Modern India’s Dance of Creation and Destruction
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — This is my last Letter from India for the International Herald Tribune. I have been privileged to fill this space for one and a half years. In the months ahead, I plan to focus on finishing a book and on a few longer writing projects. Both these endeavors will cover the same themes, and much of the same landscape, that I’ve written about in my columns.
It seems fitting, for this last column, to revisit some of those themes — and more generally to highlight (and try to explain) a deep ambiguity that has run through my writing here.
In my first column, I wrote about the sense of ambivalence I sometimes felt when confronted with the profound changes in my home. The idyllic rural world in which I grew up no longer exists. Like so much else I remember from my childhood in India, it has been swept away by a deluge of new money, new ambitions and new opportunities.
The new world that has emerged is in many ways a wonderful place. But in many other ways — in the lawlessness and environmental depredation that have accompanied growth, for instance, or in the coarsening of intellectual and cultural life — the rapid development of my area (and of the country as a whole) can be cause for dismay.
Readers sometimes call me out on this ambivalence. In e-mails and conversations, they ask why I seem to oscillate between enthusiasm and despair. I have occasionally been accused of confusion.
It’s a fair charge, I suppose. The simplest — and most honest — response I can come up with is that the reality of modern India is itself deeply confusing: both good and bad, uplifting and discouraging, inspiring and at times dispiriting.
Sometimes I think of this as a macro-micro distinction. At a macro (which is to say, national) level, India’s recent progress has been phenomenal. The country’s growth rates have been among the highest in the world, per capita incomes have more than doubled over the last decade, and India’s global image has finally started to emerge from the shadow of poverty that so long defined it.
But at a micro level — on the ground in villages, and in the slums that pockmark otherwise prosperous metropolises — there is still so much suffering and poverty, and so much evidence to contradict the happy, shining narrative that has come to represent India over the last few years.
The big picture is certainly cause for celebration. But there’s a danger of losing the details in that picture. The sheen of India’s new economy can be blinding. A lot of reporting on the country these days seems enthralled — and, in the process, entranced — by the story of a rising India, a nation moving beyond the terrible deprivation and inequality that are in fact still so prevalent.
Some of India’s continuing problems are a legacy of the past. Many are, in fact, being addressed by the nation’s new economy. But some, too, are at least partly outcomes of the development model that the country has chosen, and that many would argue is unsustainable.
I am thinking, for example, of the men and women who live down the road from me, on the beach, and whose homes and villages are being swept away by an insidious process of coastal erosion. That process is largely man-made; it is primarily the result of a harbor that was built years ago farther down the coast and that, like so many large infrastructure projects, was designed to spur development in the area.
I am thinking, also, of India’s environment, which is another casualty of the nation’s remarkable growth. Regular readers of this column know that I have often written about India’s festering ecological crisis. This crisis isn’t always apparent at a macro level. But it is deeply — and painfully — felt by those of us who live it every day, who experience firsthand the bewildering ambiguity of a country where incomes and education and opportunities are rising, but where lakes and forests and picnic spots are despoiled with plastic bags, and where a ride in a non-air-conditioned car can leave a throat raw and constricted for days.
It’s easy to grasp at the usual clichés when trying to understand this ambiguity. The temptation is to revert to platitudes about India being a land of contradictions, a nation where, as the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (quoted by Amartya Sen) used to say, “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”
There’s probably something to that. But I think there’s also something both more complicated, and more interesting, going on.
India is today in the midst of a transformation whose scale and significance (at least when measured by the number of people being affected) are rivaled only by China’s recent transition. Sometimes, when I think of how much things are changing around here, when I reflect on the way in which societies and traditions built up over centuries and millenniums have been dismantled in just a couple of decades, I feel as if I have a ringside view at the unfolding of history.
This massive transformation of the country could not be anything but messy. It seems inevitable, really, that the process of cultural and social reinvention would be experienced as a form of upheaval, a delicate dance between building up and tearing down, between the thrill of the new and the chaos (and sorrow) of losing the old.
In my first column, I likened what was going on in India to a process of creative destruction. So much contemporary writing on this country focuses on one or the other — on the creativity, or on the destruction. But I think that any honest appraisal of India has to acknowledge both — it has to capture the full and at times contradictory complexity of this country, and it has to embrace the nation in all its ambivalence, ambiguity and even confusion.