Showing posts with label Indian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Indian. Show all posts

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Indian Pride and Acche Din


“The time has come to think seriously about whether we have a national character or not,” Today, unfortunately, the atmosphere is that if you go to anybody for work, that person will immediately ask, ‘What is in this for me?’ When he learns that there is nothing for him, he will say, ‘Why should I?”
Narendra Modi 

My father always told me that there is no substitute for good honest hard work. He used to say that what you do is much less important than how you do it. Whether you are mopping a floor or finding a cure for cancer, do your job to the best of your abilities and take pride in doing it. What happened to the work ethic of our fathers and grandfathers? Why do Indians today seem to lack pride in everything we do, including being Indian?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we all grew up during the license Raj, when graft was just as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth. The postman wanted his baksheesh to deliver our letters, the garbage man to take out the trash, the policeman to file a complaint, and the politician for doing absolutely nothing other than being elected to office. It seemed nobody wanted to do his job, just to sit back and collect money from the same taxpayer who was paying his salary. We could not renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection high up in the bureaucracy. We could pass our driving test but not be issued a license unless we were willing to grease a palm. In fact, we had to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we had as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot.

After we got rid of the license Raj, ushering in an era of liberalisation, instead of ridding us of the disease of graft, we may have just spread it further afield. Today, it has been extended into a willingness to use money as a means to get ahead in every aspect of life. We seem to have become content using our increasing disposable income to willingly pay people to help us cut queues, get our kids into school, to avoid penalties for wrongdoing, and even to help us escape the clutches of the law, after we have knowingly and brazenly broken it. Is this what we want to accomplish with our growing economic prosperity: the ability to buy people and cut corners without earning anything rightfully or on merit? We seem to have become a society of rule breakers for those with means and money, content to apply a different set of rules for those without.  As our new Prime Minister stated in his Independence Day speech, the only thing a growing majority of people seem to care about is what’s in it for them. It has reached a point where people are not willing to perform their paid obligations or help their fellow Indians in need, unless they are incentivized in some way. We call ourselves a democratic society, yet how many times have citizens been assaulted and told that it is better not to go to the police or that it would be wiser to buy justice? I even know of a well-respected surgeon in Bombay who decided to negotiate the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) before allowing the patient to be wheeled into the operating theater for the life-saving surgery he was about to perform. It seems neither education nor upbringing have any effect on this mentality of pure and unadulterated greed. We have become a society that never cares to ask what we can do for our fellow man, woman or country.

Yet, every Indian likes to talk about India becoming a global super power. We yearn for respect on the world stage, and want to stand shoulder to shoulder with America, but we do not feel ashamed to pee on the street or outraged by the fact that 60% of Indians still defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Nor do we seem embarrassed by the fact that our flyovers and highways, many built a mere decade ago, are already crumbling (or are yet to be completed). It took us almost as long as we have been an independent nation to build one sea-link in traffic-congested Bombay; however we were content talking about building it for more than fifty years. We love to talk, but when it comes to action we don’t seem to care about following through or doing it with pride. The great irony in all this is that this seeming apathy has nothing to do with our lack of talent or smarts. When we put our minds to it and our country first, we can build on time and under budget the world’s best and most advanced underground metro in New Delhi and a smart airport terminal in Bombay. A terminal on the strength of which Bombay (the only Indian city) has made the recently released A-list on National Geographic's list of "smart cities," across the world.  What’s more, people all over the world marvel at the work ethic, brilliance and innovation of Indian immigrants. From high-tech and engineering to the arts and the corporate world, Indians excel in virtually every field that we compete in. Indian immigrants who left India with nothing now own the majority of homes in the affluent suburbs of North London, and rule the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. There was a time when Indians left due to the lack of opportunities within India. This is also no longer true. In fact, India today is one of the greatest lands of opportunity and potential in the world and more attractive than China because we have a stable government and democratic systems that work (for the most part) - so why are we seemingly still unable to unleash this potential we have on paper and fulfill our destiny on the world stage? At the moment it seems like the more we liberalise and open up our economy, the more we seem to encourage a society where the shortest, fastest and least honest and hardworking path to success seems to be the correct one. Success is measured almost entirely by the increased number of zeroes in our personal bank account. What would happen if we spent one decade giving back to our country and helping everyone grow?

I am proud to be an Indian. I am prouder yet to be part of a civilization whose origins date to before Christianity; but that is the past. I want to be proud of our present and future through tangible successes, not just words and chest beating. I want to be proud of the great public institutions we build, of world-beating product innovations and brands we create, of our indigenous missile defense systems that become the envy of the world. I want to be proud of our space program and 23rd century urban infrastructure and transportation systems. I want footpaths in every city, toilets in every home, educational institutions that rival Harvard and Cambridge, attracting the brightest and best student minds from every corner of the globe. I want clean city streets and paved rural roads. I want teachers and parents to once again instill a civic sense and pride in the next generation of children. I want us to take pride in what we can accomplish, collectively as a nation, if each of us were to put his mind to it, point his heart in the right direction. If we can see put aside just a small amount of our selfish needs and desires and think for a moment about how we can contribute to building a better, stronger and more developed India, then we will all see Acche Din...

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Real India


“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday’s bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
Mark Twain

All my life I have believed in an India that increasingly exists only in my mind’s eye. Perhaps, this India of which I am so proud to be a citizen is merely an idea that has not yet been fully realized. Increasingly, it feels like this great vision of India rarely matches the reality that I see.

My India is rich with diversity, the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions (friend, guide and philosopher to the other three) and home to every religion practiced by man. In this India, it is our diversity, and not our divisions, that make us stronger, richer and more powerful. In my India, I am always proud to be Indian first; then Bengali, Tamilian, Gujarati, Malayali, Punjabi or Jain. 

In this India, I am also proud that India is still home to the second largest Muslim population in the world; in spite of the creation of two Muslim states on her borders. This is what makes the fabric of my India so rich and her cultural mosaic the envy of the civilized world. No other country in the world can claim to have this breadth of heritage and depth of diversity running through her veins.  

As long as each of us clings to being a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain then we will remain only a very small and totally inconsequential part of this India.

In this India, Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy for a way of life. It is an accumulation of ideas, beliefs, traditions, philosophies and cultural practices that were collected and shaped over centuries. Unlike other religions, Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into a specific belief system. 

It is a Dharma, or a set of philosophies that are meant to govern our personal beliefs and worldly actions. Interestingly, it is the only religion in the world that cannot be traced back to one single individual or book. And the only religion that does not require a person to “convert” or have a religious affiliation to it in order to receive its teachings. 

The word “Hindu” cannot be found in any of its scriptures. In fact, it was first used by invading Arabs to describe al-Hind, or the land of the people who live across the river Indus; and it was only toward the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus (source: Wikipedia). 

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity and Islam by a few thousand years. If you look at its practices, unlike other religions, it does not tell you who to worship, what to eat, which day or how many times to pray, but instead offers things like Yoga, Ayurveda and Vastu. At its core it is about self-awareness and the idea of “live and let live;” with an underlying belief system based on truth, honesty, non-violence, cleanliness, austerity and perseverance. Perhaps, this is the reason it is often referred to as the “enlightened religion.” This is the true nature of the religion we today call Hinduism.

The Hinduism that is preached, practiced and used as a tool to create communal strife and manipulate the voting public today is barely recognizable, and not part of my India. It has been bastardized by Hindu fundamentalists and hijacked by self-appointed chieftains and politicians as a way to divide the country and buy votes. But it is too easy to blame just the power hungry; for individuals too it has deteriorated into regular offerings of millions of rupees in gold, silver and precious gems to their Gods – purely as a way to atone and wash away all the worldly sins they commit outside their temple walls. 

These offerings lie collecting dust in temple vaults while 830 million Indian’s live on less than Rs. 20 per day ($0.44c or UK 0.27 pence). A person going to the temple with bags full of gold or cash can pass a starving child on the way to their deity, and look the other way. However, he will have no qualms about handing over all his possessions to fat, corrupt temple officials as an offering to an inanimate block of stone. This is what we have reduced Hinduism to, a worthless transaction that does nothing to help us live better lives, become better human beings, help our fellow countrymen or even our own country.

In my India we celebrate and hold dear our heritage, not simply because it is thousands of years old, but because it is responsible for our wealth of diversity, today. Which other non-Muslim country in the world can claim to have so many different successful Muslim figures across every aspect of society, even though they are a minority in a country whose population is more than four-fifths Hindu? 

We have had three Muslim Presidents; the Khans still rule Bollywood and Azim Premji is one of the richest men in the world. We can also proudly lay claim to Javed Akhtar and A.R. Rehman and feel great pride in the fact that one of our most patriotic and well-known songs “Saare Jahan Se Achchha,” was a great collaboration. It was penned by Muhammed Iqbal, a Muslim, and the music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Hindu. In fact, in this India we don’t just blindly recite the lyrics, we hold them dear.

“maz’hab nahīn sikhātā āpas men bayr rakhnā
hindi hai ham, vatan hai hindostān hamārā”

“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among us
We are Indians, India is our homeland”

We take their meaning to heart and reflect this in the way we live our lives. And we hang our heads in shame at the fact that we all stood idly by and watched one of our greatest national treasures, the late artist M. F. Hussain, die in a foreign land where he felt he needed to seek refuge (and accept citizenship) because thugs in saffron made sure he would never feel safe in his own home again. 

This even after the Supreme Court threw out all the completely frivolous lawsuits against his nude paintings of Indian Goddesses; refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. The court also called out the clear anti-Muslim motives behind these cases, by stating the fact that Hindu temples are filled with much more graphic depictions of nude Goddesses in pictures, paintings and sculptures, and it seems that this never hurt Hindu sentiments in a few thousand years.

This India is not about all hugging and getting along. I doubt man will ever be able to do that, but it is about accepting that we are not all the same; that we will never look, dress, think and pray alike, but that each of us has something to contribute and much more to learn. It is about recognizing that this learning is what makes us all stronger, richer, greater and more successful as a nation. 

It is only once we are all able to embrace this notion that we can stop our leaders from dividing us based on the inconsequential differences that exist between us. Until then, I will treasure this India in my mind’s eye.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Defense of Humour


“A joke is a very serious thing.”
Winston Churchill

I come not to defend racism but in defense of humour. I fear that people, particularly in America today, are finding it harder and harder to make a distinction between laughing at ourselves and feeling offended; and there is a difference.

Firstly, I firmly believe that comedy should have no boundaries or restrictions, because it is meant to entertain, lighten our worldly burdens and be nothing more than a laughing matter. The only caveat is that the comedian dishing it out does so equally, and does not target a single racial stereotype. Also, I strongly suspect that there are not too many bitter, malicious, mean-spirited bigots who decide to pursue a career in comedy.

Let’s spend a minute discussing the elephant in the room – stereotypes. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with me when I say that ALL cultural stereotypes are rooted in some reality and none are pure figments of our imagination. So the issue, to my mind, is not so much that someone is making fun at my expense using a racial stereotype, but whether or not the intent behind it is malicious, or if it is coming from a light hearted place. Think about it. There is a fundamental difference here, and a hugely important distinction that every person needs to make. It is imperative we all make this distinction. It is a distinction each of us, in our ever-shrinking global village, needs to make in order to progress and thrive. This is not about all of us hugging trees and getting along. It is simply about having a thicker skin when we require it.

The easiest way to explain the difference is to imagine Dave Chappelle (a famous American comic) putting on the Klu Klux Klan’s white robes and hood to tell off colour black jokes versus an actual Klansman telling the same jokes. Or Ashton Kutcher making fun of gay people (or Jews), versus Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doing it. There is a fundamental difference. One comes from a place of genuine hatred, bigotry and anger, while the other is in jest, and therefore should be considered par for the course and fair game since it is not intended to malign or incite hatred.
Consider the idea that if you cannot laugh at yourself, then you are the one who is insecure or clearly not comfortable in your own skin. Period. 

Ashton Kutcher recently did an advertisement for Pop chips where he played various different character stereotypes ranging from a American redneck to a gay German (who is clearly modeled on Karl Lagerfeld). One of his characters was a Bollywood producer named Raj, for which he put on makeup to make himself look brown, as us Indian’s tend to be (frankly, most being even darker than brown). What offended me about this whole thing was not Ashton Kutcher putting on brown face makeup but the fact that some self-aggrandizer called Anil Dash decided it was offensive to me, and my fellow countrymen; all one billion two hundred thousand of them.
A still of Mr. Kutcher as Raj, from the Popchips advertisement, which has since been removed by the company.
Firstly, Mr. Dash was born and grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (not Hariana, Punjab) which would make him about as Indian as Bobby Jindal. It matters less to me where he or anyone else was born, but much more with what shaped and influenced him; the culture and surroundings he imbibed. Growing up in America shaped his outlook and sensibilities in a vastly different way than it would have growing up in India. The reality is that American kids born to first generation Indian parents are often pushed and pulled between the realities of growing up in America, while being imprisoned by an alien Indian culture, and way of thinking that they know nothing off, at home. This is driven by their Indian parent's misplaced and misguided desire to stay in touch with their Indian roots - one that is totally alien to their children. These kids are not Indian in any manner or form, because India never had the opportunity to shape their first steps, their upbringing, their schooling or their adult outlook. America did. It is that simple. So how can a man who has never lived in India speak for more than one billion of us? Not one Indian I know felt in the least bit offended by Mr. Kutcher’s portrayal, in fact they found it hilarious and shared it with their friends on Facebook.

Secondly, after reading Mr. Dash’s blog post titled How To Fix Popchips' Racist Ad Campaign", I had the impression that it was less about taking offense than about seizing an opportunity for self-promotion through controversy. Mr. Dash comes across as someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin. I sensed he was more offended by the fact that Mr. Kutcher, a mere actor, has been far more successful in the same start-up business, presumably because of his celebrity, and possibly the colour of his skin. This, I suspect, is what offended Mr. Dash about this rather funny commercial. I don’t know Mr. Dash but reading his blog post and especially some of his responses to comments, he comes across as self-involved, and much less a defender of the helpless and downtrodden. At one point he responds to a reader comment by saying: “Believe me, I fight many different kinds of injustices (see my post last week about my old high school)…”  Frankly, if the Popchips affair counts as an injustice in Mr. Dash’s world, then he seriously needs to get out from behind his computer a little more often.

There is also a larger issue at play here, a worrying one: that the definition of racism in America seems to be have been hijacked by a political agenda, leading it to become so diluted and watered down over the years, that it has reached an almost comedic climax. The trivial and ludicrous things that people cry racism about, and at the drop of a hat, never cease to amaze. I guess it is not called the “race card” in America for nothing; and it seems to be played much like the Joker or Wild Card. Don’t get me wrong. There are many things worth fighting for, and yes, racism does exist, and it is nasty when you experience it first hand, as I have a few times in my life. However, I suspect that many Americans of this recent generation (Mr. Dash included) have never experienced real hatred. Otherwise, they would know that it is much more serious than having one’s delicate sensibility offended by a humuorous advertisement meant to sell a bag of potato chips...