I came across this piece in the recent issue of Granta and it made for depressing reading.

Capital Gains by Rana Dasgupta

I was not quite sure what about it really cut to the quick. I am still not sure.

Perhaps it is some sort of romanticism about a world in the past that cared for something more than just material wealth, brand awareness, consumer choice and flash. But I have read Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities and know well that such a world never existed. There is a surprising continuity in man’s perpetual search for the banal, the bombastic and the brilliantine!

Perhaps it was that it reminded me so much of the Karachi that i grew up in – vapid, empty, all show and no go, where men were hot air and women simply decorative pieces to be shown and then discarded to their domestic nothingness. Pakistan succumbed to the seductions of the ‘free market’ i.e. open to foreign products and killing all its own, far earlier than India did. And all throughout my early years I would envy India’s independence, her ability to stand on her own feet, achieve engineering and national achievements through her own efforts. While Pakistan was for sale to the highest bidder. Probably another romantic delusion, but certainly with some truth to it. Pakistan became a ‘client’ state back in the 1960s, whereas India was always the independent, confident, self sufficient and not cowed by power structures from without.

But Dasgupta’s piece bought back memories of that earlier Karachi I disliked and feared so much. Today it is a hollow city, its inhabitants without culture, their eyes turned towards ‘the West’, desperate to make their children the equivalent of modern day Janissaries, as the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid once called my generation. A generation raised in Pakistan to be sold to the highest bidders (academic, corporate) in the Western world. If you don’t know, the Janissaries were a force made from abducted sons from conquered countries, and then sent back to those countries to act as soldiers and administrators.

Is India becoming a Pakistan i.e creating an entire class of people who have effectively seceded, as Arundhati Roy once argued from the rest of the nation?

Tarun, the editor of the amazing Tehelka magazine is quoted in this piece as saying:

‘No one cares,’ he says. ‘There are no ideas except the idea of more wealth. The elite don’t read. They know how to work the till, and that’s it. There’s nothing: we are living in the shallowest decade you can imagine. Rural India, that’s 800 million people, has simply fallen out of the master narrative of this country. There should have been an enormous political left in India, but people worship the rich and there’s no criticism of what they do. They face no consequences; they live in an atmosphere of endless possibility.’

The conflicts in Pakistan are not seen as class wars, but they are. I recently wrote a post called Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging of War about how foreign journalists/reporters are confused when it comes to reporting about Pakistan. Few realize that the rise of insurgencies and voices of sectarian political allegiances are veils that hide large scale class conflicts that have not be resolved in the country.  India’s conflicts in the West (Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Chattisgarh etc.) are class conflicts as well, as reporter Jason Motlagh has recently written in Conflicts Within.

In Pakistan the deprived (and they are not necessarily the poor, simply the cheated, fooled and ignored) are asking for their share, and using religion (in Swat for example) and nationalism (in Baluchistan for example) to fight for their share of the pie that is otherwise in the hands of a minority, venal, wealthy class that just does not care!

I will say that while reading this piece I was irritated by the suggestion that this mindless affinity for wealth and its display, the indifference towards the environment or broader societal welfare needs (education, health care etc.) is some sort of Hindu problem. Such suggestions are simply racist – there is just no other term for it. They are reductive, simplistic, and label hundreds of millions of people from varied class, culture, ethnicity etc. with a broad brush. Many object to such language when it comes to Africans, or Muslims, or Arabs. I can’t accept it here and we should not either.

The greed of man, the banality of man, does not need a religion or a universal spiritual outlook. I mean, has anyone been to Dubai recently? Money and consumerism have reduced that nation to a catatonic bonhomie that I believe would easily diagnosed by a professional as ‘diseased’! It continues to surprise me  the ease with which we speak to the general but rarely ever acknowledge the shared; human greed and frivolity is universal and has nothing to do with religious outlooks or philosophies. If anything, the religions are easily (too easily!) woven into our human preferences and values most of the time anyways – its called cultural adaptation and adjustments!

What is happening in Delhi is real of course. But its not just Delhi – it will happen in every city of India if its not already that way. I would argue that anyone who knows the history of India, particularly the show and pomp of its most recent collection of rulers; the British, The Mughals, the Hyderabadi dynasty etc. will know what pomp and bombast are. Are we truly in a moment of unique crassness and indifference? I am not so sure. And Its not unique to India either. Its China. Its Islamabad. Its Doha. Its Milan. Pankaj Mishra wore eloquently about this India in a piece in The Guardian some months ago.  I remember this paragraph:

In India…the pursuit of economic growth at all costs has created a gaudy elite but also widened already alarming social and economic disparities. Facilities for health care and primary education have deteriorated. Economic growth, confined to urban centres, is largely jobless. Up to a third of Indians live with extreme poverty and deprivation. And militant communist movements have erupted in the poorest, most populous states.

When we arrive in India in a few weeks (aside: this essay was originally written for workshop students accompanying me to India in August 2009) we have to remember that we are entering a dynamic and modern India, but that the stories we will cover are the ones that are being lost in the hysteria of celebration and consumerism. There are many who are richer, but some argue, many more who have been left in the wake of this pursuit of wealth.

As journalists it is our responsibility to add the weight of our voices to that of the weak, to help balance the equation, and facilitate their access to rights, justice, and basic human needs. I think that Pankaj Mishra said it best, in a tribute he wrote for the late Babara Epstein (editor The New York Review of Books), when he said that:

…literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; … it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; … it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.

I don’t believe that any nation that ignores the welfare of all its citizens can succeed in the long run. I know this from my experiences in Pakistan – a very wealthy nation with levels of deprivation and poverty that leaves one reeling. Certainly in Sweden, where I have now lived for nearly 9 years, I can see possibilities I had previously not imagined; the achievements of a state that invests in the broad welfare of all its citizens is quite a sight to behold.

You can’t build a sky scrapper over weak foundations.