I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig a while ago and reflecting on the nature of Quality as described by the author. Although the ideas described by Pirsig in his meditative narrative weren’t exactly novel, he did paint a layer of clarity over the things we see in day-to-day life, like a lens that magnifies some parts of a specimen and brings to the fore an aspect that simply wasn’t noticed before, even as it stared us in the face.
But today, I was travelling around the streets of Mumbai, and it got me thinking about what sets nations apart from each other, especially the tenuous distinction between the developing and the developed nations. The distinction most certainly isn’t technological — from consumer products to manufacturing techniques, India has everything it needs to be on par with any other nation. In the cases where it doesn’t, there is a penalty of economic cost — we simply have to pay a little extra to get the same benefits. Alternatively, the distinction could be economic, but that explanation doesn’t fit either. While there are plenty of people in India below the poverty-line, there are plenty of rich people as well. But being rich doesn’t make life any easier in India, unless you are so rich that you can literally pay someone to live your life for you.
To take a simple example, imagine that you need to get a new passport, and it takes several hours and several visits to the passport office to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and get the job done. There are no missing pieces that prevent this system from functioning equally well in developing as well as developed nations. Except that you would expect this system to work better in a developed nation, generally speaking.
Or to consider another example, if it takes forty-five minutes to commute one mile in suburban Mumbai simply because the traffic is terrible (because traffic rules are not spelt out properly and seldom followed), whom do you blame? If that commute is important to you, it doesn’t matter how rich you are, such comforts cannot be easily bought. Again, the traffic is not terrible because of poverty, or lack of education, or limited access to technology.
What is missing is something that can be very accurately, if vaguely, described by the term Quality. Look around and you will see people not willing to make an effort to put in their best work, doing a shoddy job simply because everyone else does. They are surrounded by others who accept this situation and get on with their lives as if it didn’t matter. The acceptance breeds indifference, completing the circle.
In many ways, this idea is scarier than the naïve assumption that generating more industrial and agricultural output will magically transform the country into the ideal we cherish in our dreams. It is the people themselves who need to change in some hitherto undefined fashion; simply demanding more resources, more technology or more money does not help in this regard.
Somewhere along the way, we started writing down numbers in spreadsheets and ledgers, and lost track of what is really important to us.
What do you think of when I say, “The Wall”? (Facebook users, anyone?)
This is more of trip down memory-lane. The apartment that I called home for the greater part of the nineties was on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Bombay. Maybe it was the proximity to the sea, or maybe it was just shoddy construction — one of the bedroom walls used to be in terrible shape. On its best day, it had plaster peeling off (sometimes falling off in chunks). On bad days, it was home to forests of fungus. Trust me, it wasn’t pretty.
Strangely, of all the things about that house, this wall is the one thing that keeps coming back to me in my dreams. Almost every idea of “home” that my subconscious creates is some variation on that house, ‘that house’ being identified by a suspiciously similar wall. Not the view from the window, or the table with the crippled chairs, or the heavy iron cots, or anything else. Just that wall.
After the tragic attack on Mumbai on Wednesday and Thursday, the question that we must all ask ourselves is not, “Who is behind these attacks?” as many news channels and newspaper columnists have kept repeating mindlessly. No, what we must ask ourselves is, “Will this change anything?”
This pessimism is not unwarranted. India has a long history of so-called ‘patience’ with respect to terrorist elements, something that the sensible citizen knows to be a euphemism for cowardice. The pattern is well-defined: a speech condemning the act and claiming that ‘the country would not put up with terror’, followed by a long, drawn out investigation by a committee of politicians, and then a few years in court with nonsensical judgments. Meanwhile, the media would do its bit, rising to the defence of the poor terrorist (who has a wife and kid after all), twisting the truth in the quest to entertain the public.
The situation in Bombay is not under control yet, and already we have a hundred and thirty known casualities. How did we let this happen? I say ‘we’ because, at the end of the day, it our own fault that we let down our defences. When a tree is a rotten at its core, any passing storm can tear it down. And so, instead of pointing fingers at our oh-so-friendly neighbors, we must do what we can to fix the larger problem facing the country.
Why was there no patrol around the coast intercepting the terrorists in their boats? Perhaps there wasn’t enough security in place, or perhaps not everyone was doing their job. When fishermen reported that they had seen armed terrorists, why did it take so long for the police to get their act together? Indeed, why did it take so long for our security forces to cordon off a building infested with armed gunmen? Shouldn’t they have evacuated the adjacent buildings immediately? I won’t claim to know the answers to these questions, nor am I an expert in these matters, but it seems to me that there is absolutely no system in place to deal with such a situation. Policemen are not trained to deal with such crises, nor do they have the appropriate equipment.
And yet, how could we have such expectations? In India, a policeman’s job is hardly one that the common man respects; we might fear them because they have certain powers, but it is fear mingled with contempt, because we know, just as they do, that they’re part of a highly corrupt system. As for equipment and training, the money allotted for this purpose lines the pockets of middlemen.
If security were the only problem, it could be fixed rather easily. But the rabbit hole goes still deeper. Terrorists live amongst ordinary citizens and carry out their activities with audacity, only because there’s really no way for us to tell if an individual is an Indian citizen or not, let alone enforce security measures at the border. Passports are forged, because there are people ready to supply them for their own personal gain. Politicians hanker after money and votes, and in the process, they disregard national security and the welfare of citizens. Today, politicians have destroyed our educational institutions in the name of reservations, damaged the unity of the nation in the name of caste, religion and language, and hampered the progress of the country by disregarding merit and appeasing the incompetent. At this moment, we are proud of how our country is becoming a global economic power, but the educational policies of the government will come back to haunt us ten years from now. This is the kind of pride that comes before a fall.
And all this while, why is it that we value the lives of our countrymen so cheaply? I read a headline from an Indian news source yesterday that I can paraphrase as, “6 foreigners amongst 80 killed…” — as if the lives of the six foreigners were somehow more important than all the others. This is not an isolated case; it’s almost as if, for the Indian media, these are mere numbers that contribute to the excitement, and the more the merrier.
So when I said the attacks were tragic, it wasn’t just because a hundred people were killed, but also because our enemies have once again made it obvious how weak the foundation of our society truly is. In happier times, I would have said that we must do whatever little we can to push forward on the path of progress, but today, little is not good enough. Now is the time for us to get together and tear down the bastions of corruption and incompetence, before it is too late.
The terrorists have been at it again. On Wednesday, November 26th, India’s financial capital Mumbai was rocked by a series of attacks that took more than a hundred lives and injured thrice as many — according to the last count. Some people are being held hostage by armed gunmen even now, and the situation is still very tense.