truthfulness are usually considered unpatriotic.

It was only coincidental that today's newspapers wrote about the digital restoration of some of the classic films by Satyajit Ray (See story), the great Indian film director who happened to have attended the same school as Professor Sen . Ray, famous as he was, faced a lot of criticism that he showcased India's poverty in his films. Looking at Mumbai, one could recount a famous story of Picasso and think how Ray may have reacted to the criticism. Once, as the story goes, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris apartment, and came across his famous painting, Guernica, a black-white-grey depressing painting of the bombing of the Spanish town. Astonished and perhaps disturbed by the apparent violence, the German officer asked Picasso, "Did you do this?" Picasso pointedly replied, "No, YOU did it!"

So, indeed, Ray and Sen and others like them could turn around to Indian Middle Classes and say - You did it! I am always amazed how touchy Indians are about how people outside see the country, but also, at the same time, how indifferent how they are about their country. Someone was telling me about an Indian Software Engineer, who takes his family vacation in Switzerland and talk to everyone about how pristine the landscape has been, and then, perfectly naturally, throws his rubbish out of the window onto the road outside! Indeed, that Software Engineer would not be pleased if people in Zurich Airport told him that India was a dirty place, but he would perhaps never change his own behaviour.

This apparent paradox is intriguing to me. Part of it is a dependency I wrote about earlier. While in India, it seems everything is the government's responsibility, and consequently, everything is the politicians' fault. However, there is more. Part of this is also about Indias image in the world, which Indians do care about very much. There is a strange ambivalence. On one hand, Indians would tend to believe that they are the smartest people on earth, and their kin is taking over the world. At the same time, Indians would die for a little foreign recognition, however trivial, and chafe at any criticism.

So, as I approach Mumbai, I caught up in the ambivalence befitting an Indian, but my troubles are somewhat inverse. It is not about not wanting to show the ugly face, but about feeling the unease of seeing it. As a foreigner Indian, I am obviously at the receiving end of both the contrasting attitudes that Indians have about the world. At one end, I am disparaged for selling out my soul. At the other, I am ignored for being not foreign enough! So, as the plane makes the approach, I have to close my eyes. It was perhaps best that way, as I noticed the other news - an Air India pilot was suspended for being drunk on duty!





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