Monday, July 09, 2007

Life is elsewhere

An essay titled The Bomb, Biography and the Indian Middle Class appeared in EPW last month [via SR]. Based on a close reading of the autobiography of nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna, the article draws an interesting sketch of how the middle class sees its own position in society.

I reproduce some defining parts of the essay. Any Indian reading it would at least relate with the observations, if not agree with the analysis.
The self-imposed distance between the middle class and the "masses" indexed in many milieus - everyday expressions of desire for a country with a smaller population; the occasional wild-eyed scheme for secession from the rest of India by momentarily prosperous enclaves such as the IT sector in Bangalore or parts of Mumbai or Gujarat or Punjab; the oft repeated idea that it may not have been a bad thing if Sanjay Gandhi had had a relatively freer hand....
[Now talking about Ramanna]
For Ramanna, the access gained by the lower castes to education and to the professions had to lead "inevitably" to mediocrity, intrigue and a cesspool. There is no historicisation of the relatively recent circumstances under which the brahmins gained ascendancy beyond the spiritual-religious domain in southern society, nor is there any effort to place the so-called lack of merit of the lower castes within a historical understanding or context.

(His) contradictory attitude towards the "masses" oscillates between seeing them as the reason for his life's work, and as the chief impediment to national and personal excellence....The role of the masses alternates between that of an alibi for India's nuclear programme, and an impediment in the path to scientific achievement. In these contradictory passages, Ramanna exemplifies the liberal who loves the masses in the abstract but detests each one of them individually.

(His) rhetoric fashions a self that is a permanent outsider in the realm of politics. ..His (own achievements) all indicate a highly successful life spent in the eye of power. And yet, Ramanna (and the middle class that he so perfectly epitomises) remains convinced that he is the quintessential outsider, a man whose success is not because of politics, but despite it.
I am curious to hear what others would make of this essay. Please do leave a comment here if have an opinion.

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