Saturday, September 17, 2011

AWOL youth in a B-grade India

When I was younger, I had even less time than now with all the burdens of age.

There was so much to learn, places to see, fortunes to make, reputations to shape, fall in love, break a few hearts, rebound from heartaches, and find my authentic voice. The only things I didn't have time for is to breathe or sleep.

Can't imagine I would have given up any of that for Twitter or Facebook.

How do today's twentysomethings manage it all?

The conventional wisdom is that India's economic growth is a consequence of reform.

In truth, we've barely had any reform. India is still infatuated with socialist chains that criminally impoverished two generations. The political contest is between the secular-left and the religious-left. The economy is still micromanaged with five year plans.

How has India grown when this discredited thinking took down the mighty USSR?

I think this has to do with growing confidence. A confident population consumes more things, which creates demand for products and services, which creates higher paying jobs, which creates a confident population.

This confidence is not the result of any geopolitical change or domestic policy. Rather, I'd argue, it's because India has progressively grown younger. The median age is now 26 years and falling. The youth may lack knowledge, experience, even social graces - but they don't lack confidence. A long life lies ahead, caution is not in their vocabulary.

I've not researched this but am certain that the older the Indian, the less confident he/she is.

You can see this in the polity. The octogenarians who pretend to rule India are anything but confident. Their inferiority complex on the world stage is something to behold. And despair about.

Caught between the uninformed confidence of youth and the unfortunate caution of the experienced, India sails on as a middling nation with delusions of past glory and day dreams of future greatness.

Amy Winehouse died recently. She was merely 27.

Silicon Valley is all about the young. Fresh ideas pursued with infinite boldness.

The young are busy shaping their era. Except, I fear, in India.

Maybe they are out there. Putting their heads down and chasing their dreams. Maybe those on social media are not the dreamers and doers. We should look elsewhere.

But what if this is not the case?

What are the big ideas and achievements of the youth bulge in India?

I may disagree with him, but Mr Anna Hazare has big ideas. And, Nandan Nilekani. They are not young. Where are the big ideas of youth?

When we think of art, we still debate M F Husain & bow before Gulzar. Where is the twentysomething art to give expression to a young India asserting its place in the world?

Let's take politics. Yes, there are a few young voices but they are hardly authentic. And, no, trolling people on twitter is not a big idea of politics.


I've interviewed a lot of people over the years for jobs. Many of them Indians. I've noticed a growing brashness in Indians, not usually substantiated with real knowledge.

I think of when I came to business school. All these smooth talkers discussing swaps and options and beta and gamma and this and that. I was rather unnerved for I had never studied economics nor ever understood what stocks and bonds are. Then, in my microeconomics class, I discovered I was the only one who understood what slope of a line is. Or, how compounding works. The rest, as they say, was a breeze.

I think that Indians used to be more like me. Maybe we didn't know all the fancy stuff but the foundations we knew better than anybody. This is why we won.

Now, they have become more like my classmates. They know all the fancy stuff but the foundations are cracking. You know where this leads.


India is growing because it is increasingly confident.

But it isn't reforming. And its confidence is the callow brashness of the young.

There is so much for them to learn, places to see, fortunes to make, reputations to shape, fall in love, break a few hearts, rebound from heartaches, and find their authentic voice. The only things they don't have time for is to breathe or sleep.

Or spend their time chitchatting on social media.

I'm not so confident about India's future. I guess my age is showing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sweet Smell Of Sorrow

At a distance my God stood

With his hands folded

And said nothing at all


When I think of 9/11, I think of the smell that lasted that whole month.

The sweet smell of sorrow. The young flesh charred too soon. Some were friends. All were family.

For years, it felt like someone had socked me - and my city - in the jaw. The magic was that we took the blow but did not fall. For months the city was a dark, brooding, miserable place. Then, still in the midst of a harsh recession, we found a way to start smiling again.

It had been a tough year. The internet bubble had burst. Buddha's face was shredded in Bamiyan. Politics were ugly from the hanging chads of Florida.

America wasn't ready for jihad on its soil.

Still, there were no riots in New York. Instead, there were inter-faith prayers in Yankee Stadium. Om and Allah and Christ and Yahweh and the Gurus were all invoked.

This wasn't the blood-soaked Delhi of 1984. Too bad Gujarat did not learn.

No, this wasn't about naive self-flagellation and othering that India is so used to doing. America was going to war, united. It would - over the next decade - hunt down Bin Laden, topple a murderous Saddam Hussain, and incite Arab Spring.

I supported both wars. I desperately wished India had the same resolve when hit again and again and again in Kandahar and Kaluchak and Akshardham and Sansad Bhawan and Mumbai and Delhi and so many other places.


We had returned from a meeting that had lasted all morning. Having missed most of what happened, I was trying to grasp it all. A colleague barged in. I'm leaving to re-enlist, he said, I must be in the fight.

He was a marine. He had lost fingers in Desert Storm. He had lost firefighter friends that morning. He was ready to avenge that loss.

All I could tell him is that he should do what he felt he needed to do.

Then I started reading and couldn't stop for years. Ahmed Rashid's Taliban. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Fukuyama's The End of History, Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, Coll's Ghost Wars, Naipaul's Among The Believers, Perkovich's India's Nuclear Bomb, Maxwell's India's China War, and so many others.

I was an engineer discovering history. Radically reshaping my worldview.

I started writing. A few newspaper columns. A lot of blog posts.

It took me years to reconcile my liberalism with the new hawkishness I felt. Eventually, it became self-evident that liberalism must be fought for. That some ideas are superior to others. That while I respect everyone's right to whatever views they hold, only modernity - underpinned by the twinning of freedom and reason - must shape how we live.

I came to see myself as a neoconservative. A liberal mugged by reality.


Ten years later, my rage at jihad's temper tantrum hasn't yet ebbed.

I'm also glad that, unlike India, America doesn't move on. It fights back - whatever the cost.

I watch people taking potshots at this great shining city on the hill. Iraq was a mistake. Drones are wrong. Pakistanis see Americans darkly. The wars have depleted America. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo.

I've even heard people argue Iraqis were better off under Saddam than under freedom.

I guess they haven't spoken to the little Afghan girls freed from the tyranny of the imposed veil. Or, the Shia of Iraq liberated from genocidal chemical attacks.


Sometimes I feel we are back at 9/10. Commercial buildings are full of people in downtown. Tourists visit where the twin towers stood. Hawkers sell them trinkets. We are mired in yet another recession.

But that smell of 9/11 wakes me up quickly in the sweet hereafter.

The air has been cleansed. The clothes dry cleaned. The dead interred. But the smell is still here.


The caravan departs in a rising dust of memories

The dirge wafts in through the windows of my heart

My God turns and walks away