9 February 2015

The modern myth of 'social mobility'

This is a letter I wrote recently to the Indian Express in response to their series on 'Is India Moving to the City?'. I have not been following newspapers for some time so I do not know if they have published it.
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Dear Sir,
    As a person who grew up in Mumbai, worked in Delhi, and who then lived in rural Garhwal and ran a village school there for many years, I found your series on 'Is India Moving to the City?' relevant and useful. It is an issue which has been staring at us in the face for 65 years, while we, the urban elite, have looked the other way.
    There is one basic assumption which has to be questioned for us to understand this issue fully. A few of your contributors may have touched upon it, in an oblique way, while most have missed it altogether.
    That basic assumption is the modern creation of 'social mobility' as a norm, indeed as a necessity. This 'social mobility' is represented as a geographical or financial movement - moving from village to town to city, or moving from small house to big house or from small to bigger bank balance.
    This is a crude, hastily gathered assumption of 'development' of the last hundred years. I feel we must question this 'need' completely, honestly, so that we understand ourselves first, before we try and understand the village and city..

    It is a common and valid criticism of the West that it looks at the rest of the world with its own bias. It forces its own economic, political and education systems wherever it goes. In the process, it has done a lot of damage, while itself remaining ignorant.
    I fear that we, the Indian urban elite, may be committing the same crime if we look at our own village as outsiders, just as the coloniser saw us. Then, we will only look at the village as something 'backward' and 'undesirable'. Our only mission then is to 'develop' the village, for which we do the usual mischief of seizing its land, its rivers, and its minerals, and chasing away the original owners as migrant labour to the cities.
    I feel that we have to rectify this modern, colonial, error of looking at others as if we are 'developed' or 'forward'. If we do make this correction, then we will find that the Indian village is not the starting point of a race for 'social mobility'. It is not a means to an urban end. Instead, we will see that the Indian village has been designed as a place of fulfilment, not reckless motion. It helps one fulfill material needs, while also encouraging us to transcend material mobility. It leads one forward in the sense of embracing values which are also spiritual.
    Living in a village can be a meaningful end in itself, such is its inherent design. A city, in contrast, is in relentless and chaotic motion, devouring the villages around it without limit. Living in this disorder, one has no choice but to keep running and succumbing to the game of 'social mobility'.
    In the language of modern science, the traditional Indian village is like an atom in a molecule, or a cell in an organ - it is designed to be self-organised, and to participate in the larger order, willingly, naturally, without conceit or opposition. It is a part of a stable order. And what might one say about the modern city in the language of physics and biology - that it is an electron out of its orbit, unstable, radioactive, or a cancerous cell, a threat to its neighbours? It would be useful to think about this.
    I am asked often, even by friends, where such a village exists of which I speak. All I can say is that it exists in the eye of the beholder; the village I speak of is not a particular place, it is a design. And to see the beauty of this design, one has to surrender one's modern assumptions - that alone is the necessary and sufficient condition. Only then can we truly understand the village, only then can we see the catastrophe that is implied by an entire nation 'moving to a city'.
    Your newspaper series had a question as title: 'Is India moving to the city?' Yes, for we do not know what we do.
    Rajan Venkatesh