The challenge of writing about India

An impossibly hard task – how do people do it ?

I  will start with a confession : This blog post is one of the hardest that I have written so far. Not because I don’t know much about my country of origin, but precisely because of it. India is such a complex, vast, diverse and mixed up place, anything that anyone says can be simultaneously true and false. It is a land of ultimate contradictions and can befuddle  a casual observer.


Additionally, I am not one of the most patriotic person you will find. My heart doesn’t skip a beat when India wins a cricket match against some team.  I hardly watch the sport, and don’t have much care for people who cant stop talking about the latest Bollywood flick.

Each time I read an Op-ed in NY Times or the Post,  I re-read the article to see where the writer is coming from, and how thorough his/her understanding is. I must admit, that ever after many years of living in India, most journalists don’t “get it”; as one of my dear journalist friend, who writes for the WSJ confessed.  A Jew from NYC who has been in South East Asia for almost  a decade, she told me that “the more I learn about India and Indians, the less I seem to know it”. And knowing her, I don’t think she was joking. She meant it. Seriously.

Hyperbole, exaggerations, simple interpretations of complex structures which have evolved over centuries  all make the writing weak.

I believe that one of the unique qualifications that one needs to write about India seems to be that the person should have lived there for years. Decades is better, as the country shows itself in so many different ways – over a period of time.

This is one of the reasons I have resisted about writing about India, but I will try – and hopefully do a decent job of it henceforth.

As India comes into its own and starts donating money to the world (according to a news item I read recently on Al Jazeera English), India just committed to a development aid of about $ 5bn to African countries just last week. This is truly a remarkable event. Coming from zero growth rate to one where the country is registering ober 9 % annual growth in Gross Domestic Product is amazing. This, when the entire world is feeling the effects of the recession.

Coming back to my original thought of why it is so hard to write about India : my hypothesis is simple : The India that VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Khushwant Singgh and all the “oldies” wrote about is changing. The “new” India is different. It is being defined by some very savvy, smart, self-assured people who are the movers and shakers in the global marketplace.

The new India is not about an India that receives, but one which gives to the world. It is an India which is realizing that there is strength in being the largest democracy ( by some accounts dysfunctional).  These people are not your regular “Indians”. They are global citizens who have seen the world, traveled widely, experienced the world differently than what their parents did and hence, have a very different self-image.

The “New India” is also one in which its position and the way in which the world sees it is changing.

It is also an India in which massive poverty exists alongside abundance of wealth. I still remember the furore that was caused by the 27 storied building that Billionarie Ambani built in Mumbai as a residence, overlooking the biggest slum in the world. This is also the new India – where gratuitous display of wealth is becoming the norm.  But there is also a renewed sense of confidence and a unique place under the sun.

I felt this during my most recent visit to India in March 2011. I was going home after nearly two years of being in the USA and I could see the transformation of the country, not only in terms of the purchasing power of the growing middle class, but also the confidence with which my fellow Indians spoke of their own careers, lives and the direction in which the country was going.

Lest I be accused of focusing only on the middle class, I must also add that many of the people I spoke with included the poor, un-educated and illiterate, who saw increasing opportunities in bigger cities – Hyderabad and Bangalore for instance; where better opportunities and chances of earning  a livelihood compelled them to move.

More about this in the next post…

Is this really a social media revolution ?

Is this really a social media revolution ?

“Egypt is on the lower end of face book penetration in the Arab world at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent” says a recent report on social media usage by the Dubai School of Government ( DSG). Having managed their PR for over a year and having worked with the person in charge of the research, I can say with confidence that I trust those numbers.  So, is this hype about “social media revolution”, “twitter revolution” all just hype ? or is there truth to this argument ?

First things first: a few clarifications are in order.

Journalists like easy answers – and ones that satisfy their audience, without leaving much ambiguity. That is truly the rule of thumb operating here.  While most journalists writing about the Middle East and Foreign policy issues are not qualified to be writing about these issues , they want to give the impression that they truly are in control and know what is going on. I remember meeting a very senior diplomat from the State department recently, who in all modesty confirmed that he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. So, go figure.

I believe there is a tendency among the journalistic franternity to repeat the same theory over and over again, as long as someone credible says it, without questioning, analysing it. This is a trend, not to say it happens all the time.

This issue also reminds of  a panel discussion a few weeks ago at the National press club, Washington DC, where prominent journalists, bloggers and activists participated. The gist of the discussion, which represented both social media evangelists, as well as traditional media folks such as Riz Khan of Al Jazeera was that though social media played a key role in the uprisings, and continues to do so, there is a need to temper down the credit that we are giving it. Social media did not invent courage and the imagination to stand up to people.

The second edition of the DSG  report also mentions :” Egypt, the report found, constitutes about a quarter of total facebook users in the Arab region, and has added close to 2 million new users between January and April. Egypt is nonetheless on the lower end of facebook penetration in the Arab world, at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent “. So, what is really going on here ?

How come those societies which are most connected are not witnessing revolutions ? UAE, where the monarchy is very stable, did not even witness a whiff of protest, forget having a full-blown revolution.

In my mind, there are a few other possible explanations, rather than giving all the credit to Facebook and twitter. Some key factors which made the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions effective in terms of social media :

  1. There are huge masses of poor, affected people, who need to mobilize
  2. There is state censorship of media
  3. There is a critical mass of youth who want their voices to be heard

Since the demographics of the region are titled in favour of the youth ( by some estimates, about 50 % of the population in the MENA region are below 25 yrs), this creates a critical mass of users of social media and technologies.

In a study called Shababtek, done a few years ago by TNS, the market research firm, this was also brought out. I am surprised that no one is quoting this report. This was way back in the year 2008, when I was in Dubai and used to manage the TNS account. The study, which was an ethnographic study of youth across 6 countries brought out the essential truth  : Youth in the region want to express themselves, connect with others and feel part of the larger community. And the social media, internet allow for that to happen rather easily.

This can also explain partly why the revolutions in the region have succeeded, more so because youth have adopted these tools.

But to give all the credit to the tools would not only be naïve, but also foolish.