Pankaj Mishra and Aman Sethi discuss the politics of aspiration, Narendra Modi and the future of journalism.

 

Aman,

Your recent articles on anti-Love Jihadism and the state of Indian manufacturing illustrate two aspects of the same phenomenon: a renewed national drive for power and cohesion. Many in India expect this to result in broader material improvements. In both cases, however, ideological and economic abstractions exist at a great remove from ordinary lives: the claims made for Indian manufacturing or violent hatred of Muslims and Christians are by no means guaranteed to bring about material benefits and emotional contentment outside of a very small group of people. They are very clearly ideological illusions, designed to prevent a real reckoning with actual, existing conditions – a world in which minorities cannot be suppressed beyond a certain point and manufacturing is increasingly automated.

I’d like to know, since you have been in the field researching these issues: to what extent do you find this belief in India as a miraculously Hinduized manufacturing powerhouse shared among the people you meet – workers, students, businessmen?

I ask because historically, hatred of the ethnic or religious other has spread fast when it is offered by demagogues as a compensation for economic failure or inadequacy; minorities are traditionally scapegoats in dysfunctional nation states. Hindu nationalists never managed to succeed for most of independent India’s history because most Indians uphold an everyday wisdom of coexistence. But a fantasy of India’s superpowerdom – unfulfillable for now but also shared by more and more people outside the middle class – has helped empower a crudely xenophobic Hindutva. The insidiousness of blood-and-soil nationalism resides in the fact that it feeds as much on economic setback as triumph. So whether Narendra Modi’s government succeeds or fails, it grows strong – for a while at least. This to me has seemed the biggest challenge since 1992 – the unstoppable rise of the sentiment of Hindutva, the feelings of historical victimhood and revenge, among a significant and growing minority, irrespective of the BJP’s electoral or political fortunes.

 

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Dear Pankaj

Outside of an election year, it is always very hard to assess the strength and popularity of any government, so I’m unsure of your assertion that ‘whether Narendra Modi’s government succeeds or fails, it grows strong – for a while at least’.

The wisdom (if it can be labeled such) in Delhi’s press circles is that in time, every government just becomes ‘the government’, and is viewed with the same cynicism and impatience as its predecessor. Narendra Modi is fortunate to have unusually hapless predecessors, but signs abound that Modi’s government too shall traverse this arc.

So to answer your question; I don’t think too many are holding their breath in wait for the emergence of a Six Sigma, Hindutva-compatible manufacturing powerhouse.

The Make in India campaign appears to be much like the Swachh Bharat campaign (which calls on Indians to clean their surroundings), and the #GiveItUp campaign (which calls on wealthy Indians to voluntarily give up their cooking gas subsidy): well intentioned and hard to oppose – after all, we already live in a dirty, import-dependent India in which the rich garner all the subsidies – but unlikely to accomplish much in the near.

The most common response to these pronouncements is along the lines of ‘Ab Modi ji kehte toh hai; dekhte hai kya hota hai’ (Mr. Modi says many things, but let’s see what happens).

The bigger question, I suppose, is if we are producing interesting narratives for those bored by the self-aggrandising pronouncements of the state.

In my writing, I fear becoming a prisoner of that which I critique. The state (and its affiliates, like Vijaykant Chauhan – the protagonist of my text ‘Love Jihad’) produce such hypnotic charge, that it forces us to constantly contest it on its own terrain, rather than to seek radical spaces elsewhere. This, perhaps, is my biggest concern with my two pieces on Vijaykant Chauhan and Make in India – that they describe a slightly claustrophobic world going to hell in a handcart.

Here, I confess, I have a bone to pick with you – not a femur-sized confrontation, but a humerus-proportioned discussion.

I have, of course, read and admired your writings, but in some of them – like the one in the Guardian just after last year’s election (‘Narendra Modi and the new face of India’) – I sense a creeping exhaustion with the circumstances of these modern times. You produce a dystopian, almost-paralysing vision of a sure-shot descent into fascism.

You pull back a bit towards the end, saying, ‘There is little cause yet for such despair in India, where the aggrieved fantasy of authoritarianism will have to reckon with the gathering energies below; the great potential of the country’s underprivileged and voiceless peoples still lies untapped.’

But the preceding narrative leaves no space for any productive gesture. Also, why must all hope lie with the underprivileged and the voiceless? Don’t they already have enough on their plate, without having to take on a project of national redemption? After all we – you and I – are paid to think up radical futures, as you point out in your piece on the need for a new enlightenment; and this will require imagining radically new ways of being – both in solidarity and in solitude.

I’ve spent the last month and a half in Yiwu, a trading town not far from Shanghai, exploring the export of cheap plastic commodities (think plush toys and plastic flowers) from China to India.

I’ve had the opportunity for limited conversations (through a translator) with a few factory workers, some factory workers turned bosses and young men involved in sourcing shiny plastic techno-baubles (power banks, data-drive key chains, Rubik’s cubes emblazoned with company logos) for the American corporate promotion sector.

I met a young man from Jaipur who lives in Santiago and visits Yiwu every few months to buy plastic products for his shop in Chile, and a young woman from Ghaziabad who has arrived on a six month mission to learn Mandarin and set up a business of her own.

I am struck by how these people (who are not rich or elite by any standard) live in worlds far more transient, cosmopolitan, porous and alive than a lot of writing about India conveys. Many workers I speak with see India as a spacious pen holding them captive in bonds of family, religion, and low-paid employment. Their interest in government policy, secularism and job security is that of inmates assessing a cell renovation: any comfort is always welcome, but the ultimate aim is to get out.

Labour aspires to a fluid mobility of its own – epic journeys spanning continents, but our narratives only produce heavy dreams of stability and voicelessness.

 

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Dear Aman,

I agree with your assessment of how quickly the promise of Modi’s government has faded: in fact, I wrote the day after Modi’s election that he may end up being as despised as Manmohan Singh (and we know that Singh was much adored in his own time), since he won’t be able to deliver on the extravagant promises he has made. I am actually concerned about the popularity of Hindutva among ever-widening circles of the Indian population – a process that is independent of how well the government performs its proclaimed tasks. Karl Polanyi once said that when the economy is disembedded from society and assumes a life of its own, forcing society to reconfigure itself to serve the economy, then civil society and individual liberty is menaced as never before. Some aspects of this process have indeed occurred in India since 1991.

It is hard to imagine today, especially for a younger population, an India where Hindutva had minimal influence, but I have witnessed its rise out of nowhere since the kar-seva campaign in the 1980s, and can say that helped by the economic modernization programme it inherited from the Congress it has transformed the basic tone and vocabulary of Indian society and politics in ways we have scarcely begun to understand. I remember how shocked I was travelling through India in the early 90s for my book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by the vicious contempt many people casually expressed for women and minorities. That kind of bigotry, which still seemed unusual in the 90s, has now gone both viral and mainstream through a steady process of legitimation. I mean, people in the Union Cabinet openly express it today with no risk of disgrace. And I worry that the failure of Modi’s government, which is inevitable, won’t by itself be enough to wean many away from the sweet and addictive poison of hate. In fact, failure can make it more seductive – the rancour-fuelled right-wing intellectual culture in India, for instance, is the creation of failed journalists and academics or wannabes whose sense of intellectual inadequacy periodically churns up into a malignant secretion.

Over the years, many people wrote off Hindutva, but it was consolidating its position in a way not reflected in election results. The promise of prosperity and power had already persuaded many middle class people to invest their faith in a national Lee Kuan Yew-type savior. Modi’s canny move was to project himself as a moderniser without breaking free of his core commitments to Hindutva. In many countries today, such as France or Britain, the far-right’s anti-minority agenda feeds on the center-right’s economic failures. The Hindutva camp is broad enough to encompass the agenda of both economic modernisation and xenophobia. It is a ruling formation that contains its own loyal opposition, and I fear that we may witness their alternation for a long time.

I share your fear of ‘becoming a prisoner of that which I critique’, and I don’t mean to make it even more acute, but it is hard to get away from the situations you describe – of the hate preacher and the illusory promise of economic redemption – because they have recurred repeatedly in history. You would have found characters like Chauhan in the Action Francaise, among the Japanese Black Dragons and the Italian Blackshirts, and you can find them in Israel today among Jewish fundamentalists trying to prevent intermarriage. It is India’s turn to undergo social traumas that other countries have suffered in their pursuit of wealth and power. The Indian situation may seem different, but it is part of a larger world crisis that begins in the nineteenth century with the export of imperialism, nationalism and global capitalism, and assumes a bigger scale today as various latecomers to modernity try to catch up with the West and find themselves vulnerable to its old pathologies. India doesn’t exist outside this global history and is not immune to its harsh lessons. History repeats itself, Marx said, first as tragedy, then as farce. But Chauhan and various shills for Hindutva are actors in a tragic farce. And, alas, we are forced to record their repetitive libretto, not just in India, but also in other parts of the world, where demagoguery thrives on the back of unfilfillable promises.

To turn to your description of labour emigrants in Yiwu – I can recognize your picture of an unselfconscious cosmopolitan coexistence. In Japan last month I met tilak-wearing Indian workers in a dosa shop owned by a Pakistani man, and wondered afterwards why this increasingly commonplace experience of fluid identities is absent from much writing. But we also know that capital has the edge over labour when it comes to international mobility, and that the latter is not really an option for the vast majority of Indians.

In any case, we haven’t had much writing about the peculiar psychology of the right-wing Hindu patriot either: for instance, the loud hatred of the West and simultaneous craving for affirmation from it. Large parts of Russian, German and Italian literature and social sciences deal almost exclusively with this underground man and his sinister hatreds and resentments.

That Guardian piece you mention also pointed to various cultural and political possibilities emerging in India today – and this Indian counterculture will only grow more vigorous in the years to come. We have already seen some great new journalism, cinema and art. If my article seemed especially bleak to you, then it accurately reflected the despair and anguish I felt at the time – at seeing figures like Modi and Amit Shah in power in Delhi, and realising that India didn’t really emerge largely unscathed from the catastrophe of the partition as a secular and democratic country, and that we have always been more prone to the pathologies of unresolved national identity, failed modernisation and rampant economism than we had allowed ourselves to think. The piece also placed a large part of the blame on the ruling classes that preceded Modi and set the stage for him, and here I must regretfully part company with you when you say that we – middle class intellectuals rather than the voiceless and the underprivileged – should imagine a new future. The bane of India in many ways has been top-down decision-making by unrepresentative and self-important intellectuals – and there the neo-Hindu right is largely correct in its diagnosis of unearned privilege and arrogance among Nehruvian elites. Last year, tribal villagers in Orissa decided against giving up their sacred mountain to a multinational mining corporation, and it seems much better that India’s many diverse communities define their present and future using whatever powers they can possess without prefab designs for national redemption imposed on them from above by metropolitan intellectuals.

Artists and intellectuals should continue to rigorously detail their perceptions of actuality, and challenge its distorted visions – and that is already a huge responsibility. Since Robespierre with his ill-digested Rousseau, the intellectual with his plans for socio-economic engineering has often proven to be a monstrous megalomaniac: vain, insecure and greedy for power – or fame, money and sex. We should really be cultivating a strong suspicion of this figure, without of course surrendering to any bogus wisdom of the people.

That said, I am curious about your own sense of what ‘radical spaces’ in Modi’s India could look like. I can see them opening up in countries with different temporalities – in Latin American societies or Greece and Spain, which have already undergone a disenchantment with fake promises, and where the kind of neo-liberal fantasies of broad-based prosperity that intoxicate many in India today have been exposed and widely scorned. However, your two recent articles on Love Jihad and manufacturing, Snigdha Poonam’s article ‘The Fixer’ and some other instances of first-rate journalism coming out of India largely trace the arc of a conventional kind of aspiration. I did see a radical space in your book A Free Man – the expanded imagination and sensibility of someone who makes a life for himself out of his very limited material resources. That may not be what you mean, but I have always been interested in this older idea of freedom that did not have to depend on continuous material improvement or even fixed social existence. Many of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century – from Kierkegaard to Tolstoy – were obsessed with it, because they sensed it fading away, replaced by more arduous forms of human fulfilment.

 

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Dear Pankaj

Thank you for your thought-provoking mail. I agree with you when you say that religious bigotry has become mainstream in a manner that must have seemed scarcely believable in the 80s. Here, for instance, is a tweet sent to Olacabs, a taxi aggregator, that – alas – seems fairly typical of the times we live in:

@Olacabs Being a Hindu i usually prefer Driver of Hindu Faith Only, Particularly in Hyderabad.. pls Give us a chance to Choose a Driver

And yes, a failure to deliver on economic promises is unlikely to convince Modi’s followers that the problem lies in his Hindutva politics, rather it is likely to result in a call from many to double down on the religious agenda. As you point out, we’ve seen this movie before, and it rarely ends well.

Yet if the likes of Vijaykant Chauhan reveal a Hindutva driven by persecution and encirclement, there is another side to its appeal – an appeal common to many political formations – which is the promise of a camaraderie of like-minded men (always men) blessed by occasional encounters with high-minded leaders.

Here, for instance, is a story I heard last week from a young trader from Bareilly, now living in China (I’ve reproduced what I can remember from our conversation):

‘It was the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first campaign for Prime Minister. I was a young student in college and, having caught the attention of the local BJP chapter, was asked to warm up the crowds at Atalji’s rallies.

‘The programme spanned several days and everywhere the routine was the same: we would reach the venue before Atalji, I would give a short speech to warm up the crowds, the local leaders would speak, and by the time Atalji would arrive to close out the rally, we were already on our way to the next venue.

‘Often, we were asked to stay back to listen to parts of Atalji’s speeches, and learn from his famed style of oratory. I was particularly entranced, to the point that at one venue, towards the end of the tour, I stood up at the rally and recited Atalji’s speech, which I must have subconsciously memorized.

‘“Who is this boy?” Vajpayee asked a companion, “Where is he from?”

‘“Atalji, he is just a college student from Bareilly,” a flustered local party worker said, “He has read your speech, now what should we do?”

‘“What can we do?” Vajpayee replied, “Hand me his speech to read.”

‘After that that tour, I never attended a day of college,’ the trader said. ‘My teachers didn’t say anything, they knew my connections went right up to the top.’

It had been a long and exhausting evening of work and conversation, but as he finished his story he lit up, as if bathed in the warm afterglow of this fantastical summer on the road in Uttar Pradesh when he accidentally read out Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech.

Clearly the task of imaging credible and exciting futures and politics is pressing and urgent; but our futures must produce fearlessness, rather than besiegement (by capital, by communalism, by patriarchy), and a reckless joy rather than nostalgia.

At this point, I’d also like to address your point about the seemingly conventional arc of aspiration in India, as compared to Greece, Spain or Latin America. Arcs of aspiration are hard to assess, practically impossible to map accurately, but easy to characterise from a distance – as one of film-maker Ang Lee’s protagonists says, ‘Is this all it is – Eat Drink Man Woman?’ – in the film of the same name. But as the film suggests – it is and it isn’t.

Before we get to discussing possible radical spaces I’d like to clarify my earlier comment on middle-class intellectuals/writers versus the working class. I certainly didn’t mean that the middle class has a monopoly on radical thinking. Far from it. I share your suspicion of the megalomania of self-important intellectuals, and your resistance to top-down planning/decision making.

My only point is that no one – irrespective of their class position – should abdicate the responsibility of imagining a new world.

Far too much Delhi discussion begins with a rigorous analysis of the material conditions at hand, a clinical assessment of the problem, and, ultimately, a warm consensus that the people shall find away – which they most certainly shall, but that doesn’t mean that critique can stand in for thought.

Let the working class think, and the middle class, and the elite, and let a conversation ensue – and yes, such a conversation is possible, and – in some spaces – is already underway.

An instance of a broad-based and fascinating conversation is the proliferation of blogs and broadsheets on labour and factory work that offer a new perspective on questions of work, labour organisation, manufacturing and wages.

These conversations between workers, students, activists, artists and journalists are evolving new forms of solidarity at a time when contract work has rendered the union obsolete. The starting point for many of these discussions comes from an oft-repeated question: If I’ve jumped through the hoops of school and vocational training, why am I stuck in a job that pays as little as daily-wage work?

One interesting theme to have emerged from these conversations is the growing camaraderie between young men and women in the workforce. The past year has seen a spate of factory occupations – often led by women workers and supported by their male colleagues. The demands are interesting – for instance, one protest I covered asked for a newspaper allowance of Rs. 1000 per year for every worker. (A demand sure to warm the heart of many a journalist.)

This leads me to a second space where a genuinely radical politics is emerging. I think the current conversation about gender and gender-violence is truly transformational, and holds great lessons for anyone disaffected with the status quo. Over the years, in frequently hostile conditions, Indian feminists have continually produced ever more interesting thought that has been informed by their immediate surroundings while engaging with a wider international conversation.

So when the horrific assault on a young paramedic in December 2012 ruptured patriarchy’s seamless surface, there was a wealth of thinking available to young people in search of a politics and a means to interpret their realities. Suddenly, conversations about gender are everywhere – noisy, raucous and subversive.

Adopting a feminist perspective (and here I must credit the writings of academics like Nivedita Menon and journalists like Nishita Jha) offers a skeleton key to pick numerous regressive and authoritarian locks, including the state’s most worrying tendencies from religious fundamentalism to the deployment of the army in Kashmir and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the north-east.

The BJP’s Love Jihad campaign in Uttar Pradesh, the utterances of their openly misogynist office bearers, and the violence of their affiliates quite possibly contributed to their defeat in the Delhi elections. Young people may buy into the economic aspirations that are common to all Indian political formations of some significance, but they are less and less tolerant of people who tell them what to wear and who to love.

Perhaps the biggest fear of the likes of Vijaykant Chauhan and his Muslim counterparts isn’t the Muslim/Hindu who seduces a Hindu/Muslim girl, but a young woman who knows her own thoughts and desires and consummates them without fear.

 

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Dear Aman,

The point you make about the need for masculine bonding and assertion is hugely important. The conservative male sensibility, whether in India or in the US, is deeply threatened by the empowerment of women, and its backlash takes many different forms, from overt violence to the micro-aggressions of everyday sexism. Its sense of siege is further aggravated by the demands the new culture of neo-liberalism places on individuals. I’ll come to that in a moment, but let me say first that I agree with you that it is hard to map arcs of aspiration in individual lives. There is always a lot more going on than anyone suspects; people are not identical with their assertions, there is always a gap between what they say and what they think, and that’s why we need good novelists – to tell us about the areas of ambiguity and self-deception in the human soul. But a society at large – or its most prominent self-representations – invites certain generalisations, and I think we can safely say that what has largely defined India since the 80s is a highly individualistic culture of aspiration, one that has coincided with neoliberal globalisation, and the writing produced during this period – both high and low, literary or social-scientistic, Chetan Bhagat or Katherine Boo – is primarily concerned with this phenomenon of a society fragmented by the private pursuit of an urban, highly consumerist way of life. Everything has been reconfigured by it – from gender relations and mental health to the environment and electoral politics (Modi in many ways represents its grim apotheosis).

In this sense, India has followed the trajectory of almost all nations, and acquired some of their features. If you chart the history of the modern world from the moment the United States in the nineteenth century began to assess the value of human life through success or failure in the individual pursuit of property, profit and status – the process so well-described by Tocqueville – and to universalise this worldview (essentially of settler-colonialists and immigrants in a new country), then India has also entered that global race of self-aggrandisement, however belatedly (ushered, not surprisingly, by US-trained technocrats, economists and publicists). Neo-liberalism creates its own human subjectivity. So everyone – whether writers, cotton farmers or mere tweeters – is supposed to turn into an entrepreneur now, set up their own stall in the marketplace, compete and clash with other entrepreneurs – the day is not far when everyone will be expected to float individual IPOs! The overall result is a culture of aggressive selfishness, envy, rancour and animosity, which eventually exhausts and corrodes its participants from within. I find it extraordinary and deeply depressing that the idea of caring about the weak is scorned as ‘socialist’ by many rich and powerful Indians today – derided as the pitiable obsession of deluded jholawallahs. The caste system was bad enough in encouraging callousness; we have also bought into this bogus neoliberal ideology of meritocracy, which exempts many people from thinking about the disadvantaged and underprivileged.

But India is also different – from, say, China, where the culture of aspiration takes its most vigorous form today, and where resistance to it is weak and fragmented, or confined to indigenous minorities like the Tibetans and the Uighur.

I believe that radical spaces exist in not only the communities that you mention, which are the traditional constituencies of the left – urban working class and feminist movements. The progress there is indeed heartening, and you are right that there has been a massive shift already in the conversation about gender since that awful atrocity in Delhi in December 2012.

But radical spaces also exist among ostensibly ‘conservative’ communities: those of farmers and fishermen and tribal peoples that are threatened by modern forms of ‘development’ – whether mining projects, real estate speculators, nuclear plants, special economic zones or corporate boondoggles. There is an unspoken commitment among many of these people’s movements to an older ethos of restraint and limitation, different forms of human contentment and ideas of the good life. I see this among many people in my village in Himachal from where I write, which has now weathered nearly twenty years of socio-economic engineering – no grand proclamations of any sort, but a quiet commitment to ways of being that do bring into play aggressive desire and ambition, or cause painful social ruptures and conflicts.

We also know that many of these rural communities can brutally crush members who seek to make a life for themselves even as they provide a refuge to those who do not want to participate in the modern adventure of self-invention or carry the burden of personal freedom. Many of these communities manifest aspects of what is called ‘social backwardness’, which is quickly seized upon by the promoters of development – politicians, businessmen, journalists – as evidence that they need to be uprooted and urbanised and modernised (no matter that social conditions in urban or metropolitan areas can be much more oppressive and soul-destroying, as revealed by the Delhi atrocity).

A big clash in India today, which lies at the basis of many political and ideological battles, is between the desire for individual fulfilment and the imagined security of collective life. Hundreds of millions of young people are negotiating a path between the Scylla of oppressive family and community and the Charybdis of a promised but exacting individual freedom. Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men, a Rashomon-style narrative about alleged rape in an increasingly marginalised community, captures this conflict brilliantly. One should expect these communities to reject cruel hierarchy (to be fair, a few do), but we also can’t expect their members to become urban factory workers before they understand the ethical imperative of gender equality or environmentalism. Then we are simply reiterating the teleology of the old Left, with its built-in bias against the ‘idiocy of village life’ and eternally waiting for India’s urbanisation and industrialisation to be completed.

What seems clear is that we will have to find a modus vivendi among these very different Indias, which have existed long before the advent of the world of industrial-scale production and consumption, and cannot be wished away. The old dream of the post-Enlightenment West, of a universal and homogenous humanity, cannot hope to succeed in this incredibly heterogenous country, no matter how many ‘smart cities’ arise. The whole project of making large parts of India resemble the modern West, or Japan, is an outlandish one – not to mention that it is also rendered impossible by environmental constraints. That’s why we have to identify radical spaces beyond those that a modern capitalist economy facilitates: among factory workers, for instance, or urban working women. And they may not always accord with our inherited conceptions of ‘radicalism’. But this a culture, after all, that has revered the non-conformist for centuries, and if there is one value worth defending – with reckless joy, to use your phrase, and without fear of essentialism – it is pluralism and diversity, the fact that different conceptions of the common good exist, and India’s uniqueness resides in being a most extraordinary embodiment of diversity at a time when it is globally threatened like never before.

In that sense, I find myself less keen on imagining new futures than on living in the present and understanding the past – how human beings lived and dealt with their challenges before, and how we can repair some of the workable institutions inherited from them. I feel that an obsession with radically reshaping the future has committed us to an instrumental view of human beings shared by both the left and the right, Mao as well as McKinsey and Co., and is too contemptuous of the long histories of societies and peoples and the accumulated experiences of hundreds of years that witnessed much less man-made violence and devastation of the natural world than we have seen in just one century. I see the future as open-ended, as something we can’t foresee and therefore should not attempt to force into some prepackaged grand narrative of social and economic order. The real challenge for us is to prepare ourselves intellectually and emotionally for the future’s unexpected revelations.

I also feel attached, perhaps because I am not a politician, to politics as a way of life – in which the experience of solidarity and compassion is meaningful in itself, without being attached instrumentally to a project of gaining or maintaining power. And here the fresh solidarities around gender issues are bracing, for they require a fresh understanding in our minds and souls of the dignity of human beings. Because above all we need a new ethic of cooperation and interdependence – as opposed to competition and rivalry. I was reading Harsh Mander’s heartfelt new book today, and he makes the obvious but not often articulated point that our individual lives need to change at a fundamental moral and spiritual level before we can expect any larger social change. Too often we have invested faith in political formulas and social movements only to find that their biggest obstacles are unreformed individual attitudes, unexamined inner lives and consciences and the lack of compassion and empathy. I look forward to your thoughts.

 

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Dear Pankaj

On the face of it, I agree with much of what you say – primarily with the need to acknowledge the philosophical and emotional richness of diverse forms and ways of life, and the need to convey this richness in writing. And of course with the fact that we live in a world of tremendous inequality and poverty.

But I am unsettled by the way your argument moves. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m going to try.

To start, here is a fragment from The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China by Timothy Brook, in which Brooks quotes Zhang Tao, a county official, lamenting the rise of a new mercantile class:

‘Those who went out as merchants became numerous and the ownership of land was no longer esteemed. Men matched wits using their assets, and fortunes rose and fell unpredictably . . . Each exploited the other and everyone publicized himself . . . The rich became richer and the poor, poorer . . . Trade proliferated . . . Corrupt magnates sowed disorder and wealthy racketeers preyed.’

This excerpt was printed in a Chinese county gazette in 1602, but its cadence is familiar. Perhaps each culture – including those situated in the Indian sub-continent – produces its own plural discourses of austerity, excess and crisis at particular historical moments.

I sense the anxieties of our Ming dynasty bureaucrat in your email when you speak of neo-liberalism’s denudation of vast landscapes, ‘a culture of aggressive selfishness, envy, rancour and animosity’ and a ‘global race for self-aggrandisement’. Both texts describe a moment of present-day crisis whose trajectories ripple outwards into the past and the future, creating an arc of inevitability that results in a sold-out society.

In this form of writing, neo-liberalism is a highly contagious disease, ‘aspirations’ become the vector of this pathogen, and the cure lies among remote, marginalised communities who have somehow developed anti-bodies in the form of what you call an ‘older ethos of restraint and limitation, different forms of human contentment and the ideas of a good life’.

But in this narrative, knowledge and power always lies outside and elsewhere: farmers, fisher folk, capitalists, fundamentalists. Everyone else has been enfeebled or co-opted, much like in Rohinton Mistry’s book on the emergency, A Fine Balance. By the end of the book the women are blind, the working class castrated and the middle class male consumed by guilt to the point of suicide.

I’ve been thinking about your very insightful point on the manner in which ‘aspiration’ is conveyed in current writing about India (and China). These are accounts that, in the guise of writing about others, validate the life and aspirations of the writer.

The counter, too often, is a lament for times past and nostalgia for a form of life that may never have existed.

The lament of our seventeenth century Chinese bureaucrat illustrates the pitfalls of imagining the aspirations of others. After all, if we followed his argument to its logical conclusion, the Chinese revolution could never have occurred.

Your suspicion of grand visions is well founded, as is your call to understand existing forms of life. However, I am not sure if the answers lie in reviving an older form of restraint.

Instead, I have decided to try writing about the present without resorting to the shorthand of aspiration. I am interested to see what happens when journalists displace the centrality of aspiration in their writings, and look for another way to orient the structure of their texts. What are the questions we will ask? Perhaps a very different landscape shall emerge.

I am going to try this the next time I am out on a story, and will let you know how it goes.

 

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Dear Aman,

Anyone who invokes the past must prepare himself for the accusation that he has a romantic view of it. But such an accusation often depends on a romantic and unrealistic view of the present and the future. The ways of life and codes of ethical conduct – from paganism and animism and Greek philosophy and Buddhism to Christianity, Islam and Confucianism – that have shaped societies and individuals for all of recorded history, traces of which survive today among premodern communities, had a very realistic sense of the human animal, the great dangers he posed to his kind and to the earth. They weren’t romantic at all. On the contrary, they were bleakly realistic about what human beings can or cannot do. They recognised the catastrophic potential in human desires, and devised a whole set of ethical prescriptions and metaphysical ideas to keep them in check. You write, ‘Perhaps each culture – including those situated in the Indian sub-continent – produces its own plural discourses of austerity, excess, and crisis at particular historical moments.’ I would take out the ‘perhaps’ from your sentence, and add that this fear of excess and stress on moderation and restraint constitutes the philosophical and ethical history of humanity.

The modern era marks a more radical break than we have seen before, with its uncritical and indiscriminate exalting of human passions and energies. There were many people who recognised at its beginning that this long period of history, where human violence and social chaos had been relatively contained, was coming to an end, and greed and hatred were being institutionalised in the new capitalist economy and political form of the nation state, and disseminated worldwide as an essential way of life. Note the fear and desperation in Burke’s prose. Or Stendhal recoiling from the grasping French bourgeoisie which he identified as the real winners of the French revolution. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who fought for the emancipation of the serfs, were full of hatred for the amoral bourgeois who in their view could now pursue without any restraint his lust for possessions, status and dominion over other human beings. There was much panic and despair among the most sensitive people of the nineteenth century as they saw human beings, very frail and fallible creatures, decide with their new powers of science and reason to build the kingdom of God on earth. In this hubristic project, an order that had always been transcendental with its visions of plenitude and harmony was going to be materially recreated. So it is modern man with his utopian wish to reshape the future and blind faith in science and technology who is the real romantic, and the peddler of lethal illusions.

Much of modern literature and philosophy is about this new secularised human being, who insists on devising fresh notions of personal freedom (even as large complicated political and economic systems turn him into a cog). By the twentieth century, the game is up in Europe and America – the state has grown too big, the economies are beyond anyone’s control, and no one can escape the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic and capitalist rationality, as Max Weber memorably called it. The point I am trying to make is that our neo-liberal notions of freedom and aspiration – in a place like India which comes late to the secularised modern world – must be tested against this tormented history, and against India’s own ethical and philosophical traditions and conceptions of freedom, aspiration and the good life in general. That adventure of secular modernity – the project of national and individual aggrandisement, which resulted in two world wars and genocide – is barely over in the West, and we in India have embarked on something much more ambitious, promising not just equality but also first-world prosperity to 1.2 billion people, drawing intellectual sustenance from bogus economic theories that lie exploded in the places of their origin. This is where the ethos of humility and restraint, and respect for the natural world, become relevant and important. And where aspiration ought to be redefined – from private self-aggrandisement to an ethical commitment to the dignity of all human beings.

I think your plan to write about the present without resorting to the shorthand of neo-liberal aspiration is admirable. It will be difficult – the language of journalism is imbued with the modern religion of inevitable and irreversible progress, achieved either through the state or individual initiative and enterprise. With some exceptions, journalists have been the fount of bien pensant thinking, and eager advisors to financial and political power, in every culture. Balzac was already calling them ‘news-traders’ in the nineteenth century. Harsh words, which don’t apply to many brave and honest journalists, but the way the fourth estate is set up it cannot but largely retail conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, the effort must be continuously made, and the very few journalists we remember today made it, to break out of this prison of boosterism and, as you say, to ideologically reorient the text. The result is almost always more interesting: for instance, Elisabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc. which really tries to break free of the wisdom of McKinsey, the Economist and their native amplifers, and to ask very different questions in a society that is almost as internally diverse, unequal and large as India’s. And, really, the best recent books on contemporary India – The Beautiful and the Damned, A Free Man, Beautiful Thing, Churning the Earth, Curfewed Night – are those that undermine conventional perceptions and propose another mode of enquiry – they have a more complex idea of human beings, and there is no question that this is the most exciting turn in Indian non-fiction writing in English, and that however demoralising political events in India may seem today we will witness over the long term a creative and intellectual flowering.

A Numbered Graph That Shows How Each Part of the Body Would Fit Into A Chair
From The Abstract Humanities