Prosperity and Its Risk to Culture

Prosperity and Its Risk to Culture

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune


CHENNAI, INDIA — On Anna Salai, a central artery that runs through this city, there is a store called the American Book Center. The owner, V. Krishnan, is 70 years old. He has been selling books since he was 8 — first as a hawker in the former Burmese capital, Rangoon, where his father worked as a goldsmith, and then in Chennai, where he moved in the 1960s and opened two stores.

On a cloudy Saturday morning, Mr. Krishnan talked about the evolution of the book business over the last few decades. In the ’60s, he said, most of his buyers were older and male. Over the last 10 years, he has noticed more women, and more young people.

This younger population has different interests. In the old days, he sold mostly novels — Pearl S. Buck, Daphne DuMaurier and Agatha Christie were especially popular. Now, young people do not read so many novels. They buy computer books, and books about business.

He still sold a few novels. Dusty copies of James Joyce and Shakespeare were piled around the store. But management and technology publications sustained him. “Without computers, I would have no work,” he said.

Mr. Krishnan’s story offers a window onto changing patterns of cultural consumption in India. This is a nation of rising prosperity, increasingly convinced of its destiny. Its confidence stems largely from the recent achievements of its ITES sector — Information Technology Enabled Services, the software and outsourcing companies that have put India on the map of global business.

The success of these companies has been firmly ensconced in an emerging national mythology. Schoolchildren are brought up on tales of Infosys, India’s best-known software business, founded in 1981 with 10,000 rupees of capital — just $224 at current rates — and worth billions of dollars today. Indian entrepreneurs have entered the pantheon of national heroes.

No one can deny their achievements. But the adulation of commerce and wealth poses important questions about the place of softer, more humanistic endeavors in the country — the role of art and artists, the place of the humanities and social sciences and, more generally, the character (and breadth) of the Indian imagination.

As India grows richer, its culture is changing. The question is whether that culture will be defined solely by the nation’s new prosperity — whether a nation in the midst of a consumerist frenzy can maintain noncommercial islands of intellectual and cultural endeavor, and whether a population determined to get rich can appreciate pursuits whose returns are less immediately tangible.

In “The Difficulty of Being Good,” a recently published book on morality derived from the Mahabharata, Gurcharan Das writes of his determination to conduct an in-depth study of the Sanskrit original of this ancient epic. To achieve this, he had to go to the University of Chicago. Indian centers of learning, he found, were “impossibly rigid” and hostile to critical interrogation.

His is not an isolated experience. Indian humanities and social sciences institutes have been neglected over the years — stultified by curricular inflexibility, underfinanced and understaffed. While the country’s elite business and technology schools have virtual autonomy to appoint staff and raise funds, others are forced to negotiate bureaucratic obstacles.

In a newspaper op-ed piece last year in The Hindu, Shreesh Chadhury, himself a professor of the social sciences and humanities, wrote that nontechnical institutes often have to obtain permission even from the government’s publicity department before advertising a staff opening. The “consequences have been disastrous, and world-class institutions have been reduced to the shadow of their own ghosts,” he wrote.

The humanities are losing out, too, in the battle for students. According to the World Bank, while general graduate degree programs, which include the humanities and social sciences, still have the highest enrollment, the number of students seeking technical degrees grew six times faster from 2000 to 2004.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the poor state of humanities departments. But it points, also, to a broader shift in public perceptions — from an appreciation of the intrinsic value of an education (its ability to widen the mind, to expose students to new ideas and experiences) to an obsession with the instrumental value of a diploma.

It’s possible all this is just a moment. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a former academic and now head of a research institute based in Delhi, suggests that while the ascent of more monetizable disciplines is real, it may simply represent a form of consolidation. “Part of what you hope this growth will do is create conditions that will sustain a richer culture in the future,” he said, arguing that culture needs financial backing to survive. “After all, New York is both Wall Street and the city’s publishing industry.”

Economists refer to an environmental Kuznets curve in the process of development, a pathway that leads through ecological neglect in the early stages of growth and then stabilizes as a country becomes richer. Maybe something similar is true of culture, too, and India is simply at the early stages of what will prove to be a cultural Kuznets curve.

But in the meantime, the commercialization of intellectual life seems set to continue, and possibly even worsen. There has been much concern, recently, that the increasing privatization of Indian education could further erode the arts and social sciences.

Meanwhile, the country’s media are embroiled in a controversy over newspapers and TV channels accepting payments for favorable coverage. I’ll write about this in a future column.

In Chennai, Mr. Krishnan, like the rest of the country, seems to put his faith in computers and business. As I was leaving his store, he told me that times were tough: young people only cared about money; they didn’t read anymore. He wanted his grandson and son-in-law, both of whom were studying business, to step in and save the store. “They will put in a complete system,” he said. They would install computers and redo the Web site. Their system, he seemed to hope, would get people reading again.

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