Friday, December 19, 2003

The Indian's Calling

Someone recently suggested to me that the phrase "White Man's Burden" is still relevant today, but that the term "White Man" must be broadened to include (in his words) "rasam-swilling, tech types in Silicon Valley with names like Kondaswamy Mokshagundam Thathatachariar." I responded that Indians have no business going on worldwide civilizing sprees, when civilization is missing from Bihar and Tanjore district. This is quite sad, considering that the capital of Bihar is Patna, Pataliputra capital of the Gupta empire of old, and Tanjore is the old capital of the Chola empire (and location of the fabulous Brihadeshwara Temple). Kondaswamy's efforts should be focused on places like Trichy which has an open drainage problem. The well-planned cities of the Indus Valley Civilization had closed drainage, but modern-day Trichy, home of the famous and well visited reclining Ranganatha, can't compete.

But that's the thing with great civilizations - their achievements are notable on mundane and epic levels. I recently read a hilarious essay on a Pakistani news website that suggested that outdoor pissing is a graver problem there than extremism - a not too unfamiliar story on our side of the border. India has a lot to learn (or re-learn?) about civilization. Our Silicon Valley man has much to contribute here since he has seen the filthy streets of Madras and the clean streets and Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. If a great civilization is characterized by it's mastery of the ordinary and the extraordinary, then the techie is certainly living and working in one. What better way to learn and observe? He certainly has great value as a cultural asset to the cause of Indian amelioration. His efforts are better served in India than as part of a global civilizing crusade. However, I have to admit that young K. M. Thathatachariar is part of a new global order, and manifest destiny is not an altogether alien concept in the country he lives in.

The fact is that we live in a unipolar world in which the dominant hegemon has very recently begun to see itself as a force for change in the world. As Mark Steyn put it on September 12, 2001, "the world's only superpower has been on a ten-year long weekend off... yesterday's atrocities were a rude awakening from the indulgences of the last decade." After this awakening, President Bush has led America on a global war for liberty and democracy. Identifying a lack of liberal societies in the Islamic world as the primary factor contributing to Islamist terrorism, Bush has made it his administration's mission to bring the winds of change to the Muslim ummah. In the dualities of the post-Sept. 11 era, the Islamists believe that the world is divided between Muslim nations and infidel barbarians, and the Americans believe that the world is divided between liberal democracies and unfree tyrannies.

Where does this leave Kondaswamy Mokshagundam? He's Indian, is well educated and well travelled, works in the U.S., and is part of a cutting edge industry that is intimately involved in blurring borders. He belongs in the globalized world just as Mohammed Atta does. To ask a question Bush has asked of all of us, what side should our software engineer take? He certainly does not subscribe to the al Qaeda goal of spreading political Islamism to the rest of the world. Furthermore, he's a democrat.

Despite its many faults, India is a very remarkable country. Firstly, and probably most importantly, it has managed to maintain a succesful democracy for a very long time. Consider that India's current democratic system of government is as old or older than the successful democracies of France, Germany, Poland, Japan, Spain, Italy, South Korea and Chile (and many more). Secondly, India has a very vibrant culture. Indian artistic output is enormous (quick question: how many Saudi Arabian singers can you name?) both in terms of high culture and popular art. Thirdly, Indian intellectual capital is among the highest in the world, and the skill of its people is to be awed. The list goes on, and if you've read this far you can probably augment it much yourself (as easily, I'm sure, as you can drum up a list of faults). As a flourishing liberal democracy, India is definately part of the world of the civilized in the American worldview.

And that's how we view India too. At the end of the day, we believe in democracy. We believe in Parliamentary politics. We believe in an independent judiciary. We believe in a free press. We believe in free speech. We believe in secularism (okay, most of us do). When Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush ask us simultaneously, "whose side are you on?", we are duty-bound to side with the Americans. They share our values, and from elementary observation we can tell that theirs is the greater civilization. We have much to learn from America, and nothing from the Saddam Husseins or Osamas of the world.

*When I say 'we' I identify myself as an Indian. I must qualify this by saying that while I grew up in India and my parents are Indian, I am an American citizen and live and work in the U.S.

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