July 13, 2010
I recently spent an afternoon with another American student in a place in New Delhi called the India Habitat Centre—easily the poshest place I've been to in India yet. The Centre is something of a blend of an office building, a conference center and an elite social club. The institutions it houses include the ILO, the MacArthur Foundation, the Centre for Science & Environment, and numerous other high-profile Indian think tanks, government agencies, and trade organizations. Its premises are undeniably opulent. The massive courtyard features several fountains, terraced gardens, and a glass ceiling at least five stories up to shield from rain. Custodial staff ceaselessly sweep and mop the pavement tiles to keep them free of the characteristic layer of Delhi dust. Rumor has it the Chief Minister of Bihar was recently denied membership for being too hoi polloi.
On returning, I remarked to a friend that the Centre looked like a slightly modified version of a ritzy American conference center. He responded, "Almost. It’s actually a cheap imitation." I was taken aback by his bluntness, but with some reflection I have come to the conclusion that he is basically right.
Why is it that the Indian elite choose to construct a conference center in an Anglo-American style in a country with an equally rich architectural tradition? Why is it necessary to keep outdoor tile footpaths—which will never be touched by bare feet—free of the dust that is found literally everywhere in Delhi? I believe the answer lies in a pervasive culture of imitationism in India. To exemplify this point further, consider the eating establishments at the Centre. My friend and I, not being members, were directed to a fairly basic food court (which included, among other restaurants, "Western Willy’s"). The members—essentially the social and intellectual elite of Delhi—however, get access to the exclusive "American diner". A friend of my friend extolled the quality of this diner’s hot dogs and hamburgers. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that these are pretty lowbrow dishes in the US.
I am suspicious of this trend for several reasons, not least of which is that the concomitant imported institutional arrangements do not fit perfectly in the Indian context. For instance, about a week ago I found myself in Croma, an electronics chain store run by the Tata group. For all intents and purposes, a replica of Best Buy. However, I quickly learned that this outlet was out of about one third of its stocked items. How viable is the supermarket business model in a country where most manufacturing is carried out in unregistered factories employing 10-15 people, and where a large proportion of shipping takes place on thelas and cycle-carts? Or, for another example (which has some relevance to my research here), does the car culture work in Delhi? Since the 1980's, the number of cars in Delhi has more than tripled, but the infrastructure to support them simply does not exist. For one, there is no parking space in Delhi. Cars tend to park illegally on street-sides, contributing to the already ridiculous level of congestion. The municipal authority has adopted the band-aid approach to this problem (with some exceptions, notably the excellent Delhi metro system) of building a network of flyover highways while continuing to provide subsidized loans for purchasing cars. The already taxed busing system seems to have been largely ignored.
I should clarify: I am not criticizing India for failing to live up to some Western-centric developmental telos. Rather, I am concerned that Indian society has itself internalized this teleogical point of view at the expense of forming appropriate—and no less valid—institutions for the unique context here. I should clarify further that my distress is not limited to the realm of development. The imitationist vein of Indian culture runs much deeper than that.
To explain more precisely what I mean, I think it would be best to start some more examples. If you walk around Connaught Place (the central market in Delhi), you will not see a single brown mannequin. They are uniformly white, and usually blonde. For another, a younger boy once tried to chum up to me by explaining that, "American girls. I like them. They are good girls." Yet another, on the train ride back from Agra of which I wrote previously, a young man took a lock my hair in his hand and infomed me, "Aapke baal... is beauty" (I had to laugh at that one). It is episodes like these that lead me to conclude that this imitationist social phenomenon is not merely a manifestation of admiration for Western economic and political supremacy—though it certainly is that. It extends even down to the aesthetic qualifications of races, which is not even to touch upon the cultural significance of the English language. No, this is a deep and broad cultural inferiority complex, and in that respect these are "cheap imitations".
Visiting today, it is difficult to believe that just over sixty years ago there was a broad-based movement to eject Europeans. And in this era, when the type of Indian leaders who frequent the India Habitat Centre are falling over themselves trying to attract foreign capital, I can't help but feel like what they might need more is a little pride.
Posted by jeizenga at July 13, 2010 03:23 AM