Modern India: A confident country in the making

A few years ago, I visited an Indian software millionaire at his headquarters in Bangalore for a story about the country’s effervescent computer industry. Software is modern India’s spice, a precious commodity craved by the rest of the world. The businessman took great pleasure in showing me around.

I marvelled at rows of programmers working in Japanese; I gawped at the basketball courts and pizza eateries imported to give the company an authentic Silicon Valley feel. After an hour or two, the conversation got personal. In the unselfconscious, no-nonsense manner of many educated Indians, the entrepreneur quizzed me on which university I had gone to (Cambridge) and the subject I had studied (physics), before triumphantly declaring that I had been “born in the wrong country”.

“The British system has come to this — taking scientists and making them journalists,” he said with a smile. “What a waste. Just imagine the opportunities you missed by not being born here.” In my youth I would have laughed that comment away as misplaced optimism in a country that could not even get its trains to run on time. I had grown up shuttling between my birthplace, London, and India, my parents’ homeland.

My earliest memories revolved around the open sewers and the endless slumlands of my father’s Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then known, and the tropical sloth of my mother’s home in Kerala. It is fair to say that nothing worked in the India of yesterday. There were phones, but the lines were mostly dead. Frequent blackouts meant the inside of the fridge was invariably hotter than the air outside it. India appeared to be a place that, like my grandfather’s battered Fiat, went faster backwards than forwards.

I spent my childhood apologising for having any connections with India, a country that in my lofty opinion needed major surgery. But a decade ago, while the rest of the world was looking the other way, India reached some kind of tipping point, and change began to happen — fast.

The signs were easy to spot. By the mid-90s, the Marks & Spencer underwear and ovenproof CorningWare dishes my parents had always brought as gifts for relatives were politely returned. “We can buy this here,” sniffed my auntie in Bangalore.

My Indian cousins, who had diligently studied science subjects, began to leave India for jobs with management consultants and computer companies in places such as Singapore and California. Friends in Britain started to climb the social ladder by having arranged marriages with Indian women who were often smarter, more sophisticated and better-looking.

Since I pitched up in 2003 to live and work in Delhi, I have witnessed firsthand the arrival of a golden age. The making and spending of money has become respected in a country where poverty was once revered. Yet it would be wrong to think that India has become just like everywhere else. Yes, an economic miracle is under way. Yes, there is now an elite as capable as any in the west. The paradox is that this is a modernising nation, but one still steeped in myth and legend. Indians tend to ascribe the country’s rise to its unique, ancient civilisation and in the process tend to be rather dismissive of anywhere else.

Hanging in the air, too, is desperate poverty. To the naked eye, India appears not just an underdeveloped society, but an extremely unjust one. There are 260 million poor people in the country, and more than 1,000 children die of diarrhoea every day. The capital’s streets are lined with ragged children and beggars waving handless stumps. Every day 22 farmers in India commit suicide.

Living in India sometimes feels like living in the midst of a cult, with hundreds of millions of souls convinced of the country’s inevitable rise to global, nuclear-armed power. The nation’s privileged classes and castes have been gripped by a psychology of ascendancy, anticipating the greatness that imperialism and the cold war denied them.

In fact, development for most Indians is a state of mind. Many simply sweep aside doubts by asserting the supremacy of the country’s customs and traditions. I have heard my own family here in India discuss people with contempt just because of their background — be it class, caste, race or religion. When I protest, they simply tell me that I am not an Indian, so how could I understand? During my time here, I have come to realise that Indians have little interest in the British now, or in a British Asian like me who has returned to his parents’ land. America, the first British colony to break free, is the model now. Like the American people, Indians have become more confident and assertive, citing stories of those who triumph against the odds to balance their nation’s shortcomings. They see glasses half-full, not half-empty, here. India wakes up with a smile on its face each morning, because its people know that the past may have been yours, but the future belongs to them. — The Guardian