In India, the paradox of ‘choice’ in a globalized culture

SOURCE: International Herald Tribune
AUTHOR: Anand Giridharadas
DATE: 11 September

MUMBAI: A decade ago, the world hurtled toward a calendrical crisis, and India seized an opportunity.

An affliction called the Y2K bug impended. Thousands of Indian techies were marshaled to repair the software glitch. The rest is outsourcing history.

The outsourcing boom craved English speakers. Hole-in-the-wall “academies” from Kerala to Punjab began to sell English classes for a few dollars a week. A colonizer’s language was recast in the minds of many young lower-income Indians as a language of liberation, independence and mobility.

A decade hence, Indians who have achieved that mobility may struggle to understand the newspaper headlines in Mumbai in recent days. They tell of brigades of young men shattering the windows of shops and restaurants whose signs declare their names only in English, not in the regional language Marathi.

The men are cadres of a political party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, that has electrified a section of lower middle-class youth in this city. Many of them view English as a language of exclusion: a secret code that, having become success’s prerequisite, traps millions of non-English speakers in failure.

How can the same language refract so differently through different eyes? The answer here, as on school playgrounds everywhere, depends on who got there first.

Societies are not monolithic blocks that go global all at once. Social change has early and late adopters, and the choices of the timely alter the options among which the tardy must subsequently choose. And so a defining fact about globalization may be that it has freed untold millions from inherited destinies, even as it makes others feel as though their control over fate is slipping away.

It is a universal feeling, connecting the late-adopter Alaskan governor who resents having to be worldly to be respected in her own country with the late-adopter Indian villager who resents having to speak English to be respected in his own country.

In India, early adopters of globalism made certain choices freely and enthusiastically. They studied English. They honed their skills at software. They learned to be chummy rather than deferential around superiors, to guzzle wine rather than beer, to dress and eat and talk in manners alien to them.

By making these choices, Indians were commandeering their own fates.

But the more people who make such choices, the more the society is remade in their image – and the more late adopters can feel like strangers in their own land.

“Hi my name is Akash and I am from India. I dream of working in a Call Center, but I’ve MTI (Mother Tongue Influence). How am I suppose to get rid of it? Please help,” read the posting on an Internet bulletin board.

When Akash’s predecessors learned English and found decent jobs some years ago, they were not motivated by insecurity. Global industries like call centers were a new thing here, and having English was simply a nice plus. It would not have felt like a survival skill.

But the choices of the millions who adopted English now act to constrain the choices of Akash. English has become something more in India than a pathway out of poverty. It has become, as it is not in Brazil or China, the language of respect. An Indian who speaks only Indian languages will face inferior treatment in her own society.

To understand the recent window-smashing here, ask yourself: How does it feel to be told that your mother tongue is something to be purged? Is the “choice” to learn a language really a choice when choices made earlier by others have determined the correct answer?

The political scientist David Singh Grewal examines this paradox of choice and choicelessness in a trenchant new book, “Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization.”

“The pressures of cultural convergence generated by today’s globalization trickle down to the local level,” he said in an e-mail message. “Where the process is most disruptive, millions – perhaps even billions – of people feel required to undertake an ambivalent and half-hearted assimilation. Yes, they choose to assimilate, but they may also feel that they have no other real option to choose.”

Globalization is often cast as a process of wealthy countries swamping developing nations with alien customs and ideas. But it might also be seen as a competition among the citizens of developing nations themselves. Globalization has created a new kind of status anxiety: not to be richer than your neighbors, but more world-ready.

If you grew up eating with your hands and savoring the taste of food off your fingers, you might resent that upper-crust fashions dictate now that you switch to forks and knives to eat your own cuisine.

“Is it considered uncivilized to eat without a knife and fork?” an Indian questioner asked on a Yahoo! Internet message board. “Burgers and sandwiches aside. Eating rice and other ‘dinner’ foods; Knife + Fork or hands? I love roti and butter chicken and i just cannot see how to eat it besides with my hands.”

Many Indians have grown up cleaning themselves on the toilet with a mug of water and a hand. Mug-and-hand types often view paper users as skeptically as paper users view them. But India’s early adopters tend to be of the paper school. And thus today, when mug-and-hand veterans stay in nice hotels or work in big companies, they often find that the cleaning method comfortable to them is unavailable in their own society.

In recent days, a battle over land swelled in eastern India. In a sea of farms in Bengal, an Indian carmaker was getting ready to make the world’s least expensive car, the $2,250 Nano. Farmers had sold land to make way for the project, with varying degrees of consent. Then some began to want it back, and the resulting protests halted Tata’s operations.

In the prosperous cities, they sneered: Don’t they get it? They want land, not money? But the urban sneerers were early adopters. They may not realize it, but they live on a grid of advantages. They have bank accounts. They know how to invest. They have the ethic of thrift and saving that moneyed families pass down the generations.

The late adopters live in an economy of land, a universe where barter still operates, where status and prestige and security still come from the earth, and where the choice to join an urban, moneyed existence feels ever less like a meaningful choice.

“Somewhere I sense that even the most generous monetary compensation will fail to offset my feelings of loss,” said Sudhir Kakar, an Indian writer and psychoanalyst, adopting a farmer’s perspective.

“What looms instead is the specter of a future which is not only opaque, but represents a threat to any sense of purpose


1 Comment

Filed under Globalization, India

One response to “In India, the paradox of ‘choice’ in a globalized culture

  1. MNS also hates Hindi speakers…people they call ‘bhaiyyas’ hailing from the north and the east of India. That’s because of economics. They constitute cheap labour and do stuff work Maharashtrians abhor doing. There is also the psychology of the original. The ‘original’ citizens of the city, again, mostly Maharashtrians, can get away with murder (like the New year molestation case outside Marriott), but not the outsiders. The other has to be subservient or else…you must have heard of hoodlums.

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