Living in the Future-sure sounds sexy, but it throws up an important question: Is there an independent trajectory for the Future, with no connection to the Past or the Present? Or is it possible to look at what was, what is, and what shall be as one continuous present? There are no easy answers, but Indias self-styled cyberopolis, where people live in the same space in three different time-zones, as it were, offers a glimpse.
Hyderabad is a tale of three cities.
Theres the past in the old city of Hyderabad, with its Charminar and the minarets. Theres the present in Secunderabad, with its cantonment and slick shopping malls. And theres the future in Cyberabad, with its clicks and mouses. But to which of the three periods of time does the soul of Chandrababu Naidus capital belong to? It might not seem so important to find out, but the answer holds the key to an even more vital question: are the citizens of all three cities "co-passengers" in this important journey?
One way to ascertain where cyber-citys soul lies is to deploy Salman Rushdies idea of the capital of Vilayat (Arabic for foreign).
Because, although Hyderabad is a neat 409 years old (it was founded when Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah got stuck into a dancer called Bhagmati), its idea of Vilayat was for a long time Constantinople, not London, and the preferred foreign lingos were Persian and Arabic, not English. Even today, the old citys dominant characteristic is pre-modern-Unani and ayurvedic, not allopathy; women wear burqas, not churidars, and learning the Holy scriptures is enough to make a living.
But the idea of Vilayat remains. Only, it has moved a few hundred miles to the east of Constantinople, to the Persian Gulf. And the governing currency for the Hyderabadi diaspora from the old city is petro-dollars.
Vilayat started swinging westwards only in 1798, when the Nizam signed a treaty with the British East India Company, which allowed troops to move in and set up camps on the northern side of the Hussain Sagar lake. The cantonment area was named Secunderabad. There was tax relief for the soldiers, and a great many concessions, and sooner rather than later, bankers and merchants shifted from Hyderabad to Secunderabad.
Here, though, the capital of Vilayat is undoubtedly London. Like Saladin Chamcha in The Satanic Verses, most of the anglicised middle-class in Secunderabad believed all that was good and living with them to have been made, shaped and quickened by their encounter with the islet of sensibility, surrounded by the cool sense of the sea. And believe so to this day.
The idea of Vilayat makes a trans-Atlantic jump only in Naidus Cyberabad. Here, the capital is neither Constantinople nor London but Silicon Valley; the letter u has no use unless it figures in Unix; colour is color; and most ss are zs. ist has little functional use except when to get up and go to sleep; working hours are all EST or PST because the infotech companies located here are all hooked up via satellite to their principals in the US.
Its the cyclical manner in which the three cities have sprung up-Secunderabad came into existence after 200 years of Hyderabad, and Cyberabad after 200 years of Secunderabad-that tells us a little about the future. That it isnt just about time but about space, too. Is it just possible, that like an old clock, history moves in cycles, with no beginning and no end, but different civilisations rising and ebbing in eternal interplay?
And if it does, can we just talk of history as being some overwhelming burden which is better ignored?
To be sure, the boundaries of the three different time-space zones inside Hyderabad are porous; people keep moving between them. The Telugu Desams Jubilee Hills office, for instance, is literally the border dividing Secunderabad and the cybercity. So, while the essential identity of the city-the Old City or Secunderabad or Cyberabad-is reasonably concrete, the identity of the people is fluid.
But, at the same time, they live in time-warps that have little to do with the external reality. Like the virtual space of the Web, they have constructed Utopias which they want to move towards. For many within the walled city, the Utopia is in the past. They fondly recall the low prices, the efficient officials, the lack of corruption and much greater space for hybridity.
Hyderabad and Kashmir have similar problems. Monarchs from the minority community ruled both. In both places, minorities tend to have a romantic notion of the past. The Hindus in Kashmir and the Muslims in Hyderabad are now steamrolled by majoritarianism. "People do like exclusivity and the problem with democracy is that it expunges exclusivity at a different level," observes M.L. Nigam, former director of Salar Jung Museum.
But like e-mail, which has made person-to-person contact possible-a new spatial version of the intimacy of yore-virtually if not visually, will the dreams and aspirations come true too, given the cyclical nature of the citys history?
Chandrababu Naidu is trying. His Vision 2020 for Andhra Pradesh aims at an annual industrial growth of 10 per cent and the eradication of poverty by 2005. But unlike earlier plans, Naidus blueprint has little political content and a high degree of corporate content. And like Cyberabad, its fulcrum lies in the future, and its Vilayat is the US of A.
Again, this was no Nehru-Mahalonobis effort; it wasnt written by politicians or academicians. It was produced by the New York-based consultancy firm McKinsey. The language is totally different from any other Plan documents: no egalitarian proclamations, no talk about bridging the gap between rich and poor, no mention of redistribution of wealth and assets. Rather, it reads like a PC manual. Fragments of this and fragments of that. Dos and Donts. Instead of a search engine, the document has growth engines.
There is a flow chart to achieve the desired results. "Clusters of growth" will be established and connected to "growth corridors" based on the natural and historical strengths of each region. The corporatisation of the government is reflected even in the way the chief minister conducts his business meetings: a business breakfast or lunch every day where people brief the CM; decisions are taken then and there.
But can a state be reduced to a corporation? Is this a form of social Darwinism that we are seeing here? What will happen to the majority who cannot cope with the pressure of catching up? The document talks only about the future for people who can be successful. It has no space for failures. The language is a cold scalpel that does not envisage any dissent.
View Cyberabad in this context now. The entry barrier to the city is going to be the level of technical capability the people can achieve. Not merely in terms of computer programming but also language proficiency. Even to work at the bottom end of the IT segment-medical transcription-one needs to understand not just English, but the accents of various American regions. The grunts of the midwest, the southern drawl must be deciphered.
What is obviously being overlooked is the redefinition of the individual in this "future as Utopia". If Lord Macaulay had spoken of a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions, morals, and intellect; and Marx of the capitalist as Fausts mechanical man, there is now an impersonal "Economic Citizen" who resides wholly inside financial capital markets, transnational companies and cyberspace. But the dark horses of the past continue to haunt this global vision in the form of fundamentalism, search for a highly localised identity and it may even lead to neo-xenophobia. Then the interplay between the visions of the past-be it Ram rajya or Nizams rule or East India Company-can overtake the future.
Jean Baudrillard describes the mystique of Gross National Product as a collective bluff on the part of modern societies. "(It) is an operation of white magic on the figures which in reality conceals a black magic of collective bewitchment. Nothing enters national accounts except factors which are visible and measurable by the criteria of economic rationality. Research, culture and womens domestic labour are all excluded from these accounts." Just as medieval society was balanced on God and the Devil, according to Baudrillard, ours is balanced on consumption and its denunciation. "Our magic is white. No heresy is possible any longer in a state of affluence."
The bleakness of this white magic is apparent when you look at Living in the Future as a mere function of time. We know that space is limited; so are resources. We know that the earth is a common inheritance and every section of humanity as well as all other living beings have an inalienable right to dwell on her and also the duty to know that she cannot withstand this notion of growth. She already moans at the temporalising of her wonderful space. "Its very far; six hours," is the sentence that has replaced "Its very far; 30,000 miles". Surface travelling created a sense of belonging to space. With that being increasingly replaced by air or underground, only time is seen as the guiding principle. Unfortunately Naidu thinks only in terms of future, gdp and white magic. But what about the dark magic called the anger of the people who cannot get into his hi-tech city?