Samir’s Selection 12/26/2015 (p.m.)

  • tags: film documentary India-culture India-history hope youth 1967 1960s 2013 Nehru

    • He is absurdly articulate, and Sastry adores him. In turn, Subramaniam adores India. He regards it as an explorer would an unfamiliar land, keen on traversing it thoroughly to chart it for himself. He wants to observe and record his impressions of his compatriots, he says: “their songs and their dances…the agony, the anguish and the anger, the fertile soil, the pastures—anything. So that one day, I could open the book and remind myself what I’m part of and what is part of me.” He starts his sentences with “Well,” as if he has deliberated upon these ideas for years: “Well, it seems to me the fashion today to denigrate the country, and when two people meet, they get into a sort of competition about who can abuse the government better.” He urges the long view: “I would say our achievement is that we have a hopeful tomorrow. Our failure is that our today is very precarious.” The film’s last words are his. “If all the people in this country who didn’t fancy their prospects in it were allowed to quit, I think I’d stay. Because it’s something big. It’s a huge experiment, and I would like to be a part of it.”
    • In that gloom-ridden September of 2013, locating the men and women of “I Am 20” began to feel like a vital and urgent task. I wanted to know what they had done with their lives, how their opinions had held up, and what they thought of our country today.
    • Then a chance comment on YouTube identified one of the young men as Shailesh Gandhi, and it was like springing the final tumbler of a lock. Gandhi, who had gone on to serve as an information commissioner with the government, was easy to find.
    • Nearly every extended interview is with an IIT undergraduate, which lends it a pronounced male, middle-class tenor. (“When I was at IIT, there were nine girls,” Gandhi said. “Just nine. Across the entire campus.”)
    • Gandhi remembers that year, 1967, as a turbulent one. In the previous half-decade, India had lost a war against China, won another against Pakistan, and witnessed the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister and foremost idealist. During a famine in 1966, more than 2,000 people had died of starvation; the nation’s farms were ailing, as were its industries. In the summer of 1967, in a West Bengal village, a violent communist uprising called for land to be redistributed among poor farmers. That year and the next, elsewhere in the world, there were student riots. Impatience was in the air. An old order seemed to be primed for dissolution.

      “We saw poverty, and a lot of unfairness, and we thought these things weren’t changing,” Gandhi said. It felt like a crossroads, just as 2013 felt like a crossroads, a more dire one still than 1967.

    • Between the brief cycle of human existence and the longer cycle of national improvement, though, there is a tension. Life cannot wait for the graph to extrapolate. Some of Gandhi’s friends, like Victor Menezes, went to America and never returned.
    • In “I Am 20”, Menezes is a brash youngster with brilliantined hair, aspiring to marry his boss’s daughter; he went on to become the senior vice-chairman of Citigroup, and to have a convention centre at IIT named after him. From afar, Menezes discerns progress back home. “The reputation of Indians, of Indian products and Indian universities, has gone through the roof,” he said, over the phone. “You can’t go into any company in the world today without seeing Indians in senior management.”

      But this was a pinched view of progress, was it not?

      Not at all, Menezes said; I was just too close to the bad news. He gave me some bankerspeak. “The worst thing you can do is read the daily newspaper. Because if you step back a moment, and look at the fundamentals, they’re quite amazing.”

    • After IIT, he had found his way into rural development, spending 17 years in a single district in central India, helping villagers plan their lives and engineer their own solutions to their problems. Now he works with the urban poor, who live on the margins of a city’s consciousness, and who often find themselves excised from visions of a shiny new India. “The way our economy is structured,” Roy said, “it is responsible for a lot of inequality.”
    • If, in 1967, Roy had been told about the state of his country in 2013, he wouldn’t have been too disappointed, he said. “That’s with the benefit of hindsight, of course.” He regarded progress as a painstaking cycle of trial and error. “There was a period of ferment in the 1960s, when people said, ‘This isn’t working. Let’s look for other answers.’ There was another such period in the 1990s. And there’s another now. We’re disillusioned with our government, searching for another way.” He found the search satisfying. “The larger the crisis, the more creative the response,” he said, and he grinned, as if he approved thoroughly of whatever crisis we’re passing through at the moment. “It’s a much more exciting time now.”
    • At an IIT alumni meeting in the late 1990s, an old professor asked him: “Shailesh, you used to be very critical about society—what do you think now?” Gandhi’s first impulse was to moan that things were still not right; upon reflection, he realised that if the country around him was still broken, it was because his generation had failed to repair it. So he sold his business—a factory that manufactured plastic bottles—and became an activist, working on freedom-of-information issues. “There’s a learned helplessness we’ve come to feel as a public,” he told me. “Everybody is happy to say that the government should fix things. But it’s our responsibility to convert our government into a better government.”
    • I quoted one of the young girls in “I Am 20”. “What do you want me to do for the country? I think I do enough by being an honest citizen, by doing my job to the best of my ability, by working eight hours a day.” Shouldn’t that be enough? 

      Gandhi mulled over this. “You know, my daughter talks the same language.” She left for America a decade ago, and on the eve of her departure, Gandhi told her, “Your life is yours, of course, but I hope that, after a few years, you’ll come back.”

      “I want to live an honest, decent life,” she said, “and I think it’s difficult to do that here.”

      “Many things are wrong in India,” he replied. “They need to change. But we need to change them.”

      “But you’ve wanted to do that, and I don’t think you’ve been very successful,” his daughter said. “I don’t want to do that.”

    • Look, I love my wife and child not because they’re the best people in the world, but simply because they’re my wife and my child. If you feel that bond, then you say you’re responsible.” His voice cracked and shook. “Why should I believe in India? Because it’s mine.”
    • TN was an acquired taste, too fond of proving his intelligence, making the acid retort, quoting Wittgenstein with pomp, cutting arguments short by dismissing the counterview as “epistemological bunk”. He was intimidating, and he was happy to intimidate.

      These qualities served TN well in the debating society, where he climbed into flights of rhetoric, using words that few understood. He wrote plays, inscrutable Beckettian dramas; Roy directed them, but says he never fully understood them. In one, a character kept opening a box and proclaiming, “It’s empty,” while three others did things in different corners of the stage.

    • Then they graduated, and none of them saw him again.
    • Was this what TN—the Wittgenstein-spouting TN who exulted in his country—had finally done with his life? Had he moved to the United States to build software that streamlined car loans?
    • I wondered what had happened to TN; then I wondered at my own strange eagerness to talk to him. What had I hoped to learn? The reason he departed for the United States, I suppose—the reason he chose to subtract himself from the great Indian experiment. Had there been a final straw of disappointment that broke his back? Or had he left India out of some entirely different motivation, and still feeling optimistic about his country? And yet neither explanation would have fully satisfied me—just as it didn’t quite console me when Victor Menezes spoke buoyantly about the progress India had made since 1967.

      The true comforts turned out to be the cynics of “I Am 20”, Shailesh Gandhi and Dunu Roy, who could be excited and idealistic about our country’s future even as they remained worried and uncertain about it. The simultaneous occupation of those states of minds wasn’t a contradiction, I came to realise; it was an absolute necessity.

  • tags: stringtheory physics philosophy theory evidence falsifiability KarlPopper science

  • tags: air travel business harm research

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