Growing pains

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India deals with its rapid foray into the age of development at its own pace. TIM BLIGHT reports

When invited to a party, we select our outfits carefully. It must represent the person we are, and it often says something about who we want to be. Above all, it must be appropriate for the occasion. Earlier this year, four men and one woman took such care when selecting their outfits for a do to which they were invited in New Delhi . The woman had her hair done, and wore a smart blazer and slacks. Three of the men wore traditional business suits, and arrived clean-shaven. However one man, the host incidentally, did not cut his facial hair, as it conflicted with his religious beliefs, and he wore a Nehru-style jacket which he probably felt reflected his native culture. India ’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh mightn’t have given it much thought, but his appearance at the fourth BRICS summit was a declaration to the world that he is a proudly modern, global Indian. But beneath India ’s bold exterior lies a conflict – one which the leaders of the other four BRICS nations might have pondered as they sipped their foreign-owned bottled water. They might have contemplated it because they face it in their own nations. As India emerges on to the world stage, how does it deal with the growing pains of development?

I see this conflict in my daily life in Chennai. I wait for what seems like an eternity while an older or non-urban Indian, hesitates, dares, then hesitates again before getting on an escalator. Their more “mod” fellow shoppers watch on with intrigue, tinged with amusement or disdain – sometimes both. Workers sit in air-conditioned offices and deal with affluent Westerners before boarding dilapidated buses and dealing with clogged, pot-holed city streets. Maidservants, on their rare days off, watch television programs which depict a life which they could only imagine. Young men go to plush cinemas to watch item girls perform dances in revealing outfits that their sisters would never be allowed to wear. And the growing middle class, while waiting behind Miss “Behenji turned mod” to board the escalator, are carrying a microwave oven which they’ll install in a kitchen with unfinished tilework. In six months, that same microwave oven will be used solely to store the toaster in.

Scenes like these (still) leave me somewhere between astonished amusement and cynical depression. Amused because of the absurdity of so much of it, and depressed because of how many people’s dreams aren’t being fulfilled. The question at the heart of all of this is, what will it take for the dream and promise of modern India to be fulfilled? And does modernity mean abandoning what we hold dear? Last year I waited two months for a washing machine to be delivered. First it was held up at the factory, then it was held up by a truck strike, but all along I was assured that it was on its way. Six weeks later I was asked whether I wanted a washer or a dryer; a question which confirmed a suspicion which I’d held from the beginning. Everyone I told about it smiled and said, “Well, this is India !”, a sentiment which I fully appreciated; I never expected that life in India would run like clockwork. But I doubt that many multinationals investing in India would share my patience and sense of humour. And moreover, should one expect things to run like clockwork in India ? After all, “this is India !”

So should they change, or should we? Or to put it bluntly, does India want to claim ‘lateness’ as a cultural characteristic? How much ground should India concede before defending ‘the way things are done here’? India has faced many perceived cultural threats before – from the Mughals to the British – but could globalization be the threat which conquers local culture? History says no, but things are changing so quickly over here that it’s difficult not to at least wonder. Last year a movie named Delhi Belly pushed the envelope in terms of what is acceptable on screen – an assault on Indian culture, we were told. Before that it was the item song Sheila ki Jawaani. However, a viewing of those and other boundary-pushing media reveals something interesting; while they are defiantly modern, they are certainly not Western. In fact ‘Sheila’ is a bit of a throwback to the dancing girls of old, made-over for a new generation, and Delhi Belly is a realistic (if not always palatable) portrayal of contemporary India ’s youth. It leads me to conclude that, like in times past, India will modernize, but on its own path. Traditions will be modernized, not forgotten. Globalisation will accentuate, not destroy, local culture.

On their way back to Indira Gandhi International Airport , the four visiting BRICS delegations would have passed temples to both Hinduism and consumerism. They would have seen rickshaw drivers playing games on their Blackberries. They might have noticed a rash of gyms and health clubs full of affluent Delhiites sweating away to the latest Bollywood hits. And somewhere along the road, they might have passed a taxi carrying an NRI family and their children into town after the long flight from Australia . Inside, the parents are rather impressed, somewhat confused, and more than a bit shocked at what modern India is becoming, and their teenage children think it is just awesome!

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