The Real India
16 July 2011 @ 6:38 pm
What is the Real India? The big cities with a rising middle class, malls and glass-facade buildings? The massive slums that lie right next to them? The villages where people are content with what little they have? The same villages where farmers commit suicides everyday?
Rahul Gandhi thought he knew what the Real India was and famously showed it to the visiting British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. But unfortunately, that didn’t prove to the final word on this issue, in India or in Britain.
Two years ago, in my first lecture in grad school, when I answered a question about pressing energy problems with a statement about power shortage in India and the resulting rolling blackouts in the summer, I thought I was talking about “real India’s” problems. But I was promptly corrected by my compatriot that “that’s only in villages. Not in cities”. So, both Rahul Gandhi and I were wrong. Big cities without power cuts were the real India.
Wait no. Wrong again. I had another lesson on India when someone told me not to beach a boat a couple of feet from where I had originally taken it because “this is not India, you can’t leave things wherever you want”. So that’s it. Matter settled. Welcome to the Real India where you leave things wherever you want.
Not quite. A few years ago, the then middle-class India’s political poster child, BJP (and the National Democratic Alliance) thought the Real India was a glittery nation with an excellent road network. Clearly, not enough people believed that.
India Shining, on election posters. (Source: Outlook)
The last few years have been awash with news articles, magazine covers and TV news reports that all sang praises about India’s rise as an economic power. Throw in “Bollywood” and you have the new Real India — young, vibrant, confident and sexy. While Slumdog Millionaire-inspired coverage of slums in India was flavour of the season for a while, the media has been back to its sycophantic best of late.
That’s until Manu Joseph stepped in. Editor of the Open magazine, we wrote one article in the New York Times to make up for all that sycophancy. While he appreciates the efforts Indian journalists take to write positive stories about India, he ponders, “But is it possible to tell a happy Indian story, an honest, complete story, that would fill Indians with pride?” and has a ready answer : “There are happy Indian stories. As long as they are not fully told.” So finally, someone who is going tell the whole story about the Real India.
India, a software giant? Not at all says Manu. His “fully told” version is a chuckle-accompanied-comment from an unnamed “senior human resources executive with a call center in Gurgaon”:
The swanky office is to impress the foreign client. Some of our people who work inside, I know they would be happy in a cowshed.
There you go. Full story. Still not convinced? He’s got more:
Not surprisingly, thousands of kilometers away in the English city of Norwich, when a literary agent calls directory service for directions to a restaurant, she covers the phone and complains to a friend, with an expletive: “I’m connected to an Indian call center.”
Never mind the software story, what about the full story about India’s economic growth? That’s just “the consequence of the wealth of affluent countries’ successfully seeking markets that are so poor that they have the space to expand.” But India’s economy is growing at 8%, you say. Manu has an answer for that too : That can’t mean much, even Pakistan grows at the same rate.
He makes his strongest points in the field of sports. India won the cricket world cup, he concedes, but that’s the first time India did it since 1983. Once every 28 years is clearly no big deal.
Clearly “when a country’s tennis doubles players are national celebrities, as they are in India, you know that there is something wrong with its general sport talent”. Never mind their excellent doubles records. I wonder what he’d say of a nation where domestic sports players are national celebrities, especially those who are never completely retired.
So what is the Real India? Sorry I am telling you this at the end of this tirade, but I don’t know either. One thing I do know for sure is that there is no ONE Real India. That’s what makes India so complex — a billion + people, thousands of political parties, a middle class population the size of the US, a poor population that would be the third largest nation in the world on its own and yet ranking fourth on the list of countries with most billionaires!
Stop defending your version of India, people. It’s not real! And stop asking me if the curry-cows-caste version is the Real India. I’m done answering that dumb question.