Tuesday, June 5, 2012

India and I

Einstein apparently said "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind". Lesser mortals usually have less extreme views than Einstein on the issue of nationalism (and the related patriotism), but it is still interesting to see how this view gets formed and changes shape over years. Recently, I have read a slew of intriguing articles on India that have made me think about the relationship I have with this notion of "Indianness". More importantly, how this view has changed with time.

In my pre-teen and early-teen years, feeling of Indianness was manifest largely through fantasies of war heroics or sporting exploits. Rajesh the great would either lead India to triumph in an unimaginably tough war (against who else but) or play five weeks of tough cricket to take India to the world Championships. In the mid-to-late eighties, a "rubber-ball" placed in a sock and let hang from the heavens have been the setting for teenagers' dreams across many towns in India. I was no exception to this. What Sachin has achieved today would pale in comparison with what was constructed in my mind. Back then the idea of nationhood was very binary, I held an unquestioning belief in "India". There was no sense of evaluation of what India meant to me, no point in deliberating over what exactly I felt when I said I was proud to be Indian.

Then came college and as I was lucky enough to go to one of the places that was heavily subsidized by the central government of India, I was exposed for the first time to another view of what being Indian meant. Back then, in IIT Madras (my alma mater, a place that housed me from 1997 to 2001 just so that you have a sense of the timeline), around 70% of the undergraduates went to the US post their engineering and wherever you were you were not far from discussing some version of "Should this many of our students leave the country post engineering". There are many layers in this discussion, but the two extreme views are as follows

Some professors seemed to want to ask the Kennedy-esque "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" to students and inspire us to contribute to homeland. Students seemed to hold the view "We busted our gut to get here. Cleared whatever benchmark you set for us. Now, it is time for me to do whatever is best for me". This can be portrayed as the idealist vs. the pragmatist. But it was never so simple.

The professors were never so consumed by ideology, at least a part of them had partly succumbed to bitterness. If I had to be very honest, there was less of "What can we do for the next next generation" and more of "What right do you have to leave the country?".  And whenever the question become one of "right", guilt comes right into the picture and the students could and did reply with "what right do you have to hold me back anywhere?"

One sensed that many professors were seeking vindication for their own decisions to stay back in India while exhorting students to do the same. On the other hand, students who had been brought up in a slightly more liberal generation were being less apologetic about taking their own decisions. But this to-and-fro undercurrent was ever-present, at least in the famed electrical engineering department.

Truth be told, I was never more than an observer in said discussion because yours truly was truly poor in engineering and had taken a prudent decision to migrate to MBA, and since doing an MBA abroad was not an option for muddle-class India back then, my lot had been placed with the "Stay back and do the country proud" gang, albeit unwittingly.

In my defence, I never milked my decision to stay in India as part of fulfilling a noble duty to the country. Not because I was above it, (let it be known very clearly that I am rarely "above" anything) but because I was not smart enough/aware enough to have thought about all this. I was a 20-year old with only-about-decent exposure to the world. My decision to attempt to do an MBA was based on my inability to do well in engineering and the confidence I had that I would clear whatever entrance exam was there for getting into a good B-School (This is the one ability I have built over years - the ability to do well in largely useless entrance exams :) ).

So, a series of default decisions later, I had reached another quasi-government institute keen to not repeat some of my mistakes from the previous 4 years. It was only around this time that I picked up enough maturity to even think about ideas like "nationhood". ( Very often I think we place the burden of taking correct decisions on people patently ill-equipped/too young to handle them. But that is a piece for another post).

This was also the time that India's views on brain-drain had mellowed down a little bit. This was a period of glorious NRI love-in. The NRIs loved the country, showered cliches on it, Indians made film for NRIs and made them the centerpiece of the diaspora. We co-opted many NRI achievements and gave them the Indian tag (it is a national pastime even now), and the IITs were told that there would be no Indian presence at silicon valley if it had not been for the IITs. A bit of all round self-congratulation never hurt anyone I guess and we indulged in this quite a bit in the late 90's, early 2000s. Think Pokhran and "India Shining" and you get the gist of what I am saying here. So, thanks to this love-in, the guilt of leaving the country had been alleviated and there was general feeling of well-being everywhere.

This was the time I was feeling at the most patriotic as well. I had the gung-ho feeling of contributing to something good as well. I wanted to believe in the story that India had just missed the bus and we could yet chart a great path. I desperately wanted to be on the right side of the John F Kennedy question. The tech sector had shown the way and rest of the country was eager to follow. I was prone to saying that after the immediately-post-independence generation, ours had been the luckiest in India's history as we were going to be given the opportunity of working in/shaping a modern India. (The silliness of a naive 22-year old knows few boundaries)

Post my MBA, I had a six-month stint in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Although it is a desperately poor region, I thoroughly relished the experience, felt as if I had earned my stripes and seen real India and was keen to give all and sundry an opinion about the goings on in India's heartland. 1-2 skirmishes with HR departments later, I landed in Chennai with a cushy job in the then-nascent KPO sector. As it was with a small firm, they had structured our salary in a very take-home friendly way and one was expected to game the system a little bit in order to claim maximum leave allowance or some such.

I am ashamed to say that I did try to game the system. But when the process seemed too odious I promptly gave up on it and told myself that as a well-paid Indian it is not such a bad thing to chip in with my taxes. Not cutting corners was the limit of actually expressing my feeling of nationalism, but those living in India (or perhaps with accounts in Guernsey or Mauritius) will realize what a big deal this was.

Then for a period of 3.5 years I lived in London. My first 12-months in London was very much about saying how India offered its own comforts and London was not that ahead of India.  

" The proper means of increasing the love we bear our native country is to reside some time in a foreign one" .  ~William Shenstone. I saw the full meaning of this quote. 

Every rabidly patriotic instinct of the Brits, I saw as triumphalism. In every excess, I saw strands of how a more balanced India would be better. For every success story, I saw how it was not borne out of genius, but out of getting a few basics right (and therefore replicable in beloved India). As I was working in the financial sector, I got to see first hand two things 1) that the British reputation for fair play was indeed specious and 2) The so-called top decile (the financial sector prides itself on these things) of Brits and global workforce were only about average, or at best mildly above-average intellectually. I was chomping at the bits to return to the motherland and do something useful here. 

And within a few quarters of that return-trip, the mystique began to fade. This is where this story will perhaps take a turn for the worse and the faint-hearted are better advised in going for the TV remote. My current opinions on India are closer to the ones held by Churchill than to Friedman.

My beloved country is slowly fading out. The numbers, scams, lack of governance tell a story. But as  Aaron Levenstein said "Statistics are like bikini, what they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital". If Statistics about India do not tell the whole story, then the updates provided by Indian media are far worse. It falls right under the category of "It would be funny if it were not so tragic". Beneath all these stories lies a script far more tragic. 

There is a big secret about India that we do not disclose that easily. The country has been run by this wonderful "invisible minority". Quite unlike Nixon's silent majority, this is the group that has been making things move. The lady in the post office that makes sure that you get your money at least by the 3rd trip, the traffic constable who toils away at 1 in the afternoon in May-June of Chennai, the good Doctor who labours at General Hospital Chennai for 60 hours a week largely because he has something to offer. (This is my way of paying tribute to the three that I have come across. If you are that 6-foot 4 inches tall young traffic policeman doing duty near Valluvar Kottam and Ispahani center, take a bow. The other two would not care much even for this tribute). These guys fight hard, fight quite, stay low profile, pride themselves in staying low profile, do not do a pay-off analysis and keep turning up and contributing. 

This bunch is shrinking. The next generation has not turned up yet. This bunch is shrinking because their children are earning enough for them not take cr*p in a low paying job. But this is not the end of story. Every community reinvents itself. The sad part is that India's next generation is not fit to do anything. 

India's demographic dividend is one of the things some macro analysis moron who has not seen any part of India cooked up in one lazy afternoon's "work". India's demographic nightmare is what we see everyday. My country's twenty-somethings average IQ is still stuck in the 80's. The joke is on. As Warren Buffett said "it is only when the tide goes out that we know who has been swimming naked". 

When I was with Credit Suisse, the geniuses came up with this idea of writing a report on intangible infrastructure - the sweat and blood and people and little pieces of detail each institution holds, way beyond the story of bridges and schools. I haven't the faintest idea how arm-chair specialists would ever do this. But hell, if there was a demand for it, and sufficient pontification can be packaged suitably, then an I-Bank has a right to go for it I guess. The intangible infrastructure of India is disappearing, and rapidly.

Schools have worse teachers, hospitals have worse doctors and nurses. Amounts of money on offer will not make the old-timers come and extend their careers by 10 more years. The next gen is drunk. Schools have smart classrooms, colleges can record their lectures and store in a hard-drive, hospitals can now afford any fancy equipment. But if the lecturers know bugger all, all of this counts for pishtosh. We can all go to posh schools and learn nothing. It wont show now if all our grades are inflated to be way beyond pre-modern-India levels. All of these ideas are so myopic that I am scared about when the tide does go out. And if the tide can go out on Greece, India cannot be that far away. 

Then there is governance, of which we have had none of in the past 10 years or so. We have become complacent, says the Economist. Complacent? Of what? Of the fact that we might finally be in a position to be considered to have potential? I remember the day when one of the professors was livid at our T-Shirt that said "Nothing left to prove". What we guys then dismissed as typical cantankerousness now resonates far better with me.

Now, beyond all this, there is a certain smugness that grates even more. As a nation we mirror the body language of Harbhajan Singh than Rahul Dravid. Understated is now just an old-fashioned word. I feel as if I am about 50 now. I am not able to identify with anything the young in my country do. All of the national institutions - ISRO, IITs, have all achieved nothing of note in the past 2 decades. Yet we bask in all this reflected glory of claiming our place in this globalized world.

What does all this have to do with Indianness, the idea that I wanted to discuss in the first place?. What does this have to do with my idea of being Indian? The answer to this it does matter an awful lot. I find myself subscribing less to this version of Indianness than the previous gen lesser-achieving India.

This piece that I read in the Open Magazine was a real eye-opener. This is an extraordinary piece, a stunning write-up if ever there was one. It should be mandatory reading for every Indian who can read (which sadly enough is a fairly low number) Almost everything the gentleman says is true. Down to the tragedy where a young boy's limbs go missing to the fact that we are 95 percent people (just that as a mathematician I think he is overstating the number).

It is with great sadness that I confess that I am not that proud to be Indian. I will still probably go down fighting for motherland, as the vestiges of pig-headed devotion to nation are still stuck somewhere in my system, but now I can unequivocally say that this version of "Indian" that the world will  come to see is not one I would wish to be known as.  It is with a reasonable amount of regret that I accept that my fantasy "Indian" and the real "Indian" barely overlap. What I would want my country to be seen as and what it will inevitably be seen as are miles apart.

Now, this leads us to a series of new questions. Should my idea of being "Indian" be inextricably linked to what "Indian" means at that point of time? Can the idea of nationalism be a function of time? Can I be a fair-weather Indian? Does the fact that my feeling of being Indian is linked to how well "Indian" is defined suggest that I am somehow less patriotic than my unquestioning compatriots?

I am disinclined to agree to the last notion. The idea of competing patriotism is abhorrent and dangerous (and has often sowed the seeds for war). Built into the idea of devotion is the premise that one can disagree with the nation, that one can feel peeved at where the nation is going. The following two quotes convey the ideas of patriotism very well.

Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance.  It is also owed to justice and to humanity.  Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.  ~James Bryce

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
James A. Baldwin

Going beyond the idea of even patriotism,individuals who assess their lives by what they have contributed are the ones that achieve the most. And in most cases, what one accomplishes is perhaps more critical than where this achievement is. My country in its current state does not provide the setting for talented individuals to achieve much. For the past many weeks, I have been combating arbitrary power shut-downs because someone in my state forgot that electricity needs to be generated in order for people to run their businesses and lives. I have restarted my PC thrice because low voltage killed off the desire my UPS had in hoarding and re-sending power.

I guess many individuals ask themselves two questions (at least in their moments of introspection). Am I I doing enough with my life? Who is benefiting from my existence?

Somewhere in the answer to the second question sits the idea of "my country". But the very idea of going to the second question is valid only if the answer to the first question is satisfactory. Just like how distribution comes after growth, contribution comes after creation. Every ambitious individual's first allegiance is to excellence, then can come contribution. Only the guys who have unquestioningly chased excellence have meaningfully contributed anything.

I would go to the extent of saying that contribution can be damned if excellence is achieved. An individual who achieves excellence in chosen field is in and of himself/herself something to be cherished. This is why Viswanathan Anand is a genius. He should be revered. Any individual who chases excellence deserves to be encouraged. Any factor inhibiting this pursuit of excellence is an encumbrance. Even if it is the notion of nationalism/patriotism.

Right now, my country accords one the luxury of living in an illusion. Barring this, it offers little. There is not much joy in even being a part of the invisible minority. Any pursuit of excellence can and will have a component of somehow beating the system.

A few years ago, I told myself that I would slowly dissuade friends of mine from working in the financial sector and ask them to try something else (built into this something else was the idea of something else in India). There is no greater waste of talent/a life than looking at excel sheets and conning people in the name of derivatives. I am still going to do that. But I am going to tell them to find something useful to do wherever they are. There is no rush to return to India. India can wait for your contribution (India does not seem particularly interested in it anyway). What one can achieve cannot be at the price to be paid for achieving something in home country.

The optimist in me still thinks that things go in cycles, and somewhere down the line my dear country will see some light, climb down from the high horse and actually do something of note (apart from screaming from rooftops). Until then, dear friends plug away wherever you are. I will shout from a rooftop the moment I feel that the country is ready to let you contribute.