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Does disorder comfort Indians?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-07-2017 Manu Joseph

In any city in the developed world, the edges of a road are never crooked, and median markings run straight, forever. Cars stay in their lanes even down a sharp bend, as though in orbit around some unseen centre of sophistication. And they stop at the red light, behind a straight line, and when they do, there is so much silence and stillness, I often mistake them for parked cars. Also, the pavements are broad and made of expensive stone, as though pedestrians matter. Why does this dismay Indians?

Why is it that after a short period of enjoying the rich world, they long to go back “home”, to a place where there is order only when viewed from about a kilometre in the air. As the plane descends, the sharp edges of roads become ambiguous, the geometric lines of civilization dissolve into irregular forms, and the neat clusters of homes begin to look like infestations. On the roads, grace is naïve, almost foolish. And the air is filled with particles, and loud sounds. Why does the re-entry into total civic chaos comfort Indians? Even make them happy? Happy in a conditional, all-things-considered way, but still happy. And what fills them with gloom in advanced economies? Tourists, even residents, share this feeling.

Some say those places do not have “a soul”, that the people are too formal, and life is somehow lonely. Some say it just is not home. Some are more explicit and may arrive at the heart of the syndrome. They say what disturbs them about the developed world is what they love for the first few days or weeks, exactly why they like to visit those places—the order, the precious rules, the straight lines and perfect circles of life, the dignity of formality, the quiet of sophistication, the ease of everything.

Can Indians really despise order so much? When humans say we are animals, don’t we actually mean it in a poetic, metaphorical way? How can we dislike order when it is so obviously an important objective as a species? Is order a requirement of white DNA, an invention of Christianity, is it yet another neurosis of a minority that has colonized the majority?

My general suspicion of refined Indians pushes me to believe that they have devised romantic notions about their love for disorder to camouflage what really torments them in the developed world—the collapse of street social hierarchy. They are not the elites any more. In fact, many of them suddenly become the underclass in those places. But this hypothesis is diminished, if not destroyed, by the fact that even poor Indians, when displaced and put in advanced economies, are somewhat disoriented by order. Also, Westerners themselves, including sober people, seem to see meaning in the chaos here, though not when they have to drive themselves or in other such circumstances.

There might be some beauty in disorder, something that appeals to an innate human idea of freedom. It has its miseries but saves Indians from the boredom of being universal. And it is not just about how everyone drives.

Last year, my Uber driver stopped the car, took his water bottle from under his seat and went to have a dump by the roadside. I was in the car, on the shoulder of an eight-lane expressway that connects the national capital to its most affluent suburb, waiting for a man to finish shitting, a man who had been introduced to me by a complex algorithm funded by billions of postmodern money. I wondered if that moment there, as I was waiting for the man to finish his business, was culture. If economic progress marked the end of such moments, would it not be a destruction of something intrinsically Indian, or at least something that is intrinsically a quirk of poverty? Poverty is not only an economic condition, it is also a very distinct line of human behaviour. Could that moment have happened in Europe? The event had two distinct parts—the cab driver stopping on the shoulder of the expressway, and the man doing his business on the wayside of an expressway. Maybe there was a third part. The customer letting it happen, waiting in the car patiently. None of the parts would have been possible in an affluent nation. The value of the moment was not that it was amusing (it was not), but that it could happen.

Symmetry is the only form of order in nature. The rest is not chaos, but not order either. So maybe people see in absolute order something unnatural, perhaps an enslavement to authority. We can see this resentment even in the new financial regime that the government is attempting to bring about. The resistance to change is not merely from those who wish to hate everything that Narendra Modi tries to do, but also from regular Indians who are beginning to feel that the government is squeezing all the informality out of economics.

There is a difference between freedom, which is feral, and liberty, which is a human invention—the idea that we must surrender our freedoms to a benign authority who would then grant a restricted number of freedoms.

A consequence of urban order is often the optics of loneliness. The more advanced an administration is, the more efficiently it is able to hide its humans, and other animals. That is why the first reaction of Indians in many beautiful urban suburbs of the world is—“where are the people?” This is not only because most places have fewer people than Indians are used to, but also because urban planning and order thin the visible density of people. The disorder of India, apart from showing us people and cows and pigs, also converts the nation into a giant video game. Every moment in public space is a navigation through unpredictable events, sometimes dangerous, but mostly only difficult.

Triumphing over the many daily odds, and surviving the republic, or witnessing from very close others doing just that, probably gives us a certain depth that filling a more efficient life with frivolities would not. Maybe Indians veer towards disorder because it saves us from a dull life. An orderly, safe life, but a dull one.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. He tweets at @manujosephsan

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