India Is Getting All the Trappings of the New Century; But Is It Modern?
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — S. Durairaj is by all accounts a modern man. He drives a car, uses a cellphone and keeps up with international news. In his spare time, he studies for a law degree. He intends to pursue a career as a lawyer.
A few years ago, though, when Mr. Durairaj (who works part time for me as a driver) found out his sister was planning to marry a member of a different caste, he and his parents cut off all ties with her. She now lives in a separate home with her husband and two children. The children hardly know their maternal grandparents.
Distance often breeds greater understanding. I’ve spent some time away from home recently, in the United States, and it has made me reflect on the changes that have occurred in India over the last couple decades.
In many ways, India has become more like the United States — more outgoing, more optimistic, more self-confident and overtly ambitious.
The country has become more materialistic, too, reveling in a U.S.-style orgy of consumerism and debt. Visit even a small Indian town today and the parade of shopping malls and brand names and bars and restaurants, all kept in business by a new generation armed with credit cards, is remarkable.
Not everyone is thrilled about these changes. But there is no denying that the country’s embrace of capitalism represents a striking reversal from the socialist austerity that defined it for much of its post-independence history.
For better or for worse, I think it is fair to say that India, like Mr. Durairaj, has become a more modern country. It clings far less to the achievements of its ancient civilization, and looks proudly and with anticipation to the future successes of what many believe is destined to be an Indian century.
When I was a boy, India felt isolated. Today, the country is a world power, its interests and actions helping to define the contemporary global condition.
But is India really a modern nation? In the book “Mistaken Modernity,” published a decade ago, the sociologist Dipankar Gupta complained of the “westoxication” of India’s elite. (He was borrowing the term from the Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e-Ahmad).
Mr. Gupta was referring to a particularly superficial version of modernity that he believed was taking root in the nation — one defined more by Western consumer habits and lifestyles than by adherence to a cosmopolitan, tolerant set of values and democratic norms.
He pointed, for instance, to the persistence of caste bias, oppressive traditions and historical inequalities in a nation where ownership of washing machines, cars and other material trappings of global capitalism was increasing. He argued that in many ways India was an unmodern nation.
Things have changed a lot since Mr. Gupta wrote that book. But India remains a country where much of the population lives in almost medieval conditions, subjected to brutal poverty and oppression, often inflicted in the name of caste, religion or gender.
In June, The Asian Age newspaper reported that an estimated 1,000 “honor killings” take place in the country every year, many of them the result of hostility bred by inter-caste marriages.
In many households, girls are treated as liabilities by their parents — fed less than their male siblings, pulled out of school earlier, forced to take jobs as menial servants so they can start contributing to the extravagant dowries their parents will eventually have to pay.
Some rural tea shops still keep separate sets of cups for their customers — one set for dalits (formerly known as untouchables), and one for the upper castes who fear contamination if they share cups with dalits.
The persistence of such antiquated norms does not, of course, automatically disqualify India from the ranks of modern nations. Modernity is a complicated condition, one that certainly allows ample room for the endurance of the old within the new.
The old can be updated, too, turned into something modern. Mohandas K. Gandhi, is often — and not inaccurately — thought of as a traditionalist, but it is useful to recall that part of his project was to modernize Hinduism by eliminating caste and other forms of oppression.
The point is that modernity is layered, defined more by a state of mind than by loyalty to contemporary trends or consumer fashions. As the German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno put it: “Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category.” Perhaps the relevant question, then, is not so much whether India is a modern nation, but what form its modernity takes.
Some scholars — notably Benjamin Friedman, in “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth” — have suggested that economic development is often accompanied by greater tolerance, and a heightened commitment to democracy and social mobility. Certainly, there are signs, if at times fleeting, of such a process at work in India. Often, though, the nation’s economic growth seems to have spurred primarily a scramble for material acquisition that has little to do with democracy or other such ideals.
The next few years are likely to be marked by something of a seesaw struggle between these two versions of modernity. Indeed, for all its ancient history, India sometimes feels like a work in progress, caught up in a whirlwind of equivocation over its identity.
The version of modernity it ultimately chooses will affect not just its own future, but also that of developing countries around the world, many of which look to the example set by India — along with China — to guide their path out of poverty.
But to return to the question: Is India a modern nation? Albert Einstein once wrote admiringly of Americans that they were a people “always becoming, never being.” Today, it is less in the United States, and more in India’s furious search for self-definition, that I feel that sense of perpetual reinvention, of energy and forward momentum.
If modernity is defined by an openness to change, an ability to accommodate newness and a willingness to shed the past, then I think the answer to the question is yes.