City City Bang Bang, Columns

The other new India?

The label “New India’ is now political property. If on the one hand, it is a formulation created by the government to signal what it imagines to be the picture of assertive new citizens who take pride in their Hindu heritage, of late it is also the name given to the new strain of resistance that is being seen among the young.  Beyond these contested imaginations, there lies another New India, which does not get adequately acknowledged. As the start of a new year, perhaps it is fitting that we look beyond the challenges that we are facing in our polity and focus on some positive changes that we are seeing as a society. 

  1. The new assertiveness of women- As one travels across the country, interacting with a cross section of society, one is struck by the changes that can be seen in the way women are imagining and conducting themselves. There is a surge of confidence and ambition, and a greater willingness to forge new and societally difficult paths. Something fundamental is moving and it is redefining the power equation between the sexes.
  2. The mushrooming of creativity- Across the spectrum, there is a new expressiveness that is visible, particularly among the young. This takes many forms, from the kind of poetry and slogans used during the recent protests, and the memes of a wide variety that spring up every day to the violent outbreak of inventive forms that populate Tik Tok on an hourly basis.  The young in India have historically found themselves squeezed between the dreams of others and their own stumbling desires. They have today broken out of the binary imposed on them- one that asked them to choose between following authority and sidestepping it. There is an unleashing of expressiveness that is revealing itself, and this is just the beginning.
  3. The emerging reaction against TV News- Its early days yet, but a lot of qualitative research done that one has been a part of has shown that across the country, we are seeing a strong reaction against the kind of rubbish peddled on television as news. There is sense of exhaustion being experienced at the relentless haranguing that has become the norm today.
  4. The rise of Self-learning- One of the by-products of the deep penetration of digital technologies thanks to the mobile phone is the new-found ability of people, particularly the young, to figure out their pathways to learning. In a Google and YouTube-propelled world, all questions have an answer. We have seen more than a few instances of young people, unable to find meaningful work after education, find innovative ways of making a living by learning skills off the Internet from scratch.
  5. New husband-wife dyads- There is undoubtedly much work to do on the gender front, as is clear from the many depressing headlines that marked the year gone by. But there are some signs of change too. There is a rise in the phenomenon of genuine coupledom, whereby the two individuals involved operate as a single unit. Mutual respect crystallises into a comfortable sense of interdependence, making for an easy partnership. There is a sense of two people navigating a new world together, and finding their answers along the way.
  6. Looking beyond conventional careers- There has been a spurt in new kind of career options that is helping ease to a small extent the pressing problem of finding employment that dogs most young people. There are the unglamorous but easy-to-access options that have emerged out of the digital revolution- delivery boys and Uber and Ola drivers, that have virtually become a new ‘grey collar’ class that finds themselves doing low-skill jobs in a highly technology-enabled space. Social media has thrown up a whole set of new career opportunities of the most improbable kind. A new breed of influencers and celebrities have been birthed, allowing people to earn a living using skills that would in an earlier time be considered utterly trivial and frivolous. Consumption itself is becoming a profession, and there is no dearth of young people coaching others in various acts of consumption and earning a living in the process.Entrepreneurship too is becoming an increasingly desirable occupation, with stories of successful start-ups firing the imagination of the young. While there is still a large part of India that is fixated on government jobs and other more conventional career avenues, the lure of starting something innovative of one’s own is catching on. One particularly heartening aspect of this trend, is the emergence of women entrepreneurs across the country. 
  7. Positive deviance- role models where needed most. One of the drivers of change is when someone relatable in one’s immediate surroundings chooses a new path. We are seeing this gain momentum, across both urban and rural India. As more people choose more unconventional options, across the areas of education, interests, careers and lifestyles, the idea of embracing the new is becoming a little more legitimate. The power of the single individual in bringing about larger change in the community is being experienced far more often than in the past.

A common thread that ties a lot of these strands together is the emergence of the individual as a more significant unit of society. The distinctiveness of individuals, which in an earlier time served largely to arouse anxiety and discomfort, is beginning to find a socially useful expression. 

This is admittedly only part of the full story. There are many other aspects of change, both encouraging and deeply dispiriting. But one heartening reality of India is that when one travels across the country and talks to people at large, it is impossible not to feel more hopeful about it than when one reads the headlines. There is much that is wrong, as this column has had occasion to reflect upon, but a lot more that is changing for the better, albeit quietly. If only once in a year, it is worth reminding ourselves of that. 

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