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July 15, 2007

Widening Horizons

Rediff, 15.07.2007

What is the most beneficial aspect of acquiring a Western education? Is it the lucrative job that probably follows it?

Or is it the degree that not ridiculed by half of the developed world’s universities? Or is it, for some at least, the approval stamp of a foreign university that seems to be so much more alluring than an Indian one?

For me, however, studying in Britain for five years has been all about widening my horizons. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Heathrow in 2001, the world has suddenly seemed a much larger place. I seemed to be in a straitjacketing cocoon in India that cracked the very first day I spent alone in another country.

For one, you learn to be a lot more aware of your surroundings because you haven’t got your parents to cover your back. In 2007 - after finishing my A-levels, then a degree and then working for a year in the United Kingdom - I’m left with a far greater understanding and deeper appreciation of what the world around me is like.

Everyone invariably speaks from within the contours of his or her particular context and experiences. I am no different.

Much of what I feel are the strengths of Western education comes from the fact that I studied a joint honours degree in History and Politics, and not Information Technology or Medicine that most Indian students tend to prefer.

Aside from the possible availability of better research laboratories in the UK, I cannot comment on the merits of the education system in science-related subjects in the UK.

I remember one of the major things that alienated the Indian school education system to me was the expectation that students can memorise large chunks of information to reproduce in the examinations. Another was coercing students to study certain ‘compulsory subjects’ beyond a certain age.

I really didn’t want to grapple with the intricacies of Hindi linguistic theory beyond Class X, but as my first language I would have had to.

I didn’t feel the need to memorise even the finest details of the subjects I studied at A-level, although the points of Lord Asquith’s cabinet in the first decade of the 20th century, or European competition laws were taught in their finest detail.

The trick was to do plenty of real-life case studies and projects in the classroom, which automatically drilled the knowledge in the students by the time the exams came around at the end of the year. I could give the exam without even spending too much time on revision because of how deeply the knowledge had penetrated my intellect—and I still remember those details.

Half of my friends in India cannot remember a word of most of their study materials from Class XI or XII.

Moreover, it always occurred to me that classifying students by academic streams viz. science, arts and commerce was rather unnecessary and arbitrary. There is none of that in Britain, and students are free to choose whatever four subjects they want at A-level.

I chose Business Studies, Government and Politics, History and Information Technology. This would have been impossible in India. This allowed me - and all students - to focus on what I liked, and since the interest was already there, to genuinely care for what I was studying.

At the school, and later on a much greater scale at the university level, there were two key strengths of the British education system compared to the Indian one.

First, the focus on improving the students’ methodology was very strong. Indeed, strong historiography was rewarded much more than listing every single fact you knew about a topic.

Students could get top marks by listing 70% of the facts, but stitching together their answers in an academically sound manner. The converse was not applicable—all facts and a poor structure will not get you more than 60% (B).

I was noting down footnotes diligently while I was doing my school project on Indian independence. At university we were taught the intricacies of the Oxford and Harvard system of referencing and I adhered strictly to the former. My friends in Indian universities had no clue about the proper methodologies even after graduation.

The second thing was the emphasis on developing student-generated original research, particularly at the university level. Perhaps here is where the difference between a developed and developing country is blatantly obvious. Not many government departments in India, let alone universities, can boast of annual revenues of ₤300 million (Rs 230 crores) to upgrade university facilities.

Every single journal of repute in every single subject was available to us on our computers. Most books of note published in every subject were in our library, which was adding to its shelves on a daily basis. Books are being converted into e-books, journals are stored electronically to free up space for new entries and magazines were held dating back to the previous century. None of this is present in India.

All this helped students to be up to date in their opinions, and this in turn fostered their minds to devise original answers to questions on the basis of a strong research-oriented outlook. Answers with original content backed up by heavy research were handsomely rewarded, while mugging up won’t even earn you passing marks.

A wide number of workshops, projects, seminars and discussion sessions helped us bounce off ideas against each other. The actual curriculum stipulated one seminar discussion with a professor every week on each module, where students basically threw seething criticisms at their colleagues’ thesis while the sober academic calmly took notes of how each student defended his/her ideas.

This personalised treatment was present even in schools. Each answer of mine received details comments - positive and negative - by the teachers. I used to put my mugging up skills to good use initially, but after the structural defects were pointed out by my teachers, I slowly changed track and acquired those very important methodological techniques instead of writing whatever I knew about a subject.

On the other hand, I have always found that students - and adults - prefer to quote eminent personalities to defend their views. Is it because they lack views of their own?

I haven’t mentioned anything about extra-curricular facilities that are part of the holistic education system in the West. But you can get details of student union parties, impressive sports facilities at particular institutions and the local nightlife in any careers magazine in India these days.

I have instead focused on the core of what advantages there are of a Western education system apart from the added frills. Needless to say, some will scoff, saying that I am servile to the West. But dear reader, do you think the education system in India is actually Indian in nature? Hardly.

Our curriculum content, ideologies and structures within which we educate our students are bad emulations of Victorian England [Images]. There is nothing authentic about India’s education system, so we should stop defending it as if it’s the direct descendent of the gurukul system.

I have tried to portray how structural and methodological changes can greatly help our students without the need for installing expensive facilities, which seems to be a convenient excuse for the current stagnation.


July 12, 2007

The Immortal Bard

The Telegraph, 12.07.2007

Ramachandra Guha has delivered a rallying call to shift Rabindranath Tagore from the regional to the national pedestal. Guha could not have been more right at a time when India seems to be so fascinated by everything Western. In his address at the inauguration ceremony of Cheena-Bhavan in Visva-Bharati on April 14 1937, Tagore said, “We had, for over a century, been so successfully hypnotised and dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot that, though choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our helplessness, overwhelmed by speed, we yet agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilization. If we ever ventured to ask, however humbly: Progress towards what, and progress for whom? It was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such doubts about the absoluteness of progress. It is only of late that a voice has been heeded by us, bidding us take account not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot, but of the depth of ditches lying across its path.”

Fortunately for Tagore, he found Gandhi, who did question the speed and direction of the chariot’s progress. Since we have neither Gandhi nor Tagore today, we must look up to their words to avoid those ditches.


July 08, 2007

Never on Time

Boloji, 07.07.07

“Date- 04.05.2007, Amount Paid Out- £24.30, Recipient- “X” Ltd, Mumbai (India)”

On the morning of the 5th I found this on my online bank statement. A couple of hours later, I was found yelling, “Do you think this is some kind of a joke?” to a surprisingly brazen customer service representative of a reputed online portal based in India who told me point blank that they had not charged my card for this transaction.

“You will have to fax us a copy of your bank statement, sir. Your order is not confirmed and so we have not charged you for this.”

“Are you telling me I’m lying? I can see the outgoing sum on my statement right here. And I am not faxing anything over to you, particularly sensitive details such as these.”

Did I sound rude and uncooperative? I had a reason to be. This precise thing happened last time when my friend was using my card to send a birthday cake to her mother and I had to fax these documents to authorize the payment and was told 48 hours later that I had in fact forgotten to fax them. The audacity! I expected better from a leading company in a country that claims to be on the advanced frontiers of information technology. Why couldn’t someone else pay for a product for another person online? It happens on all reputed websites all over the world.

“So will the item be delivered on the 11th, as I requested when I placed the order?”

“No sir. Since you have not confirmed the order, we cannot make this delivery date. And you have not requested any delivery date.”

“Actually I did mention the 11th. Also, once I have placed the order why do I need to confirm again? And how should I know I had to? And excuse me, you HAVE charged me.”

“No sir we need proof. And we have sent you the confirmation e-mail.”

“Well, check your bloody bank account ‘coz you’ve taken the money from mine. And no, you haven’t sent me anything”

I was getting nowhere. This was ludicrous. A few minutes later I was given the supplier’s number to ring and request the item to be delivered on time. I was wondering whether it was really the customer’s business to chase up suppliers for the seller. When I did get through to the supplier, he told me that the item had already been dispatched and will reach on time.

It didn’t. So I called on the 13th and was told that the courier has got it and the supplier had no clue why it hadn’t been delivered. After another round of banging my head against the wall, the item arrived on the 18th. Am I missing a point, or should a birthday gift actually arrive on the birthday?

Last week I bought a phone from Amazon.co.uk which arrived in faulty condition. I e-mailed the seller who appeared to be dragging his feet about the refund. I sent an e-mail to Amazon customer service. 12 hours later I received a response saying that have contacted the seller and will credit my account with the refund as soon as possible.

This was all the more impressive because I bought the phone from a seller, and not one of Amazon’s own suppliers. But it really is the norm here, and it is so very disappointing to see Indian companies who aspire to be world beaters to fail so miserably in putting the customer first. The arbitration process in India is notoriously opaque, and I felt extremely helpless as the customer who’s shelled out the cash for the product.

Please don’t take me for an arrogant buffoon who unfairly compares the infrastructure of a developed country with a developing one. The point is that online technology is widespread in India, and I am not even talking cutting edge and expensive gizmos here. Simple project management, efficiency, transparency and empathy will do the trick.

Capitalism would have us believe that customer is king. In India instead of getting value for money, the customer has to pay the money and pray that the value comes with the order.


July 06, 2007

Parting Shot

The Telegraph, 06.07.2007

S.L. Rao has completely missed the ground reality in “Triumph of Choice” (July 2) in which he brazenly crowns the consumer to be the supreme factor in Indian economy. A visit to a multiplex in the city would prove him wrong. Here, an average movie ticket costs Rs 150 while a small box of popcorn can set you back by Rs 70. A similar experience in the UK is cheaper. Given that the ratio of average income of a Brit to an Indian is about 45:1, it can easily be noted where the value for money lies. Moreover, the widespread hankering for everything Western has led to undeserved elevation of non-exclusive brands to an elite status in India. This has more to do with consumer mentalities and their blind emulation of the West than with squeezed profit margins of the manufacturers and retailers. A typical anomaly is that in the West, local stores cannot offer economies of scale whereas supermarkets can. However, in India the corner shop offers a better deal on a wide array of products vis-à-vis the supermarket. Thus, to suggest that the Indian consumer has real choices in a marketplace that offers him value for money is nothing but fallacious.


June 18, 2007

Fluid Identity

Boloji, 17.06.07

Whatever you say, naming your son Gogol is harsh, particularly when he’ll be brought up in America. That’s the first thing that came to my mind looking at a gigantic Bengali poster for The Namesake in Leicester’s city centre. The more Oriental the identity of an individual sounds, the greater sense of alienation he will feel- castigated and ostracized as the omnipresent ‘other’ in the minds of the typical American teenager. But is identity a constant concept? Or is it even a singular concept? Lots of things make up my identity, and that identity is extremely fluid- changing not within years but within seconds. When I type an entry onto my blog, I am ‘protonriver’. Once I’ve finished typing, I am someone else again.

“Bud bud ting ting 2.99, went to a Paki shop n got a bottle of wine”- such innuendos about your Indian accent forces your identity to be straitjacketed into a narrow prism. When you respond by learning how to speak English with a British accent, you are reminded that you’re a “freshie” by British Asians. On the other hand, ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) and its British counterpart (BBCD) are labels that we put on them to define their identity. It is plausible that integration was their priority while selecting a certain identity for themselves.

And we’re back to ‘us’ and ‘them’ again. Edward Said, in his pioneering Orientalism, pointed out nearly 30 years ago that the Orient responded to the Occident’s generalizations in the same terms that were originally used to define it. The other day one of my clients asked me whether I was so clever since I was a Bengali Brahmin and people from my caste are supposed to be clever. I know plenty of readers can remember political party leaders from my caste that they would not classify as ‘clever’.

But that is not the point. What is fascinating is that sitting thousands of miles away from India, I responded to such utter generalizations about my identity. Later that evening when an Indian man asked my community background, I responded emphatically- ‘Bengali’. Generally I do give my mother some credit by mentioning her non-Bengali roots.

Finally, we’re onto roots. I am not sure about other Indians, but I went through two phases of identity shifts and am in the third at the moment. Initially there was the rejection of roots. India had disappointed me- it had not given me what I aspired for in my life. So I left. Starting from the sickening heat, unsatisfying education, crowded buses- I dissociated myself from the India I left behind. Clean roads, swanky cars, terraced houses, bacon and eggs, Queen’s English became attractive as a hankering for acquiring a British identity crept in.

Then came the rude awakening. Rejected and repelled by British Asians and experiencing some downsides of life in Britain shifted my identity once more. “If we wanted, we could occupy your country and loot it again”, teased one of my classmates at school. I responded by going through innumerable statistics and websites to find out about India’s armed forces and its nuclear arsenal and prepared my retort to this statement. Not interested in the Godless existence amidst ‘booze and babes’, I began visiting a temple, something I had never done in 15 years of living in India. I started taking a lot more interest in events back home. I proudly spelled out my name to any call centre worker who couldn’t understand, something many Indians are so ashamed of that they’d rather call themselves Bob than Harjit.

The third phase began when I couldn’t find my roots. Romantically returning to a village helped Mohan Bhargav find his roots in Swades, but all I went back to were concrete boulevards, swanky cars, English-speaking gentry and ‘booze and babes’ reigning supreme. I am also realizing the folly of using Western statistics and definitions to reject their generalizations about my identity and country. That is what Said was writing about in his book. The Orient is no longer there as it once was- it has been reinvented and designed by the Occident. And the Oriental is born thinking this to be his natural abode. Amartya Sen may argue for giving chosen identity primacy vis-àvis that assigned by others, but there may not be any difference between the two. The environment automates an individual’s actions according to its social, political, intellectual, economic and linguistic contours and there’s not much he can do about breaking this Foucauldian discourse.

Gogol Ganguly lives within me. And not just in me. But if I see him, I want to find out where he got his roots back from. I want mine too.


May 17, 2007

Parting Shot

The Telegraph, 17.05.2007

As Dipankar Dasgupta points out in “Road to efficiency” (May 15), the delay in profit, and the consequent lack of incentive, is a major reason behind the inefficiency of state-led projects. But even without State meddling, there could be other problems. For instance, the lack of transparency in the process of issuing tenders despite the matter being handled by private companies. This happens in the other countries too. Take the recent multi-billion pound scandal involving Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Eurofighter jets.

Despite privatization, the State has to employ independent auditors to oversee the bidding process. It should also allow regulators in each industry to function independently. The State cannot absolve itself of its responsibility in infrastructure-building and delivering public services.


April 30, 2007

Derivative Lot

The Telegraph, 30.04.2007

Mukul Kesavan’s “Life at second hand” (April 26) delivers a message that needs to be heard throughout India. An extreme defensiveness is noticed among urban, middle-class Indians whenever the authenticity of the ‘new’ India is questioned. The English-speaking gentry, whether left-liberal, Marxist or neo-liberal, needs to realize that modernity, as it exists today, is essentially a product of the West. The modern (Western) academia, both in the humanities as well as in the sciences, through its innumerable tentacles, engulfs the Indian student within its discourse. Slavishness can be easily detected in the association of “cool” among the youth with speaking English, and preferring Western, rather than Indian, attire and music. Kesavan shows how even the Hindutva brand of right-wing nationalism is “crudely derived from authoritarian European nationalisms”.

However, it is not enough to take Western ideological hegemony as a given and submit to it. Efforts must be made to integrate more Indian thought in academic courses, for starters. Giving Kautilya’s political theories the same importance as John Rawls in a political science course could be an example. A large GDP and a nuclear arsenal cannot help in producing a vision for the future.


April 23, 2007

From the Annals of Civilisation

India Nest, 22.04.2007

Water and oil don’t mix. You put a few drops of oil in a bottle of water and you can shake it well – as well as you want – but in the end the oil will remain separate. Tony Blair is shaking this country and hoping that multiculturalism will work. It hasn’t. And it won’t.”

No I was not attending a British Nationalist Party rally. I heard this quip on a train between Birmingham and Leicester. I was impressed by the metaphor and gobsmacked by the expressed views.

“Don’t get me wrong – I am not a totalitarian bigot. I am a democrat. But has Tony Blair ever bothered to pop a letter in the post to us asking whether we actually want to live in a multicultural society? If a majority of the British public agree to it, then so be it. If not, we should just respect the majority opinion.”

And do what, I wondered. Chuck the rest of us non-whites out? Did Robert Clive ever conduct any referendum in India to find out whether Indians wanted to be enslaved by the East India Company? Or did His Majesty ever write to the Indians to find out whether they wanted to be part of the motley crew that dwelled in his empire?

Am I not comparing apples and oranges? Non-whites aren’t exactly ruling Britain, are they?

“English people should live in England. Asians should live in Asia. Africans should live in Africa. That’s how the world should be.”

OK, so why did hordes of Englishmen join the merchant navy bound for the exotic (and rich) Orient? And what on earth did Gordon Brown (a Scot) do to deserve being chucked out from 11 Downing Street in London?

“You can’t buy a cheap house these days because all of those are being gobbled up by the immigrants.”

This surely classifies as ‘economics for the insane’, suggesting that Britain’s house prices are linked to immigration.

“I have no issues with immigrants if they take our ways. I just don’t get the whole multicultural thing.”

Right, and what would those ways be? Fail at school? Getting pregnant by 15? Smoking cannabis by 16? Getting an ASBO (anti-social behavioral order) by 18? Divorcing our partners? Getting drunk every Saturday night down the pub and get involved in a brawl after that over a girl or a guy, or worse still, a cigarette?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending another sort of anti-social behavior – that which leads to virtual segregation, with communities not touching each others’ lives. But what needs to be appreciated and understood by a certain class within British society is that multiculturalism is not a choice- it is a fact of life. It is a fact that has been created by the Europeans, and that which must now be accepted by the Europeans in all its avatars.

For all the positives and negatives of immigration, it is a fact now that the UNICEF rates Britain the worst place to raise your child in the developed world. It is also a fact that ethnic minorities perform far better at school than their ‘native’ counterparts. It is also true that record number of jobs are being advertised in the country, and immigrants are not taking away opportunities from the locals.

Yes, there are negatives such as illegal immigration. But then again, when was rational discussion the point of the rambles of my co-passenger?

He is just part of an increasingly overlooked underbelly that Britain has that has remained rooted to the past.


March 29, 2007

No Full Stops in India

The Telegraph, 29.03.2007

Scene 1: “Where do you think you’re going?” questioned a moustached laathi-wielding guard outside one of Sir Edwin Lutyen’s architectural marvels — the viceregal palace in New Delhi, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“I have an appointment with the President of India,” I replied, with a smirk on my face. I pretended to ignore the bemused look on the faces of the guards as my Ambassador taxi drove up the drive outside the gigantic concrete steps which one half-naked fakir had trod on 70-odd years ago.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is everything the media portrays him to be — he is intelligent, a man with a vision and a good grasp of developmental issues concerning India. I got a full dose of all his plans — providing urban amenities in rural areas, infrastructure development, use of information technology to alleviate poverty and so on. I was interviewing him as part of a research project for the University of Warwick. By the time I came out, my head was spinning with facts and figures.

Scene 2: Sitting in a small, and rather humble office, I discussed economic reforms and its effects on India with N. Narayana Murthy, till recently the chairman of Infosys. He was the only famous man in India who took the trouble of standing up and greeting me when I entered his office. There was the usual dose of praise for reforms and call for further liberalization. That India’s economic growth is based on borrowed ideas was readily accepted — something Indians get very defensive about.

Scene 3: “We will not get any jobs in the new factory. We are poor and illiterate and soon will be landless.” I heard this in the Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa, where the South Korean firm, Posco, is planning a £5 billion steel plant. Sitting in a mud hut in sickening heat, with crushing poverty around me, I listen to the villagers who have no say in India’s march towards breakneck industrialization. I had spent the previous month talking to bureaucrats in the Planning Commission, who spoke at length about how rural infrastructure is improving. The potholed roads in Orissa did their argument no favour.

Scene 4: “India is growing by 9 per cent a year and soon we will overtake China that is growing by 10 per cent a year”. I got bombarded by another round of facts and figures from well-meaning, English-speaking students at a renowned university in Calcutta. Earlier in the month, I had seen the crowd overflowing at the newly-opened KFC outlet at the City Centre Mall in Calcutta and the Subway and McDonald’s outlets in New Delhi — the fads of ‘new’ India.

Scene 5: The banks of the Sabarmati river have changed completely since 1982, when Richard Attenborough shot Gandhi. Amidst the concrete jungle, the Sabarmati Ashram is barely recognizable. I walked up to a guard and pointed out the irony of his carrying weapons in the world’s non-violent capital.

“What to do sahib? College students come here to ‘fool around’ behind the bushes, taking advantage of the peaceful surroundings,” he replied.

Watching The Last Days of the Raj on Channel 4, sitting in the heart of England, these images of today’s India flashed across my mind. India has definitely seen a lot of change, but what that change is leading the country to is something we haven’t explored fully. What I know for sure is that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s India is no more. The country he fought to free has ceased to exist in the 60 years since 1947. Whether Bapu would have called this freedom, I don’t know. But I can guess.


March 20, 2007

Globalised Ramblings

India Nest, 17.03.07

When was the last time you ever looked at the sky and took a deep breath of fresh air, cleansing your mind of all thoughts? For starters, fresh air is non-existent in the concrete boulevards of modern cities. And what’s the big deal about that empty blue mass hanging over us anyway? What I realised the other day walking down Narborough Road in Leicester that I had not looked up at the sky for many months.

I remember 2001 in Kolkata. After every gruelling porikkha, we used to play 3 hours of cricket every day. No inhibitions, no worries, no restrictions- those were the days. Lying covered in mud in the playing field, looking up at the sky- hours used to fly by like this. When I went back home last year, the field had been replaced by a construction site. I suppose children could look up at the sky from the tiny windows of the multi-storeyed flats.

What’s the whole fixation with the sky all about?

In the higledy pigledy world of modern urban existance, there is no respite, no space and no freedom. Looking at the sky- at the millions of stars sprinkled around the moon at night- represents appreciating the finer things in life. It doesn’t have to be the sky. When was the last time you took a flower and smelled it? Or looked at a puppy playing with its mum and smiled?

Oh the interruptions! By the time I’ve typed about 4 lines, 3 calls have come from work. And I am at home on a Friday evening!

Now where was I?

Ah yes- Where’s the time? Mortgages have to be paid, cars have to be bought, utility bills are piling up, the taxman is knocking on the door- modern man has no time for nature. Whatever time he gets “off work” is spent in the small room brimming with others, surrounded by darkness and loud noise and his lungs being pummelled by the smoke in the air. In other words, down the pub “socialising”. How on earth can you socialise when you can’t even see or hear the person next to you? Perhaps it just means to talk about yourself, women, money and fancy consumer electronics items.

The globalised economy takes us far away from where we were born. Identity refuses to shift smoothly though. Sometimes I see Indians wearing metal locks and chains as ornaments (yes, that is fashion too, apparently), and trying to emulate 50 Cent or P Diddy (both African American rappers) in their speech. They prefer calling themselves Bob, when their birth certificates say Harjit. And then I see an old woman trying to get directions in fluent Punjabi from a bewildered policeman. When I tried to help, I discovered that she’d been living in Britain for 40 years. Going back home, I cannot find a waiter who will speak Bengali or Hindi in an upmarket Kolkata restaurant.

What’s the point of all this anyway? Not that it matters to anyone apart from people who are after the simple life. And no, I am not talking about a reality television show starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.


February 26, 2007

Just an Immigrant

India Nest, 10.02.2007

I am a migrant worker. Not illegal, but migrant enough to be vilified. So I contribute only 4p a week to Britain’s wealth – but at least I contribute something! I’m not sitting idle taking benefits like hundreds of thousands of domestic workers do. All political parties are falling over each other to restrict the numbers of people like me in the country. We steal away British jobs, they say.

My neighbor gets chased for rent by his estate agent. His neighbor gets council tax reminders. I know a few others who aren’t paying their utility bills on time. I don’t get paid more than them, but I clear all my dues on the 1st of the month. I’ve seen them break parking laws and live rent-free – I’ve stuck to every law of the land. But I am an immigrant.

My family paid more than £60,000 in the last 5 years to this country’s education system. So I send a few pounds back home (probably to buy British exports) – its still less than what I spend in the country. And what about the wealth I am generating at work for the economy? But I am an immigrant.

The Home Office doesn’t have any of my friends there. I need to be better than all European Union applicants to a job to get a work permit. And I am. Doesn’t that help the British company that hires me? You know why I got the job? Because Britain’s education system doesn’t churn out enough employable graduates. Record number of jobs are being advertised in the country, and yet they have to employ us foreigners. I guess the hours I spent studying while my classmates were busy binge drinking and ‘socialising’ are now proving to be of some worth, eh? But I am an immigrant.

So wake up Britain and listen to your Prime Minister and PM-to be. Messrs Blair and Brown have a point- get off your couch and get a degree or some training, or risk being unemployed forever. Your companies will not wait for you to be employable – they have sales targets to meet. Vilifying migrant workers will not get you anywhere. The system favors the ‘natives’ anyway. Make use of it!

But what do I know? I’m just an immigrant.


February 15, 2007

The State of Britain

The Economist, 02.02.07

There are three important issues surrounding the globalisation discourse in Britain that have escaped your attention in your lead article “You’ve never had it so good”. First, it is all very fashionable to suggest ethnic minorities to accept equal treatment in front of the law, but what is often left unquestioned is the extent to which the law is neutral itself. A debate over whether a Sikh man should be allowed to drive a motorbike without a helmet is far from settled. Second, the ground reality is that sections of the so-called ethnic majority demand assimilation and not integration, something which is often unacceptable to the minorities. Third, the political parties may well be falling over each other in their efforts to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country, but it must be realised that Britain’s graduates are poorly equipped to deal with the demands of a globalised economy. As a former foreign student in England, I can testify to the fact that British students in general are far less interested in their studies than a Chinese or an Indian student.


January 23, 2007

Always an 'Other'

The Telegraph, 23.01.2007

“Do you have spoons in India?” A combined choking and giggling followed this question from the other side of the table. I was the 15-year old schoolboy expected to answer this question. My problem was not so much what I would answer — it was the fact that the answer had already been decided for me. No, we Indians didn’t have spoons, and ate with our hands from the floor since we didn’t have any furniture or crockery either.

Shocked? I’m not. And this is why I hardly turned a hair when Danielle Lloyd — a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother — wondered behind Shilpa Shetty’s back whether Indians were too thin because they ate undercooked food (and not because of poverty and malnutrition), or because they ate with their hands. The outcry among the protesters, largely Asian, here in the United Kingdom, and back home in India, is primarily because most of them haven’t experienced this sort of discrimination before. I have.

One of the ‘best’ questions I was asked was whether Indians never showered, since our hands are so much darker than the Europeans. Channel 4 made much of what they perceived as a ‘clash of cultures’ in response to the barrage of criticism that has now reached the Prime Minister’s Question Hour in the House of Commons. But you can hardly forgive those making fun of Shetty’s accent for being ignorant. Thanks to the spread of global information networks, ignorance is no longer a convenient excuse.

The r-word

And what exactly does ‘clash of cultures’ mean anyway? Perhaps it means that some people are prejudiced towards other cultures. Or perhaps, it means allowing people to make fun of others’ accents in a spiteful manner. For me, it is nothing but racism, plain and simple. Oh yes, I said the r-word.

Many, including Shilpa Shetty, think that such intimidating screeching and abuse-hurling is owing to the insecurity of the perpetrator. I disagree. Jade Goody and Danielle Lloyd have no idea what Shetty’s credentials are. The person who threw a can of beer at me and my friend on a train (for which we were offered £2 compensation by the rail company) and called us “Pakis” didn’t have anything to feel insecure about. It was sheer malice and prejudice.

Now don’t try to pass this off as the behaviour of a microscopic-to-the-point-of-being-invisible minority. These people are a very visible chunk of the British and Western public. The whole façade that exists in Britain about multiculturalism being the country’s core belief is laughable. On the ground, you have to display certain characteristics to prevent being socially ostracized. Some of them include going to pubs and getting drunk, trying to get a girlfriend, and talking about ‘interesting’ topics such as football and ‘telly’.

No win situation

So you integrate and you’re safe? Hardly. First of all, it’s not integration. What Britain demands from outsiders is assimilation. Diversity is frowned upon — not on government white papers, but on the streets. But sometimes you can’t win. Shilpesh was a British-born Indian in my school. He had all the attributes to integrate — an Essex accent, a girlfriend, spiky hair, lots of knowledge about ‘footie’, love for night-outs and pubs. But when he got involved in an argument, I overheard someone scream, “You’re a Shit-pesh”, a rather clever pun on his name, hinting towards his complexion. He was always an ‘other.’

The one brilliant question asked by Shetty is — “Is this today’s UK?” I’m afraid it is. Ignorance definitely plays a part in some circles, but bigotry and intolerance are the main catalysts for this kind of aggressive behaviour. It is the failure of 21st-century Britain to accept that the sun that never used to set on her Empire, did so 60 years ago.


January 06, 2007

Big Disappointment

The Telegraph, 06.01.07

Shilpa Shetty appeared chuffed to be asked to do Channel 4’s popular reality show, Big Brother. She blushed and appeared coy, before asking all Indians to feel proud because of her presence in the house. Big Brother is the show whose clone is now being aired in India. What exactly do we have to feel proud about? Perhaps Shetty is suggesting that watching an Indian woman sleep in the same room as an alcoholic and rockstar is something to feel proud about. Or perhaps the fact that she will probably be asked to play the role of a dog or a cat (as MP George Galloway found out last year to his cost) and be ridiculed on British television. Or is it because she now has the opportunity to add ill-informed quips about Indian history and culture, both of which she is now supposed to represent? British television-shows like Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing, Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire already have their copies in India, speaking a lot about our originality. People in England have no idea who Shetty is. Indeed, all that the British make of Bollywood is that it is an industry that dishes out copies of Western movies with generous doses of dance and songs. Shetty will have plenty of opportunity to enlighten them perhaps, and be the object of laughter here in England. It is futile to attempt to explain to the curious public that she by no means represents India, but she is all we have got now. Instead of feeling proud, I am aghast and shocked at her presence in the show. If she pulls some “impressive” trick on Big Brother for the British public to mock, it would be us Indians on the streets facing the banter.


December 19, 2006

All that Glitters is Very Expensive

The Telegraph, 19.12.2006

People in India largely think of non-resident Indians as a group of extremely privileged people soaking in all the comforts Western urban life has to offer. After all, we must be earning in millions and having no problems in life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“We’re sorry to announce that the 18:24 train to Bournemouth has been delayed for 24 minutes.” This loudspeaker announcement at the Coventry railway station means that I’ll be late home from work, and reach only by 7:30 pm. Did I mention that I leave home at 6:30 in the morning each day for work? I take a bus to Leamington station, then a train to Coventry, then one to Nuneaton, then one to Leicester, then a bus to the city centre and then a bus to my office. And when the last leg of this journey is delayed by half-an-hour, you want to just give up and go away. But you can’t.

And this particular train has been late for 99.99 per cent of days since I started taking this route more than two months ago. So you see, trains are not just delayed in poor countries with shoddy infrastructure. And the waiting room in Nuneaton remains shut on most evenings, an inexplicable decision taken by the station management, given the freezing temperatures. And we’re not rich enough to afford a cup of coffee whenever we want — a cuppa at a station can cost more than £2 (or Rs 175). The whole ordeal is not made easy by crammed trains running to and from busy stations like Leicester in rush hour — and these people allow bicycles and dogs to be stuffed in the same compartment as men.

“So what, the money makes up for it.” Does it? Few realize that the living costs in the West, particularly in Britain, are sky-high compared to India. So the higher salary is easily cancelled out by the higher expenses. Not to mention the exorbitant rail fares (about to rise by 7 per cent), soaring utility bills (no free water here) and a hefty council tax bill (to rise very soon).

“You NRIs at least get value for money and have a comfortable lifestyle.” Sure. That is why I’ve been living in a flat without central heating for the past 20 days. I have to use a fan heater which eats up my electricity credit. When I ask the estate agent, he blames it on the electricity company. The company says it’s going to take 3 weeks to sort. If I ask them about compensation, they put my call on hold and wait for me to get bored of the music and hang up. The floorboards are coming off in the bathroom, the TV aerial doesn’t work, and the place was filthy when I moved in — I could go on and on.

Just the other day, the taxi driver took me on a longer route to get me to fork out £ 2.50 extra. And I would have walked had it not been 11 pm and the road wasn’t laden with three pubs with a high possibility of me being beaten up by a drunken and/or racist thug. If trains being delayed every day isn’t inefficiency of the system, then I don’t know what is.

Let me say here that not for a moment am I comparing my life to a subsistence farmer in rural Orissa who lives on $1 a day, hoping that a steel plant doesn’t encroach on his field, throwing him out of his land. I am speaking to the anglicized middle classes in metropolitan India who think that going to a foreign country will get them out of the daily slog of the third world. The grass is always, and there’s an accent on always, greener on the other side.


November 23, 2006

The Price of Life

The Telegraph, 22.11.06

S.L. Rao makes a compelling case for an integrated water management system to be initiated in India. At present, there is ample scope for improving the management of water in India. It would be a good idea for the government to privatize water supply. This would ensure that the pipelines are maintained properly, wastage is minimized and that the quality of water supply improves.

However, the government should simultaneously create a regulatory body that would monitor the tariffs households are supposed to pay for the supply of water. This should be designed in the same way as taxation — the higher the income of the family, the higher the tariff band for that particular household. The government should also set up a subsidy structure and lower the tariff bands for the poors.

Such a system would combine the efficiency of the private sector in delivering public services and the resources of the state in ensuring that the poor and the needy are not neglected in the new system. Such a system can also be implemented in a number of other areas, including healthcare and education where the rich enjoy a lion’s share of the resources while the poor are left to survive without the basic necessities of life.


November 16, 2006

A Not So Welcome Homecoming

Asia Times, 03.11.2006

SHOUT, SOFT BORDERS!

Worryingly I went near the closed toilet door at Nuneaton railway station. On close examination, I discovered that the phrase had originally been “out of order”, referring to the toilet. I attributed the rather creative – albeit disturbing – additions to the supporters of the British Nationalist Party or the UK Independence Party, both of whom use xenophobia against immigration as a staple of their political propaganda.

The threat of terrorism, along with the resident fear of a deluge of immigrants flooding the country and the vexed issue of multiculturalism has dogged Britain of late. Just recently, the Church of England had been complaining about the supposed biased approach of the Labour government toward Muslim minorities. Jack Straw’s pot shot at the niqab (burqa) only added fuel to the fire. All three major political parties are falling over one another to appear tough on immigration.

The stern immigration officer at the end of the usual mile-long line at London’s Heathrow airport was something new. Compared with a Chinese-American officer who took terrible offense because I couldn’t understand his accent at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport, I had found British immigration officials generally friendly enough. This time, though, I was curtly asked a few questions about my trip and then asked to go stand in another enormous line, apparently for a health checkup.

I could see where our bureaucratic babus in India got their lethargy from. I had no chest-X-ray plates (probably because the visa-issuing office never told me I needed any) and no doctor’s report. I walked up and I handed her my passport. Instead of hustling me to the adjacent medical room, I was just let through. What a checkup!

For this hour-long exercise, I missed my bus. When asked at the counter the reason for my delay, I mentioned the excesses at immigration. “About time too!” guffawed the man behind the counter. If only these security procedures were actually implemented, and then targeted not at the mundane traveler, my world as an average individual would be so much more hassle-free.

Nowhere have I seen security stickers being stuck at the keyholes of suitcases. But it happens at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport. Who dare tell these people that they’re a nightmare to take off later, and are not effective in any case? I guess they’re better than the plastic rope they used to tie up the luggage with, though.

Oh, and how irritating is it for us Indians to fill out lengthy arrival and departure cards in our own country. Is it not enough that we’re being blacklisted overseas? All this information going into the immigration system in India’s airports can be safely labeled in computer lingo as GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

I paid Rs16,000 (US$357) for 10 kilograms of excess luggage while taking the flight to London. For any average middle-class Joe like me, that’s gotta pinch! There were a few American girls in front of me at the check-in counter. I could tell that their luggage was hopelessly overweight.

To my bewilderment (I was too shocked to be angry), they casually ripped off their security tags (the precious security tags!), opened their suitcases, took out some of their stuff, weighed it (and it came under the allowance level), opened them again, shoved in the stuff they had taken out, and threw it on the conveyer belt. No one raised an eyebrow.

“The next stop is Leicester,” called the train driver, and I realized I had dozed off. Feeling the apprehensive gaze of an elderly white woman, I got off the train and headed to work.


August 30, 2006

For the Sake of Quality

The Telegraph, 30.08.2006

Here is a trivia for readers. Let us say that there is an academic institution ‘A’. Its admission criteria for post–graduation courses states that “applicants require a high 2:1 or a first class at BA level, but admission is at the discretion of the degree committee, which judges each case on its own merits”. For those not acquainted with the nuances of British classification of undergraduate degrees, a 2:1 implies an upper second class honours degree — a perfectly respectable and often a very good result if you are studying the humanities or social sciences. Now let us assume that another institution (‘B’), has this unambiguous one liner— all graduates from “other universities” require a “First Class Honours”. Note the capitalization, possibly to underline the inflexibility of the stringent requirement.

Now for the question. Which of these two institutions would you guess is the more esteemed centre of higher education? My guess is that you would vote for ‘B’, given that it requires applicants to be of a supposedly higher academic calibre. So would I, had I not known their actual identities. For ‘B’ is the University of Calcutta, while ‘A’ is the Cambridge University.

A parochial individual might conclude that Cambridge has dropped its high standards, while CU has somehow leapfrogged ahead of it. Hardly. If you glance at the latest university rankings published by The Times, Cambridge ranks at the top while CU is nowhere to be seen.

New rules

This particular admission criterion of CU is proof of how excellence is barred from Indian institutions. This may sound strange at first, but not if you consider the following factors. First, institutions of repute never install an academic criterion that discriminates against ‘outsiders’. Graduates who come from colleges affiliated to CU with much lower marks have no problems in applying for the post–graduate courses. Also, the argument that CU examiners are strict when it comes to doling out marks is preposterous. Getting high marks in world class British universities is no cakewalk either.

Second, different universities have different cut off points. For example, 60 per cent is enough for a student to secure a first class at CU. But that becomes 70 per cent in most British universities. So someone with 68 per cent from Oxford cannot even apply to CU, but a CU graduate can apply even with 50 per cent.

Making a difference

Third, the difference in the quality of these two institutions is ignored by the admission criteria. A degree from a top class institution is often more challenging than that from a lowly ranked one. Thus, someone with a first class from a poorer university can stroll into CU at the expense of a hard–working student from a top university who misses a first class by a whisker.

All this makes a mockery of the concept of neutrality. Some would argue that any admission criterion is exclusive in nature for it invariably discriminates against a certain group of students. But the importance of merit in making an institution a centre of excellence is undeniable. And the door is being firmly shut on the face of merit by criteria such as these. If rules like these stay in place, the handful of Indian students who decide to come back and contribute at home would also not return.

So what is the way out of this mess? The admission criteria should be made more subjective and sensitive to individual applicants. It might mean that the application process will have to begin earlier but then that may well have to be the case. A choice has to be made — whether we vouch for mediocrity or whether we become more selective and promote excellence, at least in some institutions in India.


August 23, 2006

The Real Problem with Globalisation

India Nest, 20.08.2006

If you utter the word ‘globalization’ among educated circles these days, you get a overtly enthusiastic response– either making sweeping statements about the possible environmental degradations and inequities that it precipitates, or listing its boost to entrepreneurship and upward social mobility in developing countries. Both these arguments miss the key issue. The most potent and long–lasting effect of globalization as it stands today has been on the realm of ideas that has been straitjacketed into a certain mould, which reduces options for weaker countries to devise their own solutions to the various perplexing problems that they face.

Stephen Gill has defined knowledge as “the principle form of production and power resource”. Following on, it can be argued that particular ideas which have been privileged in the globalization discourse must hold sway over the policy processes in poorer countries which increasingly look for models to emulate from the developed world. Being in possession of most of the knowledge circulating in the public policy realm, the developed countries on the whole are in a unique position to control the ideologies and mentalities of the global ideational system.

We are often fooled by the façade of relative power. China, we are told, exports a humungous amount of goods to the world, and it is a developing country. However, it is not the export of toys and machines that make a state fundamentally powerful. The World Trade Organization is the agency that exports transnational regulatory institutions to its member states. We know that the WTO is dominated by a narrow set of ideas and attitudes. The world economic system is set up in such a manner that to maximize gains from trade, a state has to go via the WTO policy regime. And therein lies the “structural power” of supposedly global– but in fact ideationally very local– institutions like the WTO.

The ideological reach of this predatory globalization is not limited to concrete policy propositions between states alone. There are what many label “soft transfers” between non–state actors such as multinational corporations and non–governmental organizations. Therefore, the various management models and corporate structures that are being emulated by companies in the developing world are equally part of this hegemonic discourse as the ideological imports of the NGOs that protest against these very companies. The power of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Cable News Network should not be ignored too.

In other words, your laptop may have a “Made in China” label on it, but the various technologies that have been mastered to manufacture it, and the production techniques and management structures followed by the manufacturing company are invariably “Made in USA” or “Made in Japan”. The undisputed status of English as the lingua franca of the world is also part of this standardization process. Linguistic theory since the 1980s has argued that the language we use can shape the structure of our thought and the terms that we debate in. This power of globalization goes largely unnoticed.

The antithesis to this argument has been pointed out by Samuel Huntington who has pointed out that “drinking Coca Cola does not make Russians think like Americans.” Similarly, it is often said that globalization in reality leads to ‘glocalisation’. For example, multinational companies often have to alter their marketing strategies according to the cultural tastes of a particular country. However, this ignores the fact that the hegemonic presence of Western brands not only homogenizes the structure of the market globally, but also creates an illusion of superiority for such products. The newfound consumer culture in China and India and the hankering for foreign goods is a good example of this tendency.

The state as the monopoly of political power within defined borders is undergoing broadly similar transformations across the world as a result of globalization, and this reduces space for individual states to shape their own political systems. For example, austerity programs of the International Monetary Fund often forces states to adjust their political and economic system to a neo–liberal model in order to receive financial aid in a crisis situation. Prior to the Asian Financial Crisis, the IMF forced the countries in the region to liberalize their financial systems, despite savings rates being 20–22% higher in these countries vis–àvis Western Europe and the United States. On the other hand, the developed world through the WTO– often influences the trade policies of developing countries that have few choices but to join the global system. China and India were markedly different– both economically as well as politically– prior to their enmeshing in the global economic system. Now both China and India have a broadly similar economic system, and they are converging even further.

So–called ‘international norms’ play a major role in states across the world altering their policies to the ‘global’ practices of governance. The Heritage Foundation publishes an annual Index of Economic Freedom, while Freedom House publishes an annual Freedom in the World survey. Rating agencies like Standard & Poor and Moody’s ‘mark’ individual countries on their policies. The criteria for judging the policies of all these markedly different countries is rather inflexible, and no country would want to risk bad press, since they are falling over each other to attract foreign direct investment.

There have been some suggestions– notably by Randall Germain– that the developing states had re–instated themselves in lieu of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, and that in turn has forced the transnational forces acting on them to adjust to their changed stance. As an example we can look at the increasingly assertive stance of the Group of 20 (G–20) countries at the WTO negotiations. Moreover, the World Bank has been forced to amend its Comprehensive Development Framework after the crisis to be more sensitive to social needs of countries. This power shift, however, is relative merely. The “decision–making structures of the global economy” have not changed significantly, and the developing countries operate within the framework set for them by transnational commercial interests and international institutions which are heavily influenced by developed countries.

Immanuel Kant once spoke of the “moral unity of mankind”. However, unity is achieved through the equal consent of all participants and their equal contribution. Globalization – in its current avatar – does not offer developing countries the chance to make their own choices about major economic and political policies. Ardent neo–liberals would counter the above–mentioned argument by suggesting that poor labor standards and inadequate environmental regulations are in fact a source of negative marketing for countries, and hence they would not do it. Marxist critiques, on the other hand, would present a diametrically opposite argument.

What is forgotten in this quibble is that the poor countries have no say in this ideational battle– they are obliged to accept the dominant ethos of the time– in our case neo–liberalism. Orthodox Marxists often espouse Antonio Gramsci and argue for a counter–hegemonic discourse to be launched against neo–liberal structures of knowledge. The problem for them is that they too are working within a Foucauldian discourse. In other words, inexplicitly they are part of the very discourse they are trying to wriggle out of. The terminologies used to criticize neo–liberalism have nothing to do with the ideologies of the developing countries. They are stuck between two world views– the neo–liberal and the Marxist/radical. Their policy processes, in the meantime, get continuously compromised due to influences by the all–encompassing globalization process that brings the dominant ideology with it.


August 09, 2006

Confused About Identity

Title:
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

India Nest, 06.08.2006

The most attractive feature of this latest work by Sen – as with his other writings – is its extremely accessibility and lucidity. Written concisely, Sen illustrates his thesis remarkably well in this book which seeks to argue that sectarian violence often occurs with both sides being led by an illusion of what constitutes the ‘other’s’ identity. In other words, the “dreadful conflicts” that have taken place in our world, be it in Rwanda or Sudan or the Indian subcontinent, are often successors to “periods of terrible confusion” in the minds of the perpetrators of the brutalities against humanity.

Sen offers a primary explanation of such confusions. He argues that the essence of our existence as human beings is essentially shared by various aspects of humanity itself. To put it simply, we may have several identities which compete for our attention. However, the very nature of the ‘othering’ process involves the construction of “a singular and overarching system” of classifying groups of individuals in order to effectively present a target for the wrath that erupts as violence.

Sen offers two methods which are adopted– deliberately or unconsciously– to achieve this “miniaturisation” of human beings. The first he terms “identity disregard”. This has been used classically in theories concerning the economic man, and more recently in various game theories where an assumed motivation (e.g., rational self–interest) overshadows all other identities that an individual may adhere to.

Following on from this, his second classification is called “singular affiliation”, whereby only one facet of an individual’s overall identity is privileged to caricaturize his entire self. Such reductionism is most commonly found in instances of communal violence, whereby a person may just be a Hindu or a Muslim, but not an Indian, a middle class professional, or a father.

A recent example of a blatantly reductionist theory is espoused in Samuel Huntington’s now–famous The Clash of Civilizations, a work that is subjected to seething criticism by Sen in his book. In this, he carries on from where he left of in his The Argumentative Indian. The biggest problem with Huntington’s thesis is the complete ignoring of the often–marked diversities in these various civilisational blocs.

In the “Hindu civilization” ala India, there exist minorities who are either numerically substantial or culturally influential in shaping the history of the subcontinent, such as the Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, among others. There has been a lot of intercultural influences between these communities which deny Hinduism any singular identity which can be associated with today’s India. Added to that are the striking diversities within Hinduism itself. Such intra–cultural diversities can also be found in the Middle East, where the Shia–Sunni divide comes instantaneously to mind. Indeed, given the mutual suspicion that existed between the Arab world and Iran as recently as the 1980s, along with the various intra–Arab disputes, it is doubtful how far a monolithic Islamic civilization is a reality.

Sen also notes the tendency to create an arbitrary–often historically inaccurate– identity of the ‘self’ in order to differentiate it from the ‘other’. Here he criticizes the notion of the “Western mind” whereby certain ideas (e.g., democracy) are claimed to be the sole property of the Occident. Citing examples of Buddhist councils during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (3rd Century BC) and tracts on religious freedom during that of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (16th Century AD), Sen attempts to illustrate how such an identity can be readily disputed.

Neither does Western multiculturalism escape Sen’s criticism. While attempting to accommodate various interests in increasingly diverse societies, these theories invariably associate the interests of the minority individuals and/or communities based on their religion, castigating all other forms of identities to the background. Even scholars who attempt reconciliation between the West and Islam (supposing that such homogenized monoliths do in fact exist) often search for a ‘moderate Muslim’, thus giving disproportionate importance to religion in determining the ‘other’s’ identity.

Sen points out that one’s perception of their own identity may change over time. He points out that East Pakistan was formed in 1947 primarily because of a religious motivation. Yet, in 1971 this motivation was grossly inadequate in keeping it together with West Pakistan, as Bengalis asserted their language and culture as their primary form of identity vis–à–vis their religion, which they still shared with the West Pakistanis. However, Sen also notes that the primary cause for violence despite changing identities is the incapability of the victims to convince the aggressors of this shift. Perceived identity, therefore, proves stronger than actual identity.

Here post–modernism can pose a perplexing question for Sen. From the works of Michel Foucault in philosophy to some recent work in psychology, we know that perceptions can often be formed subconsciously or even unconsciously, determined by the various pressures of societal environment and the dominating discourse. How does Sen then assert that the ‘actual identity’ of an individual is any more real than the ‘perceived identity’, when the choice made by individuals itself may be automated by other, often–invisible forces? If Edward Said were alive, he would surely have a word or two to say about the ways in which Orientalism often forces ‘other’ people to assume certain identities.

On one occasion Sen himself has failed to remain neutral towards identities. On page 171 of the book he narrates the harrowing tale of a certain Kader Mia being stabbed to death by “vicious Hindu thugs” during the 1947 partition riots. Subsequently he also criticizes Muslim gangs for similar deeds. But if Kader Mia was incorrectly taken to be just a Muslim, should his murderers be represented as just Hindus, and not as criminals, revenge–seeking individuals, or misguided youth? Sen could have escaped with his description, had he clarified that the description “Hindu gangs” would probably have been used during the time to narrate the incident.

Sen spends a lot of time emphasizing the role of “choice and reasoning” behind an individual giving primacy to one among the various competing identities within him. While stating that individuals often stumble upon their identities– or “discover” them– Sen readily concedes that often individuals make conscious decisions about their identities– “Life is not mere destiny”. However, individuals can only choose from the available options in the social decision making function, which may not be optimal under practical circumstances.

To be fair to Sen, perhaps he is merely arguing for chosen identity to be given preference over given identity. But there may be less difference between the two than he has accounted for.