Saturday, April 19, 2014

How Did We Get Here? (Letters to Parth - 15)

My dear Parth, my leading man,

We are at that time of the year when the coolness of Hyderabad winter has given way to the heat and dryness of summer, and just as one must take care when it turns cool at the end of the year, one must take care now. Stay out of the sun as much as you can, and drink water frequently. I know you wonder why I have not written you for so long. I trust you looked up my other blog to see what was going on with me. The good thing is that I know that you will figure things out, and correctly, and that our intent to be whole and happy will manifest no matter what chooses to stand in its way.


One of the struggles that I had in writing you in these recent months was the fact that you are growing older, and that your questions are changing, and you need honest answers. Truth, love, attachment – these are funny things. While on one hand truth is beautiful and eternal, on the other, it is like a river that washes you clean, perhaps more brusquely than you would like. That washing clean can sometimes compel you to rethink and review what you believe. This rebuilding of one’s worldview, liberating and exhilarating as it is, often comes with a lot of pain and disillusionment. Love makes you long for the growth and happiness of the person or thing you love yet it hesitates when that growth implies pain. Attachment, like love, can sometimes stop you from doing the right thing, because doing the right thing might result in temporary suffering for the person (or thing) you cling to. It takes a lot of conviction, courage and strength to do the right thing especially when it causes pain in the immediate future. I am grateful for the blessings of that strength, and I am certain you will find it too.

That is not the only reason I did not get to write you on this blog. Like many good daddy bloggers, I too have often set out but have not got far, and a lot of what I wrote went into the never-neverland that is the drafts folder. The time is gone when we could do the babysaurus moos and the hand jive and come away feeling fulfilled. You have started learning that neither the finger nor what it points at are the real thing. The signs are everywhere. By the time you become a grown man, these things will be forgotten, but these are truly times of manifesting change. There will be mistakes along the way and we will have to learn to acknowledge our humanness, but we will also see how man is capable of redeeming himself and that he is worthy of the gift of evolution. We will take pride in our civilization. These are not easy things to believe in when you look around you, but faith is never easy. It is tested and abused repeatedly, and with good reason, since it is through this battering that it gains its power and magnificence.

The last four decades saw the world redefining itself a few times over, but almost entirely in the context of economics and trade. Technology grew at a rapid pace, and there were cycles of what we call boom periods when the economy brisked up. Every boom is typically accompanied by a bust, so we saw a few of those too. Along with this, there was the end of communism as we knew it. Our education system teaches us to think in binaries, in pairs, in opposites. We were taught to believe that the opposite of communism was capitalism. Capitalism (like Hinduism and Buddhism) is faith in the principle of capital. If you had capital (which commonly means money and property), you were valuable. If you didn’t, you were still of value, in the potential you had to earn capital. Communism, very broadly, is about being comme une, or like one, and treating resources and mankind as if we were one big family. Big families have their own problems, so it wasn’t too long before it fell through. It tried a little to fit in with the times, and you had various shades of socialism and euro-communism, but none of it stood a chance when compared to the glamorous, all-lit-up allure of capital.


This thinking in pairs also redefined the world as we knew it. There was the developing world and developed world. There were emerging markets and industrial nations. There were lands of opportunities and lands like ours, or at least that is what we were led to believe. Many people refer to those born and living in our country as the “less fortunate.” The last fifty years created an unprecedented aspiration among Indians to have a better life, more capital, and greater opportunities. And instead of working towards doing that in the land we were born in, we chose to do it in the west. Of course, the capital generated by slaving for those who make the phones and games that all our wages end up paying for did trickle down to our dear country. After paying for the ayah and the medical expenses of aging parents, it took form of investment in more capital – more houses, more plots of land, a few pots of gold – the rainbow never looked brighter.

In the process, our dear country became the land of opportunity for the career politician. When you govern a country, you get to take decisions that impact the economy and players in the economy. The economy is pretty simple to understand. You have capital. With capital you can buy resources that are required to create goods and services, which you can then sell at a profit. The industrial revolution is a very important event from this perspective. The problem is with the nature of need. We really need a few things only. If no one aspired beyond the food-clothing-shelter matrix, the economy as we know it will really not grow. Just take a quick look around and register what most of the advertisements are for. You will realize that we do not need most of them. The industrial revolution not only frog-leaped human achievement, potential and aspiration, but also created a few new paradigms. The first is that of producer and consumer, the second is that of the corporation and the individual, and the third is that of the haves and have-nots. These three binaries have ruled mankind ever since. With more and more capable people choosing to work for global producers and corporations in the west, India was left to be governed by the rest – or shall we say, the fittest of the rest. And as time has proved, it is quite a fit.

Information technology was a gift and a curse that helped many of us escape the drab realities of our motherland. In the last 15 years, the number of technology colleges in my home state of Andhra Pradesh has increased twenty-fold. Colleges offering courses in arts and humanities have not grown at all. This is because every parent and every child wants to be an engineer, study information technology and go to the US and earn a lot of capital with which they can buy the products that they spend all their lives building. This trick was a realization from the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, there was no concept of working hours or personal time for workers. Once they started making cars and carousels, the factory owners realized that if they did not work on creating an ever-increasing market of buyers, it was a matter of time before they would run out of people who had the time and money to buy their products. That is when the concept of work-life balance came into being. (Earlier it was simpler, the wealthy enjoyed and the poor worked.) You need a life in order to be the market for the products that you work to create.

The quick succession of the booms and busts of the last couple of decades and the growth information technology helped people find the answers to some of their questions. Why do citizens have to pay the price for mistakes of governments? Are governments truly accountable? Who benefits from war? Who owns natural resources? Who pays for the huge campaigns of political parties? Why are corporations so powerful? What is the relationship between corporations and governments? Why do banks love wars and governments recessions? These led to the emergence of a new awareness about the nature of capital and the nature of power. We started asking ourselves if the last 200 years of our history had taken us closer to or further from the essence of our being. We started questioning and resisting what we were being compelled to put up with. The collusion of large financial powerhouses with governments reached a point where all wealth began flowing out of the people (or governments) into corporate pockets, and it was a matter of time before governments declared their inability to support its people – in welfare, in development, or even in transparent and accountable governance. This led to a series of uprisings across the world, the Arab Spring, the euro-crisis, and the occupy movement. In India, it manifested in the form of the India Against Corruption movement, led by Anna Hazare and his band of Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Prasanth Bhushan and others.

When the powers that be realized that this was a formidable force, capable of threatening their “hard-earned” power, they worked on the age-old principle of divide and rule. They exploited the weaknesses of this group to play them against themselves, and created alternate power centers that would tap into the same support base but by using other avenues of appeal (religion, nationalism, etc.). It was a matter of time before we saw Kiran Bedi supporting Narendra Modi, Anna Hazare supporting Mamata Banerjee, and Prasanth Bhushan supporting the people of Kashmir. Kejriwal in the mean time had formed a political party called Aam Admi Party, acronymed cleverly as AAP, and gone on to win the elections in Delhi. He ruled the state for less than two months before resigning as Chief Minister just recently.

The debate about whether he was right or wrong, whether AAP is a viable alternative to the corruption-infested political system will fizzle out with time. What will remain is the truth and wisdom of human resilience. The way we have been irresponsible with our planet and our selves, there is perhaps no escape from dystopia. Yet, the lotus flower blooms in the muddiest of water. The Congress and the BJP might be wary of acknowledging the muddiness of its water, but thankfully, you and I don’t need to. It is silly to compare the AAP to other political parties. The AAP is largely a citizen’s movement, not a system for grabbing power for personal gain. But then, governance is not child’s play – you can’t jump into politics to do a case study. History is just as replete with examples of common people taking on the task of governance as it is with examples of how power corrupts even the best intentioned. The AAP will learn. Perhaps AAP is only the first iteration towards a fair society. Perhaps the learning of the last two centuries will have to come together in totally new and different ways to create a system that is truly reasonable and compassionate. It is unreasonable to believe that a class that has grown used to entitlement and privileges will suddenly roll over and play by new rules. I think.

The 2014 elections are nearly halfway through. The resurgence of the Hindu right wing can be felt in the air. It is almost certain that we will have a new government – one that the world will be wary of. But then, anything is possible. Remember David and Goliath? Voter turnouts have increased almost everywhere that elections have taken place so far this year, and I know of many who normally do not participate in voting but are planning to vote this year. When you are a grown man, my present excitement might seem misplaced to you, since time would have revealed which way we are headed, but now, there is a strong sense of hope. Not the kind of hope that says things will sort themselves out in the coming election. We might have to live with a few more governments of shame. But what is important is that the logistics for the emergence of a compassionate society is slowly falling into place. As a people, we are realizing not only our power but also our responsibility. We are learning to see beyond the obvious, beyond the story that we are being told, and to look past the finger and the moon it points at.

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