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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Max Medium

Winston Churchill once quipped, "India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator.” History will eventually prove him wrong, but, more importantly, he overlooked India as a human expression. 

Photo by Nicolas van Hemelryck (winner, India Future of Change contest)
A few years ago, I dined at a decades–old, family–owned Indian restaurant nestled in the Alps in Innsbruck, Austria. I was looking at a German–only menu and broken French barely got me through the puris and chaat. On the back of a pikipiki (motorbike) in Kenya, I spent the better part of ten minutes convincing the driver over a 150 cc engine that I didn’t really care for Shahrukh Khan. Near Dani Beach on the Kenyan coast, I introduced new friends from Indiana to their inaugural helping of saag paneer and Mughlai chicken. Speaking with a Mombasa DJ, I was unfazed that he had on his docket songs from Dhoom 2, flanked by Akon and Tanzanian artist P–Square.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt once said, "American culture is deconstructed and re–contextualized into the everyday experience of the people. American popular culture is not the monopoly of Americans; it is a medium through which people around the world constantly reorganize their individual and collective identities." It’s often said that America and India share an unspoken, special bond because of democracy. Shashi Tharoor stated, “So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus.” But, the similarities between the two democracies are often exaggerated. Each has its own anatomy and pathologies. While, it’s hard not to be hopeful about India, it’s also important to understand the distance between narrative and reality. America’s social apparatus, political institutions, and genetic ethos of self–invention have been relentlessly debated, cultivated, and curated for centuries. A fast track for these in India has its limitations.

Rather, India’s greatest overlap is its power as a medium. In fact, India is a medium as much as it is an identity, culture, history, and geography. It touts a unique ability to tie origin to destination. At first, I thought of a piece of ancient, malleable, Amrutanjan-scented, turquoise clay that happened to be WiFi–enabled and coated in Aesop’s fables and baby Krishna's stolen butter. But, on second thought, India is a medium like a campfire would be.

Of course, the notion is nothing new. Filmmaker and artist Satyajit Ray perfected India as a medium over five decades ago. The downside is that a medium can be partly dangerous, used to fetishize and divide. But, the potential merit is real and vast. It can help flesh out solutions, spark a re–think, chart the uncharted, and culture a fresh stance to tackle problems. I’m not talking about “soft power” or a moral exercise or just a new lookout point. I’m talking about fitness— a wellspring of energy and muscle to adapt to and tackle India’s issues, local and global.

Unfortunately, today I find myself stumbling on provocative book titles and cocktail punch lines. Just as China is not a dragon or hare, India is not a reluctant elephant, nor is it a tiger or tortoise. To me, this crude feline–reptilian taxonomy is a sad mix of lukewarm calculation and lack of imagination. “Dragon chasing” is in vogue, but pitting India against China is becoming almost entirely useless. At best the clichés are papery box stuffing. At worst they vandalize the world’s budding perceptions. One thing is for certain, time and time again, they neglect India’s incredible unfolding human story. It’s time to oxygenate.   

Take a look at the current roundup. The Paris-Delhi-Mumbai axis, a dialogue of French and Indian artists, is in full swing. Bollywood recently wrapped up a weeklong festival in Ethiopia. Chennai’s Kollywood plans to move global and away from melodrama, escapism, and formulaic plots. Geopolitically, India has ramped up its “Look East”, bolstering ties with Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and has forged a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, with a $500 million aid package. With a $5 billion loan, India has recently engaged with Africa on a whole new level. Filmmaker Siddharth Kak will soon bring India’s diaspora alive in a new 10-part documentary series featuring stories from Malaysia, Mauritius, the U.A.E, Oman, Britain, the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Fiji, Singapore, and Australia.  Local movements like Subcontinental Drift in New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. showcase the confident cross–cultural talent and experience of South Asian Americans through storytelling, poetry, acoustic vocal, and stand–up comedy performances.       

These are the familiar. What about the alien? A scene in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is forever etched in my mind. In the caustic and, often, hopeless 1970s India, two brothers Omprakash and Narayan, “untouchables,” find themselves in an empty schoolroom with chalk and boards to themselves. “They grew more adventurous, departing from straight lines, covering the slates with loops and curves and scrawls of all shapes and sizes, stopping only to admire, marveling at the ease with which they could create, then erase with a sweep of the hand and re-create at will… it could make thick funny lines on the forehead just like the caste marks of Brahmins.” Sadly, the headmaster thrashed the two boys for “contaminating” the upper caste schoolhouse. To think of such a distant world— the sheen of childhood looks so different. For me, waking up late on Saturday meant missing Captain Planet. For my father, it meant missing out on water for the day. 

So where can India as a medium draw the most leverage?— Pakistan. Manmohan Singh once dreamt of a day when “one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul…That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live.” For decades India has cut its teeth on indigenous transformation and external partnership, but Delhi still fails to grasp its crucial stake in Islamabad. Where is the coherent plan for trade loosening, private equity and venture funding, private-public-NGO partnerships, education and cultural exchange, small and medium enterprise (SME) financing, technical assistance in health and agriculture, energy cooperation, transport corridors, and investment risk guarantees? Despite a common language, history, and culture, trade between the two countries totals a paltry $2 billion per year. A cartoon-like mesh of border crossings, commerce bans, and red tape finds Pakistani and Indian trucker drivers sipping tea while trains switch engines, conductors swap seats, and cars nudge trucks over the border.

A new medium can help dissolve mental borders and renovate India–Pakistan relations. Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated, “It is easy to be confused and angry about Pakistan. But, that is not a strategy.” How can we make Singh’s dream come true? Can the Indian medium help locate the world’s true North?

One thing is becoming clear, tomorrow cares next to nothing what our uncles and aunties think about India and Pakistan. Rather, it will be designed and shepherded almost exclusively by the millennials, India’s new “midnight’s children” born after 1991, and a dogged, culturally agile, flourishing diaspora.


Walking past two women early in the morning chalking fresh white Rangoli (Kolam in Tamil Nadu) on a front stoop, I was given an explanation. Actually, as with everything in India, I was given a million, each 100% accurate and 100% doubtful, folding and weaving into one another into a newly thatched question mark. Though, one stuck— begin every day with an act of creativity. Coming back around I saw the signature, a stoop festooned with a tangle of silvery-white strings— ancient electron clouds, planetary orbits, calcified microphone cords, milked arteries, and private galaxies.