Wednesday, 28 April 2010

India- a society in flux

I doubt if there are more than a few thousand Indians for whom the 24th of July would mean anything beyond a mere date. And yet Wednesday, 24th July 1991 is a day that History should remember as India's second independence day- the day when delicensing and economic reforms formally took off. The sweeping reforms introduced that Wednesday changed the course of Indian history. The objective of this article is to try and present the perspectives of an urban Indian on the socio-economic transformation in urban India over the last two decades.

Historically, economic transformations have always fostered social changes. So is the case with India. At the heart of this transformation is a burgeoning middle class. As of today the middle class is about 200 million strong, which constitutes not even 20% the population. However, given an economy that is expected to grow at 7.5% to 10% over the next twenty years or so, it is likely that the number of people below poverty line will shrink as millions will improve their economic circumstances to enter the ranks of the middle class. Several studies (notably those of Deutsche Bank and Mckinsey) estimate that the size of the middle class by 2025 will be about 600 million, which would be close to half the population by then.

There is however one massive difference between the new middle class and the old. whereas the old middle class barely made ends meet, the present generation has purchasing power far exceeding even the wildest dreams of its predecessors. One inevitable effect of the purchasing power available to today's generation (to which this writer belongs) is a seismic shift in lifestyles. The shopping malls that are there in the major cities make for a shopping experience far removed from what our fathers could even dream of. Eating out in an upscale restaurant, which was beyond the dreams of our parents, is something today's generation takes for granted.

Education has become a booming business with thousands of courses mushrooming up, largely because parents today have little hesitation in spending lakhs on the education of their children, hoping that they could get a much better quality of education than we did in our time.

Another noticeable change that has happened is the ability to purchase one's own car. Whereas for my father's generation cars were unaffordable, today most people of my generation who are even reasonably well to do have their own cars. In fact most people in the mid to late 20s have their own vehicle and house- the kind of thing our predecessors could do only towards the end of their careers. The inevitable consequence of the burgeoning demand for vehicles is that Indian roads have become incredibly congested, with traffic snarls the order of the day. Similarly, real estate prices have gone skyrocketing, with real estate prices now beyond the reach of most Indians. Bombay, where I live, is perhaps the worst affected city on both counts.

Consumerism is becoming one of the pre-dominant developments in urban India. One unexpected outcome of the mall boom that growing consumerism has fuelled is the employment opportunities it has provided for the people who work there. Most of them come from slums, belonging to families in economically straightened circumstances. In fact the vast majority of them are the first generation in their families who have made the transition from blue to white collared labour. The combination of education (of admittedly pretty doubtful quality) and the opportunities that having a degree presents has produced a generation of youngsters several million strong, determined to change their lives for the better and naturally hungry for success.

Empowerment of women is one of the major outcomes of the economic transformation. Back in the old days, jobs were hard to come by even for men and a single income was enough to keep a household running comfortably. The vastly increased cost of living that has made double income a necessity rather than a luxury, combined with the incentives for female education given by the government over the past several decades has given Indian women the opportunity to leave the four walls of their houses and compete with the men. Inevitably, perhaps, women finally have financial independence, which in turn means that they can be a lot more assertive than their mothers could have ever dreamt of being. Admittedly, liberation of women is hardly uniform and those in the bigger cities, especially in the South, generally enjoy far greater liberties. Nevertheless, the lot of women even in metropolitan India is vastly improved as compared to their predecessors in the old century.

That, in turn, is leading to a change in social attitudes. Barely a generation ago, an Indian woman who dreamt of a career, who believed in a life beyond mere household duties was looked down upon as unfit to marry and have a family. 24-25 was the age when women were supposed to get married and you were getting old the moment you hit 26. An unmarried daughter whose age was anything over 25 was enough cause for parents to have sleepless nights. But all that has changed today in the bigger cities and it is only a matter of time before such attitudes spill over to the smaller ones. Women are every bit as career oriented as men and it is perfectly acceptable for them to dream of having a career in today's India, a far cry from even a decade ago.

As economic growth is spreading beyong the ten biggest cities, jobs are springing up all over the country- and I'm not even talking of jobs abroad. Labour mobility is increasingly becoming common, with the result that thousands of couples are relocating to other cities in search of better opportunities, with the inevitable consequence that families are increasingly becoming nuclear with just couples having one or two children (its incredibly rare to see urban couples having more than two children). As families become increasingly nuclear, people are naturally becoming more and more individualistic. Although Indian society still remains essentially collectivist, people are increasingly becoming aware of the concept of privacy and having a personal space- something that was virtually unknown a generation ago. Old family values are rapidly disintegrating, leading to a massive generation gap between the fathers and sons in today's India.

Another transformation in the making is the change in attitudes towards sex. Indian society has traditionally been a prudish one where sex as a topic is taboo, as it still remains in many ways. And yet, its impossible not to notice how freely one can talk about sex today. Remember, we're talking about a society where a song which had the word 'sexy' got into hot waters as late as 1994. Fast forward to 2009, not an eyebrow was raised when the lead character in the movie Paa decided to have a child out of wedlock and was shown living a perfectly normal and respectable life thereafter- something that was unthinkable for the lead actress of a Hindi movie barely ten years ago. The difference in public reaction speaks volumes about the extent to which attitudes have changed between then and now.

Barely a couple of years ago, I remember reading that some high court decreed that a live-in partner would enjoy the rights of a spouse. As of now, there is a governmental initiative to amend the Hindu Marriage Act to ease the divorce process. Not one group of self-proclaimed guardians of social morality raised a ruckus about it. Why, the matter went barely noticed. It's hard to imagine such a thing happening as late as the turn of the century, when political parties were bringing the roof down on the issue of youngsters celebrating Valentine's Day (granted that there still are extreme right-wing organisations wreaking havoc occasionally, but they are pretty much the exception now).

The institution of marriage is another aspect of traditional Indian life this is beginning to come under pressure. Admittedly divorce is still a rare phenomenon- a few thousand in a population of one billion is but a drop in the ocean- and yet, anyone living in the major cities would acknowledge that it is no longer an extraordinary event. The increasing trend of young people moving away from their home town to work has resulted in thousands of youngsters living in cities where they are complete strangers and as such immune from the social influences they would be subject to back home. Not surprisingly live-in relationships are becoming increasingly common, especially in the bigger cities.

Even perceptions of marriage have changed. Whereas people of my parent's generation married in their early to mid 20s, it is commonplace to people to wait until their late twenties or even the early thirties to marry. At 29 I'm still single but still under no pressure to marry. It is common to see women in the mid/ late 20s who are still single and not yet looking out in urban India- unthinkable a generation ago. With the age of marriage getting pushed further and further away, it is quite possible that sexual mores might change in a generation or two, to the point where extra-marital sex might become not just acceptable, but possibly even the norm.

Another problem is in social interaction with the opposite sex. People like me who were born in the early 80s- the first post '91 generation- are in many ways, sandwiched between the two worlds. Urban Indian society is caught in a time-trap between the old and the new. Outwardly most urban youth like me are highly modernised and yet somewhere deep down, we still haven't completely unentangled ourselves from the past. Just to give a simple example, most young men of my age (including this writer) would be hesitant to propose a young lady for a lunch or dinner date simply because its hard to be sure how the proposal would be taken. It was unthinkable a generation ago, but generally acceptable today- generally, but not necessarily so! In short, it is difficult to know what is acceptable and what is not.

This problem becomes more pronounced when people from smaller places come to bigger cities. The reason is pretty simple: society is a lot more conservative in provincial cities, where young men and young women cannot mix freely- being seen with a member of the opposite sex can itself land you into trouble. Coming from a world where its nearly impossible to freely communicate with the opposite sex to one where one can freely interact, many of them make the mistake of presuming that anything goes. Lot of young men from smaller cities make the mistake of presuming that the woman is interested in them merely because she talks to them freely and happily live under the illusion until realisation dawns- usually with an egg in the face.

For women too, the transition is (I imagine, subject to correction) a trying one, stuck as they are between 20th century India and India of the new millenium. If on the one hand they are looking to liberate themselves, some part of them is still struggling to break free from the past. Outwardly, they may speak English fluently and wear trendy dresses that could, at times, even be revealing. But beneath the surface, few of them have truly managed to liberate themselves. To this day, I hear of women still content to let their menfolk make the decisions- and I'm talking about educated young ladies who would appear 'mod' from outside. This being the case, I daresay little must have changed in provincial cities.

One last significant change worth mentioning, which is beginning to happen is the blurring of caste distinctions. The fact is that the caste system haunts India to this day, but anyone familiar with urban society would know that caste distinctions are rapidly vanishing. At a time of rapid economic growth and plentiful opportunities for employment, commerce dictates decisions and caste is obviously a factor that counts for little, if at all. True, most people at junior levels or menial jobs are of the lower castes, but the reason for that is the legacy of the past and not any deliberate attempt to exclude them from learning.

The question that naturally arises is, what is all this in aid of? The answer is admittedly not easy to come by, especially in an evolving society like India in the throes of a socio-economic transformation bigger and quicker in scale and nature than any since perhaps the transformation wrought by British policy two centuries ago. It is equally significant to bear in mind that the changes mentioned in this article are by no means permanent, but a transitory phase in the transformation of urban Indian society. Given these two facts, any conclusions one may draw from the present are largely guesswork- not even the most astute social historian will be able to project the future with any degree of certainty. The conclusions I shall go on to state need to be viewed in this light.

As I see it, Indian society will make a transition towards a more economically equitable society in that more and more people will move from poverty or below poverty line to middle class over the next few decades. How long that transformation takes is anybody's guess. What is certain is that the speed and the nature of the change will vary from region to region. Whereas the south and the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat are likely to have the middle class constitute more than half their population in another 15-20 years, the corresponding transition in eastern India and most northern states is likely to take a generation or two longer. I daresay by 2050, we should have lifted at least 300-400 million people out of poverty.

At a social level, its likely that people will become more and more individualistic. While family is likely to retain its importance over the individual, the trend will almost certainly be that of nuclear families. What it naturally means is that there will be a huge generation gap between the fathers and sons (borrowing the title of Turgenev's famous novel) of India. We are increasingly going to find an older generation struggling to come to terms with a new world far removed from the one in which they grew up. What the nature and outcome of that generation gap will be, only time will tell.

As for society itself, I daresay that caste distinctions will start disintegrating. In the new world, economic power rather than caste is likely to be the determinant of one's social status. That such an outlook is materialistic is true, but then it is far better than the caste system. Whereas one can aspire to improve one's economic conditions, the caste that one is born into is a stigma or a privilege (depending on which side of the divide you are) for life that one does nothing to earn.

Whether the said changes will actually happen, how and when they will do so, should they come to pass at all, is a tough question to answer. For sure, different sections of society will make the transition at different stages. Whereas people like this writer, who belong to the old middle class, have already made the transition to upper middle class (the new upper-middle class if you may), there are a few hundred million from poor families who constitute the first generation middle class. The transition to upper middle class that ones like me have undergone would perhaps be a generation or two away for them. Further below them are the people who are poor or below poverty line, for whom just making it to the middle class is a dream and who are unlikely to make it at least until another couple of generations if not beyond.

Needless to say, values and social sensibilities will also evolve according to economic status. While the upper middle classes will be quicker to adopt western influences and abandon traditional sensibilities, the lower middle class- people whose parents were poor and as such share their sensibilities will remain more conservative for another generation or two. In other words, what we can expect is a continuation of the status quo: different sections of societies with vastly different cultural sensibilities co-existing, each of them aspiring to a lifestyle and a way of living imitating the one above.

It is just a matter of time before the multiplex/ coffee house culture makes its presence felt in smaller cities, which will start underegoing a lifestyle transformation similar to the one the bigger cities have undergone over the last 6-7 years. What kind of social changes that in turn will wreak is a matter of conjecture. Not being very familiar with life in provincial cities- which is a very different world from the major cities- this writer is hardly in a position to make an informed guess.

But one thing is certain, a massive change is happening and what we're seeing is just the beginning. For sure, India is a society in flux.

Monday, 26 April 2010

CID

CID is the acronym for Crime Investigation Department, which is a department in the police force of most commonwealth countries, consisting of plain-clothed officers who are called upon to investigate complex cases which require special attention. For most urban Indians, CID is the name of a famous television serial showing the adventures of the Mumbai CID team headed by ACP Pradhyuman and his redoubtable team.

CID is a serial I pretty much grew up with. The show was launched in January 1998, a good twelve years ago when I was a teenager not yet in college. Today CID is now the longest running serial in the history of Indian television. In the dozen years between then and now, the serial has won thousands of ardent fans who look forward to their Friday night rendezvous with the CID team that has been nearly unchanged since over a decade now.

What has made this serial so popular? Can it be used as an indicator for other serial/ film makers? I am no authority on this subject, having had no experience whatsoever of anything vaguely resembling filmmaking. Nevertheless, a comparison between CID and some of the most popular TV serials/ movies convinces me that there exists a pattern.

First and foremost comes the script. I remember reading somewhere that the great Alfred Hitchcock used to say that three most essential requirements of a good movie are a good script, a good script and a good script. The one thing common to most CID episodes has been an excellent storyline. In the three years that I have regularly watched the serial (and many more years as an intermittent viewer), I can barely remember two or three episodes that were badly written- and we are talking about two or three out of 200 episodes or so.

Another factor that has worked wonders is the characterisation. We know each and every character as though we were personally acquainted with him. And so ACP Pradhyuman is soft at heart but ultra-committed and ruthless when it comes to duty. Daya is a brilliant observer, fiercely protective of his team members and slap happy when it comes to criminals, but is deep down the quintessential gentle giant. Abhijit is a man with no recollection of his past life and so lonely and single but fiercely committed to the call of duty. Fredricks is the not so bright, goofy officer but a man with a heart of gold and an incredibly brave and obidient officer. There of course is the wisecracking Dr. Salunkhe, whose knowledge of forensic science is unparalelled. All of them are characters we recollect offhand.

Look at some of the cult movies to date and you'll see the pattern. Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade is one character we remember to this day, nearly 70 years after the Maltese Falcon was released, similarly who doesn't remember Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane or talking of more recent times, Kevin Spacey's Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects? Closer home, we can still remember even the most insignificant characters in movies like Sholay, Lagaan or Munnabhai- all three of them mega hits that have achieved cult status. Has any reader ever managed to forget the character of John Darcy from Pride and Prejudice of or Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights? All the books or movies I've referred to were hugely successful ones remembered long long after they first came out. The one common thread running through all of them is that they had vividly fleshed out characters that we could relate to.

Another key factor has been continuity. The core members of the CID team have been around since 1999 or earlier, which means that the characters and the actors playing them have been around since over a decade now- an astonishing example of continuity in a country where change is not just constant, but even relentless. Just to put things in perspective: back in 1998, the average Indian could not afford to have a mobile phone, Café Coffee Day and Barista were unheard of, there were no multiplexes and a shopping mall was something one had only read of in American novels. And remarkably, a serial that started back then (anyone who's lived in urban India would tell that its a different world today) is still running with the same old faces! Those old faces I saw in my college days are still there, I can still see them every friday night. It almost feels like a reunion with old acquaintances at the end of the week.

Now compare that with the concept of the 'image'. Look at the number of times Amitabh Bachchan played the "angry young man" character or Shah Rukh Khan reprised the romantic Raj/ Rahul role. Continuity was the one plank on which both these legends of Indian cinema built their image. The great Alfred Hitchcock too was typed as the master of suspense. Beethoven too is remembered for his heroic, path-breaking music. Most Beethoven admirers would remember his Symphony No.5 or 9, possibly No.3 or maybe his Emprror Concerto. Seldom does one hear anyone mention his Piano Concerto No.4 or his Symphony No.6, both of which deserve to be remembered as magnificent pieces but did not conform to the popular image.

The characterisation of Daya, Abhijeet, ACP Pradhyuman and Fredricks has been consistent over a decade and more and those characters continue to be played by the same actors who were around at the turn of the century. There also is a pattern in which nearly every story kicks off: a corpse is discovered and the officers arrive in their Qualis (they have been using a white coloured Qualis since at least 3 years now). There follows a detailed investigation until the culprit is unmasked, typically finishing with a slap by Daya that impels the criminal to confess. Indeed, continuity has been one of the hallmarks of CID. My father eagerly looks forward to the slap at the end of every episode. I've heard of people who wait for Freddie's latest mishap or his latest misadventure with his wife. Perhaps it is built around the idea of creating a comfort zone for the viewer.

Perhaps there could be more to it, but these are the three key elements of CID's success: strong storylines, excellent characterisation and continuity. Surely, we have enough examples to fall back upon in substantiating the point. Is it not possible that the same could be true for all cinema? I do not know if anyone has ever made a study on this subject. It might make an interesting topic for research if no one has.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Aath Din (Eight Days)

I recently read Surendra Mohan Pathak's Aath Din (which literally means "8 days"). It was only the third novel in Hindi that I read in my entire life and yet so gripping was it, that I finished it off in barely a week, despite the fact that my comfort level with the language was nearly non-existent. Having completed it, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Before I set off, it would perhaps be in order to put in a word or two about Hindi crime fiction. While my exposure to crime fiction genre is admittedly limited to the Sherlock Holmes stories I read in my teenage years, I suspect that Hindi crime fiction writers draw their inspiration largely from their American counterparts from the 20s or the 30s. The characters in Pathak novels (another confession: he's the only Hindi author I've ever read) are strikingly reminiscent of the characters in the hollywood film noirs of the 40s- nearly all of them either negative or morally ambiguous. Pathak's protagonists are usually anti-hero figures. The characters in Aath Din fit the bill to a T.

The novel is about the unusual adventures of the protagonist Vikas Gupta, a fraudster who fits the category of a small-timer, over an 8-day period (hence the title). Gupta is on the way back to his hometown when he stops at a petrol pump at the outskirts of his city. As luck would have it, he inadvertantly happens to witness a murder there and very nearly gets himself killed. Gupta decides to inform the police about it, but does not wish to involve himself in the whole matter, given his reputation with the police.

The matter becomes complicated when the murderer turns up at Vikas Gupta's place to murder him. The struggle results in the murderer getting killed purely by accident. Gupta soon discovers that the death of his would-be killer only gave him a temporary reprieve, as further attempts are made at his life. It becomes evident that far more sinister forces are at play. Gupta realises that he must unravel the truth and unmask the real forces behind the sinister events before they get him. The novel goes on to recount how he goes about doing it.

There are two things I really appreciate about the novel. First and foremost, it was an engaging thriller that kept you at the edge of the seat almost throughout wondering what on earth was going to happen on the one hand and what was really happening behind the scenes on the other- to keep a reader on the edge over 400 pages is no mean feat. Secondly, what I was most surprised to find was that the language was simple and easy to understand: even a person like me, whose exposure to Hindi is restricted to bollywood movies, could read through the book and enjoy it without having to look at a dictionary.

Packed with surprises at every turn, Aath Din is one novel that keeps you guessing where the next surprise is going to come from. Its one novel that works on Alfred Hitchcock's principle that the terror is not in the bang but in the anticipation of it. In a Bach like manner, Surendra Mohan Pathak provides countless preludes before the big bang. Another endearing feature of Pathak's writing is his superb sense of humour. Every now and then, he relieves the reader of the suspense with a humorous passage that's bound to bring a smile on your face.

Sadly there's nothing more that I can disclose without letting a cat or two out of the bag. Those of you willing to experiment with Hindi crime fiction would really want to lay your hands on Pathak novels. I promise you, there's a whole new world to explore out there.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

India Today (2010)

I wrote an article on this very blog about contemporary India in mid 2007. It has been nearly three years since then and so eventful have those three years been, that it has in many ways felt like a lifetime. The world has changed dramatically between then and now. The western hemisphere which has dominated the rest of the world for centuries now is in the throes of the worst financial crisis in living memory at a time when aging populations threaten to send pension costs skyrocketing. On the other hand, countries like India and China have not just escaped the worst of the downturn, but have already started showing signs of growth.

In my previous article, written long before we had even heard the word 'subprime' in this part of the world, India was a rapidly growing economy with a promising future. Three years down the line, there is talk of India being a superpower in another generation and becoming the third biggest economy in the world by 2040 or so. Such predictions may or may not come to pass. The very fact that the possibility is being discussed in serious fora by itself attests to the giant strides India has made over the last generation or so. Importantly, between then and now the Government of India has taken up several crucial initiatives that could eventually change the history of India.

Three years on from my previous piece, I'm even more optmistic than I was in 2007. Last time, my optimism was founded on sentiment rather than logic, but three years down the line, I have far greater reasons for optimism and reason for that can be answered in two simple words: Rural India.

I'm not suggesting even for a moment that things are looking great in the hinterlands. Nevertheless, there's no gainsaying that the Government's initiatives have improved things and that there's a very real possibility that we could turn it around over the next few decades using a combination of economic empowerment and education.

Back in 2007 I had written about the appaling backwardness of rural India and how much needs to be done. That situation still remains largely true, but for one very significant difference: the Government of India's vision of inclusive growth, which was just talk back then, is now being addressed through vital policy initiatives. The NREGS was in its infancy back then. As it stands today, it has dramatically improved the lot of vast rural masses. True the implementation of the NREGS is questionable on many counts, but the fact remains that it has given money and purchasing power to millions who never had it before. Is it a coincidence that at a time when urban India was hit by a recession, rural India remained largely untouched?

Another extremely important policy inititative is the Government's thrust on infrastructure. Anyone who has been monitoring Government Policy would know how far the Government has gone to promote infrastruture: the promotion of the PPP model, massive fiscal incentives and easy borrowing norms for infrastructure companies. True, our bureaucracy still remains shockingly inefficient. The babus are the biggest drag on our economy, but even their inefficiency can only delay things, they can no longer torpedo India's growth the way they could once do.

Apart from all that are the education reforms that could one day truly create opportunities to come out of the trap of illiteracy and the consequent backwardness- the one misfortune that today befalls scores of millions of Indians. As it is, mid-day meals have done wonders in terms of bringing children back to school. Vocational training, one of the crucial initiatives of the HRD Ministry, could empower millions to take up productive jobs without necessarily having to go for a university degree, which as of today is the only avenue available to those who wish to study anything beyond school (let's face it: the vocational courses we have today are terribly behind time and totally redundant).

Women's reservations will bring out several women in public life. True, the first generation or two post-reservations will spawn scores of Rabri Devis, but that's surely not going to be a permanent state of affairs. Surely, women will start asserting themselves at some point in time. With education more easily available in the years to come, we are realistically looking at a more equitable society in the future. Importantly, by creating a reasonably educated voter base, India could create a genuine democracy: a society where voters are aware of the powers and understand their rights and responsibilities- one thing that lacks today.

Sounds wildly optimistic, doesn't it? I readily admit that it is perhaps part fantasy but at least there is reason to feel that it could indeed come to pass. Importantly, the systems are being put into place which, if properly used, could go a long way into resolving India's problems. I am under no illusion that we will manage to completely wipe out poverty or social inequality from our society. Nevertheless, if we can bring down the number of poor from 500-600 million to even 300-400 million, that itself would be a massive turnaround. If we could ensure that the millions of children who go to bed hungry can get two decent meals a day, we can claim to be a truly free country.

Perhaps we may one day manage to realise the ideals of the Nehruvian era, the dream that millions of Indians fought several generations for, which thousands laid their lives down for. God willing, we shall one day redeem our pledge very substantially, we will one day realise those ideals which gave our society its strength for centuries. God willing, we have finally embarked on that journey.