A Fine Balance

Suketu Mehta received enormous praise and some criticism for "Maximum City", a non-fiction book about Bombay. The Economist said about the book:

"Suketu Mehta tells the stories of slum-dwellers, dancing girls, hitmen, and poets, all of whom have come to Bombay to make it. With a clear but non-judgmental voice, his is an outstanding tale of the exhilarating city in which he grew up."

Suketu Mehta boldly highlights a "clear but non-judgmental voice" on his website. This week the author uses his platform to opine in the New York Times about the outsourcing of jobs by the West to India. With the media chirping daily about outsourcing, Mehta portrays American workers as despairing over their lost jobs in A Passage From India". He speaks again with a clear voice but this time he is decidedly judgmental.

It is admittedly difficult to argue with the article since it touches on many sides of a complicated issue from a variety of perspectives and voices. Mehta masterfully spins bits of truth into an argument that cossets our fears with gentle conciliatory gestures. On one hand he provides easy examples to illustrate what we already suspect are our national failings. "In this year's national spelling bee", he says, as we succumb to the idea that our children are getting dumber;"the top four contestants were of South Asian origin"".

Mehta was apparently educated in English schools in Bombay, moved to New York when he was fourteen, then graduated from NYU and University of Idaho Writer's workshop. He portrays himself in the image of a Pico "Iyer-esque"cosmopolitan - a trans-continental city denizen who finds friends and family in Paris, San Francisco, Bombay or New York. From this position, he contends that the education in the West is inferior. "If I were now to move with my family to India, my children - who go to one of the best private schools in New York - would have to take remedial math and science courses". Then he lines up his evidence to assert that this is the cause, which can be linked to an effect; "one in 10 technology jobs will leave these shores by the end of this year". The result, he concludes, leaves the West poised to plummet noisily to "their" (third person) demise - "complaining when their jobs are being lost to children of the empire who are working harder than they are." Does he suggest that perhaps the West deserves the outsourcing as some sort of come-uppance?

Mehta then assumes the role of the underdog when he appeals to our guilt at a time when many of us question our seemingly oafish international foreign policy behavior: "I was mercilessly bullied during the 1979-80 hostage crisis, because my classmates couldn't tell the difference between Iran and India". He scoffs at comparatively slothful habits, "Indians have had to learn; we have had to slog for long hours in the classroom while the children of other countries went out to play". He strings it all together onto a history of imperialism; "Why are Indians willing to write code for a tenth of what Americans make for the same work? It's not by choice; it's because they're still struggling to stand on their feet after 200 years of colonial rule." Colonialism can hamper growth despite what Great Britain says and what you hear about the trains. But is it possible that Mehta's India also has a chip on its shoulder or is reflecting some personal bitterness.

Is he an outsider to all nations, uncomfortable in a quest for illusive identity? Or is his position enviable, maybe uniquely fortunate, in that he can assume multiple identities but be caged by none? Perhaps his multi-lingual, multi-cultural identity positions him well to elude the vagaries of globalism. Regardless, he glibly assumes different personas, donning the robe of the worldly elitist to scorn us, then the scuffed shoes of the beleagured exile to rebuke us, before assuming the mantle of dutiful American: "I have a vested interest in seeing America prosper. But I am here because the country of my ancestors didn't understand the changing world.." Continued protectionism, he warns, "will ensure only that *our* schools stay terrible, it'll be an entire country run like the dairy industry, feasible only because of price controls and subsidies". We are left to peer quizzically if doubtfully into the mirror that he holds up for us, re-examining the blemishes that he highlights.

Meanwhile, the author embellishes not only India's education system but its technological abilities with select evidence; "During the technology boom of the late 1990's, Indians were responsible for 10 percent of all the start-ups in Silicon Valley". This he uses to hint at inevitable dominance - "Those Indians who went to the United States...have done remarkably well: Indians make up one of the richest ethnic groups in this country". As deftly as a Bollywood script writer, he adds magnificence, bright colors, shiny sparkly glory, and a bit of song and dance to create the glittering myth of India Ascendant

Then, having drawn the line down the middle and deftly balanced the two sides with some well worn arguments and classic handicaps he concludes "The outsourcing debate seems to have mutated into a contest between the country of my birth and the country of my nationality." Finally, after ever so politely, apologetically and properly putting the ambiguous *us* in our place, he offers nobly that, "Indian-Americans can help..deal with the emerging economic superpower that is India".

It is interesting how the gritty picture of Bombay in "Maximum City" opposes the shiny glossy composite of the ascending India (a sleight of even-handedness) in this article. Shall we trust the words of this benevolent self styled avatar of global understanding? What is true? Are U.S. schools failing abysmally next to India's? Are we losing our scientific edge as abruptly and tragically as a child misspells some impossible multi-syllabic word presented in a spelling bee? Is the trend in outsourcing proof that India is just a hop skip and jump from becoming "the empire", the "economic superpower"? Could we possible answer all these questions?

"A Fine Balance" is also a book about India by Rohinton Mistry.

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