excerpts from Maximum City : Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

India is a country of the NO. That “no” is your test.You have to get past it. It is India’s great wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru-shishya tradition,the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. then the guru stops saying no but doesn’t say yes either; he suffers the presence of the student. when he starts acknowledging him,he assigns a series of menial tasks, meant to drive him away. only if the disciple sticks it out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy of the sublime knowledge. India is not a tourist friendly country. it will reveal itself to you only if you stay on,against all odds.the “no” might never become a “yes.” But you will stop asking questions.

Long before the millennium, Indians such as the late prime minister,Rajiv Gandhi, were talking about taking the country into the 21st century, as if the 20th century could just be leapfrogged. India desires modernity; it desires computers, information technology,neural networks,video on demand. But there is no guarantee if a constant supply of electricity in most places in the country . in this as in every other area, the country is convinced it can pole vault over the basics: develop world-class computer and management institutes without achieving basic literacy; provide advanced cardiac surgery and diagnostic imaging facilities while the most easily avoidable childhood diseases run rampant;sell washing machines that depend on a nonexistent water supply from shops that are dark most hours of the day because of power cuts;support a dozen private and public companies offering mobile phone services, while the basic land and telephone network is in terrible shape;drive scores of new cars that go from 0 to 60 in ten seconds without any roads where they might do this without killing everything inside and out, man and beast.

it is an optimistic view of technological progress – that if you reach for the moon, you will somehow, automatically, span the the inconvenient steps in between. India has the 3rd largest pool of technical labor in the world, but a third of its 1 billion people can’t read or write. An Indian scientist can design a supercomputer, but it won’t work because the junior technician cannot maintain it properly. the country graduates the best technical brains in the world but neglects to teach my plumber how to fix a toilet so it stays fixed. it is still a bramhin oriented system of education; those who work with their hands have to learn for themselves. education has to do with reading and writing, with abstractions, with higher thought.

As a result, in the country of NO nothing is fixed the first time around. you don’t call a repairman, you begin a relationship with him. you can’t bring to his attention too aggressively the fact that he is incompetent or crooked, because you’ll need him to set right what he has broken the first time around. Indians are craftsmen of genius, but mass production, with its attendant standardization, is not for us. all things modern in Bombay fail regularly : plumbing, telephones, the movement of huge blocks of traffic. Bombay is not the ancient Indian idea of a city. it is an imitation of a western city, maybe Chicago in the twenties. and, like all other imitations of the west here-the hindi pop songs,the appliances, the accents people put on, the parties the rich throw – this imitation, too, is neither here  nor there.


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