Thursday, 3 January 2013

AEIOU - Five Ingredients For India's Progress

Not everyone is going to agree with this, but here's my list of the essential ingredients for a more modern and progressive India, conveniently organised by the 5 vowels A, E, I, O and U.

  • Atheism (or at least Agnosticism)
  • English
  • Internationalism and the Internet
  • Opportunity
  • Urbanisation

A) Science holds the key to human progress, and superstition is the greatest enemy of science. India is one of the most religiously superstitious countries on earth, and if Indians can shake off the shackles of religion and become more atheistic (or at least agnostic) in their outlook, scientific progress can take effect. I'm shocked at the number of "educated" people who still look up their horoscopes and believe in superstitions. I remember a science class in middle school where the textbook said we should not believe in superstitions, but the teacher, while sort of agreeing, said that there were some superstitions that were true! When her father was in hospital, she said, a house lizard fell on her left shoulder. The next day, she said with a dramatic flourish, they brought home her father's body. I don't know how many of her young class were influenced, but I thought she was being dishonest by undermining the core lesson that we were supposed to learn. She's dead now (and I don't know if any lizards fell to herald that event), but she certainly did damage to a few young minds before she departed.

The sooner we can turn our children to the path of true science and away from superstitious nonsense, the better. Religion, as the biggest superstition of all, has no place in a modern society. However, temples, mosques, churches, etc., should not be demolished but turned into museums. People should be able to marvel not only at the works of art in them but also at the past generations of Indians who actually worshipped imaginary deities within their walls.

E) I have believed for a long time that the English language is the most progressive one on earth, for at least two reasons.

One, it is difficult to express retrogressive or even cloying sentiment in English to the extent possible in Indian languages. Many common Indian cuss words are names of "lower" castes. Vernacular magazines unselfconsciously bear titles like "Dharmyug" (Age of Righteousness), which would sound corny in English. Lyrics of Bollywood songs that sound so appealing in Hindi/Urdu are positively cringe-inducing when translated into English subtitles. Let's face it, English is an unsentimental language better suited to scientific and rational thought.

Two, English is perhaps the only language in the world to have a single word for the second person singular - "you". Every other language has an honorific and a familiar form, which immediately serve to classify people into "higher" and "lower" categories. Only English, of all the world's languages, is egalitarian at its core. I have seen the power equation in marriages change when couples switch from English to their mother-tongue. Equal status gives way to male dominance since the man can address the woman using the familiar form of "you", but the woman has to use the honorific form, otherwise it sounds "disrespectful".

Language is not just a medium for communication. Language shapes thinking and remakes character. And of all the languages in the world, none is as revolutionary as English, with so much potential to liberate people and make society more egalitarian, more rationally skeptical and less reverent of tradition, which is why it is hated and feared in many quarters.

If more Indians speak English, their very thinking will change. This is what the traditionalist Old Guard dread as a terrible evil, but this is what I believe will be India's salvation.

I) Exposure to the world will draw Indians out of their comfortable thought cocoons. Tradition and culture are often euphemisms for backwardness and social oppression. It's time winds of change blew in from the wider world. Television has opened a few windows over the last few decades, but only in terms of commercialism and the desire for material things. Straitjacketed by language, TV could not bring new thinking to India. Indian TV is a cultural echo chamber where the most backward sentiments bounce around along with the most crass commercialism, all tied together by Bollywood-themed programs. What India needs is simpler living and higher thinking, and I see this much more frequently in the West than in India. If the language barrier between the bulk of Indians and the world is broken through a knowledge of English, then more progressive content can find its way into Indian minds.

O) This is not a set of prescriptions for the government. All that government needs to do is step aside. Indians of all kinds need an opportunity to escape from their oppressive surroundings and to discover themselves. Rural folk, women, people of "lower" castes - every one of them must have the freedom to find themselves and be the best they can be. When I began my career in Mumbai, my epiphany was that freedom can only come when every individual is in a minority. Every community is a minority in Mumbai. What freedom that brings! No shoulds, no oughts, no moral policing.

U) I am not a fan of the Indian village. I believe there is a direct correlation between the narrowness of a community's streets and the narrowness of the minds that live there. Urbanisation alone will civilise Indian minds. Yet large-scale migration from India's villages to its 6 largest cities will make those cities a living hell. The alternative is for the so-called Tier II cities, some 30 to 50 of them, to step up and absorb the influx, and beyond these, a Tier III set of about 200 to 500 large towns, to do the same. The Golden Quadrilateral and its offshoots can help to tie these far-flung urban areas into a more connected megapolis without overwhelming the infrastructure governed by any single corporation.

The city does not discriminate the way the countryside does. Its jostling crowds and cramped accommodation (relative to the countryside) do not easily allow one to choose one's neighbours on the basis of caste or religion. Its hectic schedule leaves no time for elaborate (and wasteful) traditional rituals. The city forces people into initially grudging coexistence, then into greater tolerance and understanding that "everyone is in it together". The city encourages ambition and then satisfies it, and it offers a more meritocratic and fair system of rewards than the feudal countryside. It is only in the city that a Dalit can employ a "higher" caste Hindu, or a "lower" caste woman can employ "higher" caste men. The city can shake out India's historical injustices and intolerances like nowhere else. India needs urbanisation, and urgently.

To add to the five vowels, there's also the semi-consonant Y.

Y) As a country with one of the most favourable demographics in the world, India can tap its youth bulge to grow strongly over the next half-century. I have stated my opinion before that ideas only die when people die, so a wholesale upgrade of India's backward thinking will only come with a fresh new generation.

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