Friday, October 20, 2006

From Bombay

From Bombay

I am traveling through Bombay, and can’t help share a few observations. This teeming, bustling city, despite its bad traffic, pollution (although it is nothing compared to Hong Kong or Beijing), and other not-yet-a-middle-income-country constraints, is a study in the addictive energy of an emerging power. Everywhere one sees signs of growth—more jobs being advertised, more malls being built, more cars on the road, more opportunities and excitements bubbling away—one can even feel it in the air (literally tonight, as the night sky is lit with the fireworks of the Diwali festival). The newspapers are replete with stories about salaries climbing higher, new mega building projects (mostly private) on the cards, and about societal tensions that invariably come with dizzying growth. What an intoxicating time to be in this part of the world!

Another sign of India’s growing stature is one that is at once interesting and foreboding. Even 10-15 years ago a visitor from the West to South Asia would be invariably faced with numerous questions about life in the First World, with eager, wide eyed students wanting tips for going to the Europe or the U.S. for higher education. No ones asks such questions anymore; there are plenty of opportunities at home, and hence why bother look Westward when everything that matters is going on here. This is by all means a good development, but unfortunately this has also come with an increasingly inward looking mentality. Indians, emboldened by their economic might, seem to care only about themselves. The daily newspapers that run 40-50 pages seldom devote more than a couple of pages to world affairs. Sitting here, Iraq is a paragraph, North Korea is a footnote, and the plights of those in Darfur or West Bank are simply invisible. Instead, Indians chew on their domestic issues (admittedly, there are many, many of those). The TV channels debate malfeasance of Indian politicians (Abrahamoff and Folley, who are they??), Indian terrorism (should the guilty in the Parliament attack case be hanged?), and Indian clash of cultures (caste questions continue to bedevil politics and society; Islamic law’s role in the jurisprudence is increasingly debated). Questions like what’s happening to the Republicans and Bush, what’s in store for Blair and Brown, are distant, irrelevant, and unfashionable.

I am happy that Indians are busy with themselves, but I fear that India is not preparing well to fit in its increasingly larger boots. By considering outside developments unimportant, India risks becoming a more insensitive neighbor, a shy player in world affairs, a people not willing to learn from others and not interested in helping others, and at its worst—an arrogant bully aware of its weight but uncaring of its impact. When I see A 50-page daily paper devote not a single inch to developments in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Nepal (all four neighboring countries had newsworthy items today), or for that matter hardly any coverage of East Asia or the Middle-East, I worry about India’s sense of its neighborhood. When I see 80 channels on the Indian cable TV lineup, a dozen of which are news-related, and still can’t find out after three hours of viewing what happened in Sudan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iran, or Ecuador today, I feel a bit uncomfortable. As Indians earn more, enjoy more, and gain power to influence more, I want them to open their eyes to the world around them, not only as market places where they can make a buck (they have already been doing that), but as societies and cultures which they can help, as well as learn and benefit from.

P.S. One place Indians remain worldly is sports. I can’t think of any other place in the world where one can watch as much live cricket, tennis, Formula One, NFL, NBA, European and Premier League Soccer as in India. Just got back from a lovely evening at the Cricket Club on India where Sri Lanka handily beat New Zealand. Now if I could only find out what’s happening at the political front in either countries!


kitab said...

Excellent post, Shadhu. The Indian media's inwardness is indeed a malady which, while understandable during the country's forty year long colonial hangover and autarkic bedrest - is no longer excusable. First, it creates a schizophrenia vis-a-vis the West: all the West's material embellishments are eagerly aspired to, while all the important political and values-based debates occupying the West - universal human rights, torture, the limits of sovereignity, the integration or exclusion of minority groups; issues that India grapples with daily and would thus benefit from following elsewhere in other contexts - are ignored. Thus the West becomes regarded as a one-dimensional machine for the production of wealth, while the political, economic and societal underpinnings of that machine remain unscrutinized. And second, the silence regarding the West is a cacaphony compared to the coverage given to the entire African continent: a sad state of affairs in a country aspiring to the mantle of champion of the developing world. The New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, at least pay lip service to Africa, reporting occasionally (though hardly enough) on Darfur, the war in Congo, the unending saga of Ethiopia and its neighbours. The Times of India and the Indian Express remain eloquently uninterested.

shadhu said...

Kitab, how do you see this situation unfold in the coming years? Also, do you read the Hindi or any other local press? How do the vernacular papers act? I am in Dhaka now, and I see that the Bengali press here devotes substantial space to foreign (read Western; Afirca and Latin America might as well be in Mars) themes.

kitab said...

I'm optimistic that as India develops and opens to the world further, there will be a similar opening of the press to non-desi affairs.

The vernacular press is, if anything, even more insular than the English national dailies. The regional language press tends to confine itself to national and sub-national topics.

RG said...

During my last visit to India, I was struck by the considerable chest thumping that I saw among some in the upper middle class, though there was much less of it among the rest of the population. I am not sure that I would lament the absence of international news as much, but I take your point on being sensitive to neighbors. Humility is essential, all the more so as India seeks to progress.

kalle anka said...

i wouldn't be too worried about india. sounds just like the superpower still in charge. try gettng "world" news in the capital of the U.S. of A... but who am i telling this. so international political ignorance can be bliss, and certainly not be in the way of supersizing. what i am worried about is the world, and in particular all those far and distant neighbors. again, the U.S. of A. is a textbook example of what happens if an elephant prances around in that old china shop, blindfolded, but vigorously waving TNT (tusks 'n' trunk). so how do you say "yeehah" in hindi?

Gil said...

This is a fine post! I dare say you're right about the Indian press's growing parochialism. Still, I've got to say I've found it to be less solipsistic than its American counterpart. So often the "world news" page in mainstream US newspapers consists only of stories about what Americans are doing abroad (coverage of both Gulf Wars I and II has too often been little more than reports of American military operations and casualties). And if the world news page does deign to report on people other than non-Americans, it's often in the context of some "amusing" or "shocking" story that proves how primitive, unhygienic and dangerous non-Americans are (Indonesia Braces For New Bird-Flu Epidemic! French Woman Who Had Face Bitten Off By Dog Has Face Transplant! Man in Mali May Have Mated With Monkey! ). As for the travesties that go by the name of "World News" on the major US television networks, the less said the better.

By contrast, the mainstream Indian Anglophone print media seem to offer more in the way of analysis and commentary on international affairs. Yes, The Times of India has fallen off notably in the years I've been visiting the country; but I think The Hindu offers reasonable international coverage. Still, you may well be right in claiming that the Indian press is much more nationally self-regarding than it used to be. I guess I don't really have enough experience to know.

I wonder, though: if there has indeed been an increase in attention to domestic rather than international affairs, is it simply due to growing arrogance or national self-regard? The Indian press I've read seems to be doing a lot of overdue soul-searching on a variety of issues that I suspect may have been finessed or swept under the carpet during the bright-eyed idealism of the Nehru years, the horrors of the Emergency, and the first giddy wave of "modernization" (and then "nuclearization"). If newspapers are now energetically debating such domestic issues of caste, religious sectarianism, and resettlement of adivasis for the sake of technological "improvement" projects, that seems to me a sign of national health rather than arrogance or self-regard. Naa?