Wednesday, January 4, 2012

India Charming Chaos

In October 2011, I wrote this foreword to the book India Charming Chaos by Johnny Fincioen. It is a general presentation of first impressions of India by an unprepared traveller who just followed his nose, or his intuition. Fincioen (1952) and his wife are a successful Flemish-American entrepreneurial couple who in midlife decided to take it more slowly with the IT business. Like for so many others, an exploration of all that life has to offer soon turned out to include the mystical wonderland India. I read the report of their discovery and contributed

Why go to India? Johnny Fincioen, Flemish-American businessman, has found out for himself simply by giving it a try. What he found is a fascinating country going through a cascade of changes. After the Indomania waves of the 19th century and the 1960s and 70s, India is hot once more.

In Antiquity, India was a fabulous land in the distance, reputedly home to unicorns and gold-digging giant ants. The Arabs considered her the center of wealth and knowledge, source of the rakmu’l-Hindi, “Indian numerals”, which we have mis-termed “Arabic”. Places of wealth and luxury tend to come into use as girl’s names, thus in English the name of the South-African diamond mine Kimberley, and the Arabs did likewise with Hind, name of the homeland of gemstone culture, India (e.g. Prophet Mohammed’s principal enemy, Mecca’s first lady Hind bint Utba). When the trade routes to the riches of India were made difficult and expensive by hostilities with the Muslim world, Europeans sought detours to India, discovering America along the way and calling its natives “Indians”. At the dawn of India’s absorption into the colonial system, the subcontinent accounted for 24% of world trade, surpassed only by China with 31%, but way ahead of the European powers.

The first modern peak in India’s popularity in the West coincided with her economic decline, when the country was being plundered by the British East India Company, its technology used in the industrial revolution but its native production capacity dismantled, its native education system dissolved, its ruling class reduced to a colorful parody of its former glory, its working class impoverished. But in those days, the type of people who cared to leave us their impressions of India and Indian civilization in writing were typically more interested in her cultural dimensions, whether the gory anecdotes about snake charmers and widow self-immolation or the profounder philosophical insights that inspired Arthur Schopenhauer and the American Transcendentalists.

The second peak coincided with India’s postcolonial stagnation, when its people’s dynamism and creativity was stifled by Nehruvian socialism. Entreprise was made very difficult and people taking business initiatives were practically treated as criminals. The country’s name had become a byword for extreme poverty and hopelessness. Westerners who took the hippie trail to India accepted as normal that India had very poor hygiene and underdeveloped communications, with begging lepers on every street corner. To add insult to injury, the international public routinely lauded the controversial Mother Teresa as the only hope for India’s poor, thrown into the gutter by India’s callous upper classes.

The Cambridge-trained socialists who had imposed their detrimental policies on India rationalized the resulting stagnation by labeling it “the Hindu rate of growth”, as if economic underperformance and inertia were intrinsic characteristics of the native civilization. The received wisdom as conveyed in the ethnic jokes India’s neighbors tell about Indians always told a different story: they may be depicted as greedy, hung up on bizarre purity taboos, manipulative and other less commendable traits, but nobody ever doubted their business acumen. A reality check was provided by those Indians who had escaped the Nehruvian experiment: migrating to Africa or the Anglo-Saxon countries, taking much of their traditional culture along, they amazed their host societies by their successful entrepreneurship. Margaret Thatcher called them the “model minority”. They also took a leadership role in brain-intensive endeavors like specialist medicine and innovative technologies.

In 1992, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh (PM at the time of this writing) made a fairly clean break with Nehruvian socialism. As a result, India started emancipating itself from sloth and poverty. The success story of the diaspora is now reproducing itself in the old country. Like in the precolonial age, India is now a land of budding wealth and opportunity.

At the same time, some old and enduring problems refuse to go away, or are even getting worse. Divisions along religious, linguistic and caste lines are eagerly played up by interested parties. And these are not always the ones identified as trouble-makers in the mainstream media. Thus, many self-styled human-rights watchdogs and do-gooder NGOs, both native and foreign, are more part of the problem than of the solution. Often they are agents of social strife and promoters of artificial resentment, sometimes also conduits of foreign interference. Economic progress has its trickle-down effects to many poorer communities, but also has its left-behinds, such as the farmers who see no way out of their accumulating debts except suicide. Just as the end of Communism didn’t bring the predicted “end of history” at the geopolitical level, the demise of Nehruvian socialism doesn’t mean that the history of India’s struggle with itself has ended.

Meanwhile, for foreign travelers, India has become far more comfortable than the hippie trail of yore. Cleaner, safer (if you stay out of the guerrilla-infested areas), more orderly, far easier to get around, fully up-to-date on ICT. Fortunately or unfortunately, the country has also become less foreign, less Oriental, less exotic: Western cultural models are penetrating the country along with material culture, English is more dominant than ever to the detriment of the status of the vernaculars, and on the Western side, Indian cuisine and music have become familiar even to those who never took a particular interest in India, while many have made acquaintance with Indian-born neighbors and colleagues. The country has also become less hostile to “the foreign hand”, the bogey that used to be invoked to ban foreign participation in India’s industry, markets, media and research facilities. So, while still different enough to be worth seeing, it has become much easier to feel at home there. There are no excuses anymore for postponing your trip to India.

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