Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's Latest: "The Post-American World"

Though I've often disagreed with Fareed Zakaria on specific policy questions, I've always been challenged and interested by his way of thinking about big issues. I found Zakaria's earlier book The Future of Freedom stimulating, if imperfect. Zakaria seems to be especially good at synthesizing complex issues under the umbrella of a signature "big idea," without choking off qualifications or complexities. He still may a little too close to the buzzword-philia of Thomas Friedman for some readers, but in my view Zakaria's book-length arguments are a cut above Friedman's "gee whiz" bromides. (Zakaria's weekly Newsweek columns do not always rise to this bar.)

Zakaria's latest big concept is The Post-American World, a just-released book whose argument he summarizes in a substantial essay in this week's Newsweek. The basic idea is, the world is becoming a place where the U.S. is not a solo superpower, but rather a complex competitive environment with multiple sites of power and influence. Even as China and India ("Chindia"?) rise, it's not clear that the U.S. or Europe will fall; rather, everyone can, potentially, rise together -- or at least, compete together. Zakaria argues that despite hysterical anxieties figured in the mass media regarding the threat of terrorism and economic crisis, the world has rarely been more peaceful -- and that relative peace and stability has created the opportunity for the unprecedented emergence of independent and rapidly expanding market economies in formerly impoverished "Chindia."

There's more to it (read the article), but perhaps that is enough summary for now. There are a couple of passages I thought particularly interesting, which I might put out for discussion. First, on India:

During the 1980s, when I would visit India—where I grew up—most Indians were fascinated by the United States. Their interest, I have to confess, was not in the important power players in Washington or the great intellectuals in Cambridge.

People would often ask me about … Donald Trump. He was the very symbol of the United States—brassy, rich, and modern. He symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America. Today, outside of entertainment figures, there is no comparable interest in American personalities. If you wonder why, read India's newspapers or watch its television. There are dozens of Indian businessmen who are now wealthier than the Donald. Indians are obsessed by their own vulgar real estate billionaires. And that newfound interest in their own story is being replicated across much of the world. (link)

This last insight seems dead-on to me, and it's the kind of thing I think Zakaria appreciates precisely because he was raised in India (no matter how many times he says "we" when talking about American foreign policy, he still carries that with him). This is one of the spaces where Zakaria's status as an "Indian-American" is a real asset, as it gives him a simultaneous insider-outsider "double consciousness" -- he has the ability to see things from the American/European point of view, but also know (remembers?) how the man on the street in Bombay or Shanghai is likely to see the world. [Note: I did an earlier post on Zakaria's complex perspective here]

(As a side note -- for the academics in the house, isn't the narrative Zakaria is promoting in the passage above a "pop" version of what postcolonial theorists have been talking about for years -- what Ngugi called "The Decolonization of the Mind"?)

Secondly, another passage, which I think addresses what might be the biggest hindrance to the multi-nodal global society Zakaria is interested in:

The rise of China and India is really just the most obvious manifestation of a rising world. In dozens of big countries, one can see the same set of forces at work—a growing economy, a resurgent society, a vibrant culture, and a rising sense of national pride. That pride can morph into something uglier. For me, this was vividly illustrated a few years ago when I was chatting with a young Chinese executive in an Internet café in Shanghai. He wore Western clothes, spoke fluent English, and was immersed in global pop culture. He was a product of globalization and spoke its language of bridge building and cosmopolitan values. At least, he did so until we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and even the United States. (We did not discuss Tibet, but I'm sure had we done so, I could have added it to this list.) His responses were filled with passion, bellicosity, and intolerance. I felt as if I were in Germany in 1910, speaking to a young German professional, who would have been equally modern and yet also a staunch nationalist.

As economic fortunes rise, so inevitably does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win recognition and respect throughout the world. (link)

Will resurgent nationalism turn out to be the biggest hindrance to the "smooth" globalization Zakaria is talking about? How might this play out? Will there be a new generation of wars, or will it be expressed in subtler ways (like, for instance, what happened with the nuclear deal within the Indian political system). In the Newsweek article at least, Zakaria doesn't really explore the downside of emergent (insurgent?) Chindian nationalisms in depth; perhaps he explores that further in the book.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Book with "@" in the Title

There's a profile in the New York Times of Chetan Bhagat (thanks, Pocobrat), author of One Night @ The Call Center, which was released in the U.S. on paperback last year. Bhagat, an author few in the west will have heard of, has now become the biggest English-language author in Indian history:

But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history, according to his publisher, Rupa & Company, one of India’s oldest and best established publishers. His story of campus life, “Five Point Someone,” published in 2004, and a later novel, “One Night @ the Call Center,” sold a combined one million copies.

Mr. Bhagat, who wrote his books while living here, has difficulty explaining why a 35-year-old investment banker writing in his spare time has had such phenomenal success reaching an audience of mainly middle-class Indians in their 20s. The novels, deliberately sentimental in the tradition of Bollywood filmmaking, are priced like an Indian movie ticket — just 100 rupees, or $2.46 — and have won little praise as literature.

“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here. (link)

Yes, it's true, we do hate him.

I read One Night @ The Call Center a few months ago, when the American publisher sent me a review copy. Some parts were so bad, they made me cry. I was particularly bored by the chapters detailing the protagonist's unrequited romance with a colleague , which are set off in bold type for some reason (though the fact that they are set off in bold is actually useful -- the font makes it easier to identify the chapters to skip!).

That said, the novel does have some amusing cultural commentary scattered here and there, and I suspect it's the book's candor on the grim--yet economically privileged--experience of overnight call center workers that has made Bhagat so popular. That, and the book is so easy it could be read by a stoned dog on a moonless night.

Here is one passage, on accents, I thought interesting:

I hate accent training. The American accent is so confusing. You mightthink the Americans and their language are straightforward, but each letter can be pronounced several different ways.

I'll give you just one example: T. With this letter Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent, so "internet" becomes "innernet" and "advantage" becomes "advannage." Another way is when T and N merge-- "written" becomes "writn" and "certain" is "certn." The third sound is when T falls in the middle. There, it sounds like a D--"daughter" is "daughder" and "water" is "wauder." The last category, if you still care, is when Americans say T like a T. This happens, obviously, when T is at the beginning of the word like "table" or "stumble." And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another story.

Say what you will about his literary skills, Bhagat has clearly worried about American accents.

A second moment of cultural commentary I remembered came from the middle of the novel, after one of the characters has started to freak out after getting one too many calls from racist Americans uttering epithets of the "rat-eater" variety:

"Guys, there are two things I cannot stand," he said and showed us two fingers. Racists. And Americans."

Priyanka started laughing.

"What is there to laugh at?" I said.

"Because there is a contradiction. He doesn't like racists, but can't stand Americans," Priyanka said.

"Why?" Vroom said, ignoring Priyanka. "Why do some fat-ass, dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why?"

Nobody answered.

Vroom continued, "I'll tell you why. Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our counttry for the last fifty years couldn't do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth."

And if reading rants like that makes you feel better about things, you might enjoy One Night @ The Call Center. (Well, parts of it, anyway.)

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Misadventures in Government: Delhi and Nandigram

The dream of speeding India towards globalization and economic liberalization has encountered quite a number of hiccups over the past year, though two failed government policies in particular stand out: the sealing drive in Delhi, and the Special Economic Zone plan in rural Bengal.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections over the past few days, and the Congress Party lost heavily, while the BJP gained the majority of seats, primarily because of "sealing," which is the process of closing down illegal commercial enterprises in residential areas. The government's mismanagement of the sealing drive, which has led to repeated interventions by the Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, can be compared in some ways to what happened recently in Nandigram. There, a group of villagers gathered to protest the conversion of their farmland into a "Special Economic Zone" (SEZ) found themselves under fire by police. Fourteen people died in the violence, and in the ensuing uproar the Communist government of Bengal has been forced to suspend (temporarily?) its plan to develop a massive chemical factory and the four-lane highway that would lead to it.

There are of course ironies in both instances. It's remarkable, for instance, that the Communist government of Bengal is so pro-globalization that it was ready to force several thousand people in Nandigram to relocate to make way for an Indonesian corporation (the Salim group). But it seems to me that what is happening here isn't so much about conventional ideology (left vs. right) as it is about pro-development policies, that might make sense in principle, being terribly mismanaged.

Both issues are incredibly complicated, and alongside your opinions and arguments, I'd like to humbly request that readers suggest links that shed light on the different sides of each issue.

The Wikipedia entry for the 2006 Delhi Sealing Drive is pretty helpful, as it gives a detailed timeline of events (supported in many cases by external links to news articles). Another helpful starting point is this Rediff article from last November. There is also a blog of sorts on Delhi Sealing; the recent entries refer to the "Delhi Master Plan 2021," which was unveiled by the Congress government last fall as a way to offset the political damage created by the misguided sealing drive that unfolded over the course of 2006. The new Master Plan compromises on several issues; for instance, it aims to create more "mixed use" areas, thereby reducing the need for sealing under the previous plan. In all of this, the Supreme Court has been a major thorn in the side of the Congress government; it has required the government to implement a deeply unpopular policy, and in some sense pushed the Congress Party in Delhi into its current situation. (The Supreme Court has also bucked the will of the legislative branch on the question of reservations for OBCs, though that is another whole can of worms.)

On Nandigram and the SEZs, Wikipedia is again a good place to start. I would also recommend this Tehelka article from March 3, which also discusses a controversial SEZ plan in Singur involving a proposed Tata Auto plant. There's also an interesting Op-Ed in the Indian Express, from a writer who is clearly pro-SEZ and pro-globalization, but who recognizes the failures in the plan as it was enacted. And finally, try this leftist critique of the rather non-leftish policies of the CPI(M) in Bengal at Znet. (You may or may not agree with Akhila Rman's assessment of what happened at Nandigram, but her footnotes/links are very helpful.)

The biggest problem with the SEZ program from a civil rights perspective is the way the government can acquire rural land from peasants who may not have any papers to support their claim to ownership. (In this sense, they are similar to the traders who run unlicensed shops in Delhi -- and the claims of both groups are, in my view, legitimate.) A new policy is being put in place that will require that SEZ land in the future be purchased, rather than simply possessed, but it's unclear whether that is now going to be tried at Nandigram.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In the Washington Post: Vikram Chandra, and a little from me

I'm quoted in an article in this past Monday's Washington Post, on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games:

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."

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