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 8, 2010

This "Year of India" (9): Patrick Heller’s Measure of Change

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Heller. (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Patrick Heller was 16 years old, a school boy, when his Swiss parents moved to New Delhi in the late 1970s. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Heller. (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Patrick Heller was 16 years old, a school boy, when his Swiss parents moved to New Delhi in the late 1970s. India became his school — his inescapable “ethnographic experience” of second-class trains; overwhelming heat and color; radical poverty and welcoming, curious people. India made Patrick Heller a social scientist and has presented itself ever since as a measure of the strange, swift ways that social orders change.

Kerala, for example, the far-southern state in India that has become a Heller specialty, had the most brutally exploitive caste rules in India well into the 20th Century. An “untouchable” could be punished for walking closer than 27 feet from a Brahmin. Untouchable women were not allowed to cover their breasts. Yet Kerala today, after a sustained “perfect storm” of reform movements, has the highest literacy (95 percent) and life-expectancy (73) and the most effective healthcare in India. The chief justice of India’s Supreme Court was, until a month ago, a Dalit (formerly untouchable) from Kerala.

In conversation, Patrick Heller is sampling for us the varieties of Indian evidence in 2010. The Indian Premier Cricket League, playing a condensed, TV-friendly version of the British colonial game, is one nutshell of the New India’s skill at marketing both innovation and tradition. Another capsule is the confirmed finding that 47 percent of all India’s children today are malnourished. So here is the under-an-hour sum of the all-questioning “Year of India” on the Brown campus — also of Patrick Heller’s third-of-a-century eye on India.

Back in the 1970s when I first went to India, India couldn’t produce much of anything that was competitive in global markets… Today, you go to Bangalore where Infosys and these extraordinary industrial parks are at the cutting edge of the global economy, people are walking around in jeans and drinking Coca-Cola, and listening to rap. They’re more connected to Los Angeles than they are to the rural areas of Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is located. This is where you see the split. Bangalore is the poster child of the new IT economy, but if you look at the patterns of hiring in Bangalore, most of the hiring is still in the upper caste groups. The groups that are benefiting from these new job opportunities and new consumption patterns are urban, English-speaking upper-caste groups for the most part… The population [of Karnataka] is over 60 million: roughly the size of France. Bangalore is growing and glowing, but the rest of Karnataka is not doing well. Rural Karnataka is still extraordinarily poor, and some people argue that the two are actually connected in that Bangalore is attracting all the resources. A lot of public monies are going into building the new infrastructure for the Infosyses of the world, for this new IT economy — monies that are not building wells or primary schools in rural Karnataka. So there are trade-offs.

Are we entering the Century of India? I am reminded of Rana Dasgupta‘s observation on Open Source last Fall that “at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population.”

Patrick Heller quotes the Indian joke that cricket is an Indian game that just happens to have been invented in England. There are Indians who’ll argue also that democracy is an Indian institution that just happens to have been invented in the West. Patrick Heller suggests that global networks of commerce, too, could turn out to be an Indian enterprise that Americans just thought was their game. “There are three things going on here,” Patrick Heller says:

One is language. Indian elites speak great English, they’re well-versed in literature, and so in terms of ‘cultural capital,’ they’re extremely well-equipped, and much better equipped than say, their Chinese or Brazilian counterparts. That’s a huge advantage, part of the explanation why India’s done so well in this niche of outsourcing services and the knowledge industry…

Second, democracy is in their blood, they’ve practiced it for 60 years as a nation, and they’ve been innovative. So they understand the rule of law, they understand basic liberal ideas of pluralism, of deliberation, of engagement, of respecting certain fundamental rights.

And third, they know capitalism…. To this day, 91 percent of India’s economy is in the so-called informal or unorganized sector… Of course, this is a history that goes back millennia, but in the modern era, India has always been a vibrant market capitalist economy. Yes, a lot of regulation at the top, and it’s true that some sectors were state-dominated. But anyone who has actually traveled to India and seen a real market, be it a labor market or a vegetable market, knows that this is not Communist China or even Europe. It’s totally unregulated. So the practice and culture of free enterprise and capitalism are in the blood of Indian elites. This idea that we could export entrepreneurial knowledge to India to me is just a new kind of Orientalism.

Patrick Heller in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, June 4, 2010.

Podcast • May 12, 2010

Amartya Sen: This Open-Ended "Year of India" (8)

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Amartya Sen (47 min, 21 mb mp3) Amartya Sen at home in Cambridge, before his hero John Rawls Amartya Sen, when I ask about this “Year of India,” ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Amartya Sen (47 min, 21 mb mp3)

Amartya Sen & John RawlsAmartya Sen at home in Cambridge, before his hero John Rawls

Amartya Sen, when I ask about this “Year of India,” quips that the biggest change in the “new” India is in our non-Indian heads. Meaning: that common wisdom has finally shaken off the British imperial canard that “old” India was a backward pre-industrial scene before the East India Company, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, rescued it for civilization and modernity.

India’s grandest eminence outside the subcontinent is satisfied that we’ve all absorbed the news that behind the modern Bangalore boom lie 3000 years of an “accounting culture” and India’s own imperial trading history. The name of Singapore, he notes, comes from the Sanskrit for “City of Lions.” So “all those people who say: the West is materialist and business-oriented, Indians are spiritualist and thought-oriented, are talking absolute nonsense.” Neither are those “new” Indian stakes in software and biotech all that new, or all that Indian. Many of the great Indian success stories were incubated in Silicon Valley, starting in the 1950s, and at MIT, where Nehru got the model of the endlessly fertile Indian Institutes of Technology. So Kipling is dead and buried; the twining of East and West, the meeting of the twain, is no surprise anymore. The unfolding story, in Amartya Sen’s telling, is Open India.

Part of the reflection of Open India is the willingness to accept that you don’t have to belong to the mainstream [80-plus percent Hindu] in order to be counted as a genuine Indian. As Rabindranath Tagore said in two quite famous statements: one, that anything that we admire, no matter its origin, instantly becomes ours. And the other, similarly, that any person who comes from abroad and is ready to live the kind of life that people lead in India is instantly accepted as being Indian. Because a lot of Indians are going everywhere in the world, and they’re traveling as a kind of modern Jew of the 20th century and 21st century, India doesn’t get enough credit for the fact is that there has been more immigration into India than almost any country in the world — for one thing, tens of millions of Bangladeshis. Even though people grumble about it… you don’t see the kind of hysteria about it that’s going on Europe, for example, or the United States. That anger may yet come, but it hasn’t been a part of traditional India at all. The fact is the boundaries are porous between India and abroad and it’s served India very well. I think India booming would not have happened but for the openness of the educational sector, of the high tech sector, and the big booms, the informational as well as biochemical and medical, have come very much from a dialectic interaction with the West.

Amartya Sen warned famously (five years ago) that India is at risk of becoming “half California, half Sub-Saharan Africa.” To me he says he was offering tabloid India a caution, not a prediction. In conversation these days, Amartya Sen sounds half Victorian gent, half liberal social critic, but not a worried man — not about India’s engagement with the United States in Afghanistan, for example; and not urgently concerned about the decline of the once sacrosanct “village India.” He doesn’t “miss” village India, he said, “because it’s not gone.” From his father’s house 100 miles from Calcutta, “I walk half a mile, and I’m in rural Bengal.”

The villages are not gone, but the tragedy isn’t so much that [village India] is changing and going, but it’s not changing and not going, in the sense that we want every village with schools, we want them with hospitals and primary health care institutions…. These things are not happening. So my grumble isn’t that the Indian villages are changing; my grumble is that it’s not changing fast enough. I have nothing against village life. I very much enjoy…getting on my bike and taking 15, 20 miles of bicycling through the rural areas. Absolutely wonderful! But I would like to see dispensaries, primary health care, schools there. And that’s not happening fast enough. That’s my grumble. And sometimes when I complain that India is becoming bifurcated between half California and half Sub-Saharan Africa, my complaint is that the line is unfortunately often rural and urban. It’s not just that, because there are a lot poor people in the urban areas as well, it’s a more complicated line, but the rural-urban division, that’s a very big division that we have to keep in mind.

Amartya Sen in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, May 7, 2010.

I thank him for an hour’s discursive gab with “an old fashioned Indian wiseman.”

“Shame on you,” he says, laughing. “Thank you.”

Did I get it wrong, I ask.

His last word: “You got it exactly right.”

Podcast • April 5, 2010

Arundhati Roy’s Version of Disaster in India

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3) Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3)

Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in the TED talks, or in Nandan Nilekani‘s success epic, much less in Tom Friedman‘s relentless celebrations of the Bangalore boom in the New York Times. I sat with Ms. Roy for an hour and a half near MIT last Friday — first time since her book tour in another life, with the Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things in 1998. This time she was just off a remarkable journalistic coup for Outlook India — an “embedded” report from the so-called “Maoist” uprising in the Northeastern states of India, the rebellion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s greatest security threat and Arundhati Roy calls a battle for India’s soul.

AR: What does the boom do? It created a huge middle class — because India is a huge country, even a small percentage is a huge number of people — and it is completely invested in this process. So it did lift a large number of people into a different economic bracket altogether — now more billionaires in India than in China, and so on. But it created a far larger underclass being pushed into oblivion. India is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. You have 180,000 small farmers who’ve drunk pesticide and committed suicide because they’ve been caught in the death trap. You have a kind of ecocide where huge infrastructural projects are causing a drop in the water table. No single river now flows to the sea. There is a disaster in the making.

The way I see it, we had a feudal society decaying under the weight of its caste system, and so on. It was put into a machine and churned and some of the old discriminations were recalibrated. But what happened was that the whole separated into a thin layer of thick cream, and the rest of it is water. The cream is India’s market, which consists of many millions of people who buy cellphones and televisions and cars and Valentine’s Day cards; and the water is superfluous people who are non-consumers and just pawns who need to be drained away.

Those people are now rising up and fighting the system in a whole variety of ways. There’s what I call a bio-diversity of resistance. There are Gandhians on the road, and there are Maoists in the forests. But all of them have the same idea: that this development model is only working for some and not for others.

CL: How do we Americans listen for a true Indian identity in this period of fantastic growth and, as you say, fantastic suffering?

AR: You know, I have stopped being able to think of things like Americans and Indians and Chinese and Africans. I don’t know what those words mean anymore. Because in America, as in India and in China, what has happened is that the elites of these countries and the corporations that support their wealth and generate it form tham have seceded into outer space. They live somewhere in the sky, and they are their own country. And they look down on the bauxite in Orissa and the iron ore in Chhattisgarh and they say: ‘what is our bauxite doing in their mountains?’ They then justify to themselves the reasons for these wars.

If you look at what is going on now in that part of the world, from Afghanistan to the northeast frontiers of Pakistan, to Waziristan, to this so-called “red corridor” in India, what you’re seeing is a tribal uprising. And it’s taking the form of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It’s taking the form of radical Communism in India. It’s taking the form of struggles for self-determination in the northeastern states. But it’s a tribal uprising, and the assault on them is coming from the same place. It’s coming from free-market capitalism’s desire to capture and control what it thinks of as resources. I think ‘resources’ is a problematic word because these things cannot be replenished once they are looted. But that is really the thing. And the people who are able to fight are those who are outside of the bar-coded, cellphone-networked, electronic age — who cannot be tracked and who can barely be understood.

It’s a clash of civilizations, but not in the way that (Samuel P.) Huntington meant, you know. It’s an inability to understand that the world has to change, or there will be — I mean, as we know, capitalism contains within itself the idea of a protracted war. But in that war… either you learn to keep the bauxite in the mountains, or you’re not going to benefit from preaching morality to the victims of this war. A victory for this sort of establishment and its army and its nuclear weapons will never be a victory. Because your victory is your defeat, you know?

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 2, 2010.

Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays — for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason” — is titled: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

Podcast • March 12, 2010

This "Year of India" (5): … and the chronic crisis of Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Farzana Shaikh (38 min, 17 mb mp3) Salman Rushdie, no less, finished his packed public talk at Brown three weeks ago with the observation that Pakistan is the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Farzana Shaikh (38 min, 17 mb mp3)

Salman Rushdie, no less, finished his packed public talk at Brown three weeks ago with the observation that Pakistan is the globe’s true nightmare nation — that if Pakistan doesn’t rescue itself from political collapse into extremism, “we’re all fucked.” In this “Year of India” at Brown, we are talking again about the Pakistan question next door — about India’s nuclear-armed neighor and sibling, on the verge, some say, of meltdown.

Farzana Shaikh is a child of Pakistan who writes about her country now as the daughter of a distressed family. The thread through her pithy analysis, Making Sense of Pakistan, is that Pakistan’s problem is not fundamentally with India, much less with the United States and the world, but with itself and Islam. She begins:

More than six decades after being carved out of British India, Pakistan remains an enigma. Born in 1947 as the first self-professed Muslim state, it rejected theocracy. Vulnerable to the appeal of political Islam, it aspired to Western constitutionalism. Prone to military dictatorship, it hankered after democracy. Unsure of what it stood for, Pakistan has been left clutching at an identity beset by an ambigous relation to Islam…

Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia University Press.

Salman Rushdie’s irresistible prose is one touchstone of our conversation:

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan,’ an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis. A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Balochistan. (No mention of the East West, you notice: Bangladesh never got its name in the title, and so eventually it took the hint and seceded from the secessionists….). So, it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne across or translated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface.

Salman Rushdie, Shame, 1983. p. 87.

Podcast • March 5, 2010

This "Year of India" (4): The NY Times’ Man in Bombay

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3) We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3)

We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. When he went “home” after college, from Cleveland to the land of his ancestors, the feeling he confronted was, in effect, hey, your party in America is over, and you may be too late for the party underway in Bombay.

Born in Ohio and educated in Michigan, Anand is a child of that wave of immigration that brought India’s best and brightest out of a bad time back home in the 1970s to the land of milk, honey, high tech and opportunity in America. When Anand returned to do his bit for the mother country, as a McKinsey consultant in the mid-90s, he found not his parent’s stifled old India but rather a swarming entrepreneurial frontier more modern, more gung-ho in many ways than the American Mid-West he grew up in, but also a nation growing less “westernized” and more indigenous on a surging wave of growth.

He carried with him the story of India that his parents had given him, an image of a great civilization trapped in a box; a place where, in his words “No one questioned. No one dreamed. Nothing moved.” He begins this account of that quarter-century transformation through the eyes of his father:

AG: One of the reasons my father left — none of us leaves countries for massive geopolitical reasons, we ultimate leave for personal reasons. His personal situation was working in the 1970s for a company called Tata Motors, selling their trucks and buses in Africa. All he could do to make a judgment about whether he wanted to be in India long term was look around him at work. I will never forget the simple way in which describes why he decided to leave. He said he looked at his bosses twenty years ahead of him in line and concluded he didn’t want to spend his life becoming them.

Now fast forward a quarter century, Tata Motors is today, that same stagnant dead company that in some ways pushed my father out of the country as a whole, is today one of the most admired car companies in the world. Why? Because it no longer only sells rickety trucks and buses in Africa. It has now also made the world’s cheapest car, for about $2,000, in an engineering feat that has wowed every major auto maker.

CL: How did they do it?

AG: There are two ways to think about it. One is to say that they had consultants and advisors who had certainly come back form the West. But here’s another interpretation of what was different. the constraints were in some ways the same. They still had essentially 1 billion poor people around them; they still had engineering constraints; they still had a government that’s not particularly helpful to what business does. But in my father’s day most Indians would have interpreted that context as essentially hindering progress and being an excuse for producing sub optimal stuff. The new language is “we have unique hardships which gives us a unique opportunity to create globally competitive products that are better than anyone else’s products. Because our roads are bumpier, our suspension systems have to be even better than the Americans’ suspension systems. Because people are poor in this country, we have to work twice as hard to bring the price point of a car down to $2000.” It’s the same context, just a different way of looking at it.

Anand Giridharadas in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 4, 2010.

Podcast • December 9, 2009

This "Year of India" (3): Suketu Mehta, Bombay’s Biographer

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Suketu Mehta. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Suketu Mehta, the master storyteller of modern Bombay, learned by listening — to the runaway poet from Bihar, for example, who ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Suketu Mehta. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Suketu Mehta, the master storyteller of modern Bombay, learned by listening — to the runaway poet from Bihar, for example, who wanted him to write a book titled “Untold Stories” or “Untellable Stories,” like his own.

He was a boy of seventeen who had run away from the poorest state of India, Bihar, to come to the big city, not to work in the movies, not to make a fortune but to write poetry. His father wanted him to be a scientist. So this kid slept on the sidewalks and he took me all around the city and showed me how he ate, what he had to pay to go to the bathroom, the small and great scams of the city. And he went all around the city writing poetry. And then I asked him if he had contacted his parents — he had run away from home — and he said he hadn’t, and so I said he might want to notify them. They must be worried. He wrote a postcard to his father, and his father took the next train over from Bihar. I got a phone call one morning from the kid saying his father had arrived in Bombay and was taking him back to Bihar, would I meet them for breakfast? And I did. The father was a lovely man, a science teacher from a small village, and he said he had come to collect his son. The parents had been worried sick about him. I said, “Well, now that you’re here, how long will you stay?” He said, “Oh, we are taking this afternoon’s train back.” Now, Bihar is at the other end of india. It’s a three day train journey. He’d just traveled for three days; he had come that morning and he was going back that afternoon. I said: “Why don’t you stay? This is a fabulous city, a great city. You can see the Gateway of India, you can see where the Bollywood stars walk around.” He said, “No, I have no interest in all of this. I want to get out of this city as fast as possible, because all these big buildings, they have been built by stealing somebody else’s money.” Essentially, he was paraphrasing Balzac without knowing it: “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” And his son kept saying to his father, “But this is my karma-bhoomi” — the proving-ground of my destiny.” And the father said, “No, this is paap-ki-bhoomi” — the land of sin…

Suketu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.3.09.

Suketu Mehta went home to India to track the migration — soul by soul, the reader feels — of a “nation of villages” into megacities on the scale of Bombay, now Mumbai, where people name the trickle of the open slum sewer after a river back home. His masterwork Maximum City, did for Bombay what the immortals Dickens and Balzac did for London and Paris; except that the sprouting of mushroom slums and high-rise spikes in India may be running 20 times faster and bigger. Suketu Mehta is the great expositor by now of a reckless, universal love affair with mostly miserable megacities. “Right about now, for the first time in history,” he remarks, “more people live in cities than in villages. We have become an urban species.” He is the expositor, moreover, of a method of listening for the unofficial narratives of the time: myths told in temples, migrants calling home, letter-writers composing messages from prostitutes to their parents, assuring the family that their daughter has a good office job and that money is on the way.

Suketu Mehta is telling me also that from the old India of starving cows and sadhus to the new one of Bollywood and billionaires, there’s a very old ping-pong game of ideas going back and and forth between India and the United States: from the Bhagavad Gita to Henry David Thoreau (“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial…”); from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to Gandhi’s satyagraha in South Africa and India; from Gandhi to Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr., and from Dr. King to Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The game, he’ll persuade you, isn’t over.

Podcast • December 8, 2009

This "Year of India" (2): Rana Dasgupta

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Rana Dasgupta‘s India is a land of grueling poverty still, in a culture transfixed by glittering wealth. The dominant mood is ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta‘s India is a land of grueling poverty still, in a culture transfixed by glittering wealth. The dominant mood is “frenzied accumulation” in a society “consumed both by euphoria and dread.” Mahatma Gandhi’s India of fond memory — triumphant non-violence and democratic socialism in a nation of villages — is almost gone, and mostly forgotten, too. Rural India has dropped out of the conversation. The “great man” in India’s dream of success, Dasgupta chuckles, is probably Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. The new half-hidden India in Rana Dasgupta’s telling is a dynamic contradiction — emphasis on the dynamic. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House, seen but not heard on our TV screens last month, is another version of the contradiction. On the outside, Singh looks like a cartoon of the last maharajah; unglimpsed, like the snowy mane under his Sikh turban, is the mind of the former finance minister who in 1991 opened India to a transforming flood of foreign investment.

Rana Dasgupta is dubbed by Salman Rushdie, no less, “the most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation.” The blurb, too, half-hides the story. Dasgupta, Oxford educated, now 38, was born in London of an English mother. He returned to his father’s country at the start of the new century to write both fiction and fact. Tokyo Cancelled was a nested novel and a sort of homage to folk tales in an age of disconnection: 13 stories spun out spontaneously by travelers stranded overnight in an international airport. Solo, not yet available in the US, is a fantasy of music and memory, set in Bulgaria. All the while Dasgupta has been fixing a steady anthropological eye on the veiled violence of money rampant in Nouveau Delhi. “Capital Gains,” a long piece in Granta last summer, began with a true tale that’s also symbolic: the public scandal of Sanjeev Nanda, a reckless boy prince of the new money, drunk, in his $150-thousand BMW a few years ago, slicing through seven people, killing six of them, but rich and unrepentant enough to buy freedom from punishment – for a while.

This story erupts into the public domain with the delicious nausea of something widely felt, but rarely observed: the recklessness of this economic system, its out-of-control heartlessness. Sanjeev’s speeding BMW is a symbol of gleaming, maleficent capital, unchecked by conscience or by the roadblocks of the state. The scene of the impact, a one-hundred-metre stretch of road strewn with organs, severed limbs and pools of blood, is like a morality painting of the cataclysmic effects of this marauding elite in the world of ordinary people… as if his fatal velocity was that of foreign forces whose impact, here in India, could only be catastrophic.

Rana Dasgupta in Granta, July 2009.

But that is only the start of Dasgupta’s story of India, in Granta and in our conversation. Unpeeling what President Obama calls “one of the defining partnerships” in the world, Dasgupta seems to be betting on an Indian Century before it’s over:

The fact is that India and America have very very profound similarities, and a very obvious kind of relationship. Both countries are based around a grand political idea, they’re not based around any kind of racial homogeneity or anything like that, they are based around a constitution, and a moment of independence from the British. In both countries a desire to be left alone to run your business is a very powerful feeling. There is suspicion in both countries of governments and the interferences they make into private – read: commercial – life. And it’s precisely for this reason that so many Indians have been so successful in America – they don’t even have to stop at the airport to understand where they’ve come – they already know it. They’ve understood America deeply before they’ve arrived. This has been enhanced in the last two decades by the fact that the elite of India now automatically sends its kids to study in the US. There is a very very vast number of Indian teenagers who come here to study, to the extent I think that the Indian elite now regards the US as its other territory…

There are also ways in which America or India differ profoundly. America is a society of systems, there should be nothing that eludes the state – with systems of policing, control, regulation… That is clearly not the case in India… Indians accept that things cannot be systematized, that there is inherent chaos, that you don’t have to understand your neighbor, that he may live an incredibly different life from yours, but that’s not a problem. The incredible ramshackle bric-a-brac nature of Indian cities, where slums are next to high rises, is not felt to be a great shock. The face that people hack into electricity systems to run their slums is treated with wry humor by middle class Indians…

I suspect these things will play out to Indian’s advantage, because Indians will be much more comfortable in the US than Americans will be in India. And at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population… Even being very wealthy they are quite comfortable living in a house that runs out of water quite often, and runs out of electricity. They’re able to go into weird places in central Asia and Africa and feel quite okay, knowing how things operate, knowing that even people who are turning over millions of dollars a year, can do so without contracts, just on the basis of various forms of informal business ethics.

So I think that as time goes on, America will retain its monopoly of certain things – India will never build a scientific academic research infrastructure that remotely rivals America’s. It will continue to use America’s and supply America’s with talented people, and Indians who are interested in working in those kind of environments will come to the States. But India itself as a major economic opportunity will continue to mushroom, and Indians will spread out into Africa and China and central Asia with enormous ease and flexibility.

Rana Dasgupta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.3.09.

Podcast • November 16, 2009

The Voice of Gandhi in this "Year of India"

It’s the audacity of Mahatma Gandhi‘s non-violence, and the radical priority he gave to social justice, that Gandhi’s grandson stresses in a sort of keynote conversation at the start of Brown University’s “Year of India.” ...

It’s the audacity of Mahatma Gandhi‘s non-violence, and the radical priority he gave to social justice, that Gandhi’s grandson stresses in a sort of keynote conversation at the start of Brown University’s “Year of India.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rajmohan Gandhi (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3).

Rajmohan Gandhi in Bapu’s lap, Delhi, 1936

Short form: The skinny brown man in the traditional loin-cloth would be a thorn in the side of power today — more perhaps than ever in nuclear-armed India and in a world more concertedly hostile to Islam even than India was in 1948.

The father of his country would be attacking “smug self-satisfaction” among the new rich in India. “He would be unhappy about the continued oppression of women,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of the man that his family and nation called “Bapu,” or father. He’d be attacking “the worship of money” with his deepest conviction, as Gandhi once wrote to a young American seeking Indian wisdom, that “life is not for indulgence but essentially for self-denial. Would that the students of America could imbibe that one lesson.”

If Barack Obama could fulfill his spontaneous, touching wish for dinner with Gandhi, he would find the Mahatma “as interested in Barack Obama as Barack Obama in Gandhi.” But the American president should be prepared, says Gandhi’s grandson, to hear the grand strategist of India’s independence “say to the Americans what he said to the British: who asked you to be the guardians of the whole wide world? And why do you think you know better than the local people what is best for them? Relax! Trust those people. Yes, they may make mistakes, but they’re entitled to their freedom, to their independence.”

If, as I suppose, President Obama asked the great Gandhi to “help me with Islam,” his grandson believes:

Gandhi would say: “well, you, too, have your links with Islam, through your forebears. You have a tremendous chance…” He would tell Obama, of course, about his friend Abdul Gaffar Khan, his Pashtun friend. And he would say to Obama: “there are today in the Islamic world so many thousands of women and men who are fighting for the very things you are fighting for. They are the immediate victims of terrorism. Look at the numbers of Pakistanis and Afghans killed every single day by the extremists in their midst. Now that Fort Hood has happened, we’re all moved by these poignant descriptions of every single life that perished there. But the Pakistanis, the Afghans who also perish because of suicide bombings, because they’re ambushed by extremists, they died unknown, unrecognized, unsung…”

Also, and this is what I think Gandhi would say: “you in the United States for the last 40 or 50 years have been drawn into the Muslim world. Ask yourself whether you really have been always fair and just to the Muslim world, and if you haven’t acknowledge the places where you haven’t. Because the anger in the Muslim world — although it is unwise, it is foolish, it is harmful above all to the Muslim world — does it have some basis in their experience with the Western world?”

Rajmohan Gandhi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 11.15.09.

And if, I suppose further, Gandhi said to Obama in some fashion: you’re a young idealist with a global imagination; your military chief has asked for 40,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan and your ambassador in Kabul has said: don’t send them, it’s a dead end… how might I, Gandhi, help you, Obama, think through another way? What then?

Sure, I can imagine that. And I think Gandhi would also relate that to the situation in the United States where there is unemployment, there is suffering, there is sadness. Gandhi would readily acknowledge that Obama’s challenge is immense. And Gandhi would also be perfectly ready to say “I don’t know what you should do.” But he would also say that if you truly reflect and you think of the neediest people in the world and what will help them, then you will know what you should do.

Rajmohan Gandhi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 11.15.09.

He would not be prescribing remedies, in short, but he’d been keeping a universal standard of social justice at the top of all of our agendas.