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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Parents role critical to India’s modernity

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. Recently, I was heartbroken to hear him utter the words “internal sorrow,” not once but twice.
As I got thinking about his condition, I couldn’t help but marvel at how closely it parallels the condition of contemporary India which is bereft of wisdom from the past, without any vision of the future; just living in the here and now.
India is in a state of dementia, largely because of the here-and-now culture that has taken root since the turn of the millennium. It is hard to discern if there is anything to learn 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 witnessed the unseemly spectacle of a child fooling around with a lawn umbrella, changing its incline in dangerous ways while his mother shoveled food into his mouth. Likewise on a Spicejet flight a few weeks ago, a mother diverted her bawling son’s attention by allowing him to play with the call button that summons the stewardess. Both mothers taught their sons to be oblivious of other people who might be disturbed, and diverted their attention rather than discipline them.
Such children — rich, poor, educated or illiterate — grow up into inconsiderate adults who have no restraints on public behaviour and ignore the need to respect the privacy and well-being 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.
Such child rearing practices have bred a uni-dimensional culture, 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 hallmarks of such a culture.
In the grip of this demented culture, India is increasingly rich but less modern; increasingly powerful but less civilised. And government, politics, 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 smooth flow of traffic. He looked me squarely in the eye and said: “I could have 5 million traffic cops on the streets but still you will not have order; our culture breeds chaos.” More recently another senior policeman stated 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 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 seers like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sathya Sai Baba can restore values and bring order into public life.
Messianic zeal in indian public affairs is the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, who acquiesced to the title ‘Mahatma’ in his lifetime. He was indeed a great soul who challenged and ultimately defeated the British Raj. But the Mahatma had a lifelong problem with modernity. His book Hind Swaraj, was a diatribe against modern culture, which he equated with westernisation. His retort on Western civilisation, (“I think it would be a good idea”) remains in my mind, the tipping point in his conversion from political strategist to Mahatma. With that flippant remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which 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 off.
The key to India’s modernisation is education. Today, parents demand “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 socialisation is inculcated in students.
What’s more, parents fail to understand that “success” does not flow simply from being “well-educated”. Equally important is for children to be “well-bred”. This means that children should not just be knowledgeable and bright but also aware of their civic responsibilities: don’t drive like lunatics, don’t litter, don’t caterwaul, give thought to others and be courteous.
Above all, parents need to inculcate in their children pride in the neighbourhood, city, and nation (though not the stunted nationalism that the hindutva hordes propagate). Children can be well-educated through schools, but well-bred only through parents who hold the key to India’s modernity.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://www.educationworld.in, February 8, 2011.)