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GP 18 March 2009: Slumdog Millionaires: India’s Miracle   

“An Indian writer has pointed out, it is possible that in the not too distant future if the Indian wants to learn about India he will have to consult the West, and if the West wants to remember how they were, they will have to come to us.” -- Gita Mehta in Karma Cola

Karma Cola.  Back in 1979 the very bright Indian novelist Gita Mehta quickly tossed off Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, which, with bite and wit, took our blinders off about Indian gurus and the strains of mysticism that got peddled relentlessly in the developed world beginning in the flower–child- 60s.  This love affair with swami wisdom caught up uncritical Westerners in its grasp, even causing charlatans in Cambridge and London and California to adopt Indian monikers.

We find that Indian fiction writers and other people there in the fine arts are more straightforward about India than its reporters or even academic figures. They will have no truck with the shams.  More recently, Aravind Adiga in The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Booker Prize, amply and ably lets the cat out of the bag about the way things are in Bangalore. The underside is bleak.  One quickly discovers that many of these penetrating Indian intellects, who nakedly lay out India’s truths and ambiguities, are trans-cultural figures, keeping homes in Mumbai (Bombay), London, and New York.

Mehta gets it right.  The global marketing spiel that permeates so much of our life and conversation has made it hard for us to cut to the reality of things.  Marketing excesses have gotten so out of hand that persiflage has replaced substance, and the product or place or person that is painted with so many colors turns out to be hollow when we brush up against it.  It’s hard for us or Indians to penetrate the verbal vapors and to know what that country is all about.  The marketing veneer conceals the cheap pressed wood composite underneath. It’s much easier to find the unreal India, than the real McCoy.

Two Rivers. While we devote a section of the Global Province called Two Rivers to the Pacific Rim, we have given India short shrift, principally because our firm does so much business in other parts of Asia. This is ironic since we have such a high readership in India. We will remedy the omission in this and letters to follow. Our companion site Spicelines has been much quicker to explore the richnesses of India.  In fact, it will be the contention of this letter that we Americans have and are building deep links to India, that the symbiotic relationship is important to both of us, and that we must work to make our ties very much more intimate.

As the Atlantic and a host of other publications have made clear, the Bush Administration drew us much closer to India, perhaps the single most important foreign accomplishment of that presidency.  Moreover, the country’s recent GDP growth has been startling, such that the United States now has to carefully nurture strong business relationships with both China and India.  Anil K. Gupta and Haiyan Wanghave attracted considerable notice for their book Getting China and India RightClearly one cannot pay attention to one at the expense of the other.

India’s Accomplishment.  Back in 2004, the ultimate business guru Peter Drucker claimed India’s progress was more impressive than that of the Chinese.  He thought the medical school in New Delhi might be the world’s best.  In contrast with the Chinese, he marveled at Indian education and thought the Indian realm was fast becoming a world knowledge center.

In recent years the Indian economy has been growing at a blistering pace, right up there with the Chinese surge.  The difference, of course, is that the Indians have been getting a higher rate of return on capital, having to extract more from less, since not as much foreign investment finds its way to India and the Indian Government itself locks up and wastes a lot of capital. Several articles in the Indian press, laced with subdued jingoism, brag about its superior returns and about China’s subpar performance.  Of course, more sanguine observers know that both countries offer good opportunities, and that the future for both will hinge on their ability to develop their own internal markets.

Slumdog Millionaire.  Perhaps there is no better symbol of India’s rise, and its taxing problems, than Slumdog Millionaire, which swept this year’s Academy Awards, taking home 8 Oscars.  Therein we see the horrible plight of abandoned children, but then a miraculous rise to wealth and fame for the lucky and the clever.  It portrays a country beset by daunting obstacles in which, nonetheless, the impossible can happen—and frequently does.  The movie itself is a joint English-Indian production:  so many of the things that blossom in India have a cross-cultural recipe.  Slumdog was made on a very thin budget:  of necessity, much flowers in Kerala or New Delhi because someone makes something out of nothing.  Above all, the success of the movie in America suggests that America’s own film industry is tired, and that India is becoming part of our lingua franca.

We have long known that India has its Bollywood, a substantial movie industry making Grade B movies.  But many of us did not know that an A could as easily happen.  We somehow ignored Merchant Ivory Productions which gave us a string of wonderful Indian movies such as Heat and Dust, as well as productions set in Western countries, often authored by the talented Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

India’s huge embedded culture and vast educated population sometimes results in “attitude.”  Here and there you will meet Indians who are simply know-it-alls, and want everyone around them to know it.  We suspect that this hauteur partly grows out of the caste system, which still shapes Indian society, and which drives some to assert their superiority.  In part, too, it seems to be a hangover from English colonial days when the conqueror was somehow perceived to be better.  Today India is the second-largest English-speaking nation, with perhaps 90 million fluent in the language:  this leads to some fashioning themselves as English gentlemen and adopting English mannerisms, another uppity quest.  We even remember that the Indian guru Krishnamurti, lecturing an assemblage at Ojai, was sometimes at pains to put down all other gurus, asserting they had no special knowledge. At any rate, this comedic tendency to cloak oneself in knowingness has its good and bad moments:  at its best, it hints at a reverence for knowledge. At its worst, it creates distance and division, and satiric fodder for Western writers.

Indians in America.  Hugely educated India, as projected out into the world by Merchant Ivory or by India’s high-tech and medical establishments, has found its wayBungalow into America and has had an influence here way out of proportion to its numbers.  TheIndian-American population is now our fastest growing Asian group, though still ranking behind the Chinese and Filipinos numerically. Early on, of course, India’s bungalow style was imported into California, and shaped its housing.  Likewise, India’s teas and spices are infused throughout our lives.  India permeates America, quite often unnoticed.

In our own view, Houston, right down to its narrow economic base, is the most Indian city in America, though there are greater concentrations of Indians in other states.Houston has the largest numbers of Asians in the South.  The Asians tend to be extraordinarily well educated, with high numbers of college graduates, and are always inclined to create a substantial cultural apparatus. One is struck by the large number of temples sprinkled about Houston, cutting across Indian sects and religions.  Their success in Houston only mirrors the pattern of attainment they have achieved around the United States. 

Holding Back Our Future. The educational commitment of Indians—and Chinese—has meant that these ethnic groups are staffing the scientific and engineering jobs in the tech companies that will drive America’s future.  But, sadly, we are constricting their numbers and sending home so many of the Asian doctoral candidates that we are training in our colleges.  In “Give Me Your Scientists,” Economist, March 7, 2009, p. 84, we learn that 2/3 of the new workers in universities and research labs come from immigrant groups.  U.S. patents originated by Chinese and Indians have shot up from 4% of all patents issued in the 1970s to 14% currently.  In other words, we need to open our gates and expand the number of workers we allow in under the H-1B visa program, particularly from certain key countries.  Our technical momentum, one key component of our economic future, rests in the hands of the foreign born.  U.S. inventiveness, historically, has been dependent on global minds that can leap across borders.

Vivek Wadhwa, a successful Indian-American entrepreneur and now lecturer at a couple of universities, has examined this problem for several years.  He and students at Duke have put forth a number of papers showing how we are locking out the brains we need to keep things going. In the Spring 2009 Issues in Science and Technology, he makes clear how we are suffering from a critical brain drain. As he has pointed out elsewhere, even enlarged visa programs saddled with the current rules won’t help Indian emigrant entrepreneurs who want to start their own enterprises in America:  they will still have to go home to work their magic.  It is vital for American policy makers to understand that educated India has, does, and will make its way to the United States, and that we want Indians to do the marvelous things here that division,  politics, and ingrained habit bar them from doing at home.

India, A Maze.  India is an incredibly difficult place, and this has probably turned out to be the key to its peculiar greatness.  Like a rat in a maze, one wanders about it and goes up a blind alley.  After a thousand twists and turns, one finds an opening.  We have said that Adiga and others paint this bleak picture for us.  Everyday a new difficulty presents itself.  Recently we read at length of poor Indian working women, and all that Ela Bhatt has done for them.  These same women strike a complete dead end in India’s prisons.

At every turn India’s central government and its assorted state governments erect hurdles that hinder economic development.  Whether it be Enron or Tata, it is sometimes just impossible to go forward with worthy, necessary projects.  The Indian central government itself has a hard time governing its citizens, communications with them being fragmented by poor roads and a stunted infrastructure.

We hypothesize that it is these very obstacles that have created the finesse of the Indian brain.  It can find its way around anything:  for the Indian there are 1,000 ways to get there but no way is certain. The Indian brain has achieved agility and an athleticism, all due to the impediments it has to conquer. The best Indians are molded by the complexities they have overcome.

It’s not surprising that the Chinese more often manufacture the hardware (such as autos and refrigerators and telecommunications equipment) and have achieved manufacturing success, because China will bulldoze away anything that stands in the way, ripping out whole towns in order to built a giant dam or make way for new enterprise.  The Indians seem to do things in the software realm, working out mental paths to go around the roadblocks that look impassable at first. From this spirit have come a great number of cost-effective software (Infosys) and pharmaceutical (Ranbaxy) houses. Ultimately there’s more brain than brawn in their enterprise, a characteristic that may play well in the world economy of the future. India’s great exports are knowledge, and it, as much as any nation, foreshadows a world in which our task is to achieve instant knowledge transfer from a thousand points of light, all thousands of miles apart.

P.S.  As well, India shows its proto-English desires through its sheer addiction to cricket.  At its start cricket was England’s game, but it began to lose it as it was losing the Empire.  Both India and Australia, oft as not, are the real cricket powers. Cricket enjoys its own special link, apart from other sports, on the Times of India homepage.

P.P.S.  India’s press, including its English language press, is thriving—quite a contrast to the state of affairs in America.  We could imagine that a clever Indian entrepreneur might export a paper into the United States, going the Economist one better. America’s media moguls should be investing in India, and maybe China.

P.P.P.S.  Theoretically India’s English-speaking population is a compact minority, after Ibsen’s warning that the ‘majority is always wrong,’ that primes that nation’s economic pump.  There would be no modern successful Finland, in like manner, without its vibrant Swedish-speaking minority, all dating back to the Swedish supremacy in that country.

P.P.P.P.S.  The way forward on the Indian sub-continent is strewn with boulders, and it is not a smooth path.  One need only read “India’s New Face,” Atlantic, April 2009, to realize that a reckless nationalism could sweep away many of the country’s gains.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Lest we forget it is Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution that put India on a better path.  Without gains in agriculture, all the rest would not have happened. 

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