Off-Centre | Society

Wealth as an idea and not as a crutch: A response to Chetan Bhagat

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One of the undoubted qualities author Chetan Bhagat possesses is the habit of using his eyes. That is to say, he relates to his material directly, rather than through that word salad of readymade doctrines which makes the intellectual discourse about India so fatiguing to engage with. Therefore, though he may lack profundity, he is at least always tilting in the right direction; a clear thinker, if not a deep thinker, in a milieu where so much deep thought seems to exist for its own obscure sake. For a writer must love his material, and love begins with a gaze, not a concept.

For this reason, I wish to dig deeper into an issue Bhagat has complained of in his recent newspaper columns, namely, the absence of ambition or aspiration in Indian society, including among its young people.

We know that India’s supposed dynamism is constantly touted. But Bhagat avers that “Indians are less aspirational than we think”; and that the glaring need for our economic betterment has not induced any corresponding drive towards it.

In this understanding, the country’s period of high economic growth appears to have been just a phase; happenstance, rather than any decision of the collective will, which, on its own strength, sinks perhaps to the notorious ‘Hindu rate of growth’. In fact, Bhagat warns that with the prevailing mindset, “Our standard of living also won’t rise further. Our youth will remain in low-end jobs. We will become a nation of clerks, support staff and low-level employees.” But is he not simply describing what has been the abiding Indian reality for as long as anyone can remember?

Spiritual preoccupations

Why is this so? Here Bhagat’s explanatory powers are overwhelmed, and he falls back on another stock myth — that Indian society is non-materialistic, and more interested in ideological and spiritual matters (“ensuring past Hindu injustices get sorted, solving Bollywood cases, making temples, nationalism”), which therefore have come to occupy us, to the detriment of economic growth. He cites this trait with bemusement, not approval, deviating from the traditional boast of ‘simple living, high thinking.’

But he also plainly prefers to look no further, instead passing the buck to a convenient scapegoat, ‘the youth’. “They need to keep asking questions — why isn’t there more growth? [emphasis added]”

However, if we wish to take a step forward, particularly in this moment of crisis, we must roll up our sleeves and excavate the traumatic reality that lies concealed at this site.

To begin with, let us keep using our eyes. It will then be obvious that a distaste for material things is nowhere present in the common ruck of Indian society. Quite the opposite; hence the blight of corruption and greed. Note that the generally petty scale of this is irrelevant to the point at hand, which is the love of money. As another writer has said, in the same context: “The intensity of the thirst is not indicated by the size of the drink.”

But once we have noted this, let us turn our attention to what is special about it. It will not enlighten us to merely bemoan greed, which is human and universal. Let us instead dwell on the pettiness; that will make it personal. And then something fascinating emerges. I quote Nirad C. Chaudhuri, again, from The Continent of Circe (1965):

Counting paisas

“The American industrialist, even when he is aware of no other motivation except acquisition of money, is the old European Conquistador in a new incarnation. He is the Genghiz Khan of the age of economics. But the Hindu money-maker can never be anything but his paisa-counting sordid self. He is the worshipper of money in the absolute manner. [emphasis added]”

Discounting the writer’s tone of irritation, we have here the insight, that the pettiness of Indian greed follows from its ‘absolute-ness’, that is the concrete, tactile, material nature of the attachment. On the other hand, the amassing of wealth on the scale of Western capitalists is possible only via some idealisation of wealth — be it through the doctrines of the free market, or the individual pursuit of happiness, or, indeed, some ideal of the social good — which enables the money-maker to take his eyes off the stuff itself, that his imagination may have some play.

So then, it is positively not any tendency to become spiritual or ideological that gets in the way of our material growth. Rather, the opposite is the case, that being so utterly rapt by material things, we are unable to gain the imaginative distance from them, which alone enables a proper scaling-up of plans and desires. However, the human mind cannot avoid the realm of spirit and imagination, but must necessarily populate it with something.

In our case, given such an excessively concrete materialism, what is likely to be found there? Exactly what we do find there; the counter-weight of a total escapism. So the cataracts of mythological and conspiratorial chatter that we witness in our society disprove rather than prove the proposition that we love the life of the mind.

Fear and paralysis

Now let us return to Bhagat’s query, as to how Indians might be induced to care more about material wellbeing. The answer is that they care far too much, to the point of fear and paralysis. The way out of this paralysis — surely the most pressing national task we face in the wake of COVID-19 — is to begin caring about ideas pertaining to these things, or in other words, to care about real ideas.

Incidentally, this is a compelling reason to reopen places of worship, and also cinemas and theatres, and to relate to them afresh. Many wealthy countries were quick to open these sectors, perhaps evincing the awareness (however vague in this day) that ideas help to overcome fears, and to impart courage and spur healthy activity, including economic activity.

One hopes that India will find its way to some such thought. But that we have abandoned our supposedly dearest pursuits (religion and cinema) so fast and so far, points to a pre-existing malaise in our relationship with ideas. And the road to riches passes only through this realm of ideas.

Finally, in affirmation of Bhagat, it must be recognised that we are in a crisis, at a ‘sink or sail’ juncture. If we do not grasp a saving idea, we can only become fodder for a deadly one. If we do not find some existential vision to overcome our present paralysis, it may be that, in the near future, we will yield value only as objects of experiment, for some Silicon Valley billionaire.

The writer is a novelist, who manages the Writing Centre at FLAME University, Pune.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 5:53:55 PM |

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