In Fight for Better India, Best to Look Within By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
Published: July 1, 2011 in New York Times Asia Pacific
NEW DELHI — I have entered India from the sky five times over the past year. Those flights started in airports where norms, rules and authority carry weight — Hong Kong; Doha, Qatar; Newark, New Jersey; Frankfurt. But in waiting to board, I have come to a troubling realization: Airport workers around the world have learned the hard way that my people — Indians, resident and diasporic — cannot be boarded the way other humans are.
No: We will not make a line, no matter how the overwhelmed airline staff plead. No: We will not board according to service class or row number; we will push in as early as we can. No: We will not obey the instruction to bring just one piece of carry-on luggage; we will often pretend not to hear, then perform a Tony-worthy pantomime of surprise if confronted.
In Frankfurt recently, I was amazed that even the Teutonic staff of Lufthansa was unable to thwart this behavior. They allowed a kind of mob to form, then dejectedly welcomed its members aboard. I asked about it. A steward shrugged and said that, on flights to India, they give in.
If you make it on board, and soar above the Hindu Kush, and fall at last into India, you will learn that the nation is in the midst of a fit of rage over corruption these days. Hunger strikes are being called; the heads of some scapegoats in power are rolling; protests are swelling here and there.
The overwhelming tone of this rage is “us versus them.” The “us” is the ordinary people of India, the “man on the street,” as they too-literally call him here — hard-working, diligent, scrupulous; the “them” are the bums in politics and the bureaucracy — lazy, deceitful, imperious scoundrels.
But what the airport observation suggests, alongside volumes of other evidence, is that the blame cannot so tidily be placed on the “them.” This may well be an “us” problem as much as a “them” one, in which case the revolution being called for will have to be a revolution within.
To be fair, India is a place of deep, improbable kindness. A society where villagers will do anything for the chance to serve a guest tea, where flight attendants are truly hurt when you forgo food, where the caring that flows through the many wings and generations of a family can make other societies seem cold by comparison. The average Indian tends to be flexible, understanding and tolerant by the standards of a difficult world.
But India is also a place where that abundant kindness fails, far too often, to extend into the anonymous civic sphere, to those beyond one’s little community and beyond one’s sight. In India, to be someone’s house guest or son-in-law or teacher can be delightful. To be a stranger beside the same person at the cinema or bank or airport is another experience altogether.
If a sociology of that Lufthansa gate were to be made, it might pick up certain ideas in the crowd’s behavior.
There is an idea that low-ranking gate staff don’t need to be listened to. There is an idea that you, the individual, are the best judge of how the system should run, not the people whose system it is. There is an idea that rules are mere hints, to be applied when useful. There is an idea of ruthless maximization of one’s interests, the world (and that old lady in front of you) be damned.
And, like it or not, these are ideas that govern how so many Indian lives are lived today: how people drive on the streets of this sprawling capital city; how people seldom hold open a door for a stranger at the mall, or thank you when you do; how people pay off the traffic police instead of waiting five minutes for a ticket to be written; how so many rich men make their billions; how individuals choose to report their income; how adults bribe and influence-peddle their children into top schools; how cellphones are bought tax-free on something casually called the “gray market.”
A heart-rending example involves ambulances. Several times in the past few years, I have been in traffic in a major Indian city and suddenly heard an ambulance behind. To watch it forge fitfully ahead is to observe thousands of drivers make the choice to ignore it. Some people genuinely cannot pull over. But many can. Mostly, they don’t. Not a small number of Indians must die each year thanks to that collective refusal to be bothered.
And this is the issue with the anger now raining on official Delhi. In its focus on those in high places, it ignores a much wider culture of corruption: a culture of rule-breaking, callousness and Hobbesian self-preservation that flourishes with special flagrance in the corridors of power, to be sure, but is hardly confined to it.
If the “them” at the very top are unacceptably corrupt, it may be because the “us” taught them everything they know.
So what to do about it?
Misdiagnosis is dangerous. If the problem remains in the public mind a problem of bad people in power, it may well remain unsolved. If it can be acknowledged as a deeper pattern of Indian life, perhaps something can be done.
That something will have to be more than removing 10, 100 or 1,000 scoundrels from office.
It will have to turn practices now thought acceptable into practices that disgust. It will have to use shame and achieve what other movements of moral suasion — the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century, the anti-smoking cause in modern times — achieved: persuading millions of people, one by one, that the old ways will no longer do and that life will be better for everyone — for them and for their rivals at the airport gate — on the other side.
Join an online conversation at http://anand.ly/