The two novels featured above – “Krishna, A Love Story” and “Rahul, A Different Love Story” – both set in the early 1970s, use a cultural backdrop where the last vestiges of the British Raj are slowly being trampled under an emerging identity of ‘Indian-ness’, confused, full of contradictions, outward looking, and largely self-centred. As a result, two landscapes would be changed forever – the cultural and the physical.
The beauty I remember in some of the most breathtaking cities of India – Shillong, Darjeeling, Mussourie, Nainital, and Kodaikanal – have all vanished in the triumph of commerce over aesthetics and the eclipse of beauty, natural and architectural. Entire wooded hillsides in the Kashmir valley, now lie bald and bare, thanks to unbridled, criminal deforestation. Cherrapunji, once the wettest spot on earth with over six hundred inches of annual rainfall, now struggles to squeeze out two hundred inches from the elusive clouds.With architectural guidelines rarely enforced, for aesthetics or safety, once picturesque stucco and wood frame houses have given way to concrete boxes marked by shuttered storefronts at street level. The wood frame structures offered protection against earthquakes in India’s eastern and north-eastern regions. Their concrete replacements rely on a hope and prayers which are bountiful during new building inaugurations. Such are the fruits of India’s economic progress.
It is true Indian incomes have grown, but so have the educational aspirations among five hundred million Indans who are under the age of twenty-five. Undiscriminating families from every economic strata enthusiastically push their children towards private education – at the school and post-secondary levels – guaranteeing a field day to canny businessmen for whom education is nothing but a business with humans who profess to “teach” as the basic machinery for processing the plentiful raw material, students.
Education is in crisis. In a recent study, McKinsey Global Institute, presents a grim picture of the ‘estimated efficiency of government spending’ on Education as a miserable 51%. Amazingly, the think-tank, always a trusted friend of corporate interests, has recommended increasing public spending on basic services from 2012 levels by 100% to 2022, but decreasing the percentage outlay in Education during the same period from 42% to 23%. While this leaves the actual amount of outlay in Education almost unchanged from 2012 to 2022, McKinsey proposes increasing percentage outlays in Health Care and Drinking Water from 15 and 6% to 40 and 9% respectively, both laudable goals. Holding the outlay in Education to 2012 amounts, opens the door to further privatization of school and post-secondary education.
Ironies abound. Ratan Tata, until recently at the helm of Tata’s, the Indian multinational, presented a 50 million dollar gift to the Harvard Business School for Tata Hall, having attended only a short executive program at HBS in 1971, saying, “I am so proud to give back to an institution that has done so much for me and for many other people.” Meanwhile, the garage variety of Indian MBAs from third-rate business schools, flood the job market with little to offer to the marketplace. Mighty Tata Motors, now manufacturers of the upscale Jaguar and Range Rover cars, also brings the $4,000 Nano to the market. And Delhi’s roads suffer slow strangulation with upwards of 1,500 vehicles added each day. Principal Indian cities have chosen to fight their traffic nightmares by building miles of elevated expressways through already congested neighbourhoods, worsening the urban blight which they have nurtured through decades of rampant corruption and unregulated construction.
Other crises abound. The Nehru family, long a pawn in the hands of the powerful Congress party, stares blankly at its final days with current elections drawing to a close. Pundits predict that the elections will see power shift to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its formidable right-wing leader, Narendra Modi, likely to be India’s next Prime Minister. The US, having refused Modi a visa for his complicity in the 2002 ethnic violence in his Gujarat state which left over a thousand, mostly Muslims, dead. US foreign policy, generally seen as meandering without morals or values in the complex world of Asian politics, is attempting to build bridges in case Modi comes to power. So many bridges have been built over the years – in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere – bridges that lead to nowhere!
In a final desperate attempt to cling to power by creating new constituencies of support, the Congress party engineered last month the break-up of the Andhra Pradesh state by carving out a new state, Telengana. In over six decades in power, the Congress party has systematically fragmented the country to create enclaves of support, playing into the hands of local politicians ready to sell their souls in their lust for political power. The Indian government is poised to carve out another state, Bodoland, out of what was formerly the state of Assam. What was the vast state of Assam once, has been parcelled out into the states of Assam, Tripura, Nagalnd, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, and Arunachal. Traveling through North Eastern India is like swimming in a cauldron of tribal jealousies, ethnic hatred and intolerance.The Centre cannot hold, and things fall apart!
It seems India’s political leaders and parliamentarians have imbued the popular myth of Mahatma Gandhi’s 3 monkeys who “See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil.” As a result, Indian politicians rely on thuggish ‘goondas’ and their Mafia Dons for enforcing their power base, and are prepared to countenance (also known as a justice system with no end in sight) crimes such as rape, systematically used as a weapon of political intimidation. The vandalization of political systems is so widespread that even the billionaire industrialist, Stanford educated Mukesh Ambani, once claimed that the Congress (party) is his ‘shop’ where he could buy anything he wanted.
One can understand the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Congress President and widow of murdered Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, smilingly participating in the charade known as Indian democracy. After all, her exposure to accumulated wisdom and learning was at best peripheral, as she hung out in Cambridge, England, while Rajiv Gandhi struggled in vain to emulate his illustrious grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru’s educational achievements. With her Mediterranean background Sonia seems perfectly at ease with the Augean stables of Indian politics, considering that the cow and calf were indeed the original symbol of the Congress party. But to think that Cambridge (England) and Oxford-educated current Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is oblivious to the bribery, corruption, mismanagement and decay all around him seems incredible. Whatever happened to the value-based wisdom he received from his favourite Cambridge professor, Joan Robinson?
Presumably, a brain is no substitute for guts.