Thoughts on the Indian Economy

Thinking about assorted economic issues in India.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Torn Culture

I have been reading "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama, a U.S Senator from Illinois. Some of you may have heard his moving address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Since hearing it, I have been interested in Obama, his politics and his probable ascent to become the first black President.

Obama spent some of his childhood years in Indonesia and this experience stuck with him. Many years later, while working as a grasssroots activist in Chicago, he compared a poor black neighborhood called Altgeld to his memories of Djakarta.

"As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but towards the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her. The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting fles off their fruit with whisk brooms.

I'd always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Roseland, Raafiq and Mr. Foster, I saw those Djarkarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than those folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs everyday, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.

It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars?

Longer that it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that once sat long the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble radios and speakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years form now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forest that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they one wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interestes, the plastics manufacturers will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that's been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Some would move to America. And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair."

I have often had similar thoughts about India. Things are changing so quickly. Rapid growth is certainly what India needs; the day each and every citizen is above the poverty line is a joyous one. But what toll are the sweeping changes going to take? Will everyone be included? Perhaps all of this is far-sighted. And growth, one way or the other, is the only thing to focus on...


Post a Comment

<< Home