A visit to India helped a French family, already disillusioned with Western materialism, to ask their hosts: 'Will you demonstrate the different approach we need?'
by Gérard Gigand
Two young men, Jean-François (15) and Etienne (13) were the pretext for Véronique and Gérard, their parents, to accompany them on a month-long stay in India. A year before, in 2001, the decision was taken at home in France as a family to extract a month out of our busy lives to go there. That meant daring to make a break from college, high school and professional work. Both our sons worked in order to invest money into this venture.
The aim was clearly not to flee from our French lives which we enjoy, but to ask the Indians we would meet about issues that are common to both our worlds. For instance: how to practice democracy? How to deal with poverty? What makes community relations harmonious? What is life all about? We also hoped of course, to enjoy Indian cooking, beautiful sceneries, animal life as well as outstanding building architecture, museum and historical features. So we started preparing ourselves, studying English, seeing films on India, studying books, major historical events and basic geographical facts about this country. Then came the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. This made our project even more topical.
What is it like not to feel Western? What makes people react so strongly against our ways of doing things? How is our world looked upon from outside? How do our culture and ways relate to other experiences of life? How is India affected by this event and in what way? Such were our sons’ and our own questions. As a family we express self-criticism of our economic system and this event was without precedent in that it was felt as deeply by the generation of our sons as by that of their parents. So we set out to India not knowing, as Etienne and Jean-François said, “how we would come back” – in terms of the image we had of ourselves. Throughout our stay, the deep exchanges with people have been numerous. As Véronique and I had been to India several times before, we could measure the dynamism of this big country, the development of roads, the growing number of nice new cars, the countless and original buildings springing up everywhere.
A population of a billion people is something that impressed us very much and accordingly the ability of the farming industry not only to feed everybody but to export food. In the same way, the big scale irrigation schemes have filled entire valleys with lush green. We sensed a powerful love of country and a stronger collective identity since we were here for the first time thirty years ago. We were impressed by the intelligent mastering of computers and software technology. We were full of admiration of the fact that Indians hold the highest positions in some of our main industries in the heart of Europe. We acknowledged the commonsense and inventiveness of the people in the street, their humour and the tremendous capacity to put up with their neighbour in spite of unbelievably crowded conditions. We could fathom the deep mutual acceptance of the various communities. We met again with the spotless cleanliness of people whatever their conditions of living. We also benefited from the legendary hospitality of the people of India including from those living in the extremely simple houses of the farming people.
It was in fact our Indian hosts who humbly reminded us of the problems of their country: unacceptable extremes of poverty, difficulty in storing food, explosions of communal violence, health, illiteracy and housing problems, uncontrolled population growth. We came with the simple decision not to compare but to appreciate. We came conscious of the fact that several earlier visits only add to our awareness that we know nothing about this subcontinent country. We came to add another eye to our one-sightedness in order to acquire perspective on the landscape of life. We accompanied our sons on their first real venture outside their home country and were available to help in their discovery that their world was anything but universal.
Be it with cricket in the past, the way to Independence more recently or the software industry in the present time, India is showing her capacity for beating other people at their own game. Yet India seems to have an ambivalous attitude towards the West. The Western world seems to fascinate the younger generation and at the same time, no outside influence seems ever to be able to deflect the millions of India from their centuries-old path. To end with, we have a question and a proposition. I love my country France and the culture it belongs to. Yet I have a deep question about our conception of life. We have come to the point where we conceive of only one approach: that of everlasting economic progress. This implies world domination conducted by a soldier called “General Growth”.
The consequence is that everybody will have to wear a uniform consisting of a tie and a jacket. This conquest is advancing fast throughout the world until the planet’s culture will be reduced to only one model. This is happening all the more efficiently since the individual falls easily for it because of the short-term advantages it carries. Then, soon enough, economic success is equated with God and good. Now it is an absolute must that more people can feed themselves thanks to technological advances. It would be foolish to stop that – although a better sharing of the world’s resources would have fed everybody long since. But everlasting economic growth as a compelling, self-sustaining motivation generates a loss of identity as we see here, through the limitless potential power it gives. It condemns in the short term all the other approaches to life that do not comply with the conquering model.
Life and variety are one and the same thing. Killing variety jeopardises life. When the planes ran into the Towers in New York, the wind of the bullet was felt by everybody in the Western world. Hence the unanimous reaction of solidarity, although there is a lot of criticism of America’s economic extremism over here. The enemy is not the Moslem world, it is within us. The accusation of jealousy is a very shallow one even if it exists. The reduction of life to one model is a peril that is far more lethal to us and everybody, than the communist empire or any other explicit dictatorship have ever been to us. My question to my Indian friends is: In that realm of everlasting growth, will you want to beat us at our own game, as you are no doubt capable of, drawing on yourselves the same consequences? On the contrary, can you find within you the roots of a self-asserting, healthy originality that needs neither to crush an enemy’s planes into his symbolic buildings nor to go along a purely one-track-minded economic approach to life? The diagnosis is not only moral, it is biological. The Western idea of growth equates with cancer. We are now controlled by the tools we have developed. Although life still has wonderful sides, freedom within us will soon become the main issue. Soon after our arrival in India, a friend said to us: “What strikes us about the West is your technological ability to kill and destroy on a massive scale. In Asia, we do kill each other but we have never reached such efficiency!” The West’s basic motto is “Mastering”. That leads us on a linear track like a missile. India’s tradition goes along a cycle. Our driving symbol since the Roman empire is the motorway. Yours is a wheel. Constant progress makes us guilty slaves of time. Your ancient wisdom emphasises duration. We always speak in terms of targets. Your culture underlines relationships as the heart of creation. Of course everything is mixed up and India is no paradise but I am now certain that she is a necessary partner.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.