We live in bewildering times. As India rushes into its eighth decade of independence the sense of hope and purpose one would expect in a young democracy is clouded by a disorienting and debilitating confusion about ends and means. Where have we come from and where are we headed? What should be the guiding principles of our life and our nation’s life? There is no shortage of answers. Pundits, academics, gurus, politicians, journalists and laypeople contribute to the cacophony of opinions, comments and prescriptions that often overwhelm, sometimes comfort, but rarely enlighten us. Sane and sensible voices can occasionally be heard, but are often overwhelmed by the din of national, and nationalistic, discourse.
One man’s attempt to know himself has provided answers to some of the questions that nag us. They appear in the form of a book The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities by Namit Arora. It is a collection of 15 well-crafted essays, all on contemporary India, neatly divided into four sections but united in that they all explore the question of social inequality. The work is the result of an intellectual journey undertaken with determination and one marked by curiosity, intelligence, compassion, a love of justice, a steadfast refusal to accept easy answers or to kid himself, courage, immense honesty and a cool ability to confront facts, rare, one might add, in his fellow-countrymen.
The first section, ‘The Experience of Inequality’ looks at the lives of some of the marginalised as they have been recorded in recent literature. The first is a sensitive reading of Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan. The blight of caste, the sheer historical weight and pervasiveness of its reach and the protean forms of cruelty and oppression it brings to the life of dalits is remarkably rendered in Valmiki’s book. Arora ends his careful reading with this tribute: “I’m inclined to see his memoir as a form of Satyagraha: in reflecting back to others their own violence and injustice, it attempts to shame them into introspection.” ‘The Terrain of Indignities’, while an examination of the life and work of Ajay Navaria, academic and author of Unclaimed Terrain, neatly snuffs out Salman Rushdie’s smug assertion that the best of Indian writing can be found in Indian Writing in English. ‘Beyond Man and Woman’ looks at the life of
Revathi, a hijra, and explores the history of the third sex in Indian culture. Indian tradition accommodated them, but imported and domestic puritanism, the instruments of the modern state and contemporary prejudices have combined to deny them space and justice.
In sketching the contours of institutionalised cruelty as they bear down on the marginalised, Arora displays a fine understanding of how the elites, and the political and religious ideologies that underpin the attitude of those elites, operate and how distant these are from the requirements of a modern, liberal state. His own position at the other end of the spectrum–he comes from the heart of the establishment, upper-crust, affluent, English speaking, IIT-educated, California-returned–does not blind him to any of these or distort his vision.
The second section, ‘The Architecture of Inequality’, is a penetrating analysis of Hinduism, particularly of the central role of the caste system. Along the way, Arora looks at how the British export, parliamentary democracy, premised on the notion of equality of all citizens, has fared under the most inegalitarian of all major religions, Hinduism. He bluntly confronts the issue of reservation and, while tackling the arguments usually cast against it, makes a calm and neat case for more inclusiveness as healthy for everyone in a democracy. Arora notes how superficially modern most of the elite in India are and how wide-spread and deeply internalised are ideas of hierarchy and caste privilege, which are both racist and retrograde. He exposes the speciousness of the arguments against reservations, advances the case for new arts and ideas that must shape a more robust Indian identity but leaves the question of whether India democracy is getting sicker or more healthy unanswered. Liberalisation has helped only a minority of dalits. So bad is the situation that Arora thinks blacks in America are better off than dalits in India.
The best essay in this section, and one of the most powerful and penetrating in the whole book, is titled ‘The Moral Universe of the Bhagavat Gita’. A cautious delineation of the origin of Indians epics and puranas and a description of the historical context of the text is followed by a perspicuous analysis of its content and its impact on India and Indians. The Gita’s central vision and its dominant ethics are important to Arora. Should it be the moral guide to our lives? He observes how its discovery and elevation by the early Orientalists played a significant part in the trajectory of its reception. He notes how Gandhi, D D Kosambi, B R Ambedkar and other commentators saw and treated it. He examines the Buddhist and Nagarjunan traditions and their critique of the core ideas of Hinduism, critiques that, for Arora, are still valid two millennia after they were originally made. The Gita is, he states, a part of a rich, complex and beautiful literary work, The Mahabharata. Arora then comes up with his unambiguous verdict on the work. The Gita is “an overrated text” with a “deplorable morality at its core”. One should “confront it” and Arora’s chosen method of doing so is to describe its dubious content and to explain why it is so dubious. Should one’s quest for “inner peace” and need to attain “union with the Brahman” make one ignore the consequences of one’s actions, particularly when they are painful for other people? No, says Arora. The kind of moral detachment it recommends reflects “the anti-humanistic sensibility that pervades the Gita.” “This is the kind of moral detachment”, Arora states, “that makes moral villains out of men.”
If his dismissal of the ethical claims made on behalf of the Gita are not strong enough, Arora revisits the Buddhist and Carvaka arguments against some of the ideas at the core of Hinduism. Krishna advocates cultivating a mind free of delusions. The Buddha had pointed out, centuries earlier, that the notion of Brahman itself was “a grand delusion.” The Carvakas had taught, again centuries earlier, that “good and evil are only social conventions”and that the concept of an eternal soul or atma was just an incoherent claim. To base a morality on such dubious foundations, Arora suggests, is self-serving and wrong. The consequences of accepting such a dubious morality have been devastating for India. The Gita is a “highly conservative tract, aligning itself with orthodoxy, authority, and hierarchy.” It is “a poor moral guide” and the wonder is that educated Indians adore it as some unerring guide to morality. Maybe they have not read it or not read it critically enough. Or, maybe, they are blinded by faith.
The third section, ‘The Intersections of Inequality’, has an essay ‘Decolonising the Mind’ that dismisses the claims of English, except for the purpose of being a link language. An earlier essay on Delhi had already demonstrated that the author is no colonial stooge–he uses statistics and data to show that, when it comes to rape, Delhi is far safer for women than some of the famous cities of the west; Boston, for instance. An essay on distributive justice focusses on the situation in America and concludes that society there is far from egalitarian. Little will change, he concludes, because most Americans are under a nearly religious spell that makes them accept inequalities, even iniquitous ones, as natural. There obviously is a warning for all of us in India in that observation.
B R Ambedkar looms large over the last section of the book, ‘The Discourse of Inequality’. There is a fair and balanced assessment of Ambedkar’s role in shaping modern India. It should be obvious to any thinking person, Arora says, that no “other leader of the 20 th century is as relevant to every dream of a just, modern, liberal, secular, humane, and democratic society in India today.” Why is it that this is not recognised by the bulk of our intellectuals? Arora concludes that it is because “… the upper castes and their intellectuals have not yet done the kind of soul-searching necessary to embrace his ideas, which require a kind of interrogation of ingrained habits of mind, sense of identity, and reflexive pride in Hindu civilization.” Those who refuse to engage with Ambedkar and his ideas, he avers, are limiting their intellectual emancipation.
Arora reviews S Anand’s ‘critical edition’ of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste in ‘The Rationalist and the Romantic.’ Nuanced and subtle (and fun), it exposes some of the ironies and contradictions in Arundhati Roy’s essay, ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, the piece that drew attention to the Navayana edition. Cultural criticism of this type is spread over a dangerous terrain, with traps and land-mines even the most alert, well-intentioned and competent of scholars cannot avoid. Arora understands and sympathises. There is no gloating or bitterness in reporting on some of the less than friendly reactions both Anand and Roy faced in bringing out the book. He astutely records and comments on the gaps and problems Roy ignores in both her criticism of Ambedkar and, more importantly, her understanding of the roots of modernity. Roy’s own utopia, Arora points out, is “reminiscent more of Gandhi than Ambedkar.” In spite of her inability to offer solutions to the problems posed by modernity and her weakness for “a formless nostalgia for the pre-modern”, he ends by lauding her effort, if only because it has led to meaningful discussions.
The Lottery of Birth ought to lead to many meaningful discussions. But this reviewer feels that it may not happen. The indifference and/or silent hostility of the pundit class may bury it. In a land of the smug consumerist and the aggressive nationalist, who will want the thoughtful, the considerate, the historically aware, the nuanced and the just? Academics ought to be interested, particularly those in the social sciences or humanities. But they pay little attention to the outsider. They may not appreciate his prose–lucid, logical and direct–or the fact that Arora is anchored in facts and does not just present a set of interpretations.
Which would be a shame. If young Indians, or even older ones, are looking for a moral compass, the attitudes Arora brings to his thought and writing can form its core. The effort behind this volume must have been enormous and it deserves to be appreciated, as should the efforts of the publisher, Three Essays Collective, who has taken care with the editing and production and made the book a pleasure to hold, behold and read. From the painting on the cover to the helpful arrangement of notes and lack of typos, everything is a joy.
The depth of learning, the impeccable logic, the range of references and the pellucid writing are not the only things that dazzle us; there is a rare lack of cynicism or bitterness and a moderation of tone that impresses too. One wants more. What does Mr Arora think, one feels like asking, about anthropomorphic climate change, GM crops, our disappearing wildlife, demonetisation, the cracker ban, social media…? One could go on and on. No, Mr Arora is not an oracle and never adopts the tone of one. But in hoping for more from his pen one is only paying a tribute (if I may repeat myself) to knowledge, reason, humanity, love of justice, hope for a fairer world, the good argument, and the coming together of these in a book of astonishing excellence, on topics vital to us all. Bravo!
The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities by Namit Arora is published by Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, and priced at Rs 395/.