Facebook Badge

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