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We are intimately familiar with the ‘chalta hai’ malaise. This popular and rather innocuous sounding catchphrase has various breezy interpretations: ‘it’s okay’, ‘take it easy’, ‘someone else can fix it’, and so on. But chalta hai (CH for short) is not to be underestimated — it encapsulates an entire philosophy of life and spawns a whole host of attendant syndromes. These include the perennial ‘mujhay kya?’ [‘Why should it concern me?’] shrug of the shoulders; the ‘dekha jaey ga’ [‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’] approach to tomorrow’s challenges; and the infamous ‘jugaarrh’ [band-aid innovation] solution to complex problems. The closest equivalent in English would be Mad Magazine’s equally pithy slogan: “What, me worry?”

In India, the mainstream discourse has now slowly begun to recognise this mindset and the negatives associated with it. Discussions on CH pop up regularly on talk shows, in newspaper op-eds, on social media and once even featured in the statement of an Indian court. In the wake of a national calamity in 2017, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation thus: “We have to leave this ‘chalta hai’ attitude. We have to think of ‘badal sakta hai’ [‘It can be changed’].”

On this cue, Indian entrepreneur Alpesh Patel undertakes an ambitious in-depth investigation into the CH phenomenon in his new book, Chalta Hai India: When ‘It’s OK!’ is Not OK. Patel compares India’s historical performance with that of other nations that have overcome considerable barriers and achieved greatness. He focuses on four prominent sectors: roads, sports, education and cinema, and documents rampant overwhelming evidence of CH. In each sector, he also locates a few rare instances of remarkable potential, world-class talent and truly inspiring idealism.

A book delineates the overwhelming culture of the subcontinent in stunning detail, but fails in probing deeper into the roots of the malaise

Patel identifies common trends and patterns of behaviour, all of which apply to us. For instance, we are given to making grand pronouncements. We are quick to resolve, but slow to act. We talk about quantity, but shirk from quality. We tend to lose interest very easily. We have this curious inability to think and act in the long term. We expect foreigners to tell us how to do things. We talk the talk, but deep down we don’t really have faith in our own abilities. When some rare hero in our midst actually overcomes monumental odds to accomplish something, we rush to claim credit. Generally though, we are content to sit back, relax and shrug our shoulders in typical CH pose.

Patel is sincere — one can tell he has spent many a sleepless night wrestling with these contradictions in the Indian national psyche. His prose is direct and urgent. He has done mountains of research which simply spills off the pages. We desperately need to undertake a similar self-examination. And Patel shows us how.

Unfortunately, however, this book falls short of its groundbreaking ambitions.

The first critique is relatively minor: a Pakistani reader cannot help but be conscious of a pronounced bias in the book. Patel refers frequently to India’s glorious “values” and heritage, but his point of reference is the Upanishads and the Vedas, and the Mauryan and Maratha empires. Minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs only feature in the book as props to promote India’s secular credentials. There is no mention of the lurking menace of Hindutva. When Patel offers a list of India’s contributions to global politics and its vaunted “moral legacy”, the Kashmir conflict is conspicuous in its absence.

The second critique is more serious: few nations are as painfully self-conscious and clumsy on the international stage as India. As the book itself documents, the country is a bloated, weltering mass of stark contradictions. It is the world’s largest democracy, has Nobel Prize winners and beauty queens alike, and its information technology talent literally powers the global tech industry. India also has a rich and vibrant cultural heritage and the world’s largest film industry. On the other hand, Indian politicians are devoid of vision, the country is home to the world’s largest slums, open defecation is still a major problem and separatist movements rage in various provinces.

These paradoxes have inspired various books, a growing and impassioned literature around the theme, ‘We will be taken seriously!’ A prime example is Frank Brayne’s Socrates in an Indian Village, which employed argumentative dialogue to snap Indian villagers out of their rural complacency. But these efforts are little more than patronising attempts to address what is clearly a deep-rooted psychological abyss.

And this is the final and most pressing critique: the ‘existentialist’ crisis. The reader cannot help but feel that something very important is missing in this book. A detailed accounting of symptoms is certainly a vital and very necessary step towards reform, but as Henry David Thoreau famously commented, for every thousand men hacking at the branches of evil, there is only one striking at the root. We can spend an entire lifetime fire-fighting symptoms, but are we any closer to the real nub of the problem? Patel has only gone halfway — we understand what CH looks like, we recognise its subtle variations — but what truly motivates it?

Chalta hai is not to be underestimated — it encapsulates an entire philosophy of life and spawns a whole host of attendant syndromes. These include the perennial ‘mujhay kya?’; the ‘dekha jaey ga’; and the infamous ‘jugaarrh’.

Various scholars have studied this mindset and advanced a number of theories to account for CH’s paralysing effects. There is burgeoning literature out there on ‘decolonisation’, on recognising and dismantling the strictures of intellectual imperialism from the mind, to confront the world directly and not through the Western lens. The author has ignored this literature entirely — one wonders if he even knows of its existence.

This limitation becomes very apparent in a moment of honest, penetrating depth: Patel narrates the anecdote of a young man lounging in the shade by the roadside. Another man comes along and says, “If you get off your feet, young man, learn new skills and work hard, you will prosper.” “What happens when I prosper?” asks the idler. “You will live a happy life then,” replies the other. The youth responds with a smile, “But I’m already very happy under this beautiful tree.” The interlocutor is caught off guard. He does not have a convincing response for us.

Despite these flaws, however, Chalta Hai India is still a very important book for the present. Patel does not solve the CH riddle for us, but he highlights the syndrome in stunning detail. And, as psychiatrists today like to tell us, if we can name it, we can tame it. With all our incessant discourse of tabdeeli [change], policymakers and activists alike absolutely need to read this book. Chalta hai is the grand bogeyman of PTI’s Naya Pakistan.

Patel has charted out the way for us. For that, at least, we owe him our sincere thanks.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Chalta Hai India: When ‘It’s
Ok’ is Not OK
By Alpesh Patel
Bloomsbury, India
ISBN: 978-9388038669
310pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 31st, 2019