It was sometime in 1988 my dear friend Jayadeva discussed the idea of making a book titled ‘Images of Modern India’. The country was trying to modernize. Computers were ushered in, Infosys was a small company, things were changing, and there was optimism in the air. We had just finished work on a photo book called Karnataka Impressions (now out of stock). He ran a small graphic design agency called Resource. They made brochures for agarbathi and saree makers for a living and books for passion. Jayadeva was a futurist. He was ahead of his time. He thought the book would have a significant market among the Indian diaspora in the US, where India was still seen as a land of snake charmers and elephants roaming on the roads. If you went to the US in the early 90s, people hadn’t heard of Bangalore. They knew about Delhi, Bombay perhaps Kolkata, and that’s about it.
Everything changed rapidly. The Indian cab driver who drove me from JFK late in the night, sometime in 2000 wanted to go to Bangalore to learn computer programming and then move to Silicon Valley for career prospects. Everyone was upbeat about India except my left-leaning friend Sridhar, who vehemently believed the pace of change was too fast.
The great K V Subanna, in his essay, Image of Modern India : Dr. Ananthamurthy’s Triology (Samskara, Bharatipura, Avasthe) talks about the effect of quick and brazen colonization without even being aware of our 6000-7000 years of history. He writes eloquently on this subject. Quoting the most relevant part, “The Western way of life was ‘foreign’ to it. India had the freedom to choose only what it liked and needed from this ‘alien’ culture. Or, to put it in another way, it was India’s responsibility and task to hold on to its own civilization – ‘the thesis’, face up to this new challenge, its antipode – the ‘the anti-thesis, and to gradually digest it and create a new ‘synthesis’ .
Today, with almost a quarter of the 21st century behind us, the question is, are we living in a modern society? We have expressways and swanky cars, but we don’t know how to drive. We have big hospitals in large concrete-glass buildings with hi-tech diagnostic tools, but 800 million + poor can’t access affordable health care. Why are 800 million poor? CC TVs, 5G technology and modern phones are tracking our every move and are getting harassed day in and day out. Violence is all-pervading, and the CC Tv footage of violence goes viral, actively aided by online news outlets for our consumption. We have access to artificial intelligence but little natural intelligence. Let us not even talk about emotional intelligence. Our assault on the environment in the name of development is a big concern. If you raise your voice, you get hit. Is this a modern society? Or does it seem modern but actually medieval? Can we go towards a tolerant, less unequal society that respects the environment and cohabitation, affordable, better healthcare and high quality of education? Less violent and intelligent?
Thanks to my dear friend Sudhir Desai for kindling my thoughts over long telephonic discussions!