Ratio Blog: Indian Stories
Thursday, 20 January 2011
Last week, I went to India. In my head.

In his article ‘The Caste Buster ’ in the New York Times, Anand Giridharadas speaks about his visit to Umred, ‘just another small town in the middle of nowhere, dusty and underwhelming.’ Giridharadas had initially gone to Umred to write about a riot (a riot about power cuts, no less, and after 48 hours of no power and brownouts to start 2011, I, too, feel like waving some sticks). He then returned to find out more about Ravindra Misal, a young man who had become a successful entrepreneur with an English academy, roller skating academy, who became a national roller skating team coach and pageant organiser. This is a remarkable portfolio if you know that Misal comes from a poor, landless family from one of the lowest caste, classified as one of the ‘Other Backward Classes’ just above the untouchables. He describes his family as ‘daily wage people’, an expression that encapsulates the almost permanent state of insecurity that they live in. If tradition in India was that your caste dictated fate, Misal chose to break with it and escape from what would have typically been an almost pre-ordained path in life.

The Economist, in turn, published ‘A Village in a Million’, a detailed, sensitively-written feature about Shahabpur, a ‘village on the Gangetic plain, ... caste addled and somehow cohesive’ in Uttar Pradesh. In this piece, the author stays with Sarju, a 45 year old cobbler and leather worker, the profession of his class of untouchables, to learn about Shahabpur’s recent changes.

The author of ‘A Village in a Million ’ emphasised that this is really just one village in the sub-continent. But like the ‘Caste Buster’, this article touches on the enormous changes of contemporary India: The success of India’s outsourcing industry, the growth of the services industry, infrastructure construction, technical innovations have created an economic transition in urban areas that is gradually growing tendons into the rural backwaters and changes society along the way.

This is rural and small-town India, but in many ways, I was struck by the similarities to Kenya or East Africa. The population may still be overwhelmingly employed in agriculture, but smallholder agriculture in many areas is a stagnating business: ‘A Village in a Million’ speaks of low agricultural yields despite massive programmes of fertiliser subsidies and public grain procurement – government interventions that have proven inefficient and corrupt. The sub-division of landholdings leaves towel-sized patches of land too small to feed its owners. Land prices may be high, but family and legal disputes mean that hardly any land is ever sold.

Economic shifts, however, now provide alternatives, especially in the larger towns and cities, connected through better roads and rail. Men migrate to work in factories and construction sites, and send cash home, which gradually transforms the villages and small towns: more private schools, more shops. This upsets the traditional community structures that had ordered the village along the dual caste/work determinant: some parents want better for their children and so don’t apprentice them into their own line of work. Other skills simply become redundant: plastic cups are easily and cheaply available, so the potters lost most of their business. This transition has both risks and hopes: the old, seemingly immutable order locked people into the path that their caste prescribed, and if you happened to be born into the low castes, you were stuck in a lifetime of poverty and vulnerability. But it also offered cohesion, familiarity, predictability.

Technology – media, internet, mobile phones – offer a glimpse of a different life, of new opportunities to make a living. ‘Caste buster’ Misal’s English academies are in such demand because they train their students how to speak the English they needed for a new life: ‘It gave students the idioms, vocabulary and placeless accent that would render your lowly origins untraceable in a land where so much could be deduced when you opened your mouth’. His academies also teach students ‘personality development’: what to wear in interviews, how to work in teams, how to present themselves. Both are necessary to find a job in India’s vibrant new industries – and so escape from the old order.

Misal speaks of how TV has shown him what ambition means, a sharp contrast to the deeply ingrained obligation to be satisfied with where you were placed in life: ‘On TV you see the things of world-class standard. When you see some person on Discovery catching anaconda, you are looking at the best person in the world for catching anaconda.’

Look at Nairobi wriggling with ever more people in search of work, opportunities, and also excitement of the big city, you see the same migration and urbanisation just as in much larger India. Kenyan youth see the same international media images of wealth and success as their Indian counterparts do. But not everyone will be able to succeed in this economic and social transition, despite its undoubted opportunities. Some people will be like Misal who has been able to translate his desire for a new life, his ambitions, into businesses, into relative wealth. Does Kenya’s school and higher education system equip its students with the right hard and soft skills? What about all those who have very little formal education, but still desire to live up to the same images in movies, on MTV? Look back three years at the footage of angry young men looting and killing, look at people like Mike Sonko, a jua kali copy of an MTV video clip and some glaring question marks regarding the source of his wealth.

Republished with kind permission from the Star.

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