Podcast • August 31, 2010

Real India: On the Couch with Sudhir Kakar

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes and talks about is different not only from our world but also from its own branding. “Indians,” he writes, for example, “are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the world’s largest and most plural democracy.”

Sudhir Kakar looks and listens like an anthropologist. He also writes novels. But you sense that the firm basis of his reputation as a public intellectual — an authority especially on Indian identity and character, what he calls “Indian-ness” — is his many years as a professional psychoanalyst, in Goa and New Delhi, hearing out individual sagas of a changing society and culture.

His “Indianness” is a psychological category with a few critical elements.

“If there is one ‘ism’ that governs Indian society and institutions,” he begins, “it is familyism.” It is an “ideology of relationships,” the unwritten rule of business and politics, built around the “joint family” in which brothers after marriage bring their wives into a parental household.

Second, there is the rule of hierarchy and the eternal consciousness of rank, a legacy of thousands of years of caste distinctions.

Third comes a view of the human body out of the Ayurvedic tradition: if Western psychology and medicine see the body as a fortress under siege, the Indian body is seen as open in many dimensions — to planetary influences, for example.

Fourth, a shared cultural imagination learned mainly from the ancient epics encompasses Hindus and Muslims, literate classes and the unwashed, in a “romantic vision of human life.”

And what happens, I inquire, when Indian-ness gets ever more deeply enmeshed in a global culture?

There are two or three ideologies of the global world which come in. Very simply, the ideologies of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity…

Of course, equality clashes against the very hierarchical part of [Indian-ness]: one has to deal with one’s innate way of looking at the world in a hierarchical way and the brain saying that one should look at people as equals…

Fraternity is not that big a difficulty, because the Indian Hindu view has been influenced by Islam, where fraternity has always been one of the biggest virtues of human beings.

I think the biggest change that has taken place, where [liberty] has impacted Indian-ness, has been the change in women in the last fifty years: the acceptance of the notion that, first, girls are equal to boys as far as education is concerned, and, second, that they are free to go out to work. And that has impacted many many things…

Sudhir Kakar in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 26, 2010

Real India: Tarun Tejpal’s heart-ache for "the idea of India"

In the slick commercial media of New Delhi, Tehelka is the strong-minded reformist alternative. It could remind you of The New Yorker and The Nation back home. Tehelka is fearless and critical if not exactly radical in its politics; it is passionate and informed but not forbiddingly high-brow on literature, movies and the arts. Tehelka's greatest coup was a sting back in 2001 that made bribery look routine and easy in military arms procurement. It cost the Defense Minister his job but brought a vengeful bureaucracy down on the magazine, which has barely survived financially.

 

NEW DELHI — Tarun Tejpal — muckraker, editor and novelist — is speaking with professional zeal and a certain generational remorse about his remarkable ten-year-old magazine Tehelka.

In the slick commercial media of New Delhi, Tehelka is the strong-minded reformist alternative. It could remind you of The New Yorker and The Nation back home. Tehelka is fearless and critical if not exactly radical in its politics; it is passionate and informed but not forbiddingly high-brow on literature, movies and the arts. Tehelka’s greatest coup was a sting back in 2001 that made bribery look routine and easy in military arms procurement. It cost the Defense Minister his job but brought a vengeful bureaucracy down on the magazine, which has barely survived financially.

Tarun Tejpal’s father was a military officer who wore English suits and used a knife and fork. He was what Indians call with some embarrassment now, a “Brown Sahib,” wishing his way into the ruling class. Tarun Tejpal’s daughters, on the contrary, have chosen colleges and careers in the United States — in a modern Indian spirit that admires America despite everything, as in “Yankee go home, and take me with you.” Tarun Tejpal himself, as a young scholar and athlete, dropped out of the Rhodes Scholarship race that would have sent him to Oxford because he couldn’t miss a day of the historic action unfolding in India as he came of age in the Eighties. He finds himself now, age 47, appalled at the opportunities missed, the visions that lost traction, the generation and social class that abandoned “the idea of India” for an orgy of acquisition and consumption.

… Were you to ask me what I feel about India today, I would say: great distress. Were you to ask me: are you optimistic about India? I would say: no. Were you to ask me whether you think we will come through, I would say: maybe. But what we certainly are not is what the world imagines us to be: this great rising, shining superpower, this juggernaut spreading its head. It’s much more complex than that. There are some millions of us who are there, and among whom I count myself, who have wealth, education, privilege, mobility, power. We have all that. Is it remotely true of the majority of this country? It’s not. Seven hundred, 800 million people in this country do not have a story to their lives…

There was a big difference when we became independent. We were 300 million then. The incredible triumph of the leaders of the time was to wed 330 million people in one master narrative. Everybody was part of the same master narrative. Today, the master narrative has shrapnelled completely. The only narrative is the Shining India narrative, which fundamentally concerns maybe 200 million people…

But you’re still talking about another 900 million to a billion people who are not part of this narrative… who have no story. For now and for the next 50 years, any prime minister for this country has only one constituency to look out for. It’s mandated by the founding of this country, it’s mandated by our history that there’s only one class of people the prime minister has to watch out for, and that’s the wretched of this land. The rest of this country can look out for itself. This is a country where 50 percent of its people live in conditions worse than Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t understand. There are more poor people in India than the entire population of Africa. How we manage the sleight of hand of totally creating this other story is bizarre.

Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 25, 2010

Real India: The BBC’s Mark Tully on Poverty and "Tinderwood"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Tully (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Mark Tully is something like the Edward R. Murrow of India. He has been the beloved voice of ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Tully (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Mark Tully is something like the Edward R. Murrow of India. He has been the beloved voice of the BBC in New Delhi since 1964 — knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1991 even after he quit the Beeb in a row with management; and endlessly decorated by Indians for coverage that always sounds incisive, fair and curious. “Try and talk with Mark Tully if you can,” everybody told me, about an institution like none other in India.

Mark Tully didn’t “go native.” He is native, born in Calcutta in 1934 into an English commercial family. Anecdotally at least, he’s a link to the last days of the British Raj — when, as he says, an Englishman in India knew it was time to wake up and get busy when he chanced to feel his chin and realized he’d been shaved. Tully went to school and university in England, then returned to India for the chance to talk on the radio.

At home in the shadow of Humayun’s Tomb, he is speaking about changes he’s lived through: the enlistment of lower castes as voters; the rise and decline of Hindu nationalism; the rising power of a rich business class and the declining competence of a “flailing state”; the American-style “malling” of India, against the grain of a broad Indian distrust of American culture as “consumerist” and “vulgar.” Of the official relations with the US that warmed toward partnership in the George W. Bush years, Tully says “America expects more than India is going to be able to give unless it’s a relationship of equals.” Of the “new India,” Mark Tully’s sense is still of a vast nation moving steadily and slowly in many of the right directions, “a dangerous country to try and move forward too fast.”

One of the big changes I see is that there is a great deal more self-confidence in India now than there used to be. When I first came here, India was said to be living “from ship to mouth,” because it was so dependent on American food aid. They were very touchy about any suggestion of foreign interference or anything like that. They were very uncertain of themselves. There was a whole lot of questioning about the stability of India after Nehru. Now, India is almost over-confident. It is so self-confident that in my view it is actually failing to look at the problems that it faces.

India really does believe that it is going to be one of the great economic superpowers of this century… What is wrong with this talk is that it is based on one figure only, which is GDP growth. Now, GDP growth does not tell you who is growing. It just tells you that the nation as a whole is growing, and even then we all know it’s not a very accurate figure of that. The problem in this country is a very obvious one, which is still not being properly tackled. And that is that the economic growth is not getting down to the poorer people.

Now, India is facing the problem or the advantage of having a very young population coming up. And we know that the young population can be a huge advantage in terms of their inventiveness, their willingness to take risks, their entrepreneurial skills, and all the rest of it that young people have. But at the same time, young people who are dissatisfied, young people who are not getting what they feel they should get — not getting jobs, not getting good education, not having opportunities, being under financial strain, being poor — those sort of people are tinderwood. They are the sort of people an explosion can be fired by. And that is the real danger in this country…

In some ways, the whole caste system and the belief in karma, the belief that the way you are now is partly fated by what you did in your last life… these things actually do matter, they do count. But these pressures are now weakening. Caste doesn’t have the same impact as it used to have before. More and more people are no longer prepared to accept this poverty. In the old days, the poor were scattered in villages all around the country. Now, more and more of them are coming in to the big cities, and more and more of them are living in slums, where explosions of violence and rioting can easily take place. And they do take place.

Mark Tully in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 24, 2010

Real India: Shashi Tharoor, the ‘NRI’ who came home

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first run for office, and has been paying the price ever since.

Bounced in April from P. M. Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet but still a honeyed voice in the Indian Parliament, Shahshi Tharoor is the politician people talk about in India, the one that 800,000 follow on Twitter.

Married for the third time this past weekend, at age 54, his life appears to unfold as in a 19th Century novel by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. Bollywood-handsome and a moon-light novelist himself, Shashi Tharoor could be living a version of the triumphs and trials of Phineas Finn, The Irish Member in Trollope’s Parliamentary series of Palliser novels.

The best of Shashi Tharoor’s story is that though several long plot lines are clear, the outcomes are not.

Born in London, he is a child of privilege who marked himself, with a certain theatrical flair, for public service — first at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and then at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he was the youngest ever (22) to take a doctoral degree.

After a meaty 20-year career at the United Nations in peacekeeping and refugee crises, he became Kofi Annan’s Under-Secretary-General and spokesman. When Kofi Annan stepped down, Tharoor made a creditable run in 2006 for the Secretary General’s job. When that failed (on the nod of the Bush White House) he made an unconventional choice in middle age: to develop his own political base in India.

But can a Non-Resident Indian go home again? Can a smooth-as-silk diplomat from the East Side of Manhattan put down roots in Trivandrum, the capital of famously leftist Kerala? With strong support from President Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party, the popular vote last year was overwhelmingly: Yes.

But could Shashi Tharoor, a voluminous commentator on Indian history and politics, and a biographer of Jawarhalal Nehru, learn the hard way how the inside game gets played?

Could a master of public-speak and digital media cope with newspaper headline writers who seemed suddenly out nail him — for referring on Twitter, for example, to economy air-line seats (in the land of the sacred cow) as “cattle class”?

And then, crucially, in the gold-rush of professional made-for-TV cricket, did Shashi Tharoor blur public and private interests when he advocated for a Kerala franchise in which his fiancee had a sweat-equity interest of nearly 5 percent? This was the question — about judgment and appearances, not wrong-doing or financial gain — that cost Shashi Tharoor his plum seat in the Cabinet as Minister of State for External Affairs.

Will he be invited back, after a decent interval, into the government? And will he yet emerge as a talking embodiment of a New India still more seen and admired than it is heard?

ST: I think India stands for an astonishingly important experiment in the world, of trying to pursue development and overcome huge problems of poverty and internal social divisions, violence and so on, through democracy. And that is its most important contribution to the world of today. Secondly, it’s been an astonishing advertisement for the management of pluralism of a diversity that rarely can be found anywhere in the world and that yet is being managed without tyranny, and indeed with a startling insight that people are free to be themselves, including fully covered Muslim women and Turbaned Sikh men and people in a wide variety of clothes and so on, because the whole logic is that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, and even conviction, but still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the sort of Indian idea that it doesn’t really matter whether you agree all the time or not, as long as you agree on how to disagree. We’ve managed to sustain that effectively, and it’s a very different example from that of China, which is rightly being admired around the world for what it’s been able to accomplish, but which functions as a society and as a player on the world stage very differently from India. And I think that the world should have room for both styles and both ways of doing things. Both are ancient civilizations with their own cultural underpinnings that give us the contemporary reality of today.

CL: There is something in this moment, I sense, that is calling for India. It has something to do with India’s post-imperial recovery and its growth, its emotional groove, and a connection with so many other parts of the world that are struggling with these same transitions. Africa first, but Latin America too; the South, the poor, the post-colonial. Would you draw a little bit on your own dealings in Africa, with Rwanda for example, and elsewhere where you sense some sort of potency in the Indian idea?

ST: It’s been very, very striking. First of all, Africa represents a continent of enormous need and enormous potential. But there is a global perception of this kind of scramble for Africa in which China is beating all comers. I would just say with all respect that we are not China. I mean, we’re not there to scavenge for resources. We are certainly not doing anything as India to either directly influence African governments or to tell them what to do. Our approach is very much, “Tell us what your needs are, and let’s see if we can help you” sort of thing. And it’s been working very well. We don’t have the kinds of resources that others do to give large grants, but we do do a lot of very soft loans, practically with no interest, which are being snapped up. We do have one intriguing advantage that I’ve discovered from talking to a very large number of African leaders, which is that when Africans look at the Western model or the Chinese, they are very impressed. They look with awe and admiration. But they don’t actually see any affinity there, whereas when they look at India, they see a country which seems to be facing many of the kinds of problems they face, and seems nonetheless, through all the chaos and difficulties, to have overcome some of them. And they feel, “Hey, if India can do that, maybe we can learn from them, maybe we can overcome some of our problems too, because they’re so much like us.” That affinity is a huge advantage to us, and it helps that India has been on the side of African freedom from the colonial era onwards, and there are lots of longstanding relationships between India and Africa.

CL: But then what? What does India do with it?

ST: What India does with it is we offer them our expertise, we encourage our private sector to go in again. And another way that India is different from China is that most of India’s current engagement in Africa is through facilitating the work of our private sector. It’s Indian companies going in and building the presidential palace in Ghana or building a railway line in Ethiopia or constructing factories like many, many countries in the world. An Indian entrepreneur has bought large chunks of land in Ethiopia to grow flowers to export to Europe. Now that’s the sort of thing that would never occur to an Indian government organization, but it’s part of the sort of newly liberalized economic thrust of today’s India that we’re seeing. And I must say that it’s a way in which India can contribute to Africa without being part of … allegations of either government corruption or statism, or any of the problems that have bedeviled previous international economic engagement on that continent.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 18, 2010

Real India: "I’m the Village Guy"

Click to listen in on Chris’s conversation with Barathi Raja Reddy in Tamil Nadu. (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Barathi Raja Reddy is the Indian entrepreneur we didn’t expect to meet. He’s a young man ...

Click to listen in on Chris’s conversation with Barathi Raja Reddy in Tamil Nadu. (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Barathi Raja Reddy is the Indian entrepreneur we didn’t expect to meet.

He’s a young man of the Old India happy to be dropping out of the New.  He is a soft-spoken Hindu nationalist who enjoys the social comfort of his land-owning upper caste, denoted by the name Reddy.  

As he guides us around a mid-summer river festival in honor of a local god who brings rain and safety to Barathi’s village, he is acting out his devotion to the colorful rituals of a uniformly Hindu culture. He says he’s fond of the many Muslims he knows face to face, not so fond of the Muslim masses he’s never met in Pakistan and Iran.  

He’s impatient at age 24 for his parents to arrange an appropriate same-caste marriage that family and village will all approve.  And he’s ready to assume the burden and glory of farming the beautiful acreage that his grandfather bought, irrigated and cultivated more than 50 years ago.  

So Barathi is moving this summer from the bustle and pollution of Bangalore, where he’s been driving cars, taxis and auto-rickshaws (Vespas with a covered seat for 3 passengers) for 70 hours a week the last three years. And he’s reimagining his life a couple of hundred kilometers to the south, in the state of Tamil Nadu. He will be growing rice and sugar cane and building his own plastic recycling plant in the cause of greening India and enriching himself, if he can, by hard work in an emerging industry.  

“Why not?” he said, flashing that handsome smile.   Indian cities are over-rated, Barathi remarked. Indian city-planning is a failure, he’s concluded. Bangalore is over-populated and over busy. It’s polluted and stressed, no place to be bringing up children. So he is happy to be moving against the tide, back toward home.

Podcast • August 17, 2010

Real India: Novelist Paul Zacharia Shares His "Confusion"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Paul Zacharia. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3) Paul Zacharia is a novelist and story writer eminent in the Malayalam language and in Trivandrum, the southernmost big city in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Paul Zacharia. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Paul Zacharia is a novelist and story writer eminent in the Malayalam language and in Trivandrum, the southernmost big city in India and the capital of the famously progressive state of Kerala. In our conversations, Paul Zacharia stands for the many beloved Indian sages who for one reason or another have escaped universal celebrity. At home he is acknowledged as “non-conformist and unorthodox to the core;” his fiction marked by “a deep sense of humor, experiments in craft and narrative techniques, and an unsentimental prose.” When I called to ask if we could talk some “about the new India,” he readily agreed to “share my confusion,” as he said, about what his country is going through.

In his downtown apartment, under a monsoon downpour, Paul Zacharia is a cheerful spirit with a dissident turn of mind and a variety of opinions he shares freely. The New India is more poor than rich, he noted at the outset, but the growth is real and the cultural shifts will endure. Though left of center of himself, he does not mourn the collapse of “Nehru Socialism” — “just a slogan,” he argues, long useful to a ruling clique, as in many Communist countries. The “Maoist” label on the tribal rebellion in the eastern states of India “doesn’t mean a thing — they could call themselves Christians, or Jesus men or whatever, but the cause is just.”

He turns both sweet and sour on his egalitarian, persistently Communist home state Kerala. It was blessed 50 years ago with a perfect storm of reform movements that ended “feudalism” in the region. But the Communists who took power became corrupt, inefficient, heartless — “like any other political party.” A certain stagnation in education as well as politics in Kerala is driving the best of the younger generations to work and grow in Europe, the Gulf and the U.S. Their remittances are what keeps Kerala afloat.

About Americans he is affectionate one moment, astringent another. Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and James Thurber are writers he keeps rereading, in his pantheon with Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. Barack Obama seems “just a puppet of all the people who pull the strings in the US.” The war on terror? A ruling-class “industry.”

Zacharia takes up my suggestion that India will never see a social revolution:

I think the last revolution we saw was Mahatma Gandhi mobilizing the people against the British. After that, there is no cause out there: a single point of belief, a single ideal, and a great man who can hold up that ideal and say ‘Look at me, I am truthful, I am honest, I am transparent, I have nothing to hide and this is the ideal we shall follow.’ There is no such person after Gandhi. I doubt such a person can come up in the present kind of politics — I’m sure there are individuals, hundreds, maybe thousands, lakhs of individuals in India who have that mind. But they will never be able to come to the top and lead the people in the political system that we right now have here. So the revolution is impossible. The Communist party attempted it and failed miserably, in fact shamefully.

I will say the only revolution that keeps occurring is the revolution the voter creates every five years. That keeps democracy intact. Every five years there is a revolution in India, and that is very close to half a billion people going to the polling booth and putting his vote in. That is a silent revolution and that keeps this whole place going.

The people we elect are indifferent, inefficient and useless. But they keep democracy in place.

Paul Zacharia in conversation with Chris Lydon in Trivandrum, India. July, 2010

Podcast • August 16, 2010

Real India: Walking the Slum Side of Bangalore

Click to listen in on Chris’s slum tour with Brindge Adige. (54 minutes, 26 mb mp3) BANGALORE — Brinda Adige, a self-starting social activist, in yellow sari, is our guide to the slum side of ...

Click to listen in on Chris’s slum tour with Brindge Adige. (54 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Brinda Adige, a self-starting social activist, in yellow sari, is our guide to the slum side of Bangalore and the virtual canyon between the public squalor and private affluence that are both hallmarks of the New India.

We’re in Lakshman Rau Nagar, one of several Bangalore slum districts that sprouted in the shrubbery alongside the info-tech boom two decades ago. Starting from a bridge over a vast open cesspool of human wastes, Brinda is making our path through what feel like opposites: tight-knit anarchy, foul stenches, brilliant rainbows of paint and fabric, acres of rubble next to dense clusters of shanties next to hand-crafted houses being rewired and gaudily repainted and redecorated, as we pass, by the artisan-squatters who live here.

Perhaps 10,000 families of high-tech service workers call this home: barbers, maids, drivers, baby-tenders, security guards, prostitutes, boot-leggers of all kinds, with of course their aged parents and dependent kids who are everywhere on the street, among the dead rats and live goats. The social atmosphere feels relaxed and, to the extent we visitors are noticed at all, welcoming. Most people seem absorbed in their individual projects, house-painting, baby-nursing, cookery or bicycle repair. Here as elsewhere you notice that in India stark borders of wealth and social class are crossed without fear, as they wouldn’t be in America or perhaps most societies. We are greeted with “what is your name?” but never “what are you doing here?”

Brinda Adige, daughter of an Air Force officer and wife of a businessman, entered Lakshman Rau Nagar two years ago with the traditional Indian mat of “panchayat,” or local justice, when nobody else would address a flagrant case of wife-beating. More than a score of witnesses turned out to confirm the charge and enforce a separation. Many added, on their own, “But all our husbands beat us.” Brinda stayed on to open “the Office” as a permanent sort of clubhouse in the slum.

I think when I came here in the beginning, they thought I might have lost my way. Now they understand that I am no-nonsense. They also know that I am not afraid of anybody, whether it is the police or the local gangsters, or anybody who claims to be very powerful… When you ask me where’s the power, it’s the people, but they are not yet awakened. They are not yet informed, but they are ready. There is a silent revolution happening, and I’m happy to be part of it…

They call the Office the place where, if you have a problem, it will get sorted out. There will be a solution that we can find for it… but you have to be responsible for it… It’s only when the women come here that they realize that the question, the answer, the problem, the solution lies within them… If you put up with nonsense, you get nonsense all the time. If you put up with somebody subjugating you, well, then you continue to be subjugated…

We talk about everything under the sun… Why did you fall in love? What do you think about marrying? Why do you continue? What do you mean by being faithful? What do you decide when your husband is not faithful? Why did you vote for a certain politician? … The whole issue here is we learn from other people. You have something, she has something, she has shaped something… You cannot just come with a problem… You will take a vow to be part of the solution. So if you can do that, then you are part officially of this group.

Brinda Adige with Chris Lydon in the slum district ‘Lakshman Rau Nagar’ in Bangalore, July 2010.

“First I hit.  And if he still has his senses, then we talk.”

This is Kamakshi speaking, in front of a gleaming stand of fresh vegetables in front of her house in the Bangalore slum. She’s another of the local characters we won’t forget — not least because she embodies a sort of puzzle.

Among the immutable rules of Indian life seem to be that no public authority will take much responsibility for basic services — schools, utilities, safety, healthcare — for slum dwellers; and more narrowly that police will not concern themselves with what looks like strictly domestic violence. This, as Brinda Adige recounts, is where Kamakshi has found her role as the first and sometimes last guarantor of a woman’s right not to be abused — of a wife’s right not to be beaten. A recent example: There is a man who is beating up the lady of the house every day, and everybody knows it.  One day, he hits the woman hard, with an onion to the face. Kamakshi tells him: next time you go to the police, but first, you deal with me.  So she beats him up, and tells him to sit all day in disgrace in front of her vegetables. And he does.  ”Let’s call it substantive justice,” Brinda summed up our visit with Kamakshi. “She is not afraid of anyone.    Kamakshi goes to get justice.  She doesn’t leave till justice is done.”

Visitors like us can’t easily judge whether Kamakshi embodies vitality and hard-core decency in the outward disarray of an impoverished community.  Or is Kamakshi’s story really about the disarray itself and spectacular public neglect all around her?

Podcast • August 12, 2010

Real India: At Koshy’s Cafe, The Talk of Bangalore

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 ...

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.

Podcast • July 22, 2010

Real India: Social Entrepreneurship as a Family Affair

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Chhiber-Mathew family. (46 minutes, 22 mb mp3) BANGALORE — Neelam Chhiber met her husband Jacob Mathew in graduate school, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Today, ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Chhiber-Mathew family. (46 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Neelam Chhiber met her husband Jacob Mathew in graduate school, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Today, with their 19-year-old son Nishant, they are giving me one family’s story of the improvisational networking and social entrepreneurship that are all the rage in digital India.

It’s not all monster business yet, and probably never will be. In the Chhiber-Mathew case, the family fix is on “impact investing” (with a social return against pollution, say, or exclusion) as much as on money profit. And it’s less about design in the sense of logos, letterheads and retail displays than about the evolving contours of markets, the flows of traffic in ideas as well as commerce, in India and the far beyond.

Neelam Chhiber’s company Industree made its name in “social business,” creating urban markets for rural producers in a chain of Mother Earth stores. Jacob Mathew’s design firm Idiom seeds and cultivates companies to serve what’s known as the “BOP” market — for “bottom of the pyramid.” The mission of their careers was clear from the start:

NC: The problem in India is the inequity. If today, the buzzword for the Indian government is “inclusive growth” — how does the growing 30% urban population take along its 70% rural poor population, and how will it do it without the Chinese revolution, without the Russian revolution, in a peaceful way?

CL: What does it say about India or about you that you are in this game as a family?

NC: One of the key distinctions that Indian society has vis-a-vis the US and China may be the strength of the family. Maybe because we are still not one-child families, I think the Chinese have lost a lot with that one-child policy. They may have done a great thing for the planet by having fewer people around, but it’s not good for society. Because I believe a lot of thinking can never be for the short term. I think a lot of the problems with your financial system in the US is that it’s about short term thinking — that you’re thinking just for the next two or three years, or to your next bonus. Now that kind of thinking is cultivated because as a society, maybe thoughts of longevity and the long term are lost. But when you have a family system, you think ahead constantly. You’re planning for your children and your grandchildren. And you are planning for your parents. I think as a family we grew a lot because we looked after elderly parents. And our parents looked after their parents. I think that’s going to be one of the key strengths of India in the future. Because I think that is what’s incubating better thinking, and more holistic thinking…

These are the important things about me being a Hindu and Jacob being a Christian – it’s not always easy, it’s difficult. His parents were opposed to the idea — why do you want to marry a Hindu? Because we arranged our marriage, ours was not a love marriage. We were classmates, and we never had an affair while we were in college, but after we graduated, we were looking for husbands and wives — our parents were — and so we said, we know each other, so why don’t we get married? So his mother said “look you’re arranging your marriage, why don’t you just arrange it with a Christian? Why have you chosen a Hindu?” He said: “Well, she’s my friend, she happens to be Hindu, so let’s not worry about it.” And then they adjusted. Now how did both families adjust? Because they had a history of families which adjusted. So a lot of future negotiations and things that happen on the planet, and when you work in global teams, is going to be all about how you adjust with everybody else. First of all you start adjusting in a family of four. Like my two sons find it very difficult to adjust with each other, but they’re learning. So that’s how you learn when you grow up. The whole family thing is key.

Neelam Chhiber, Jacob Mathew and Nishant Mathew in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India on Sunday, July 11, 2010

We are on the Open Source road in India through the mid-summer.

Next: Rain-forest gardener and guardian Suprabha Seshan.

Podcast • June 30, 2010

William Dalrymple: the Af-Pak Fiasco "on its last legs"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with William Dalrymple. (49 minutes, 22 mb mp3) William Dalrymple is drawing on a deep well of personal and imperial history in his stark clarification of our American comeuppance ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with William Dalrymple. (49 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

William Dalrymple is drawing on a deep well of personal and imperial history in his stark clarification of our American comeuppance in Afghanistan.

“The war has lost all semblance of shape or form,” he observes, at a moment when our puppet is trying to make peace with our enemy. “I’ll be amazed,” Dalrymple says, “if the Taliban aren’t in Kabul by the end of the year.”

He confirms on the ground the inescapable but conventionally unprintable judgment that the American “predator drones” have been the Taliban’s most effective weapon and our own moral downfall. “All you read in the papers here is the successful ‘hits’ on militant hideouts. What you don’t get is what you get in Pakistani papers: ‘Five More Wedding Guests Killed in Party’ and ‘Petraeus Apologizes.'”

In Afghanistan this Spring, it struck Willy Dalrymple that “the whole thing is on its last legs, considerably worse than I expected or had been led to believe by reports I’d read. The Taliban are everywhere… The only answer now must be some way to bring the Taliban and the Pashtuns into government. But there’s no sense that Obama or Holbrooke are ready to break that to the American people. It’s blindingly obvious. The Brits and the Europeans and Karzai are all pushing for it. The Americans are the only ones not taking the view that the Taliban has to be brought in…”

I was in Jalalabad on my trip, and I went to a Jurga there of the tribal elders… I was trying to get to Gandamak, the site of the British last stand in 1842, the symbol of the failure of the first British attempt, the first Western attempt, to take over Afghanistan: 18,000 East India Company troops march in in 1839 — like our own war of our generation, a surprisingly effortless conquest. The enemy merge off into the hills, the British spend two years skating, playing cricket and thinking they’ve got Kabul. There’s even discussion about making Kabul the summer capital of the Raj. Then an insurgency starts among the Pashtun of Helmand and it spreads northwards, until eventually there’s a revolution in Kabul. The two senior British leaders, the civilian and the military leader, both get murdered in the streets and the East India Company troops march out in 1842 in the middle of winter, and are ambushed on the return. 18,000 march out, one man makes it through to Jalalabad. And the last stand of the last 50, before that man escapes, is at Gandamak.

Now I wanted to go see this place — my next book is about the First Anglo-Afghan War and the parallels with the present. And the only way to get to that area, because it’s now under Taliban control, is to go off with the leaders. So I went off with a wonderful ex-Mujahideen, ex-Olympic wrestler called Anwar Khan Jigdalek who’s this mountain of a guy with cauliflower ears. And we went off with six trucks full of former Muj, all with keffiyehs wrapped around their heads, and rocket propelled grenades, the full-monty. And we got to his home village — which is, again, where about half the British army was massacred in 1842. And he is taken, feted by his people and taken to his old entrenchments, a feast was laid on. By the time we’d actually finished this blessed feast, it was too late to go to Gandamak, because it was five in the afternoon — and with the darkness comes the Taliban. So we headed to Jalalabad…

The next day I go to the Jurga and I talked to the elders. Where we were sitting in Jalalabad was, by chance, beside the Jalalabad airfield, which is one of the major takeoff zones for the drones. And as we’re having this conversation, these sinister creatures, these pilotless craft were taking off and landing the whole time… And one of the elders told me about an interview he’d had with some American soldiers in a hotel in Jalalabad the previous week. And the American had asked: “Tell me, why do you hate us? We’ve come, we’re trying to help, we’re trying to bring democracy. We’ve built roads — why do you hate us?” And the man replied: “Because you come in our houses, you knock down our doors, you take our women by the hair, you kick our children, and we will not allow it. We will break your teeth like we broke the teeth of the British, and like the British, eventually you will leave.” And he said: “The Americans know that this war is lost. It is only their politicians who pretend they can win it.”

William Dalrymple in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 18, 2010.

We’re in conversation at the Asia Society in Manhattan on the morning after a singing-dancing book launch of Willy Dalrymple’s latest, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. The party performance the night before was for me disconcerting. It felt, as I told Dalrymple, like a minstrel show of Indian artists at a British club in E. M. Forster’s India. In fact it was a night on Park Avenue in the new seat of empire, at the Asia Society once chaired by Richard Holbrooke, for well-to-do folk (many Indian) who ought to know better about the Af-Pak war but have almost nothing to say about it.

William Dalrymple calls himself, through veils of irony, “the last Orientalist.” He is a Scots-Englishman who’s enraptured still, after 25 years living in India, with the ancient and the exotic: “the calligraphers, the old Muslims speaking courtly Urdu, the bullocks pulling wooden plows” in India today, and with the temple prostitutes, self-starving Jain spiritualists, and Sufi singers in his cast of Nine Lives, a brilliant sampling of the “divine madness” that survives the radical modernization of India.

All the while, Willy Dalrymple — “gone native,” as they used to say — has become a pillar of the new global literary India. He’s a founder and co-chair of the now multitudinous Jaipur Literature Festival every January. He has won India’s choicest prizes for travel books like City of Djinns about Delhi, and for social histories like White Mughals, about intermarriage under the Raj. In The Last Mughal, he retold the gruesome story of the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857, rather more as Indians saw it, as the “First War of Independence.”

In Willy Dalrymple’s telling, the miserable self-deceptions of imperial over-reaching have come full circle from the rout of the Brits in Afghanistan in 1842. It helps that he speaks by now in the voice of a witness who’s been there from the beginning.