The past has receded away quickly in my short life in the two nations I know best: India and the United States. America and India have changed immeasurable since I was a child. India was the place of poverty and shame while America was unquestionably in charge. In the 10 years since 2000, the U.S. has declined further and further while the American Dream packs itself up and moves itself to Asia. I would like to share what I have observed with the coming of the New and the withdrawal of the Old for both countries.
Last month I rounded with an attending physician who was a throwback to a recently-departed era. He was an infectious disease doctor who had practiced in a medium-sized town in Texas for two decades before returning to academia. To my mind, he struck as what the paleontologists call a “living fossil.” The good doctor can best be summarized as the “Old Texas”, and he embodies an era and attitude more thoroughly than anyone I have met in recent years.
The Old Texas talks of faith, miracles, conservative values, and slow but steady honest work. It is suspicious of the new and the morally questionable. It puts its certainties into received wisdom, common sense and the good books of (pre-revisionist) history and the Bible.
His world is Tommy Lee Jones lamenting to another sheriff in No Country for Old Men that when you stop hearing “sir and ma’am” society is bound to fail. He asks, “Who could have foreseen good ol’ American boys and girls with green hair and noserings in the golden days?” Well, the New Texas has space for them and more.
And if the Old Texas couldn’t foresee witchcraft, tattoos, and hip hop, it certainly could not have foreseen he would be rounding with a team consisting of a Jordanian, an Indian, a Vietnamese, a Nigerian, and only two “regular” white Americans. The team rounded with was decidedly the “New Texas.” It is urban, multiracial, globally-connected, and with less deference to the past. The New Texas is also decidedly more and less educated with more college graduates and more high school dropouts.
His was the land of segregation, but the land of 90% income tax rates. His was the land of feudal Democratic Party bosses who controlled rural and South Texas where democracy was a joke that was bought and sold with an ease that would make the Carter Center blush. The New Texas has real and full democracy for all races, but somehow that makes it much less appealing and interesting. In New Texas, no one knows what our place is. In the Old Texas, we did but it meant we had to rigidly fit in the hierarchy of history, race, and gender.
As the New Texas bumpily moves into the future, we cast such restrictions behind. But by the wayside we leave prudence, common courtesy, family values, and sound financial planning as it stares into its iPhone, oblivious to its surroundings.
The Old India still exuded the colonial British India at times. This was the India of Ambassador cars, the spiritual satisfaction of the movie Gandhi, and centuries of rural life unchanged by millenia of changes in superficial things like maharajahs, colonial governments, and the modern Republic. Where cinematic kisses were as unthinkable as general prosperity.
The New India jumps from the glossy pages of TIME, proclaiming a middle class nation with a computer screen glow that shines away the darknesses of hunger, illiteracy, and the Naxalite war. Now the children of shepards are being sent to school. Not just to read and write in Kannada but in English. The hysteria and pressure for education and a good engineering college can be seen from Times of India advertisements for after school tuitions and the fantastic movie Three Idiots.
Yet despite the contradictions and hype of India’s successes, the motherland is a nation on the make. As the American Dream fades so the Indian Dream begins. The American Dream meant millions of immigrants rising above their birth in the old European class hierarchy by leaving for America. It’s now a nation of rising inequality and increasing classism, fearful of the world around it while ignoring the fundamentals that made it a great nation. The Indian Dream is to rise above millennia of caste hierarchy and rural isolation to a world of merit and hard work and just rewards for good work. It too is starting to forget and disdain its past, as Americans do.
Funny how much can change in twenty-five years.