Dr Sanjeev Jain is head of the department of psychiatry at Nimhans Bangalore. A clinical psychologist, he speaks on the present and future young of India with the insight of a sociologist and social psychiatrist. Dr Jain is currently engaged in researching and writing a four-volume history of the growth of psychiatric services in India. The final volume will focus on the psychiatric history of India’s partition in 1947. Excerpts from an interview with Sugata Srinivasaraju:
What is your assessment of the post-liberalisation generation?
What has been evident in the last 15-16 years is the so-called opening up of the economy or rather a blending of the Indian consciousness into a multiple- channel global consciousness in terms of attitudes and lifestyles, experienced only by people who can read and write English. It is debatable if the rest of India has changed. Clinically speaking, what is worrying about the young is the rising rate of depression, suicides and drug and alcohol abuse. With the intensely competitive environments, there is also more and more unease at social norms. Autonomy, freedom issues that are common with adolescents across the globe come up here too, but they get peculiarly amplified because the parental generation and the younger ones, in certain classes, are really at different portions of the wave and trough cycle.
What is it that you find peculiar about today’s young?
Frankly, there is nothing particular or peculiar about today’s young. The issues that surround them are the same old ones—roles, families, societies, jobs. Only, it gets differently articulated and differently experienced because social matrices have changed. These issues now transcend what were clear-cut boundaries earlier. Today, people come with problems because they are marrying someone from a different region of India speaking a different language. Earlier, it used to be a caste issue or a neighbourhood issue. At a fundamental level, these are variations on the same theme—of independence, autonomy, a breakdown of what were stable family attitudes. Again, we don’t really know how stable these were in the real sense.
Why are the young wooed so aggressively by advertisers/corporates?
I don’t think it has a qualitative content to it. It’s just a marketing ploy. If you go to big malls, you’ll find only foreign brands. If you go to certain other stores, you’ll only find local Indian stuff. So what they are doing is bifurcating the young. The young who’ll prefer Indian fusion music, Indian writers or appear to be rooted, and then the other, who’ll be ashamed of all this. It is an artificial bifurcation foisted on the purchasing power or pocket money of the youth. It is deliberately and politically constructed to promote a corporate ethos. The most dangerous part of this is that the youth tend to become non-self-critical. The self-awareness, or critical element, is hardly encouraged. The stress is on consumption and appearance. It is made out that to be effective you have to appear in a certain fashion. What you really are doesn’t matter.
What repercussions does this have on the psyche of the young?
It comes up in therapy situations off and on. We often get complaints from parents saying that their son insists he needs a Rs 3,000 shoes. But the son says that is the way it is. Another common complaint is from parents about their daughters dressing in a particular way. But the daughter says if she doesn’t wear tight tees, she will not be accepted by her friends. Social psychology is a very prominent driving force. It is only in the late 20th century that social psychology has been overtaken entirely by advertising. A lot of it is manufactured emotion. Whether this or that person will win in the Big Boss household is a manufactured emotion. Cheering crowds at cricket games is a manufactured emotion. There is no real connect between the players and the audience.
“Anna is against gays, liquor, free mingling of the sexes. It boggles my mind that a young person can fall for that.”
So a ruptured self-criticality defines the younger generation?
I don’t think it defines the younger generation. But it defines the society which is trying to manipulate the younger generation and create a kind of serfhood. Self-criticality is not a virtue anymore. You are supposed to be happy. You have to appear to be happy. You have to keep a happy face even if you are not, otherwise nobody wants to know you. It is this that is really troublesome. In a wider psychological sense, not in the clinical sense, one worries about this kind of uncritical optimism. We seem to be obsessed with growth. A German scholar at a lecture made an interesting statement recently. He said growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell. He also said that we must be sure what it is that we are growing towards and growing into. To have only economic parameters, to have only GDP benchmarks, will not help.
What happens to a nation when the young sacrifice their self-criticality?
The nation ceases to exist. A disconnect with self-criticality, at one level, is replaced by a sham affiliation to narrow and parochial interests. There is a group dynamic that sets in. At a simple college level, it manifests as a local vs non-locals debate. At a larger level, it becomes a Telangana vs rest of Andhra or Kashmir vs rest of India debate. What is amazing is the logic is exactly the same. We are now running politics at the level of college-level identities. Group identities which are essentially adolescent, teenage fantasies etc threaten to engulf the entire system because we have become so uncritical. Identities have become excessively local. What is worrying in India is that one assumes that commerce and economics will bind the nation together, but that is not a given.
Will a self-obsessed generation be interested in any kind of larger social or cultural movement?
Our societies have become slightly more undemocratic from when we were young. In the sense that access to other people’s time and space is now very rigidly controlled by a media structure. College festivals are sponsored by media houses or corporates. There is actually no unencumbered physical or political space. So young people learn to manipulate or learn the ropes of this ‘give and take’ very early. They know that being independent or sticking out does not really help. All this is happening ostensibly through non-political institutions and instruments. What we increasingly see is young people don’t want to be identified with the accidents of their birth. The young here feel constrained by localism and they try to escape it in their own way. We are not aggressively building a sense of a safe society in India which can actually accommodate the aspirations of the young. There is no Indian dream, equal to an American dream, for the youngsters.
Can they then forge an Indian dream?
At the level of subversion, an Indian dream will be an American dream. That is the whole problem. The Indian dream will be a photocopy of the American dream which is not a good idea. The worry is, if young people don’t get enthused then we have a huge problem on hand. We are still riding on the crest of the hopes and aspirations of the people of the ’50s. If the young generation becomes cynical and if they don’t plan like the people of the ’50s who had a hope for India, that is serious trouble. The loss of social hope is an unquantifiable impoverishment.
Do you see a loss of social hope?
In medical terms, you can see it both by its absence and by its unnatural presence. Absence meaning very few people talk about it. All they talk about is buying this car, getting that job, getting a visa to that country etc. At the other end, you see people who are railing against it and hitting their head against a wall.
What of the young participating in the Anna Hazare movement?
Again, this creation is like a popstar version of the truth. Because it’s a tokenism. A German writer once asked: “When injustice is sliced into thin slices, how thin is the slice that I should put on my daily bread?” If you replace this injustice with corruption, how many people in India can actually claim to be free from corruption? This comes up at various levels. Recently there was a survey of the state of the SC/ST hostels in Karnataka. The fact that there should be hostels for the SC/STs is not commented upon. Why should there be separate housing for them is beyond me. This is not a public debate at all. If you are segregating young people right through their undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral levels, what corruption and what young people are we talking about? At various levels, we teach the young the ropes of the ‘snake and ladder’ game rather too efficiently. So they become aware of their constrained kind of identity and this spikes any sense of universal hope and solidarity. It is the same as the absence of idealism. Actually, the capacity for humanism is not considered a good thing anymore. You are I and me. You are you and we are never together.
But what makes a young mind identify with someone like Anna?
In some ways, it is anachronistic. He is against gay behaviour, against liquor consumption, against free mingling of the sexes. It boggles my mind that a young person can fall for all that. So there is a compartmentalisation that has taken place, you don’t see the wider social context. This is again a result of the absence of self-criticality and is exactly what the corporate media wants. It wants you to be conservative. It wants you to be feudal.
Could you comment on the young and social media?
I think social media is built mostly for specific commercial or sexual networks. There has been an issue in the US where many multinationals, especially attire-makers, create these dummy accounts for shoes or tees they want to sell and ask ‘friends’ if they have seen these cool new shoes or dress? And then that becomes viral and the sales shoot up. This is about the absence of real communication. It is like the age-old ‘monkey and the cage’ psychiatry test. You put a monkey in a cage and it starts having symptoms of social withdrawal. If you open the window into an adjoining cage, the act of observing another monkey is more than enough for this monkey to neglect food. So it will spend more time obsessively watching the other monkey. When you deny real human contact, or any sense of human communication, then these kind of alter ego communications start. What you have to worry about is why is actual physical life so impoverished that the young need to have 400 phantom friends. It is a kind of narcissism. We do get clinical cases in this regard. If they come all the way to clinics like ours, then it is literally the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know what the iceberg is, but if I see a tip, there is an iceberg below.