City City Bang Bang, Columns

The anecdote as proof?

There is only one subject of conversation in the country today and it is a subject on which everyone has very definite views. What the conversations that are happening around the subject of demonetisation reveal is interesting. There is some hard evidence that tells how things are panning out on the ground but we prefer to place overwhelming reliance on personal anecdote. My driver, my maid, a friend whose daughter is getting married, people I saw outside my office in front of an ATM, someone I know who works in a bank, the vegetable vendor who comes to our building, the cook’s family back in her village, the cab driver I was chatting with the other day- these are the sundry sources of evidence that we are able to muster up in our everyday lives. On the basis of these fragments of conversation, we proceed to make sweeping declarations ringing with certitude. Interestingly, all these conversations miraculously find evidence to support one’s previously held views.

This is not entirely surprising, for foreknowledge is a symptom of our times- we know before we see. We are in most cases, not looking for evidence, but for confirmation. Also, in this case, we are up against a daunting adversary- all of India. Money affects every single individual in the country and so when we set out to make pronouncements about how the country is responding to this move, we need in effect to have a very good sense of the country at large and of how people live their everyday lives. The knowledge needed is of two kinds- we need to appreciate the India that lies outside the pale of our experience and we need to understand at a granular level how money winds its way through the smallest unit of everyday living. This granular, deep sense of the country is difficult to obtain, given the size and complexity of the country.

In some ways, there is no option but to rely on some version of the anecdotal, if one is to make sense of India, particularly in a qualitative sense. The anecdote can often be the one-off, a peculiarity that does not speak for the whole. What becomes headline news is often the atypical, rather than the norm, for more often than not, the norm is not newsworthy. An anecdote of this kind serves a purpose, that of highlighting how bad or good things can be, but fails as document of how things are.

Sometimes, the anecdote can be richly indicative of a larger truth; it can capture the essence of a situation, but it is not easy to know if any particular instance is representative of a larger truth. For that to happen, one must already have a good sense of how reality operates, for only then can one appreciate whether a specific instance is meaningful of something more significant or not. Only if general understanding precedes specific evidence, does the anecdote become meaningful. A chicken and egg problem.

In this case, the anecdote fails us because what it seeks to represent is far too fragmented, far too large and far too widespread. Money is what is tucked inside a blouse, kept under a gunny bag that serves as a sheet in a kiosk, slipped to a peon at a government dispensary, taken out of ‘watch pocket’ in one’s trousers or banyan. When one talks about the effect of demonetization, one is making a comment about every bit of the act of living that is threaded with money. In some ways, understanding the effects of demonetization is a more onerous enterprise than even predicting the ‘mood of the people’ before an election, for the vote is after all a single decision.

What the current discourse shows us is that we understand very little about the mechanics of how people unlike ourselves live. The other India is an abstraction, an entity with limited characteristics, one that can be described using very few words. To the middle class urban eye, the poor are both everywhere and nowhere. Their lives are a blur of backwardness, their lack of development stunts their claims to humanity; the one truth about them is that they need to progress in life and ideally, aspire to become a version of the middle class. Events in their life do not carry the same valencies and their hardships are possible to nationalize. Their short term problems are sought to be minimized- after all, they are used to standing in queues for everything and their longer term issues in terms of adjusting to an entirely unfamiliar system of payment and their livelihoods being threatened are glossed over. they are after all, being ‘reformed’, and a better way is being shown to them. They can be co-opted as unwitting instruments of a national project- their pain is after all, in service of a larger cause, that who knows, might even be of some benefit to them, in the long run of course.

Equally, those that think of the ‘poor’ only through the lens of victimhood, also divest them from their right to other emotions. It makes it difficult for us to understand why, in spite of the hardships that they may be going through, there may still be significant support for the move. Poverty may often be a defining truth that colours the life of those without means, but it is by no means the only lens through which they see the world.

It is true that we have no option but to talk about demonetisation, for there has no other move, in recent times that affects our everyday life quite as deeply. But some humility would be in order when we talk of the other Indias. We must know that we don’t know and we must not belittle the experiences of a reality that we catch an insignificant glimpse of.

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