Click to listen in on the conversation at Koshys Cafe. (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3)
“… And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs — we entrepreneurs — have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.”
From the self-satirizing narrator of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize novel of 2008.
Koshy’s Cafe on St. Mark’s Road in the heart of Old Bangalore is the spot where India’s sense of itself gets born again every morning in once-and-future war stories — where dreams of a “second wave” of the entrepreneurial boom underlie every other conversation. As jumping-off point and non-stop salon, it’s Rick’s Cafe in Old Casablanca, from about the same starting point in 1940. Prem Koshy — today’s Rick — is the grandson of the founder and the chief of the “Ladies and Knights of the Square Table.” In his youth, Prem Koshy moved to Kansas to go to baking school, and then to New Orleans to tend bar and run a couple of night clubs. “Now I’m back home,” he explained, “ready to see India move out of its diaper stage and into our adulthood.” He invited us to sit in over eggs and record the daily gab one day late in July:
Ashok K: … What you had in Information Technology was a whole bunch of young people who created an industry from the ground up, without a rule book… That’s given them the ability to pick up something new and run with it, to go after any opportunity they see. Which area? You can get lists from renewable energy to pharmaceuticals to whatever. But the important thing is you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who have the ability and the confidence to run with any idea that seizes them…
CL: What a visitor like me sees is that the new wealth of India is not eliminating the old poverty.
Satish S: As the pace picks up, the slums will disappear. I’ll give you an example. Many of us when we came from the rural area didn’t use a toothbrush; we used a stick. The marketing people have said: if they introduce people to toothpaste, no company will be able to meet the demand. India is a huge market. It’s a very simple thing.
CL: Are you going to buy one?
Satish S: Oh, I definitely use a toothbrush…
Prem Koshy: Now, about this trickling-down effect. It’s the 80-20 law that’s at work. Nature’s law of 80-20 — you know that, right? If you take all the wealth and equally distribute it, 20 percent will control the wealth again, and 80 percent will support them. In nature as well, 20 percent is the strongest part of nature’s crop, and 80 percent is usually the fringe that die. We need to move the 80 percent into the 20 percent that’s going to keep us going…
Hameed N: India needs people who can see things and say that the emperor has no clothes. For example, urbanization and this current model of development which I think is the most horrible thing. And yet we seem to be helpless. But no one is helpless. We wish to be helpless. And we follow the same models with the same consequences. We are rending our social fabric. We are destroying our environment. And yet we maintain this is the only way. I doubt it is the only way. Of course it is not. But either you are for this kind of thing or you are a Cassandra, or a leftist — all kinds of names unfortunately… I would say, if people are serious about change, start with children. And you educate them not merely in technology — also not in that bogus spirituality which India talks about all the time. You educate them about the real stuff: what’s good, living well, being kind, being generous, sharing, learning to cooperate, learning to collaborate.
CL: Oh, man. You’re my guru. You’re the man I came to meet.
Hameed N: Well, thank you. But a guru is a most dreadful person — India has lots of them — because then we suspend our thinking and start listening to what somebody else tells us. That’s India’s problem…
Mena R: I know you are American, but I feel the Americans have gotten into India very insidiously. They have changed culture in India — multinationals selling toothpaste and French fries and chips. They’ve changed Indian habits and customs for whatever reason, to sell, to make money… We have been filled with a lot of information and consumerism from Western countries which we could do without.
CL: What’s the worst of it?
Mena R: Indian children — upper-class and middle-class children — now their aspirations are to be American. The way they dress, the way they eat, their attitudes, are all American. Hollywood cinema, American TV, have influenced India — a lot!
CL: Do you see anybody you like on American TV?
Mena R: Yeah. I like Drew Carey! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…
Mena R: About six months ago the newspapers were trying to bridge a friendship between India and Pakistan. And they sent musicians and artists back and forth. I was told the Americans were funding this. But there really is no way that India and Pakistan can ever talk. It’s foolish to accept that we are going to talk. We’ve been traditionally enemies since they broke away, since 1947. If you ask any Indian, “who’s your enemy?” they will not say England, or Burma, or Sri Lanka. Not even China. We always think of Pakistan as our national enemy, and we will never make friends. The Americans understand this, yet they come and tell us one thing and then hand over huge amounts of money to Pakistanis to buy arms. Where are the arms used mainly? Back on India. So-called they are trying to contain Taliban and Al Qaeda, but finally it comes back into India…
Ashok K: The second wave [of the Indian boom] is at the high-chaos stage. It’s a churn, a maelstrom. All the pieces are there: the old, the new, the confused present… You don’t have to spin the wheel anymore. It’s spinning on its own. It’s no longer a question of: will it succeed? Of course it will succeed. But how quickly can it happen? And how can you minimize the misery that’s going to happen? There’s a lot of misery in the making, and these are new kinds of misery. Crime is going to go through the roof… It’s very much America in the 70s, when you had a runaway crime problem and didn’t know what to do with it. You have a complete churning — everything you’ve heard around this table from the connection with the older generation, parental supervision, crime, the politics and the school of resentment that Harold Bloom would talk about. Everyone in Indian politics is carrying an axe. It hasn’t helped that Indian politics has been divisive — not to bring people together but to break people into groups which are convenient at election time. You don’t have an end in sight, but hope is very strong. One would like to see the worthies who take our tax money putting a plan behind this.
Hameed N: In the life of a nation, five or ten years is nothing… What more can India give? It has given Yoga. It has given the Indian philosophy. It has given Kama Sutra.
CL: And Gandhi, too. And Prem Koshy.
Prem Koshy: In the famous words of my grandfather: Listen, buddy: before you try to save the whole world, please try not to be the monkey who pulls the fish out of the water to save it from drowning.