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December 31, 2013

Mistaken Modernities

Text by Parmesh Shahani

As you stride out into the world with renewed confidence, 18 is the time to reinvent yourself. Parmesh Shahani takes a look at the India our 18-year-old Verve girl is entering into

At a recent McKinsey-Asia Society event in Mumbai for the book release of Re-imagining India, there was great confidence among the panelists about our country’s road ahead. Anand Mahindra spoke about becoming a country that was respected the most worldwide, while Mukesh Ambani spoke about how a belief in a better future was so important for the country’s youth. The overall air was of optimism, and there was a belief among the panelists that technology, more than anything else, would be the lever that would help India leapfrog into a better tomorrow.

Indeed technology is doing a lot in re-shaping modern India. At this year’s INK conference in Kochi – some of the most exciting projects that I saw were using technology creatively to solve pressing Indian problems. For instance, Sunil Khandbahale has created a digital dictionary for mobile phones and computers with a repository of 9.6 million audio and textual words in 16 domains, like legal, agriculture and pharmacy, in 22 different Indian languages. He wants to enable non-English speaking Indians to bridge the language divide. The dictionary (http://khandbahale.com/) already has a user base of over 100 million people across 150 countries.

MIT Media Lab researcher, Anirudh Sharma has developed the Le Chal project – that consists of haptic low-cost shoes for the blind in India which won him the MIT Tech Review TR35 ‘Innovator of the Year’ award. Right now, he’s working on a printer that harvests ink from pollution. He is using simple SMS messages to inform users before water arrives in their taps, while also offering water utility boards the tools to better manage and track leakages in their water supply. And Param Jaggi at age 19 is already an eco-innovator, rocket scientist, researcher and CEO; yet another incredible do-er from India’s NRI diaspora which is also doing its bit in helping create a better future for our country.

So yes, reimagining a better India is certainly about technology. But it is also about attitude and it is this attitude I want to focus on in this column. At Verve, we’ve completed 18 years with this issue; a shorter time span than the 65 years for which the Indian nation has existed, but no less historic. Eighteen is an age when one enters adulthood. It is certainly a time to reimagine oneself as one ventures forward into the world with confidence. So what is this India that our 18-year-old Verve girl is entering into?

I was musing over this on a recent trip to Chandigarh. At the airport, while catching my flight back, I witnessed a crass family of five (dressed head-to-toe in designer labels including Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Gucci) harassing a girl at the airline counter for 40 minutes because their oversized bag was denied check-in status. The family argued in booming voices, made vulgar remarks about the young woman at the counter and threatened her that they would ensure she lost her job. Then they violently shoved around trolleys and airport equipment to indicate how important they were and how large their collective ego was. What surprised me most was how viciously the only woman in this family abused the young girl. Her designer bag in tow and sunglasses perched on her head, there was great pleasure being publicly displayed by this woman in squashing the girl for merely doing her job. Class is the new caste in India, I thought to myself. How different it is from 18 years ago? Or is it? I wish the airline staff had offloaded this family. Instead they cowed down and allowed them to board victoriously, like pumped up gladiators.

On the flight, I thought to myself – might this woman who had just displayed such obnoxious behavior be a Verve reader? She certainly might have been. What about the young girl at the airport counter who was merely doing her job? She too could be someone who reads this magazine. But between the two women – I had witnessed such a wide gulf, and over the past 18 years, I wonder if this gulf has increased or shrunk.

At Verve, the past 18 years have been about celebrating the ‘modern Indian woman’ but there are many different notions of what it means to be modern. Sociologist, Dipankar Gupta has used the term ‘mistaken modernity’ to refer to India’s post-economic reform growth, which has placed so much emphasis on technology and consumption, but not on true liberty, the rule of law and creating a culture of meritocracy. So our celebration at completing 18 years of our magazine might be justified, but I want to be circumspect and acknowledge the larger context in which it occurs. Consistent surveys in recent times have ranked India with countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia as one of the most dangerous places for women. Across our country, on an average, one woman is kidnapped and raped every 40 minutes – and this figure has certainly not improved over the past 18 years. On almost every other development count – whether it is malnutrition or education – India’s women are placed really, really poorly.

I was again reminded of Dipankar’s framework of ‘mistaken modernity’ while seeing Nisha Pahuja’s extraordinary documentary The World Before Her at a screening with Rohan Sippy and his dad, Ramesh Sippy, at their private theatre. There are several contested notions especially in the India of today, perhaps more than there were 18 years ago, of what exactly it means to be a modern Indian woman. The film tracks two sets of women and their contradictory realities. Both are enrolled in modernity ‘training camps’ of sorts. One is a Hindu nationalist training camp where girls are trained to be Durga Vahinis – and even kill who they see as their opponents, ‘in self-defence’, while the second is the Miss India pageant, in which young girls – both their bodies and minds – are shaped to fit a very particular notion of global beauty.

In particular, the film focusses on two girls – Ruhi Singh, a Miss India contestant from Jaipur, and Prachi Trivedi, a Durga Vahini participant and young trainer. While their lives are ostensibly very different, as the film progresses, we realise just how similar the girls actually are. Both have supportive parents, in particular, their fathers, who endorse the path the girls are on as they fashion their own futures. Both feel lucky simply for being alive and not being killed at birth in a country in which the female foeticide rate has unfortunately not gone down over the past 18 years. And while both are very self-aware of the conditioning they are getting via the respective training camps they are enrolled in, they don’t seem to be able to find a way out. Nisha told me at the screening, as the director of the documentary, she didn’t want to take sides, but rather have the film hold up a mirror to its viewers about capitalism masquerading as modernity and the rise in religious extremism.

The India in which we live – the India that indeed Verve has chronicled over the past 18 years – continues to be deeply schizoid, which is perhaps why it continues to be so interesting. Over the past 18 years, we might have graduated from matrimonial columns in newspapers to online profiles on shaadi.com, but still, the old prejudices in terms of caste, colour or religion continue. As in Ram Leela, violence and Twitter co-exist.

Like in The World Before Her, it is the friction between these contested notions that I find interesting – and it is only through dialogue between these contested notions that we will come to a negotiation and an accommodation. We all have to make our own accommodations in life – I don’t have any easy solutions nor do I want to offer any suggestions. But my dear readers, I do want you to reflect, especially those of you who consider yourselves ‘modern’, in terms of flaunting the latest gadgets and fashion – do you simultaneously perpetuate age-old prejudices based on caste and gender? Do you want your 18-year-old daughter or friend or sister, or perhaps even your own self, to be genuinely free-spirited, cosmopolitan, and tolerant, and are you willing to make the changes you will have to make, often in terms of your own attitude, to enable this?

I am overall optimistic that as our young Verve girl transitions to adulthood over the next 18 years, these contradictions will be comfortably negotiated, and a large part of my optimism comes from the inspiring young Indians I meet daily. People like Robin Chaurasiya – who has started Kranti and who empowers girls from Mumbai’s red-light areas to turn round the ‘victim’ status and become agents of social change. The past versus the future; tradition versus change – these are not zero sum games. They are however games that we should always be conscious of. You can certainly respect the past and fold it into the present without having extremist or fundamentalist tendencies either way. You can say no to gender discrimination at birth while still celebrating Karva Chauth (ensuring that your husband fasts with you too!).

I find Devdutt Pattanaik doing this very well as he reinterprets the mythological canon for today’s times. His new book Sita is as radical and feminist a retelling of the Ramayana as Nina Paley’s animated Sita Sings the Blues. I highly recommend it – in fact, I think it might be the perfect gift for an 18-year-old – entering the complicated fascinating world that is our India today.

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