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Public life will never equal the richness of private life: Gurucharan Das

Nov 24, 2018-

 Gurcharan Das is affable, well-spoken and genteel, but behind this urbanity lies a sharp, critical mind, a thinking man who is erudite and eclectic. Over the years, he has been one of India’s finest writers and thinkers, first authoring the seminal India Unbound in 2000 where he charted India’s rise from independence to the information age. He was sharply critical of what he saw as the Nehruvian socialism of the period preceding the 90s and welcomed India’s market reforms as the path to prosperity. Economically, he has been an ardent believer in the power of the market to democratise. But Das is also a philosopher, having trained in philosophy at Harvard before becoming CEO of Procter and Gamble India for 25 years and then finally turning to writing. His most popular book is perhaps The Difficulty of Being Good, which interrogates the Mahabharat and its obsession with ‘dharma’, what Das calls, “responsibility to others”. Troubled by the rampant corruption he saw in India, Das turned to that ancient Hindu epic to find a moral that could serve India in the 21st century. Since then, he’s written a number of books, plays and novels, along with regular newspaper columns. His latest book, Kama: The Riddle of Desire, blends fiction with philosophy, exploring desire—love and lust—through the lens of one protagonist’s life and his sojourns into literature, philosophy and anecdote. Das is currently in Kathmandu for the Nepal Literature Festival’s curtain raiser, to take place today. In a wide-ranging conversation with the Post’s Pranaya SJB Rana, Das spoke freely about India’s economics and its politics, and about the enigma of desire that he explores in his new book. Excerpts:  


You have a background in philosophy, you worked as an executive officer for a multi-national corporation but now you’re a full-time writer. What led you to writing?

I always knew I was going to write. I started as a weekend writer. I wasn’t wealthy so I needed a salary. I got a job in a company. While my colleagues played golf on the weekends, I wrote. I was going to do a PhD in philosophy, I was going to go to Oxford. But then I asked myself, do I want to spend the rest of my life at that stratosphere of abstract thought? So I thought I’d take a year off. My parents couldn’t understand that they had an unemployed son after doing Harvard. Partly to get them off my back, I decided to answer an advertisement and it was for a company that made Vicks Vaporub. I thought it would be for a year or so but like the man who came to dinner, I stayed on. 


But now you’re a full-time writer.

Yes, I am a full-time writer now. 


You’ve written fiction, non-fiction and plays. What prompts you to write? 

I write when something troubles me. After 25 years, when I took retirement from the corporate world, I was 50. The first thing that troubles anyone, especially if you’re an Indian, is poverty. I had questions in my mind. The answers to that was India Unbound, how a poor country can be rich. Second, I was bothered by corruption. So I went back to the Mahabharat since it is very concerned with corruption and dharma. I had written on artha and dharma, so the third thing is something that concerns all of us, desire. Desire bothers us, it causes us pain, it causes us joy. So I decided to explore kama.


What about your fiction?

There’s fiction in this book, Kama. You can’t write about desire without a story. Otherwise, it becomes a dry philosophical treatise. You have to identify with characters. I also wrote a novel about partition, called A Fine Family. I am one of the children of partition, I was four years old. So it was a way to bring some kind of closure to a very painful experience. My family had to run for their lives. I lost my aunt in partition. I think India as a nation is still waiting for that great novel that will bring closure to us. It’s what Tolstoy did with War and Peace. Tolstoy brought closure to the Russian people, of Napoleon’s invasion. 


Do you think fiction has that kind of power—to heal the trauma of an entire nation?

I think so, yes. 


Not non-fiction?

No, not non-fiction. In A Fine Family, the protagonist believes in the one nation theory. My family believed in it and I believed in it. I believed we should never have been divided. But now, 70 years later, I’m not so sure. I feel maybe it was a good idea. Why do I feel that way? I never imagined Islam would turn fundamentalist and that Hinduism would turn towards Hindutva. We have these extremes on both sides. I don’t know if we could have lived together with such extremes. Still, in my heart of hearts, I wish there had been no partition. But the practical thing is that Islam is turning Wahhabi and Hindus are turning towards Hindutva. So I’m resigned to the idea that it would have been very difficult. 

One of the great achievements of India is that it has stayed united in the last 70 years. It’s a great achievement that it’s also continued with democracy. We haven’t had to worry about generals, as many other countries had. We were very lucky that we had a constituent assembly that sat for two years and created India. I think we were created by saints. People like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad. And now we are one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Once we gave up Marxism and socialism, India after 91 began to rise. 1947 was only political independence, we got our economic independence in 91. And in 2018, we got our emotional independence. Why? We’ve had great judgements from the Supreme Court—triple talaaq, a fantastic privacy law, decriminalising homosexuality, decriminalising adultery, the entry of women into temples. And most importantly, #MeToo, a global idea just a year ago from the United States has now spread all around the world. Look at the google map of #MeToo and you will see that there is a movement in Kazakhstan. I’m surprised you don’t have a #MeToo movement in Nepal.


We do, but its building. 

It’s building? That’s good. And it’s not going to go away. This is a historic moment. I’m lucky that I’ve written a book about emotional independence. 


Following up on what you said about how India really only became independent in the 90s, after it let go of socialism and Marxism and embraced a liberal market economy. Do you think the promise of the 90s has borne fruit in the way it was expected to?

The genie came out of the bottle and you can’t put the genie back into the bottle. Entrepreneurship has flowered. We had a rate of growth that I could never have imagined. Between 2003 and 2008, India grew by 8 and a half percent. Population rate came down to 1.4, so it was almost 7 percent per capita. That’s tigerish growth. I think India will continue. We’ve had a downslide, after 2011, but we’re coming back. India will be back at about eight percent. 

The conversation is so often about India and China. China has managed to lift so many of its citizens out of poverty without wholly subscribing to a market economy. 

They subscribed much more to a market economy. They just didn’t subscribe to democracy.

Well, state-sponsored market economy, let’s say.

That’s right. But still, they allowed the signals of the market economy to make decisions. They created incentive systems within the government so that their civil servants were rewarded for market success. For Nepal, it’s a very simple thing. You are sitting between two of the fastest growing economies in the world. You should hitch your star to both and go to glory. 


In the 90s, Nepal tried to do what India did. The same liberalisation and opening up of its markets. But we haven’t seen nearly the same kind of growth and success as India. What do you think Nepal has done wrong?

Nepal hasn’t gone far enough. India is farther along. It’s a work in progress but you still have a communist party ruling Nepal—although it’s a very strange animal your communist party—they don’t really believe in the market. Even in India, the market is very hard to follow, because as Adam Smith said, it’s the invisible hand. Voters cannot see the invisible hand. Even in India, people feel that the reforms made the rich richer and the poor poorer. But the reality is very different. There’s a difference between being pro-market and being pro-business. Pro-market means you believe in competition so you go around looking at all your sectors to see if there is enough competition. Businessmen hate competition. Every businessman wants a monopoly. So the answer is enlightened regulation, so you have competition, which lowers costs, lowers prices, improves quality of products, helps everyone. Pro-business is like pro-socialism, because the government has the power to give licences. And that’s when you get cronyism. 


You seem to have a lot of faith in the market. But in countries like Nepal and India, where there are so many institutional barriers, like gender, caste, ethnicity, can the market really operate as intended?

The market is the one that equalises them all. If a woman is really good at running a business, they will know exactly her value. They won’t care if she’s a woman or what caste she is. She will go right to the top. Similarly, a low-caste person, if he is a genius at software, that person goes to the top. It is the market that values meritocracy. After all, the job of a company is to make a profit. Why should they care who it is? Smart companies are blind when it comes to gender and caste. The best way to promote democracy and real equality is through the market. 

That seems very utopian.

No, that’s only because you’ve grown up learning a kind of economics that’s been taught by Marxists. That was also the case with me. India only rose after the reform. Before the reform, everybody was equal but everybody was poor. So you can have that. Everybody can be poor. 

Let’s talk a little bit about the neighbourhood. When Narendra Modi came to power, he had a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. 

But he hasn’t lived up to it and anti-India sentiment has actually risen in Nepal, especially since the blockade of 2015.

Absolutely. Our first priority should be our neighbourhood. If our neighbours are our friends, it’s a source of strength. When Modi first came here, his first two speeches, he won the hearts of Nepalis. But he took his eyes off the ball. The only bigger mistake he made was demonetisation. Otherwise he’s done very good things also, I’m not one of those knee-jerk anti-Modi types. As an economist, I think he’s done a lot for the economy. 


So Modi has been good for India, economically?

I would give him a B+.

That’s a good grade.

Yes. He’s done a lot of good things for the economy. One of the best things he’s done is he’s made everything digital and that has reduced corruption. That’s why India’s ranking has risen, in the ease of doing business, from 142 to 77. And it may well go to 50. Technology is the best corruption fighter. It creates a barrier between the corrupt civil servant and the citizen. 


How would you evaluate Modi culturally and socially?

I would give him a D or an F. This polarisation is very bad. The threat to India is not from outside, not from China or Pakistan. The threat is from within. Today, we have one of the most moderate Muslim populations in the world. Wahhabism has not worked. The investors in madrasas, Saudi Arabian investors, they say what’s wrong with Indian Muslims, why aren’t they converting to Wahhabism? India only sent 21 people to ISIS. Britain sent over a thousand, France sent over a thousand. But if this polarisation continues, we will lose that. 

Let’s talk about your books. Your first book, India Unbound, was about artha or material well-being. Then, The Difficulty of Being Good was about dharma, or responsibility to others and now Kama: The Riddle of Desire is about emotions, the personal. There seems to be a kind of inward trajectory here. 

We are all happy to talk about politics and everything else but when it comes to the emotional life, we shove it under the carpet. A healthy emotional life is the foundation of a healthy nation. EM Forster wrote a book of essays called Two Cheers for Democracy. People asked him why two cheers, why not three cheers, and he said, I reserve three cheers only for the private emotional life. Public life will never equal the richness of private life.  

India is the only civilisation that raised desire to a goal of life. Unlike Christianity, where desire is associated with original sin, with guilt and shame, our ancients realised that desire is the source of all action. Desire is the source of creation and procreation. In the Bible, it says in the beginning was light. The Rig Veda says in the beginning was kama and the cosmos was created in the seed of kama in the mind of the one. They even created a god called Kama. I’m trying to create a movement in India to rename Valentine’s day to Kama Deva Diwas. That will take the steam out of the Hindutvas. 

What happened? Why have we become so prudish?

In India, we blame the British and their Victorian middle class morals. But the answer is that we always have ambivalence about desire. While we have the Kama optimists, who created the god Kama and wrote the Kama Sutra, we also have the Kama pessimists, people who are rishis and yogis. For them, kama is an obstacle to spirituality. If you read the Buddhacarita, my god, the view of women, it’s terrible. And the Jains are even worse. We had a whole strand of Kama pessimists who believed in celibacy. Even Gandhi. But sensible people asked how will we perpetuate the human race if we all become celibate. So then we have the kama realists. They say sex is all right if it is within marriage. So all cultures come to that conclusion. Essentially, they create boundaries. 


What then is the difference between romantic love and erotic love?

In the Kama Sutra is erotic love and it is where you don’t get involved. Most people make the mistake in believing that the Kama Sutra is a book of sexual positions. It’s not. It’s actually a book of manners. It teaches you that if you want to be socially successful, don’t talk about yourself; talk about the other person, talk about her. If you want to be socially successful, don’t speak in Sanskrit, speak in the language of the people, her language, Prakrit. Otherwise, she’ll think you’re a show-off. The third lesson is if you’re out to seduce her, make sure she gets pleasure first, before you get pleasure. The best line in the Kama Sutra: if you are kissed, kiss back. But that would be a problem in these #MeToo times. What I’m trying to say is that there is a lightheartedness. 

Published: 24-11-2018 11:46

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