Underage Invitations

There are many distasteful aspects of social life in Delhi. There is the habit of brides and grooms turning up late to their own weddings, the associated late start to dinner, the tiresome status signalling, and the very specific subset of status signalling that is the gentlemen’s silk kurta with pyjama. All of these have existed for years, and some of them may even be peaking. But in the past few years, a new and revolting trend has emerged – the invitation issued in the name of underage family members.

This is, for example, the invitation to somebody’s fiftieth wedding anniversary or seventieth birthday party that comes from their grandchildren; who might not even have started school. At a slightly less extreme level is the wedding party invitation for a twenty two year old issued by their seventeen year old sibling. The worst I’ve ever seen has been a wedding sangeet invitation supposedly from the groom’s two year old nephew, which even came written in baby talk. Hindi baby talk, in Roman script. ‘Mere tata ke sangeet pe daroor aana’ or some such emetic nonsense. Horrible.

Who do these people think they are fooling? Who is seriously going to believe that little Aarav, with his vocabulary of five hundred words, and pocket money of two hundred rupees, has single handedly managed the catering, venue, bartender, and guest list? It may seem like a cute, even good idea, at the time of writing out the invitations, to have them go out from a five year old. This will be limited to the actual hosts, and last a few moments. The eyerolling, and the judgement of the many guests who receive the invitation, will last much longer, and be felt by many more people.

If I were feeling cynical, I would dismiss this as merely another form of humblebragging; one in which parents, or even grandparents, depending on who is actually paying and organising the shindig, try to play down their responsibility. That sort of thing is tiresome. In my even more cynical moods, I would suspect the hosts of trying to turn the focus away from their hospitality (which is both virtue and skill) and instead trying to point out that they have offspring (which may or may not be virtuous, and requires such little skill that practically everybody does it). And at my most cynical, I would suspect that this sort of thing is a desperate gambit to turn both the focus and the presents away from the people being celebrated to the child-hosts. “Oh, our parents’ friends didn’t even know that we have children? Well, let’s send them the anniversary party invitation from Aradya, and maybe she’ll get some presents too. With the cost of nursery schools today, she’ll need it.”

I am no longer as cynical as I used to be, though. Some combination of age, experience, and the love of a good woman has led to me becoming more compassionate and charitable. And so I can as well see this sort of cutesy symbolism being motivated by entirely pure intentions. “My parents are in their seventies, and my kids aren’t even five yet,” thinks the hapless host. “By the time my kids are able to have a half decent conversation, their grandparents might be ravaged by dementia. The two generations will barely know each other. Having them symbolically host the party is the least I can do to forge some sort of connection, or at least signal to society at large that there is one.”

All very well-intentioned, yes, but even this sort of motivation only undermines the dignity of the actual adult hosts. And if we look at things dispassionately, even the initial regret that sparks this motivation may be misplaced. Yes, perhaps the new generation of children will never see or remember their grandparents having a relationship with them that goes beyond baby talk. But that is the price we pay for the age of marriage and childbearing increasing over time. And considering that this increase in the age of marriage has led to more education, more liberty, and more happiness for everybody who’s spent their young adult years exploring their lives, careers, and choice of partners instead of being frogmarched into a mandap; it seems like a bargain price to me.

A Modest Proposal for Persian Gharwapsi

There is a question that has been bothering me for a long while: how are we (as a species, but particularly as Indians) going to cope with the looming extinction of the Zoroastrian Parsi race? In the past week, two things have brought this question from merely background, low grade worrying to a major preoccupation: Navroz, and Justice Rohinton Nariman’s judgement on Section 66A. Within four days, we saw how much we have to lose if India no longer has Parsis: not just dhansak, but also a robust defence of the freedom of speech. The stakes are high enough that I am putting down my thoughts on the problem, and also advancing a possible solution with the hope that it may find support among the concerned stakeholders – though, as I hope to demonstrate in the following paragraphs, all of us are concerned stakeholders.

As I grow older, I find myself agreeing with Aakar Patel more and more. Most recently, I agreed with him on the ridiculousness of Indian formal wear. But this was something that really started back in April 2012, when I visited the Godrej office in South Bombay, for a panel discussion with Supriya Nair, Sidharth Bhatia, and Sathya Saran about Indian cinema. This was a talk conducted by the Godrej India Culture Lab, which was something started by Godrej to regularly showcase artists and writers and filmmakers both to Godrej employees and to the public at large. That in itself is quite a remarkable way for an Indian corporation to spend its money. However, what was even more remarkable was the venue itself: the terrace garden of the Godrej office.

This terrace garden was not the usual terrace garden which is a bunch of potted plants placed around the corners of a concrete terrace. Someone had filled the terrace in with soil, created a lawn, and then put paths across the turf. Which is impressive in itself, but again, not unique. A bunch of people have done that. What made it truly remarkable was that this terrace garden had trees. Full grown ones, big enough that you could sit in their shade on a hot Bombay afternoon (and really, eleven months of the year, is there any other kind?). These were trees which had to have been planted at least ten years prior, perhaps even earlier. They could not have been so large, full grown, and shady otherwise.

Think through the implications of that. Whoever was in charge of managing the Godrej head office in South Bombay would have been fairly senior. Let’s say, late thirties at the youngest. In twenty or twenty five years, they would have been retired and out of the office. When they planted these trees (or had them planted), it would have been with the awareness that it would take them at least five years to enjoy their shade; and that they would perhaps never get to enjoy the shade. Certainly, they would never get to see the trees they planted be as full grown as possible. And without any immediate or major benefit to themselves, they went ahead and did it anyway. Ten years on, shameless dilettantes such as myself were the ones to reap the effort of their vision.

It was this, that for the first time, made me realise that Aakar Patel’s wild generalisations are not merely trolling Indian smugness (which is worth trolling even if the means being used are idiotic), but actually arise out of a kernel of truth. So here was a stark validation of his claim that Parsis are the only people in India to make an effort to do good for other people.

Aakar Patel’s characterisation of non-Parsi Indians as merely cultured (if even that) and not civilised is, of course, reckless exaggeration. But the rest of India truly has a way to go before it can catch up with the Parsis. In this I am optimistic, and think that we will get there someday – and that day will come faster as long as we have Parsis to be role models. In fact, another Parsi had once drawn the analogy on his now defunct blog about how all change is like making dahi – first you put in a starter (the role model), then you churn through furious effort, and finally you end up with something delicious. To my annoyance, this analogy conflicts massively with Aakar Patel’s article: he thinks the Parsis have a civilisation and not a culture, but dahi starter is a culture and not a civilisation. And it also conflicts with the origin story of Parsis in India, in which they claim to be sugar being added to milk, and not curd added to milk. Even so, my original point of Parsis being vital role models to the rest of us, who can improve Indian society as a whole, stands.

There is, alas, one problem with this: by the time other Indians get around to behaving like Parsis, the Parsis may themselves be extinct. The Parsi population is plummeting. What can be done?

Well, the government of India is on it, and has started a campaign of moral suasion to get Parsis to make more babies. Like so many other efforts of the Government of India, it has been widely criticised for being really stupid and really insensitive. But even if the campaign had been sensitive and well done, there is no guarantee that it would have worked in the long run. Surrounded by a hegemonic Bollywood culture, any new Parsis might have grown up doing disco dance instead of listening to Haydn. Some of them might even end up adopting (shudder) Bengali culture and propagating the virtues of rosogollas. Then, there would be many Parsis, but no Parsi civilization. And while the more Parsis the better, retaining the Parsi civilization is equally important.

The simplest way to spread the Parsi civilization would be for the Parsis to start converting all the non Parsis around them to Zoroastrianism. By itself, this wouldn’t be good enough – after all, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians have been carrying out conversions but the cultural baggage of the caste system persisted – but at least it would speed things up. Alas, Indian Zoroastrianism doesn’t do conversion, possibly because of the origin story I mentioned earlier, so even that is ruled out. Is there no way out?

Actually, there is! And it relies on a loophole. When the Parsis came to India, they were asked not to carry out conversions of the local population. But nobody said anything about not converting other Persians, of whom there is luckily an abundance.

My solution to the whole vexed problem (which, as we shall see, also ends up solving other problems) is for India to throw open the borders and offer Indian citizenship and residency to any Iranian who is willing to start speaking English and/ or Gujarati, adopt Zoroastrianism, and act by the Parsi virtues.

The advantages of this are massive. First, as Sumeet Kulkarni points out, people who become Parsis by choice will probably be much more motivated in their propagation of Parsi civilization than those who just happen to be born Parsi.

Second, it avoids the whole conversion mess. Since the people being converted to Zoroastrianism are people whose ancestors used to be Zoroastrians themselves, it’s actually much more like a gharwapsi. In fact, from my (admittedly very limited) observations from my visit to Iran in 2012, Iranians are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, to the extent that you could make a case that converting to Islam for them was like doing an operating system upgrade on an existing phone, not throwing out an iPhone and getting an Android as it is made out to be in India. Extending this analogy, going back to Zoroastrianism is like installing a previous OS version because you find it’s better for battery life. Or to use the gharwapsi analogy itself, it’s not even coming back home, but moving from the first floor to the ground floor of the same house so that you can help your cousins out with taking care of their kids or aged relatives.

Thirdly, it benefits the Iranians themselves, who are currently suffering under the sanctions regime. They get a chance to move from a wrecked economy to a… well, also tottering economy, but not a wrecked one, and importantly, one in which they will be looked up to as business and professional superstars and in which a hugely rich Zoroastrian Parsi community stands ready to subsidise their housing and children’s education.

Fourthly, if the civilisational and societal advantages are not enough to convince you, there is a baser motive to support this: an influx of Iranian people will make the average attractiveness of the Indian population skyrocket.

Finally, there will be benefits even at a governmental level, since this pool of freshly arrived Iranians will be able to spur Indo-Iranian trade and carry out Track II Diplomacy. Nitin Pai and K Subrahmanyam’s dream of India getting involved in Iran-centric diplomacy and carrying out a USA-Iran rapprochement could come one step closer to reality.

The many benefits of this plan mean that Persian gharwapsi is a win-win scenario for all involved. It has massive and visible benefits for all concerned, which is much more than can be said about the VHP conducted gharwapsi, which has no benefits for anybody, except perhaps VHP officials who are desperate footage seekers.

I hope, therefore, that my plan is taken up by anybody competent to implement it. I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country.

Disdain for Elders is Paramount

It’s been more than sixteen years since Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was released. That means that the people who were impressionable teenagers when it released have now started having kids of their own. And in about six or seven years, they will be enthusiastically telling the kids about what an awesome movie it is and how the kids should watch it too.

The kids will then watch it, and a whole new generation will get infected with the idea that being an annoying jerk and a stalker is a good way to get the girl. (Hollywood, for all its faults, has never combined the two – either you have straight up stalkers as in Twilight, or you have the annoying jerks. Or to be fair, none that I’ve noticed.)

The only hope for future generations is that Kids Those Days will have no culture and values and thus ignore the advice of their parents, or if they watch it, to watch it with extreme sarcasm and eyerolling about the shit their parents watched.

Similarly, the tendency for Kids These Days to be Kids These Days is my greatest hope after reading this very scary story about the Bajrang Dal’s summer camps (link via Mihir S Sharma, discovered via Prayaag Akbar‘s retweet):

THERE WERE speeches: “Be weary of six M’s,” the boys were told from a booming microphone. “Muslims, Missionaries, Marxists, Lord Macaulay, foreign Media and Maino [UPA President Sonia Gandhi’s middle name].”

The warning of an apocalypse: Kalyug is upon us. The Muslims are taking over the country by converting Hindus, by pretending to be Hindu and marrying our women. Hindus will soon be extinct. Already the Muslims exceed Hindus in India. We must remove the mullahs from our country. They kill our Gau Mata; each cow has 2,300 devis inside her. (“We can’t trust Muslims, they don’t even spare our cows, why will they spare us?” says Anil, 14, the son of a vegetable vendor in Delhi.)

Since it is only a week long, I am optimistic that eventually about ninety percent of the boys who attended will discover girls (or boys, if that’s what floats their boat), and put the camp completely out of their mind, much to the despair of their parents and camp counselors.

We probably should be worried about the other ten percent, but if it wasn’t for the tendency of teenagers to treat the instructions of older people with contempt, things would be so much worse.

How We Think About Cities

Back when twitter was outraging over Dalhi boys and the Madrasan, Shefaly asked me how I, as a Dalhi boy living in Madras, felt about the whole thing. I told her that explaining my feelings would need a blogpost, not tweets, and that I was too busy to write a blogpost, but I’d write one as soon as I had free time. Shefaly said she’d hold me to that.

Unfortunately, this is not that blogpost. But it will hopefully make it easier to understand what I’m going on about when I do write the blogpost Shefaly did ask for.

The thing is, when we (and by ‘we’, I am generalising recklessly about people-like-us Indians) think about or talk about our cities, we do so in different ways. I’ve counted four such ways. I’m not suggesting that these four are the only ways to think about cities, or that a person thinks about a particular city in only one of these ways – just that anything any Indian person says about a city is likely to fall in one of these categories. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s go ahead.

The four ways we think about cities are:

  1. Cynical: in general, this involves a dismissal of a city, either by its own residents (whether recent or long-time), or people from other places. When Krish Ashok makes fun of amit_123s, he spoofs the cynical view of Chennai as being hot and muggy (admittedly this is true), possessing no food options other than curd rice (this is false), having practically no decent public spaces to booze (this is true), and lacking all redeeming features (this is false). Chennai is of course not the only city to attract a cynical view. I am frequently cynical about Calcutta, dismissing it as a vast slum. My father looks upon Mumbai as an overpopulated sewer. My brother hates Bangalore for reasons I am unable to fathom, and Delhi of course gets insane amounts of bad press from all corners for being full of road rage (which I cannot contest), people going ‘Tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai?’ (Um… yes, but it has been getting better in the past few years as more migrants come in and make Delhi a gentler place) and violence against women (which is true, but it is also possible that it’s not significantly different from other places in India in actual violence – the others don’t report it as much).
    Cynicism about cities doesn’t only have to be about people from one city slagging of another. It can be about all cities being worthless – see this Caravan article about how much disdain the Kannada movie article has for Bangalore, and perhaps urban life in general. I can’t find the links right now, but a few years ago I was reading about how in the United States there’s a distrust for big cities by small-towners and rural dwellers – those effete city-dwellers aren’t real Americans! And of course, the NREGA itself has a philosophical underpinning that it’s a bad idea for villagers to be in the city – they should be given employment in their home villages instead. That’s actually an idea going back to Mohandas Gandhi, and which has quite possibly screwed India over for sixty years.
  2. Romantic: this is right at the other end of the spectrum from the cynical. While the cynic looks at only the terrible parts of the city while ignoring all the good bits, the romantic sees only the good bits, and never mentions the bad. This is fairly prevalent.
    The most romantic view we’ve ever had of a city probably lay in the phrase ‘the Spirit of Mumbai,’ before it became impossible to say that without a sneer, as it got associated with passively accepting whatever shit got dealt out to Mumbai. But other Indian cities have had their romantic propaganda as well – look at the title song of Dilli-6, whose lyrics keep talking about the big hearts of people in Delhi, claim that all the profanity slung about the city is actually filled with love, and that there is nothing in Delhi but love. Chandru gets fairly romantic about Chennai at times. And of course there’s perpetual Delhi romantic Mayank Austen Soofi (who on occasion manages to be cynical about present-day Delhi while remaining romantic about past-Delhi).
  3. Sanctimonious: The evil twin of romanticism. The sanctimonious view doesn’t so much claim that a city is good and has no bad, as that the city is better than everywhere else (often in defiance of actual facts). This includes people from Metrass accusing every other place in India of having no morality or respect from tradition, people from Kolkata of claiming that only they have kalchar, and Mumbai people claiming that nowhere else in India is happening (seriously, Mumbai guys: fuck off). Oh, and about a month ago, Anantha expressing schadenfreude that while Chennai might have to suffer TASMAC-administered virtual prohibition, at least it didn’t have as stupid a name as Kolkatta/ Poschim Bongo (which is undeniable).  I’ve seen Delhi cynicism and Delhi romanticism, but never Delhi sanctimony. But this needn’t necessarily be because Delhi doesn’t possess that vice, just that it’s so self-absorbed that it can’t quite grok the point of comparing itself to other places.
  4. Realist: And finally, there’s the realist view, which is able to acknowledge both the good parts and the bad parts of a city. This, I fear, is tremendously unpopular.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that we as human beings respond far better to stories and narratives than to data, and it’s much easier to make a story out of a romantic or cynical view than out of actual data. Every year sees ‘Best Cities to Live in’ lists being released by somebody or the other, in which newspapers only cover the final rankings, not the break down of scores and parameters.
Another thing which probably makes it difficult for realist views of our cities to spread is that so few people have a stake in our cities, thanks to our wonky system of government which kicks most of city governance up to the state government (link via Supriya from ages ago). When there’s so little chance that demanding a specific change or improvement in a city will ever have a result, there’s even littler reason for a city resident to keep track of specific improvements that could be made. Easier and more convenient to stick to a grand narrative – whether romantic, cynical, or sanctimonious.
This is what makes it difficult to have a proper conversation about cities in India – the ones you were born in (or with), the ones you’ve adopted (or who adopt you), or the ones you like to visit. At some point, you’re going to challenge someone’s worldview – romantic or cynical or sanctimonious – and then the conversation is going to go off into arguing about that worldview, not about real life. This is of course a common problem when talking about many things, but it seems to be particularly bad when we talk about our cities.
That said, since Shefaly is holding me to it, I will try to have that conversation about cities soon. Portions of my cynicism and romanticism will creep into that as well, but I will aim to be as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, you will have to wait for the next time I have a relatively free working day.

Lonely Planet, Amethyst, Parks

This isn’t the common name for it, since a Google search doesn’t seem to throw up the link I want, but there’s a Lonely Planet Curse: as soon as Lonely Planet (or, to be fair, any major travel guide publisher) lists a restaurant/ hotel in their guidebooks, it starts getting an influx of tourists. Since it now has a captive market, the place in question lets service standards slip, raises prices to white-people levels, and earns the lasting ire of the locals over there. I think Adri rants about this often.

I was at Amethyst in Royapettah today and I suspect it may be suffering from the Lonely Planet Curse. It was certainly full of white people, and at least one table had a French couple reading an Inde de Sud guidebook. If anybody’s seen the latest South India guidebook, can they verify this?

The Lonely Planet Curse would explain the averageness of the food and coffee there. It’s not bad – it’s just meh. I wouldn’t refuse to go to Amethyst ever again because of bad food, but I’d never go there for the food. The desserts are still very good, though. The lemon curd cake I had today was fantastic. So was the banana bread, but then I am biased when it comes to bananas. People who are going to go ‘Haun!’ or ‘TWSS!’ in the comments, here is a pre-emptive ‘Shut up.’

But the thing is, you don’t really go to Amethyst for the food, which is just a bonus. The reasons to go to Amethyst are:

  1. You are a corporate whore who still wants to pretend to be a hippie
  2. You want to gawk at all the hot people or posh people or actual hippies there
  3. You want to buy nice presents for your darling girlfriend
  4. Amethyst is lovely and you can sit and wander around among plants, fishponds and cats

The new venue is even greener than the old premises in Gopalapuram. They’ve planted pineapples which haven’t come up yet, and have a huge melon (or perhaps pumpkin) patch, as well as brinjal plants. Delightful. I was there last week as well, and I sat in the verandah to write and blasted out almost a thousand words in three hours. As a place to just sit down and write, the Amethyst verandah pwns my guesthouse room, my office, and five star hotel coffee shops (which I tried last year). Though to be fair, doing this writing-on-the-verandah thing during the July monsoon is probably far more comfortable and far less hot and sticky than doing it in May. But even then the green cover would probably help.

So it’s partly the air of artsy hippieness that surrounds Amethyst that keeps taking me back there (and telling other people to meet me there)  and partly the greenery. But I realised that the hippies come there because of the other hippies and the greenery too – so fundamentally it’s the greenery. It’s the third greenest place I know in Chennai – the first two are the IIT Madras campus and the Horticultural Society.

However, I never invite people to meet me at IIT Madras (unless there’s already a quiz on there, but let us not delve into these boundary conditions) or the Horticultural Society. As is my wont, I mused why this is so. After all, with such wonderful greenery, why not invite people to meet me there?

After due consideration, I realised that this is because our social norms – especially in India –  demand that we combine socialisation with consumption. We either meet at coffee shops, where we consume coffee – or restaurants, where we consume food – at the movies, where we consume images – or at malls, where we commit wanton consumerism in general. Thus, most people who adhere to social norms will not go to a place merely because it is green. On occasion, I have suggested to people that we meet at the Horticultural Society or the (Delhi) zoo, but I am not quite as beholden to social norms. (As Bernard Woolley put it, this is “an irregular verb. I have an independent mind. You are an eccentric. He is around the twist.”) Anyway, either they never agreed or the one time someone did agree, the zoo was closed. So it goes.

I further reflected that changing social norms would be difficult and time-consuming, whereas getting parks to add a restaurant, or a small cafe, or a gift shop would be comparatively simple. In fact, many Delhi parks have done this. Deer Park has Park Baluchi, Lodi Gardens has the Garden Restaurant, and the Garden of Five Senses has something whose name I cannot recall at the moment. The only trouble is that these are all high-priced, and there are no lower price alternatives. The parks have street food hawkers outside, on the footpath, but none inside. As far as I know, Chennai does not have anything at all inside its parks, but growing up as I did five kilometres away from both Deer Park and Nehru Park, Chennai’s parks seem ridiculously tiny to me, and I suspect that they wouldn’t be able to squeeze a restaurant or food court in.

In an ideal situation, parks would have restaurants, cafes, small shops, and other such things to attract people for whom greenery was not sufficient motivation. Which is most people, when you come to think of it.

And then finally I remembered that somebody had already written about this, in 1961.

Certain qualities in design can apparently make a difference too. For if the object of a generalized bread-and-butter neighborhood park is to attract as many different kinds of people, with as many different schedules, interests, and purposes as possible, it is clear that the design of the park should abet this generalization of patronage rather than work at cross-purposes to it. Parks intensely used in generalized public-yard fashion should have four elements in their design which I shall call intricacy, centering, sun, and enclosure.

Intricacy is related to the variety of reasons for which people come to neighborhood parks. Even the same person comes for different reasons at different times; sometimes to sit tiredly, sometimes to play or to watch a game, sometimes to read or work, sometimes to show off, sometimes to fall in love, sometimes to keep an appointment, sometimes to savor the hustle of the city from a retreat, sometimes in the hope of finding acquaintances, sometimes to get closer to a bit of nature, sometimes to keep a child occupied, sometimes simply to see what offers, and almost always to be entertained by the sight of other people.

 (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)

Jane Jacobs, ladies and gentlemen. One of the twentieth century’s leading badasses. You’d be well advised to read the whole thing – all 448 pages of it.

The Sainath Fallacy

I’m sure this fallacy has existed for many years and has already been described and named here, but I first came across it in P Sainath’s opeds. I brought it up again because it seems to have been spreading beyond Sainath in the recent past (where India is concerned).

The Sainath fallacy is basically this: “How dare you outrage about Cause X when Cause Y is so much more outrageous!”

Specific examples are:

  • Sainath himself: how dare the finance minister worry about the stock markets when India is so low on the Human Development Index! (This actually combines the Sainath fallacy with misdirected outrage, another thing that seems to be spreading these days, but that’s a topic for another post)
  • Richard Dawkins: how dare atheist women worry about men behaving creepily when Muslim women are at risk of genital mutilation!
  • Hindutvawadis: how dare the media talk about human rights abuses in Kashmir/ riots/ whatever the media is talking about when they never address the issue of Kashmiri Pandit refugees!
  • I can’t find links right now, but I vaguely remember people outraging that women were Slutwalking for the right to dress as they pleased instead of focusing on far more pressing issues like dowry deaths or female foeticide.

Basically, it’s not enough to be outraged yourself. Everyone else has to share your outrage. And moreover, all outrage over anything else is illegitimate.

Dear Sainath, Dawkins, and other outragers: as long as people are expressing themselves with their own money, or on their own blogs, and not using your money or house or website to do it – how about you let them say whatever the fuck they want?

How to Make Trends

Last week, the Planetizen news feed on urban planning posted a link to how contrary to predictions, retiring baby boomers were moving not to cities but to the rural countryside in Oregon (Planetizen summary, actual news story).

The very next link on the feed was titled Not So Fast and linked to another story from San Jose which said that seniors were in fact very much moving from suburbs to cities (Planetizen summary, actual news report). What explains these two contradictory trends?

I think the answer lies in the small population (by Indian standards) of America and particularly Oregon. Oregon has slightly under 4 million people. It has as many people as Ahmedabad in an area the size of undivided Uttar Pradesh. With that kind of population density, the number of people who need to do something to make it a trend is very small indeed. (Warning! Reckless Exaggeration ahead!) If three people do something, it seems like a trend. If twenty people do something it begins to look like an independent subculture.

Now, let’s extend already reckless exaggeration even further. Along with the high productivity, resulting leisure time, and huge capital base, maybe the reason the West is ahead in the creation of new subcultures and alternative lifestyles is simply that their population is so small that far fewer people have to be doing the same thing for them to stand out. If twenty people start dressing in black clothes and heavy eyeliner in Austin, Texas (population: less than 700,000) they become a Goth movement, but in New Delhi, India (population: more than 10 million) you would need 20,000 people acting in the same way for a subculture to get attention; let alone traction.

The implications of this are actually very alarming. What if existentialism achieved its name and fame just because Jean-Paul Sartre was good at socialising in cafes and a group of twenty chelas in a city of less than 3 million looked like a major movement. If Skimpy had been grown up in similar circumstances, perhaps philosophy students would today be studying studs-and-fighter-ism.

So basically this is a reason to support Atanu Dey’s plan for 600 new mid-sized designer-cities in India. It will give us cities that strike a happy balance between being urban enough to generate subcultures, and small enough for subcultures to get noticed.

Ideological Violence II

Ayyo! Alas! Alamak! My post on ideological violence in Delhi and other cities has provoked controversy in the comments, with various people accusing me of saying that everyday violence provides catharsis, or that I was trying to use twenty years of peace to play down the anti-Sikh riots, or that I was saying that Delhi was better than everywhere else or that Delhi was worse than everywhere else.

People, I was not trying to imply anything with that post. It was purely an observation, and I threw it out in a short blogpost. I did not give much thought to the why’s and wherefores of this. I am now paying the price for writing like Dilip D’ Souza and not stating what is a premise and what is a conclusion. So, to clarify things:

  • I don’t think that the everyday violence necessarily acts as catharsis or prevents large scale violence from happening. The presence of everyday violence and lack of ideological violence in Delhi probably spring from two different reasons.
  • One thing I didn’t write in the original post but mentioned in the comments was that there is mob violence in Delhi but it’s not ideological. Just yesterday a mob ransacked a police station and thrashed the policemen after they gangraped someone inside. In fact the thrashings by mobs happen regularly everytime some rich wanker runs down a kid. And back in the 1990s, when power cuts would go on too long, entire neighbourhoods would get together and start stoning transformers or Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking offices. So yeah, the catharsis thing is definitely untrue – there is mob violence – but it’s retributive, not ideological.
  • I am not trying to say that a high murder and rape rate makes Delhi preferable to places where these are lower but there’s a riot every six months. Or vice versa. That’s just stupid.
  • I am not trying to play down or be apologetic for the anti-Sikh riots.

Now that I’ve given some thought to this issue – I think the reason there’s very little ideological violence in Delhi is that in the other states ideological violence is usually caused by different identity groups jockeying for power and access to government machinery  – or if not directly to grab power, as a show of strength or threat on behalf of political parties.

In Delhi, everyone has access to someone in government somehow. A neighbour or relative or some connection will be anything from a political party member to a minor clerk to an IAS officer. There’s hardly anybody who’s totally excluded from the administrative or political process, and so nobody needs to join a mob to grab the spoils of government. Delhi’s corruption is very democratic. In other states, government servants’ class, caste or language biases could mean that they won’t do your work even if you’re ready to bribe them.

Ideological Violence

This morning I realised something. Delhi is probably the most violent metro in the country when it comes to stuff like general rudeness, road rage, sexual harassment and rape, and beatings and brawls. But it has the least ideological violence.

So although Bombay, Bangalore and Chennai are more easygoing in general, they all have these bouts of ideological or political party sponsored violence. In Bombay you have the MNS beating up anybody who isn’t a Marathi manoos, in Bangalore the Kannada Rakshana Vedike goes about rioting against Tams and outsiders, and in Chennai you have regular outbreaks of either caste violence or anti Sri Lanka riots. If you insist on calling Calcutta a metro, they have Bangla bandhs.

Apart from the stain of the anti-Sikh pogrom twenty four years ago, Delhi has mostly been free of organised rioting and violence.

The Middle Class Myth

In the last post, I said that middle class voter apathy was a myth. In fact the problem is worse. Where India is concerned, the middle class is itself a myth, which is why I used the scare quotes. It’s neither middle, nor a class.

Let’s look at ‘middle’ first. What Barkha Dutt and similar luminaries call a ‘middle class Delhi audience’ is by no means in the middle of anything – it’s probably in the top 20% of all income earners, if not top 10% or even top 5%. Considering at least 15% of the population is below a poverty line which is drawn incredibly low, and another 20% is struggling above it, people with five figure salaries and cars are very very far above the middle.

Next, ‘class’. Using the word class implies that there are mostly shared characteristics. But how shared the characteristics are depend on how flexible or granular you go. They’re split mostly evenly between the Congress and the BJP. You could call it a preference for national parties, but isn’t that a bit of a stretch?

Occupationally – the middle class includes salaried people working for MNCs, salaried people working in Indian family owned businesses or publicly listed professionaly managed IT firms, family business owners, traders, successful artists and performers, and SME owners. They all have different incomes and different agendas. One single middle class. Really?

The middle class has social liberals who send pink chaddis to Muthalik and social conservatives who go on Rediff and abuse the liberals for supporting drunkenness and immorality. It has vocal supporters of karza maafis and vocal opponents of government waste. One single middle class?

The middle class includes IAS officers who set up the Sanskriti school so that their kids don’t have to go to Kendriya Vidyalayas and people who do dharnas to protest school fee hikes. More pertinently, it includes people who have government employees in their family and can tap on a network of government servants, and people who don’t have that access and have to either spend huge amounts of time or money or both when they need to get anything done. One middle class, eh?

So speaking or writing about the middle class is not terribly productive. There are many middle classes, and unless you talk about which one you mean – salary-earners in IT companies and MNCs, SME or public sector employees with much smaller earnings, the self-employed – you’ll trip up. If you don’t control for regional and caste differences you’ll trip up again.

What classification you do chose is up to you. You can flatter me by using my hippie-yuppie-lala behavioural categorisation. You can go with the NCAER’s classification of people along consumption patterns – Destitute, Aspirants, Climbers, Consuming Class, and Rich. You can invent your own. But as long as you talk about the middle class, your argument will be muddled.