The first time I ever was on a radio show, a good friend I met immediately after it aired had one word to describe it, though he said it three or four times. That word: "lousy". He was right. A small band of us had got together and convinced ourselves we could sing, and -- worse still -- convinced the local radio station to put us on air. Not one of us sang in tune, in key, in rhythm; you might say not one of us sang, period.
Luckily, last night I didn't sing. So at least on that count, I know it wasn't lousy.
What's it like to be on a radio show with three people whose views you like and respect? Stimulating and interesting. The focus of the show, of course, was Amitav Ghosh, author most recently of The Hungry Tide. But also in the wings to offer our fleeting thoughts were Amardeep Singh from Lehigh U, my friend Kamala Visweswaran from U of Texas in Austin (my old stomping grounds), and me from right here in Bombay. Chris Lydon played moderator.
Ghosh spoke at length about India today, the US project of empire-building, the Sunderbans where The Hungry Tide is set (gotta go!), and how India is still, despite outsourcing and reforms and the IT boom, a largely rural country whose economy is rooted in agriculture. He referred to the different realities of this country, in the sense that there is no "real" India: if we have a growing and consuming middle-class, we also have a vast number of very poor people.
Luckily, Lydon cued me in at this point, so I picked up this baton and went with it. I wanted to make the point that to understand this country (maybe any country), you have to recognize that there are these different realities. I said it's 445 in the morning as I speak, utterly dark outside, and I know without needing to think about it that I can step outside my home and find people sleeping on the street, on road dividers. (I meant to mention the woman who lives in the flowerbed on the corner). One of the things about growing up Indian is reconciliation: you learn to reconcile yourself to such realities, and reconcile them with other realities like malls and call centres. Are the people sleeping on the road the "real" India? I don't know, and I don't really care -- India is much more than just outsourcing, much more than poverty, and I see my job as a writer here to make that case.
And it's in this sense that I should say, I disagree with Amardeep when he writes of "only dwell[ing] on negatives", and how the "tenor" of our discussion "drifted in that direction."
For one thing, I don't think the tenor was solely "negative". Kamala's points about the role of women in local democracy, for example, were really a tribute to what democracy in this country has achieved.
But apart from that, I'm beginning to ask: when we constantly think of poverty as a "negative", do we stymie ourselves in our attempts to address it? Not that it is a "positive", not at all. But I wonder if looking at poverty as an enormous headache has itself contributed to the half-hearted and insincere efforts we've made to tackle it -- precisely because it seems so vast and intractable a problem. Perhaps a healthier, more productive attitude towards poverty is that it just is. It's just another feature of India today, one that we need be neither proud of nor ashamed of. It's just there, like toothpaste on my bathroom shelf. Perhaps such a perspective will make us work at poverty more matter-of-factly, thus with better results.
But back to the show. Ghosh also spoke with dismay about the Iraq war, and how it is perceived in India. There is a sense in India, he said, that for the US, this "catastrophe" is a distant one; that once the US winds up its presence in Iraq, they can withdraw safely to the other side of the world. Whereas for India, this is happening essentially in our own backyard.
My only thought in response to that was: surely the lesson of 9/11 is that there are no safe corners of the world any more, that it is cheap and easy to strike out, even halfway across the planet. Yes, the US might be several thousand miles away from the cauldron of an angry and unstable Middle East; yes, India must look at that cauldron with unease. But the several thousand miles, by themselves, don't give the US the safety that they did during the last World War, for example. Or Vietnam, for another example.
What concerns me, personally, is when the US presence in Iraq will actually wind up. Two years ago, we heard famously about "an end to hostilities" in Iraq; this time last year we heard January 2005; later last year we heard the third quarter of 2005; now I'm starting to see articles that speak of another 2-3 years. I don't know much about empires and such like, but to me this looks ever more like another Vietnam. How dearly I wish I will be proved wrong. But so far, that's the way it looks. And that dismays me.
But back to the show, again. Ghosh made one point that I felt I had to respond to. In speaking of rural India, he said he was sorry that there was really only one Indian journalist who writes about that India: P Sainath. Yes, there is Sainath. But there are others as well, some of us inspired by Sainath which is itself a tribute to him. I should have mentioned, but I foolishly did not, such intrepid journalists as Dionne Bunsha, Annie Zaidi, Lyla Bavadam, Meena Menon, Rupa Chinai ... hmm, isn't it odd that these first five names off the top of my head are all women, and they are all with the Hindu family of publications?
All in all, as I said, a stimulating experience. Now if I can only catch up on all the sleep I missed.