While reading the storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter over the pros and cons of our PM’s demonetization drive, I was reflecting upon the kind of people who have grown up and become ‘educated’ in India over the last thirty-odd years, correlating with my own long experience of teaching a very large number of such people when they were in their teens over the same time period. Several thousand of my ex-pupils are in the 25 to 45 age bracket now. Here are some broad generalizations I can make about them, and hardly any of these are complimentary. Do read them with patience and see whether you agree on the whole, even if it makes a bitter pill to swallow. Of course I acknowledge exceptions, and know about many of them myself, but remember that by definition the exceptions don’t count for much: how a society behaves depends by and large on the common type.
1) If they have good internet access and are comfortable with chatting/posting in English (even if that is very clumsy, stilted English interspersed with vernaculars), they belong to a very privileged minority. How many would they be? Twenty, thirty, fifty million at most?
2) And yet they have an overblown sense of identity and entitlement. They believe they speak for all of India – many are affronted if it is suggested that they don’t even know much of India. They believe ‘national progress’ is coterminous with what they want.
3) They ape Americans in everything except the good and important things. So – as I have pointed out once before – artificially tattered jeans, short skirts, ‘cool’ slang and chewing gum and rock music and fast cars/bikes and jingoistic chest thumping yes; hard work, cleanliness, love of greenery, charity, respect for the law, punctuality, keeping promises, courtesy to strangers, quietness in public and support for libraries, museums and research facilities, no no.
4) They like to think and act as though they are informed, intelligent, independent beings, but – and they hate to hear this – they loathe learning and reasoned argument, they form opinions quickly then steadfastly ignore all evidence to the contrary, they are driven by emotion of a very violent, febrile, evanescent kind and the herd instinct in everything, whether it be choices relating to cinema or music, clothes, food, politics, subjects of formal study and career preferences, ‘status’-symbols and what have you. In addition, two other factors drive them powerfully: tradition (best observed when it comes to marriage – look at how powerful issues of caste and dowry and ‘correct dressing’ still are) and advertizing (right now they all want iPhones and compact SUVs because they all want iPhones and compact SUVs, or so they learn from the ads and the all-important peer groups, outside which they rarely venture).
5) They are intensely patriotic – which means they hate Pakistan and revile any Indian who finds fault with Indians (numerous quotes from Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi and Ambedkar would make them froth at the mouth!) – and that seems to go very comfortably hand in hand with slavering over dreams of migrating to the US, or at least getting jobs with US multinationals, as well as being totally uninterested in knowing about their own land, its history and culture, its flora and fauna; with littering streets right and left, with being utterly callous about doing things that can improve the lot of one billion Indians who suffer from age-old neglect and exploitation. No matter whether they are male or female, whenever they talk about freedom, rights, equality and all that stuff, just observe how they treat their domestic help, waiters at restaurants and attendants at shopping malls, or how much they care about disturbing neighbours while enjoying themselves.
6) They worship big money, no matter how it is made. So any startup zillionaire, even if he has made his pile selling discount coupons or gutkha over the Net, is much more a hero to them than a freedom fighter, a teacher, a social worker or a writer (indeed, it is this class which, having read virtually nothing outside textbooks and comic books, admires Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh and E. L. James as ‘writers’). That admiration, however, is mixed up with a lot of envy and secret anger, so if you are rich (and famous), you quickly learn to keep such ‘admirers’ at arm’s length in your personal life.
7) They are out and out opportunists, talking big wherever they feel completely safe and ‘in’, as when trolling anonymously on social media, and slavishly kowtowing to power everywhere else, knowing full well which side of the bread is buttered, and being truly passionate only about keeping their own skins safe. Best exemplified by the committed socialist at JNU who became a committed neoliberal overnight as soon as prospects arose of getting a scholarship from the department of Economics of the University of Chicago. So they have no problem with turning coat every other day and always saluting the rising sun. They are all devoted to Narendra Modi as long as he wields the levers of power: one big defeat of his at the hustings and they’ll say ‘Narendra who?’
8) When it comes to religion, they are divided into two broad groups – either they blindly conform to lokaachaar, no questions allowed, or they equally blindly condemn all things spiritual as troublesome and useless nonsense, without making any attempt at studying and understanding any religion in depth. Makes for a weird and volatile mix.
9) They are bone lazy and they compulsively over-eat (look at the obesity epidemic, and count the number of young Indian tourists as opposed to white skins who prefer to trek or cycle rather than hire cars). They are also materialistic in the crudest possible sense: look at the kind of movie that always makes a hit with them; look at how they go gaga over cricket rather than, say, hockey; look at how many books they buy as opposed to cellphones, jewellery, liquor, clothes and beauty care; look at the way, too, they are painting the walls of their houses these days!
10) In a country where very little pathbreaking scientific research is ever done, they are all currently obsessed with technology – the word being restricted narrowly, of course, to consumer gadgets, virtually all of them developed in one tiny corner of the planet very far from India. Am I seriously wrong in comparing this with any other form of hard-drug addiction: that most tell-tale sign of empty and pointless lives?
This is the human material we are dealing with, whether we are small-town teachers or prime ministers. I handled their like as pupils twenty five to thirty years ago, I am handling them as parents now. Is it likely that any serious national progress can be hoped for, progress as understood by the finest minds our country has produced?
In To My Daughter I have touched upon this malaise in passing. Reading Pankaj Mishra’s new book Age of Anger brought these thoughts back to the fore. And it has occurred to me that making sense of the present chaos all around the world requires profound, sustained, intensive reading of the kind that the people I have described above – in India, especially, but to some extent everywhere – have lost both the desire and the capacity for doing.