Archive for July, 2008

Seeking amusement the Indian way

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Jul 27, 2008

The Government has survived, and India has gone back to watching its favourite TV soaps. The trust vote debate, after all, was a welcome break from the daily dose of aggrieved women in joint families. Because, for the vast majority of Indians, it was just an enjoyment reality show. Today, for a very significant part of the nation, the primary aim in life is entertainment. Something fundamental changed, the year an NCAER consumer survey found that the first consumer durable young couples were buying was no longer the refrigerator, but the TV.

In the Western media, a company like Infosys and Wipro is always referred to as an “outsourcing company”, not as a “software company”. There’s a big difference.

Hardly any TV channel or newspaper (other than The Indian Express) tried to explain the nuclear deal. What we got were biased rants. But those smart media people had correctly figured that we lacked the attention span to be able to deconstruct the deal. Rants, on the other hand, are entertainment. How many of us made any effort to understand what it was all about, other than ask the next clueless person: “What do you think, it’s good for India?” Maybe only Prakash Karat read all the documents in detail, underlining and margin-noting, but that would be like Ponting as reviewer of Ganguly’s autobiography.

Meanwhile, the poor of India now know how the rich live, and that’s giving politicians the heebie-jeebies. Till the end of the 20th century, the poor knew that there were a lot of rich people in India, but had only vague notions of how rich they were and how they blew their money. Now nearly everyone owns a TV set, or has access to one, even if it’s in a shop’s show window. They watch the dresses, the gilded staircases, the imported cars, and they realise what they don’t have. They see malls bulging with manicured shopaholics, and want to be in their stilettos. Rising literacy has ensured that many more Indians can get to know that someone gifted his wife a Rs 250-crore plane on her birthday. So who do the poor blame for their plight? They blame the politicians (The fact that they blame politicians, and not the rich is something someone like Karat will never know). So, they keep voting governments out with merciless regularity.

Because no democratic government can fulfil the sort of aspirations the impoverished Indian harbours in his heart, within five years. And the rich don’t vote anyway. Their lives are unaffected, whoever runs the government. They have built their own infrastructure, and the only discomforts they haven’t yet found a solution to are traffic gridlock, and the monsoon floodings of our cities. But then, every time Mumbai goes underwater, or there’s a terrorist attack on the city, we, like Pavlov’s dog, start applauding the spirit of the Mumbaiite. Presumably, Mumbaiites give high fives to one another, and go back to their derelict homes and read inspirational texts.

And we rock on. We are spending more money on looking good than ever before, we are more spiritual than ever before: swarms of gurus, Chinese arcana. Our iPods are working, our next holidays are being planned; the men ponder ponytails, the women where the tattoo should be. And one day we will be very old, and proud that our middle-aged kids call us “Dad-o”, and we will think: It has been a good life. A significant section of today’s poor will also be doing much better. A couple may even be owning multiplexes and partying with vapid models. And then we would have one day amused ourselves to death.

Word limit over, so my rant ends. Hope it was entertaining. Thank you.

Amusement-seeking behaviour now cuts across all demographics. Our children are ignorant of Indian history — or any history for that matter — but are living-breathing wikipedias on Akon and Mylie Cyrus. But why only children? A top Hindi film star carrying the Olympic torch through the streets of Delhi, when asked who started the Olympics, guessed gigglingly: “Hitler?” Poor thing, she forgot to wiki. No one anymore knows the difference between “it’s” and “its”. And if the two had any hope left of not being confused constantly like lost-and-found twins, the SMS jackboot crushed it. Our general knowledge extends to knowing there are several Indians in the Forbes top 10 billionaire list, and all this, coupled with the belief that we are the hottest IT nation in the history of civilisation, makes us all, to use writer Michael Lewis’ memorable phrase, “big swinging dicks”. We are rocking.

Globalisation and altered identities

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Jul 13, 2008

Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies is that rare creation: stupendously researched, and a corking good read. And it ends so tantalisingly that one could be forgiven for suspecting Ghosh of harbouring a nasty streak of sadism; the reader is left hanging haplessly with only one promise to sustain him — that he will be able to get his hands on the next installment of the trilogy in two years’ time.

Ghosh has said that he wanted to write a novel on the theme of migration, but whether he intended to or not, Sea of Poppies is also an illuminating and thought-provoking book on globalisation. The book is possibly more useful to anyone wishing to understand the socio-economic effects of globalisation than Thomas Friedman’s rather overrated The World is Flat. Sea of Poppies tells us how international commerce transforms lives and destinies at all levels of society, bringing both ruination and good fortune.

This is the background against which the story unfolds: It’s 1838, and The East India Company has been making incredible profits by exporting opium grown in India to China and turning millions of Chinese into desperate addicts. But the Chinese emperor has now banned the opium trade and Company Bahadur is lobbying the British government to order a military assault on China to force it to reopen the market (This would become what is known now as the First Opium War). Meanwhile, the Company has also coerced all farmers in today’s Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to cultivate only opium. As the opium trade collapses, millions face starvation, since they don’t grow any food crops anymore, nor do they have the money to buy food. But the Company has discovered another revenue stream; it has begun supplying Indian labour to plantations in Mauritius. The merchants make money, and are also saved from the social unrest that could result from mass starvation in India’s most fertile plain.

The Ibis is a schooner carrying a batch of these labourers. Among those on board are Deeti, a Bihari Rajput widow who has run away with the chamar Kalua; Neel, a zamindar who has been framed by his British creditor for forgery; Jodu, the boatman who has always dreamt of the high seas; and Paulette, a young Frenchwoman who was brought up as a Bengali by her botanist father. For all of them, the journey means a new beginning and a total and irreversible break from all they had known and the way they had lived till now. The future is uncertain, yet their destinies are now blank slates, waiting for them to write their own stories.

We are given a hint that Kalua the chamar would “found a dynasty”, and Ghosh’s website informs us that Neel would spend many years in South China. These people would ride the wave of globalisation, and be changed irrevocably. The Englishman recording the names of the labourers, doesn’t know how to spell the name Madhu Kalua, and writes it down as Maddow Kolver. Global trade changes identities, in passing, carelessly, without a second glance.

The British merchants equate free trade with Christianity. Jesus Christ himself stands for the seamless unimpeded flow of goods across borders. The emperor’s opium ban is an attack on Christianity itself. The Chinese consumer has the choice not to buy opium but must have the right to access opium. Remember, the East India Company was the first true multinational company.

Language itself changes. The lascars on the ships speak a unique argot that is a mixture of Bhojpuri, Hindustani, Portuguese, Chinese, English and who knows what else. This is the Esperanto that moves capital and labour all round the planet, no matter what the lascar’s nationality is. The British sahibs and mems speak an English that has incorporated so much of Hindustani in it that their cousins in England would scarcely understand what they are saying. At every level of society, identities, roles, values, hierarchies and histories are altered, reshaped, obliterated.

It is exciting and scary to look at our world through the filter of Sea of Poppies. The world we live in today is going through changes of massive magnitude yet sometimes too subtle for us to notice. We change without even noticing how we change; we often believe we have made a choice when actually there was no such choice available to us. We have very often no idea where we are going, and what the world will look like after tomorrow. In a sense, all of us, as we second-guess our way to the future, are travellers, pioneers, fortune-seekers. Like Maddow Kolver or Jodu the boatman.