August 08, 2020
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Ah, It All Comes Out Right In The End

The 'chalne do' precept has a lot going for it. Or does it? A Pune trip offers few conclusions.

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Ah, It All Comes Out Right In The End
illustration by Sandeep Adhwwaryu
Ah, It All Comes Out Right In The End
Finding someone or somewhere laid-back is surely to be welcomed in this age when we are mentally and all too often physically crippled by competition. There’s the competition in schools to get ridiculously high marks in exams, the performance-related pay which creates rat-racing companies and corporations, the consumerism that encourages us to earn more and more just so that we can keep up with our neighbours—keeping up with the Jones, as it used to be known. And if you don’t believe competition is crippling us physically, just look at the injuries cricketers and other sportsmen inflict on themselves. So we want to be careful about knocking one of India’s defining characteristics—the "chalne do" culture, the laid-back, it’ll do, all will come out right in the end attitude.

On a visit to Pune, I had a defining experience of a particularly prevalent Indian chalne do attitude—the failure to plan, just letting things happen. Chalne do started at the airport in Delhi where I was to fly for the first time on one of India’s many cheap but not at all cheerful airlines, which have been allowed to take off without any planning by the civil aviation authorities. The check-in desk was in the remotest corner, grossly overcrowded with queues for different airlines getting muddled up, and passengers tripping over each other’s luggage. Once through security, there was no seat to be had in the lounge and no information about flights except garbled announcements. Aboard the plane, we sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour waiting for our slot on the runway. Delhi airport proudly announces that it is soon to be world-class, couldn’t something have been done to ensure it was not fourth class before all these new airlines took off?

The city of Pune has a history of being laid-back. In the British Raj, it was known as a place for retired colonels with red faces and white moustaches, and as a dreaming, academic city, the Oxford of the East. Of late, however, it has gained the image of a successful modern city, the IT capital of Maharashtra, and a refuge for businesses and industries driven out of Bangalore and Mumbai by their chalne do attitude to planning. But I discovered just how deceptive an image can be. I was told that 27 million feet of real estate are added to the city every year but without benefit of planning. It is said that six hundred new vehicles pour onto the roads of Pune every day. I have to say the aggressive, indisciplined driving on the roads is not a case of chalne do, it’s extremely competitive. The police, however, seem to have a totally relaxed attitude to the blatant defiance of all traffic laws. The city’s rivers have been neglected and allowed to deteriorate into open drains. In short, Pune is suffering from the same excess of chalne do expansion that is afflicting all other Indian cities.

But India, as we are always being told, is a diverse country and a land of contrasts so it would be unfair to describe just one defining experience on my trip to Pune. There is another defining characteristic of India which is perhaps the reason for the chalne do attitude to life. India has, as Amartya Sen pointed out, "a long argumentative history". Indians delight in debate and one of the great achievements of the years since Independence is the freedom of speech which allows for debates on any subject. But a country much given to discussion, inevitably surely, becomes a country where there is a danger that debating a problem will be seen as solving it. This must be particularly true of India’s culture which is suspicious of certainty, and so reluctant to close debates with a firm conclusion. I approve of this defining characteristic, provided it also is not taken too far.

On the evening I arrived in Pune, I experienced India’s argumentative culture at its best. I was given the chance to speak in praise of India’s uncertainty at a meeting organised by the British Business Group and the British Library and also took the opportunity to criticise some modern certainties. One of those certainties was the dominance of market capitalism and business culture. As the guest of the British Business Group I couldn’t condemn business, but I did suggest that businesspeople had too great a say in government’s decision-making processes. I quoted from a new book which warns, "The combination of large corporations and financial markets has overwhelmed the public policy-making process."

The debate that followed ranged from criticism of my view as being unbalanced on market capitalism to criticism of the Indian business community for being too narrowly focused and ignoring wider social concerns. Someone argued that the SEZs were just land-grabs. Not everyone accepted my thesis that India’s discursiveness, its love of debates, sprang from Hinduism’s intellectual tolerance and its suspicion of certainty. Inevitably, caste and corruption came up. I don’t know about the audience but I certainly came away from that debate with a lot to think about.

The next day I was back with Chalne Do. As I stumbled along the broken platform at Pune station, making my way through families squatting on the cold concrete, skirting the crowd arguing over the reservation charts with the ticket inspector, being assailed by various vendors, and shouted at by coolies anxious to unload the luggage piled on their heads as soon as possible, I wondered yet again at India’s ability to make apparent anarchy function. I also wondered whether the management of India’s railway stations would ever become a little less laid-back. Eventually, I found my compartment and there on the chart pasted next to the door was my name. Somehow, the chaos on the platform sorted itself out and the train left on time.

Then I was back again with India’s defining argumentative culture which ensured that the journey was a delight. I talked for hours with a professor of physics and a senior railway officer, ranging over an even broader canvas than the evening before in Pune. I learnt why a country which has thrown up so many brilliant scientists is having difficulty in persuading students to do research and teach, and how the railways plans to face the growing competition from road transport. But just before we went to bed chalne do reasserted itself. We were parked in a loop with trains rushing past in both directions for what seemed an inordinately long time. Eventually I said, "We seem to be stuck." The railway officer replied, "Don’t worry, you’ll get there on time." We did but it does seem to me that the railways are taking chalne do a little too far in running a so-called express train that takes thirteen-and-a-half hours to travel the 600 kilometres between Pune and Hyderabad. As two of the country’s leading IT cities, they surely deserve a train service more in keeping with the times.

So how should I judge what the defining experiences of my trip to Pune say about the future of India? The Indian way would be to debate whether they show that the glass is half full or half empty.

Sir Mark Tully has made India his home, after covering South Asia for the BBC for 30 years. His most recent book is India’s Unending Journey.

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