Indians as Innovators: The (In)flexibility of the Subcontinental Mind

Indians as Innovators: The (In)flexibility of the Subcontinental Mind

I once confessed to a half-Punjabi American friend that, when making a paneer dish, I substituted tofu for the fatty Indian cheese (n.b. I’m American-born, artistic, and have lived in California for many years during my life). She laughed and told me that her mother does the same. That Indians are extremely innovative is highly visible in this day and age, from the highest echelons of corporate leadership (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was recently featured in an article on Microsoft in Vanity Fair, and Pepsi’s CEO is Tamilian Indra Nooyi) to Salman Rushdie’s whimsical language in his novels to the stunning artwork of Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander to Bose’s top-notch audio products to even fictionalized chefs (as in the film “The Hundred Foot Journey”). And of course, there is that uniquely subcontinental art form that is seen (and even imitated or parodied) in the most remote corners of the world, that pastiche of drama, music, dancing, and entertainment known as Bollywood. While film was a medium pioneered by the French and even Americans, Indians took it and made it their own.

Some of this innovation lies in the subcontinent’s colonial history: the British colonialists certainly imposed many of their habits, customs, structures, and certainly their language upon India (which at that time encompassed most all of the different countries that comprise the subcontinent today). To drive the British out, the Indians had to come up with a variety of strategies, and eventually they succeeded. Indians–for better or for worse–ended up adopting the English language and making it uniquely their own. It is one of 2 official languages in India, and India is one of the world’s top producers of English-language materials. There are many expressions, intonations, and word choices that would make a native speaker from one of the main Anglophone countries positively cringe or laugh! But one cannot laugh too much when one realizes that some of the world’s greatest writers in English fiction today are Indian.

I would argue also that poverty plays a role in India’s innovation. Poverty, coupled with lax or unenforced regulations, make for a large sector of cottage industries. A man with a wooden box, a hammer, some nails, and strips of leather can sit under a tree and run a successful business as a cobbler. Leftover newspapers can pack up anything from saris to vegetable fritters that are bundled into neat parcels. And the saddest example of innovation is the poor people who might take a burlap sack and make a tent along a public wall, thereby creating their “home.”

India is incredibly diverse in terms of cultures, for there are countless languages, styles of clothing, cuisines, and religions. These also converge to make interesting hybrids. Indo-Chinese food, for example, has been the rage in the US for the past 15 years, and its origins are supposedly in Kolkata, where Chinese populations Indianized their dishes with a variety of spices and seasonings that were particular to their host country. Many companies in India, such as the socially-conscious Anokhi, design Western wear with Indian fabrics and details.

Sometimes this innovation and flexibility can have its serious problems. Any visitor to the subcontinent will tell you that traffic is beyond unruly: it is anarchy. People assume that because they have an internalized sense of how to do things, they do not need to follow external rules. This is one of the detriments to Indian progress. Some people may strongly disagree with this statement, but there would also be an equal number of people who would agree. There is a stubbornness that even runs into arrogance in the Indian’s unwillingness to follow rules.

But with all this innovation, creativity, and adaptivity, why does India and why can many Indians both in India and abroad seem so–well, inflexible? Why are there set career paths that are considered “acceptable” as opposed to others? Why are certain social conventions still blindly observed, even when they are injurious?

I would suggest a combination of the following:

-Much schooling in India still follows a very outdated British, rote system that has not evolved. The lack of a true liberal arts foundation, both in secondary and university education, inhibits the growth of complex thinking. Some might argue that the lack of connection to the Western Canon might also be a contributing factor, but at the same time, India is not of the West. Thus, we cannot entirely judge the Indian system from a Western point of view. But still, if knowledge follows what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire dubbed the “banking model of education” (where students are merely empty beings in which education is deposited), how can that lead to independent, flexible minds?

-As a corollary to the above, there is a lack of arts education for children. Naturally, a large factor in this is poverty. But there is also a strong emphasis on math and science, which in and of itself is a very good thing; it needs to be balanced by the arts. India is a world leader in science and technology/STEM fields, but it has come at the cost of balance in the student’s mindset. Were more Indians trained in the social sciences, and where the social sciences more respected, this could help develop the country and create more of the infrastructure that it direly needs.

-The Asian tradition of not talking back to elders and arguing in the classroom. This is one of the most salient traits that educators here in the US notice about Indian and other Asian students who come here to study. It is also something that people who have grown up in the West (even those of Indian origin) notice about the Indian classroom. If students are taught to toe the party line, there can be no discussion. And it is only out of discussion that a variety of ideas can emerge.  There are pockets of change happening in the Indian classroom: I visited IIT Ahmedabad earlier this year, and had the great privilege of sitting in on a class that a professor friend was teaching. My professor friend did her graduate work in the United States, and was therefore able to create a cross-cultural exchange with American methodology of group work and open class discussion.

-Gender segregation and discrimination. The roots of this problem run very deep in Indian society. Much schooling is still gender segregated, and therefore, men’s perception of women becomes very idealized or objectified (especially in a culture of beautiful Bollywood screen goddesses), rather than seen as realistic, natural, and concrete. Countless Indian women still face challenges with being taken as an equal, especially in male-dominated fields like mechanical engineering, and this is both on a societal level as well as a familial level. If half the people are left out of the dialogue, if rural and poor women are encouraged to get married young over studying, this is going to contribute to a very narrow mindset that benefits nobody.

-The fight for jobs in a country of one billion. Where one’s survival is a daily battle, even when one is wealthy, the need for “practical” education in professions that are going to earn one a living, such as computer science, accounting, civil service, or medicine is key. The mentality is “We can’t change the system,” and therefore one has to ensure one’s welfare. Sheer numbers always make for rigid systems in order to accommodate the volume of people. We see this here even in the United States in large universities, where large classes in popular subjects have to operate in a very mechanical manner. This is amplified in India, where the caste system has for centuries dictated people’s jobs and labor categories. The implications of one’s caste are social, political, and labor-related. Again, this is a major structural problem in Indian society.

-Ironically, poverty is also a big factor in this, though it is a factor in innovation. While the poor may be able to innovate on some level to be able to survive, the lack of money and funds naturally drives people’s job choices and limits their education and opportunities. The arts and creativity are, inevitably, a luxury. In some situations, there also may be an element of fear or the threat of violence behind people’s motivations and choices; to challenge the status quo or to express oneself may result in mockery, harassment, retaliation, or–at its worst–death.

These are just a few factors behind the problem of inflexibility. Given these factors, it is all the more remarkable when we see Indian innovators in all fields who have overcome many obstacles and broken through barriers to achieve their goals. Certainly, in many cases, the lack of poverty and the presence of wealth have helped these individuals accomplish great things. So here is yet another case for the importance of improving education and alleviating poverty in developing countries. It’s a much more worthwhile investment than war, arms, and the military-industrial complex.

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