Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The White Tiger

I read the Booker Prize winning novel,  The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga sometime back. (You can see a video review here.) It is a depressing novel not least because much of it is true - the sleaze, the corruption, the caste discrimination, the hopelessness of millions, the practise of coercing lower caste people into taking the rap for the errors of the upper castes (it is anybody's guess how many innocent people are languishing in jail)...The excuse always is what Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman say in this song: Everybody does it. But one is disturbed by the callousness with which the protagonist goes about righting the wrongs.

This article about cricket says that there is a 'postcaste India'. There are small pockets of it scattered across the country but they are firmly in the minority. Caste still plays a major role in many places. Its social and economic structure makes it difficult for many people to escape its clutches. In many places, election results are crucially dependant on the caste of the candidate.  If the candidate belongs to the wrong caste, he or she has no chance of winning irrespective of other qualifications. And what about Brahmin-only housing?

Many people who say they don't discriminate on the basis of caste, class, religion etc. nevertheless show these biases in subtle ways in their words and behavior. Of course if you point these out, they are not likely to agree with you. A Hindu family was reluctant to employ a cook because she was a Christian. If educated, city-bred folk still have these attitudes, then we still have a long way to go.

Then there are unconscious biases in each of us which we are not aware of. These seep into us as a result of exposure to the culture we grew up in. In this video, the first speaker, Mahzarin Banaji talks about these biases.

There is a big empathy gap between the haves and the have-nots. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. There may be a significant amount of sympathy but not of empathy.I often hear complaints that servants are not doing their work sincerely. Well, it is hard to be sincere when the work involves a  lot of drudgery in a lot of houses not your own. As the protagonist of The White Tiger says:
You will have to come here and see yourself to believe it.  Every day millions wake up at dawn - stand in dirty, crowded buses - get off at their masters' posh houses - and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet - all for a pittance. I will never envy the rich of America or England, Mr.Jiabao: they have no servants there.  They cannot even begin to understand what a good life is.
The kind of sentiment that many well-heeled express is similar to a view that Lee Iacocca expressed in his autobiography which I had read many years ago.  I don't remember the exact circumstances but he was served by a grumpy waitress  in a restaurant and he wrote that if people are not satisfied with their work, they should quit their job and find some other work. At that time, i was a callow youth and Iacocca was a hot-shot name so I thought he must be right. Now I think he was talking rot.

Iacocca may have found it easy to find another job but that is not true for all. There are bills to be paid, food to put on the table, kids to be educated...The waitress may have been a  single mother holding two jobs in order to make ends meet, her mother may be in the hospital...You may want people to be like robots but it is not always possible to mask your emotions. If a hot-shot manager's only response to a grumpy employee is to say that she should find another job then he is not so hot after all.

In this documentary about conversations with various philosophers, the second philosopher to talk, Avital Ronell says that people who act with  a good conscience are the immoral ones. She gives the example of George Bush who signed death penalties galore without any compunctions. A truly moral person would have agonised over those decisions and spent sleepless nights wondering whether he was right or wrong.

India has too many people who  act in good conscience (since the overwhelming majority is afflicted by what Dawkins called 'the virus of faith', this is a natural result.), know everything and are always right. As the cartoon character Pogo said, 'I have seen the enemy and he is us'.

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