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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

India: Hostage to a Demented Culture

My father, who is in his 90s, suffers from dementia. As such, he has no memory of the past and no idea of the future. He lives in the here and now.

Just the other day, he fell and hurt his head. We took him to the emergency room at a local hospital, where the doctor examined him and declared him fit.

The nurses cleaned the superficial cut on his head and released him. In the interim, I was heart broken to hear him utter the words, “internal sorrow,” not once but twice.

As I got to thinking about his condition, I couldn’t help marvel how closely it parallels the state in which India finds itself: without any wisdom from the past, without any vision of the future; just the here and now.

The words “internal sorrow” are often expressed and lived out in the myriads of petty conflicts and self-centered postures.

India is in a state of dementia, largely because of the here-and-now culture that has taken hold since the turn of the millennium. It is hard to discern if there is anything learned from the past or if there are any plans for the future. And let’s not blame just the government or politicians; the citizenry has a lot to answer for.

At a recent lunch in the Delhi Golf Club, I saw the unseemly spectacle of a child fooling around with the lawn umbrella, changing its incline in dangerous ways while his mother shoveled food into his mouth; or on a Spicejet flight a few weeks ago, where a mother, diverted her bawling son’s attention by allowing him to play with the call button that summons a stewardess.

Both taught their sons to be oblivious of other people who might be disturbed and diverted their attention rather than discipline them.

Such children grow up to be inconsiderate adults, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, who have no restraints on public behavior and the need to be alive to the privacy and wellbeing of others. Thus, on an automated walkway at Delhi’s dysfunctional Terminal 3, a couple, obviously well educated and affluent, walked abreast, not giving way, unmindful of me right behind them, in a hurry to get to the gate where my flight had been called.

These child rearing practices have bred a uni-dimensional culture. Such cultures are demented in the sense that only a self-serving present matters; there is no learning from the past, no dimension of a better future other than instant gratification. Barbaric rituals and hypoglycemic hypocrisy are the hallmarks of such a culture.

In the grip of this demented culture, India is increasingly rich but less modern; increasingly powerful but less civilized. And government and politics and corruption and inequity have little to do with it.

Some years ago, I complained to a senior police official about the inability of his force to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I could have five million traffic cops on the streets but still you will not have order; the culture seems to breed chaos.”

More recent: another senior policeman told me last week the problem is that despite clear-eyed laws, “we are told to encourage consensus even in the face of flagrant violations.” In other words, “adjust!”

Yet, civil society groups, the media, the business elite and the intellectual set would have us believe that the system works but is subverted by corrupt businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. The arguments are essentially messianic based on a belief that ascetic figures like Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare; brand ambassadors like Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan or soothsayers like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Satya Sai Baba could restore values and bring order into public life

Messianic zeal in Indian public affairs is the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, who acquiesced in his lifetime to the title, “Mahatma.” He was indeed a great soul who challenged and ultimately defeated the British Raj.

Trouble is Gandhi had a lifelong problem with modernity. His book, Hind Swaraj, was a diatribe against modern culture, which he equated with Westernization. His retort on Western civilization, (“I think it would be a good idea”) remains in my mind the tipping point in his conversion from political strategist to the Mahatma.

In that flippant remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that brought modernity and economic prosperity to the West. Gandhi’s view of the West still has acolytes in 21st century India.

That is one reason why economic prosperity is there for all to see in India today; but modernity, defined as civil values stemming from a concern for others, is a long way away.

The key to India’s modernization is education. Today, parents demand a “good education” so their children can find steady, well-paid jobs in India and around the world. The system is geared to vocational, technical and management training; it does not provide a liberal arts perspective in which civility and socialization are inculcated in students.

What’s more, parents fail to understand that “success” does not come just being “well educated.” The most important thing is for their children to be “well bred.” This means that their children should not just be knowledgeable and bright but aware of their civic responsibilities: don’t drive like lunatics, don’t litter, don’t pee in public, give a thought for others and be courteous.

Above all, parents need to inculcate in their children pride in the neighborhood, the city, the country (not the stunted nationalism that the Hindutva hordes propagate). Children can be well-educated through schools but well-bred only through parents. They hold the key to India’s modernity.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, February 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011


Gopal Karunakaran said...

Dear Mr Desai,

Was reading your article in the education world this morning - went well with me - till your "flippant" comment on Gandhiji! Gandhi had a problem with modernity??!! That is a pretty shocking remark coming from the well bred - Gandhi was far more modern than many necktie wearing Indian gentlemen, ..... otherwise I do agree with your views on how poorly bred our kids are , especially rich kids in big cities...

Rajiv N Desai said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rajiv N Desai said...

Mr Karunakaran, please define "modern." The wearing of a necktie does not constitute modernity.
In Gandhi's "Hind Swaraj," he railed against modernity and western culture, which he viewed as interchangeable.

After the Pietermaritzburg incident, Gandhi became increasingly anti-Western, culminating in his truly obnoxious remark about Western civilization.

Also I notice you make the same sort of generalization about the rich. My comment is about all Indian children; not just the rich.

I'm glad though you responded. Debate and dissension are the lifeblood of democracy.

Please be sure to respond to my next blog, which has been inspired by your comment and which I shall post shortly.

EsKay said...

Rajiv it is a little unfair to take Gandhiji's opinions out of context. The West could hardly claim to be modernized and civilized till such time as it enslaved people all over the world. For a man negotiating the freedom of this country from people who thought Indians didn't deserve to be free, a criticism of the civilization that produced such thinking was hardly surprising.
But yes your anguish at the lack of civility in our public life is shared by all of us. Sadly, it has been my experience that education and globalization seemed to have had little impact on how we conduct ourselves in public.

Rajan P. Parrikar said...

Rem acu tetigisti.

In a weak moment around the year 2000, I had mused that the next generation of Indians would be different than the disastrous post-50 babu generation. I was wrong, and by a long shot.

Ivan Arthur said...

It is interesting that you should link dementia to our new tendency to jettison both past and future. This tyranny of the strict Present has in a way made wisdom and prophecy aliens in our times; not to mention T S Eliot, who said that the work of an artist ought to have the essence of the past in its bones, as it were, as also a vision of the future. While wisdom, prophecy and art seem to be expendable in these expedient times, good breeding and culture, the other offspring of the Past and Future lie stillborn in a here and now that culturally knows no ancestors and wants no progeny. Today you witness this dementia in the Goa that you and I love, where the innocence and gentility of the past have been swallowed up by the greedy opportunism of the moment fathered by a trashy tourism and venal politicians.

Rajiv N Desai said...


The point is Gandhi dismissed Western civilization, Englightenment, Renaissance and all, with a too-clever-by-half comment. Whatever you think about the West, it is unfair to dismiss the obvious achievements and contribution of its civilization in such a casual manner.

Rajan P. Parrikar said...

I have added a rejoinder to the Mahatma Gandhi discussion here -


(As I have said before, I concur broadly with Rajiv's observations re. modern India and Indians. The Gandhi issue, to my mind is a sidelight in this instance)

Rajiv N Desai said...


The problem in Goa is of a much lower order of magnitude than in the rest of India. Why do you think people want to come to Goa from other parts of India?

Rajiv N Desai said...


Thanks. I hadn't checked Goanet the past few days and was pleasantly surprised to see that my piece got a debate going. I especially loved your eloquent diatribe about me and the Gandhis; me and the "Kangress."

Rajan P. Parrikar said...


I enjoy your writings, and even though we are not on the same side of the political spectrum, there are many important areas where we converge. Very few Indians who have lived in the USA have made the intellectual investment to understand America, and it is refreshing to come across someone who has.

monk said...

Please forgive the short english i wud be using.

i read ur article and found it very good. I just want to say i am a very conservative thinking man. Like i still live in the 16th century. Mr. nehru once said " if a girl learns the family learns". this slogan was to motivate ppl to teach the girl child. many enthusiastically did that. but today i think this saying doesnot fit into the society. i dont want to blame the whole women community for wats goin on today in our society but yes its only them who created such problems. today children are very smart and intelligent but somehow they r more frustrated than i was in my childhood, they r not at all well behaved. As far as i think the first lessons any child learns from is mother and father, but today mom n dad r so busy earning money and reputation that they have ample money for kids but no time. this is the most important reason y todays youth is totally lost. Also this nuclear family concept is the biggest killer of all. Joint family the first place where u learn to share with others.
All they learn and see from their parents is how to give more and more value to financial well being than anything else. Get a hefty paying job after an mba is all wat the indian youth is thinking. but is it really that important. I somewhere once read " there is no meaning of success if u have no 1 to share it with".

Anonymous said...

I admire the man greatly, but putting Gandhi beyond criticism may prove to be a fatal error for our country. People like Tendulkar and Bacchhan should come out and rebuke the people for labeling them 'gods'. The problem with 'gods' is that they are beyond both emulation and criticism. We have effectively rendered them impotent, immune and invalid by conferring 'god' status on them. I admire Tendulkar, but only for his cricket(and his apparent meekness).

Rajiv N Desai said...

@monk: my point is that child rearing practices are the same, indulgent and diversionary, whether in rich families or poor.

@james: slavish followers; genuflective supporters; worshipful masses. they are all symptoms of the same disease: the yes-men culture!

Rony said...

Dear Rajiv,

Your blog was very incisive and true. Indian culture is basically feudal and follows a hierarchy where everyone's role is preset and defined by our elders and there is no room for questions or challenge. The West somehow managed to break this circle in their society and that is why they became adventurers, scientists, doctors etc. They traveled to unknown territories. In short they took risks. We need security and cannot take such risks, even with our thinking. Another point is that in India, the daily grind of life leaves very little time for people to introspect and innovate.


Rajiv N Desai said...

Rony, thanks for your comment. It is very perceptive. Please follow this blog and keep your comments coming.

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