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The New Mask of India
“….the idea is that no society is ever complete, neither are its needs exactly the same as those of other societies.” -Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi
Varun (or Victor for work purposes) declares: ‘An air-conditioned sweat shop is still a sweatshop. In fact, it is worse because nobody sees the sweat. Nobody sees your brain getting rammed.’
-Chetan Bhagat, One Night @ The Call Centre
Unless we recognize the present low state of our society as contrasted with our ancient progressive civilization, and unless we soon introduce such reforms into our social institutions as are calculated to bring about our regeneration, there will be no salvation for us, the Hindus, as a race. We should try and remove all causes of our degeneration. Whatever encrustations have gathered themselves in the lapse of time round our social fabric, we should carefully scrape them away.
-A. Mahadeva Sastri, The Vedic Law of Marriage
On September 15th, 2006 C. Mann, a representative of the Voices NGO, delivered a lecture at Global College’s South Asia Center about how communities throughout India are seemingly benefited by their ability to access the newfound global communications infrastructure. He pressed the idea that traditional India is strengthened through its inclusion into the “global” culture and economy and that the Indian people are empowered through this new system of commerce and, subsequently, thought. It is my assertion that this single “globalized” pattern of living, business, and philosophy, in essence, forms the foundations of a faith in commerce that cannot fit within the cultural bounds of all societies congruously and without drastic social consequence.
It is my understanding that the main theme of C.Mann’s lecture was that, in this “modernized” world, all people are drawn into one collective spear of commerce and, by extension, culture. In lieu of this fact, he seemed to heavily imply that all people of the world need to be “wired-in” to global information technologies in order to continue making a living. He went on to assert with confidence that, with this new technological ability, small-scale subsistence farmers will not only be able to sell to places that they have never sold to before but they can also watch Hollywood movies, American sitcoms and professional wrestling on the TV. His position went on to directly state that the adaptation and, in many instances, appropriation of local customs into the common milieu gave strength to the communities from which these traditions arose. His delivery was curt, well-groomed, and with the fervor of someone who had something to sell. But I could not buy it.
Globalization can be defined as a practice of ideology that envelopes all the people of the world into a single frame of economics, consumption, and thought which finds its beacon in the model set forth by the multi-national corporation. The people of the world are now grouped together in two lump sums- the haves and the have-nots- while such inconveniences such as national and cultural lines are disintegrated. What is left is a dominant global mono-culture which revolves around the tidings of capitalistic consumption, exploitation, and expansion. In his summation of C.T. Kurian’s work on the subject, Dr. Sakhi Athyal asserts that, “. . . this globe has been integrated by capitalist practices and ideology and has largely removed ideological polarization.” The dilution of cultural distinction and polarization is of absolute necessity, as the ideal of this system is the complete restructuring of societies for the construction of commercially fertile ground. The blemishes of cultural variation have no place in the “modernizing” structure, as the formation of the ‘two class one culture’ system is universally implemented globally. Athyal continues, “. . . in summary India has embraced a market economy, and as a result it has lead to unequal distribution of income and wealth which in turn leads to unequal distribution of power and hence to the exploitation of those with economic power over those who lack sufficient economic power.” Globalization is not a process of cultural hegemony but is, conversely, the institution of a world- wide social system that grinds out any pre-standing cultural congruency’s in the pursuit of profit. In the words of the famous economist, Milton Friedman, “the corporation cannot be ethical; its only responsibility is to turn a profit.” Globalization is the culture of the corporation.
The particular manner of inter-cultural communion that is the hallmark of the globalization process is much less a blending of varying cultures than the imposition of one single cultural frame- the culture of commerce. This particular social order is created and maintained through a belief in monetary acquisition that is tantamount to a faith. In such a system, people, animals, and the environment are degraded to their barest essentials, and are given value judgments base upon how much monetary “worth” they contain. Things of beauty are not appreciated solely as such, but are qualified with remarks of their approximate value. To observe someone going through the rituals of recreational shopping is very similar to that of an individual in the mist of religious rigmarole. Under this commercial belief system, money represents time and time represents life; to make a purchase is to recognize an equivalent portion of your life as related to the object’s projected value. To purchase is to sacrifice the life/time that it took to earn the money that was paid for the object. To purchase is to worship life itself. This capitalistic way of viewing the world permeates into all strata of the social fabric and, consequently, into the very psyches of all involved members. Capitalism is not simply an attribute of a society that can be easily separated from the mainstay of the culture; as capitalism is the culture itself. The South Asian Voice asserts that:
India has been lulled by the mantra of “liberalization” and “privatization”. This mantra has delivered home appliances and electronic gadgets galore. But it is also time we realize what this mantra has not delivered. It has not delivered a modern infrastructure that keeps pace with growing demands and consumption of a still rapidly growing population. India is now able to satisfy the demand for items of individual consumption. But it seems completely unable to satisfy the demand for items of collective consumption – such as clean air or clean water or a smooth transportation network.
The pressures of this commercial culture upon foreign communities has had the effect of enacting a gross manner of cultural dilution, in which opposing inter-cultural ideas seem to simply cancel each other out or, at most, absorb each other; leaving a pale frame in the place of what was once vibrant color, dare I say- distinction. This is not a melting pot in which the riches of many cultures are joyously mixed together and kept intact, but rather a centrifuge in which a gyroscopic force serves to throw the beauty of cultural distinction out to the periphery, before dissolving it all together. What remains are cultures with no roots, communities without communication, and people with no direction. I am from the United States; I know this corporate culture intimately.
I come to India because it is traditionally a world apart from this commercial culture and I find vicarious substance from the ideal of her people, places, traditions, and cultural distinctions. It seems as if the essence of the traditional Indian social system lays in piety and family role, which appears to be qualities that should completely contradict the individualized, western perspective that breeds excess and consumption. But this seems to be changing due to the recent influx of western companies that must, due to the nature of their business, enact a policy of cultural indoctrination that seems to be ideal fodder for young Indians looking to stake out their own place in the social sphere. This is due to the simple fact that the type of businesses that are currently being brought to India are that which provide information services to people of predominantly western origin. In this particular dichotomy, Indian-ness is not encouraged and is, in fact, covered up with learned “western” forms of behavior and speaking that are pan-inclusively carried out in all aspects of the workplace. As the journalist George Monbiot wrote, “The most marketable skill in India today is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.” This particular brand of workplace indoctrination is no better exemplified than in the anthropologists Carol Upadhya and Sahana Udupa’s documentary satire, “Fun @ Sun.”
In this twenty minute video on the workplace environment of Sun Microsystems’ Bangalore center, Upadhya and Udupa slyly show how a preparatory “neo-corporate” mind-set is created and maintained throughout all spheres of the workday. It showed scenes of “hunky-dory” celebrations in which employees all gather together in designated locations, laugh at designated prompts, and speak in designated tongues in the name of “fun,” interdependence, and corporate trend. On this phenomenon, Makarand Paranjape, an English professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “. . . [we are] seeing an attempt to eroticize the [IT] industry, an attempt to make it a culturally exciting place, hip and cool. Of course it’s a bit of a fantasy: there is nothing glamorous about call centres; they are dehumanizing, decultured places.” This system of deculturation seems to be enforced with a sort of gang mentality in which there is a set social line that is enforced by all involved members rather than a sole “boss” figure. This “same paging” seems to be a tactic of cultural subversion that is as subtle as the industrial revolution was direct; with an end result that is quite the same- programmed, acculturated employees.
The hallmark of this employee programming is found in the fact that there seems to be a set image and way of acting that is projected upon the employees within this new corporate work environment. During a visit to a Dell call center in Bangalore, I was able to make surface observations of this new work culture first hand. Whilst baking beneath bright fluorescent lights and sitting inside of cubicles, the young workers all wore western clothing, spoke intentionally neutral English (deficient of as much Indian accent as possible), and interacted with each other openly. The average age of an employee was around 22-25 years old, and there were a comparable number of women as men. The walls of the center were lined with posters showing parody scenes of Indians and westerners interacting and doing business together, complete with slogans of workplace solidarity and team work. The dress and disposition of the workers is this environment were very distinct from that of the average Indian and one could easily distinguish an IT/ BPO employee in the streets of an Indian city. I found out that the average salary of an employee in this sector is around $3,000 US a year; which enables them to live the rather extravagant, western-like, lifestyle that goes along with the profession’s social image (while at the same time saving the company the cost of hiring westerners at ten times the cost). In an article on the cultural impacts of the IT industry, Amelia Gentleman describes the call center scene as a place where, “thousands of young male and female college graduates spend the night confined in close proximity (breaking down the traditional distance between the sexes), working to US-time in smart, modern offices, adopting alien American identities, performing mindless tasks but earning salaries larger than anything their parents could aspire to.”
These particularities form the making of a new sub-culture that will have a great impact on subsequent generations. As an anonymous author put forth in the May 2001 issue of the “South Asian Voice:”
For the IT-literate, job opportunities have been plentiful, and there are also opportunities to live and earn abroad. For the English-speaking upper middle-class, this has come as a boon. With greater access to disposable income, the seduction of consumerism becomes hard to resist, and the demand for unrestricted globalization inevitably follows the attraction for new and ever more advanced consumer goods. This new and more prosperous class of Indian consumers associates India’s progress with the availability of the latest automobile models and consumer goods. The local availability of imported European cosmetics and fashions, imported drinks and confectioneries – these have all become important to those who have sufficient disposable income to purchase such items.
The macrocosmic cultural impacts of this newly appropriated “corporateness” are multi-faceted and extend deep into the Indian social environment. It seems as if traditional values and roles are being severed in a single generation and the overlaying, trickle-through impacts are affecting all spheres of South Asian culture. I asked a BPO public relations official, who has made international sales and marketing his career, if he lived a life that was similar to that of his parents. He, of course, told me that he did and that the recent subterfuge of western companies has no great impact on Indian society. But he was paid to tell me this, and the fact that he was in his mid-40’s and could not find a marriage partner, in a country where parents arrange their children’s marriages at relatively young ages, due to his profession told me a very different story. There seems to be a deeply seeded identity crisis in which India is making believe to itself that it is still Indian while at the same time co-opting the apparent fruits of this neo-colonial mono-culture. How can a culture hold itself up in depth when it needs to adapt its very face to exist in the modern economy? I do not know the answer to this question, but the cultural impacts of this transformation have already made a running tear in the Indian social fabric.
The cultural changes that have resulted from this influx of western technology, employment, and ideals were not more apparent to me than on a visit to a nursing home just outside of India’s IT capital, Bangalore. The thought of a nursing home in India is a completely foreign concept as, traditionally, the elderly are taken care of by their children and/ or relatives. But in “modernizing” India the dilution of family role seems to be part of the corporate package; as employees in the IT/BPO sector, due to work requirements and their ‘western’ acculturation, are oftentimes not able to provide adequate care for their elderly parents. I fell into fertile conversation with one woman whose son was an engineer at a German technology company. She told me that she had to come into the nursing home because her son’s mindset did not allow any room for her traditional ways of home rearing. She told me that he was a modern man and attended to modern things and how he thought that his new western ways were superior to that of her time-honed Indian folk wisdom. Her elderly friends to her left and right eagerly agreed with what she was saying and shook their heads in disbelief about the predicament that they found themselves in. She spoke with distain when she said that, “People today make more money but they also spend more. They do not save. They do not listen to the lessons of the old. They have nothing.” This seems to be the theme of the elderly everywhere, but this woman was heavily hit by the westernizing wreaking ball, and she knew that her traditional Indian values would not be carried into further generations. The chain of folk knowledge was broken at this juncture and the impacts of such are forever stretching. There is no going back; there can be no retrieval, as soon as the great line of generational knowledge is disrupted, thousands of years of tradition are, proverbially as well as literally, gone in the years.
We are all entering upon a pale, pale plastic world, and with each day new societies are eagerly embracing changes that ultimately dissolve their heritage. The mono-cultural blankness of the western corporation is taking hold everywhere and communities are losing their time-honed distinction and identity as a result. As the American folk musician Robert Blake sings, “Hollywood movies are cultural degradation.” The popularizing of a traditional folk song in a Bollywood movie does nothing to preserve the culture from which it arose. Rather, all this accomplishes is the caricaturizing of a deep meaning folk song into a medium that is sellable. When this happens, the tradition is not enhanced but is lost altogether. To put something as pure and heartfelt as a folksong into a chintzy Bollywood jingle is to severe the song from its roots and leave an artificially packaged frame in its place.
There is something in this world more meaningful than price-tags, more solid than the numbers on currency, and more human than television. There is substance beyond the reach of corporations and a human spirit that is indomitable by neo-colonial indoctrination. I recently heard a professor rhetorically ask what the good is of tribal people making jewelry for themselves outside of the realm of commerce, and I must answer with a single word: ‘everything.’ The standardized corporate modal of commerce and living simply cannot be absorbed by every society of the world without the severe dilution of the attributes that make cultures distinctly themselves. To “modernize” is to leave a culture stripped of substance; to “globalize” is to impose a corporate derived mono-culture upon distinctly unique human societies. If this movement continues unabated we will find that a world paved in pale, blank, strip malls and people who know nothing other than that which is televised is all that will remain.
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