There are no slums in India

There are no slums in India: The Politics of Design and the Need for Disruptive Thinking Today

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be here today – and thankful to all the persons who made this happen. I am particularly thankful that such a place like this exists. It must be wonderful to devote one’s energies to a cause one believes in, and be supported in one’s journeys of expression.

To be honest, preparing for this talk has not been without some apprehension and a healthy dose of anxiety.

You see, I checked you up.

According to my most disinterested sources, ThoughtWorks happens to be the hardest tech company to get into – outranking Google, Facebook and Amazon in ‘geekery’. By implication, anyone that gets in here must necessarily be extremely ‘smart’ – in the popular ways we understand „smartness‟. I mean, what do you say to people who spend their waking moments solving complex problems and saving the world? What do you say to people who probably laugh at the most abstruse concepts, and have a hard time understanding why anyone doesn’t get quantum physics? How do you impress a geek – talk less of an entire community of them? How do I escape this day without sounding stupid?

In answering these nerve-racking questions, I remind myself of a cherished quote from one of my favourite authors, Judith Halberstam: “Stupidity does not only function to blot out knowledge; it functions to produce knowledge in a different way. Stupidity is not what stands in the way of wisdom, it actually is another way of having wisdom.” Nothing concretizes disruptive thinking in an arena of established knowledges like stupidity – and this is the gift I bring you today: the privilege of a different perspective; the poetically effulgent radiance of a preferable path; an invitation to see with new eyes.

I consider myself a storyteller-poet – broken, self-contradictory, biased, and mostly incapable of seeing the world as a billiard board of rolling facts and inscribed figures, instead of a field of play and powerful possibilities. Hence, my words are not designed as Newtonian landmarks. My understanding is not absolute. My thoughts represent one way of seeing and reading the world, and – as all other perspectives – they are replete with hasty generalizations, problematic silences and pretensions to completeness. The stories I share and concerns I express will however hopefully offer an opportunity to revisit our experiences, to deconstruct the givens that rule our landscapes, and critique the assumptions by which we frame our livelihoods and projects of emancipation. I speak about the politics of design, the notions of problems and solutions, and the not-so-obvious imperative for disruptive thinking today. But let‟s begin with the obvious. You may have a hard time noticing it, but I am distinctly Indian – and I can prove it! While I may not have tamed my culinary peculiarities to the task of eating rice soaked in a pool of curds, or mastered the strange yet earnest habit of wobbling my head in every communicative context, or at least learned the fluid, explosive festival of double-entendres that is the Tamil tongue, I can claim – like most Indian men can – to be married to an Indian lady. Her name is Ej, and she means more than the world to me. With most Indian men, I share a throbbing passion for my wife, whose life force and intense beauty drew me into the magical landscapes of this beautiful country. Moreover, on the 10th of July, just a few days ago, in a warm maternity home in Chennai, we became first-time parents to a euphorically joyful little girl, Alethea, whose very first act of nationalistic fervor was a shriek that everybody swore sounded like a proper Tamil word! We are so blessed to be young parents to Alethea, and look forward to a beautiful life of continuous enchantments and blessings. Additionally, I am Indian because I share your land‟s romantic sense of diversity and liberating playfulness. I come from a land of harsh binaries – where it seems the most distinct landmarks are the lines drawn in the sand between eternally opposing sides. I was brought up a Pentecostal Christian, and taught to think of the world as a battleground between good and evil. My earliest aspirations were to become an apologist with intellectual resources so profound that I would show, once and for all, that being a Christian was existentially superior to being anything else. As such, I studiously applied my youthful energies to the study of…well, everything. As a 3 teenaged psychology sophomore, I wrote a 216-page book explaining why science and rationality were actually supportive of the theistic argument, and debunked macro-evolutionary evidence for the Australopithecus genus. I became an intellectual dilettante of some sort – studying quantum mechanics, chemistry, archaeology, history and philosophy as a pastime – hoping to somehow arrive at a complete, interdisciplinary answer to my most provocative inquiries. My silent mantra was to keep asking questions – to keep digging until I passed through the sediments of popular opinions, through the layers of convenient doctrines, through the buried streams of profound insights, until I arrived at the burning molten core of irrefutable truth. It was during my years of training as a clinical psychologist and my encounters with my clients that I started to truly listen to the counterarguments of my doubts. I started to get uncomfortable with institutionalized religion, with claims to exclusive truth, with reality as stasis. My inner streams of beauty reached out to notions of a universe as a participatory playground, not as a militarized warzone between right and wrong. Soon I started to deconstruct my experiences, to re-examine the ways I had been conditioned to understand my world, to see my seeing. And true to my doubts, I never arrived at the existential heart of things as I had once hoped I would. Instead, my digging brought me to a strange place; my head popped out of the ground and beheld a milky sky, the dancing motifs of a blue-painted cowherd boy whose deepest legend was that he flouted his own rules as a pre-existent lord, and the stirringly emphatic drumming of spirited music. And thus it was the case that I was smitten by India‟s stern magic – never to recover again. The frozen flame of the bindi, the subtle triumph of a Diwali candle, the powdery spiritualties and dancing statues, the spice-scented streets and milkstained skies became my awakening. I suppose one last thing makes me Indian – and it must be the alarming concern I feel for her. Ladies and gentlemen, something awful is happening to this enchanted country. Unlike my Indian-ness, this awful thing is not so obvious; in fact it is invisible – and therein lies its great power. Only re-enchanted eyes will notice the terrible harm that is wrought against India‟s gift cultures when a spanking new shopping mall erupts from the ground. Only re-animated hearts will bleed when it is announced that Wal-Mart is opening other retail outlets across the country. Only decolonized minds will be suspicious of the much touted benefits of industrialized farming and genetically modified foods. India‟s landscapes are being altered dramatically. India is losing her soul. 4 I look at the dancing frescos and blue-skinned deities that shape the homes and public spaces of India – and worry that they are becoming mere shadows evoking rituals, not the free flowing storytelling portals of wisdom they used to be. Thanks to the metanarrative of infinite growth, the monoculture of modern development and statehood, and the continued McDonaldization of Indian culture, this country is quickly losing all of its magic and unique heritages. The colourful myths and archetypal stories that sacralized Indian cultures are becoming dead frescos – sterile images of pink elephants and adorned monkeys, whose voices are being dinned out by the cacophony of progress. Everybody now speaks about the wonderful prospects of India becoming the next world power. The starting pistol has fired its rallying cry; the race is on – as India strives to join the league of Japan, China and the US. There are whispered promises that if India amps up the game she is currently playing, she will eventually become a nuclear presence, an economic juggernaut, with bragging rights to hoodwink her north-easterly neighbours, and a seat on the Security Council. With the recent announcement of the construction of 2500 model schools across the country, and the exultant declaration that poverty levels have dropped to an alltime low of 22%, there is a growing crusade to continue to rid India of illiteracy, to build more bridges, attract foreign investment, and strengthen her consumer base. It does not end there, now attention has once again turned to the protracted topic of upgrading Indian slums – and saving the people who live in them. Two years ago, I, in the company of my wife and her family, visited a slum in Chennai – with the same self-righteous intention. I had heard that this slum was, as other slums, quite unsanitary, incredibly poor, and needing the assistance of the outside world. As is the case when I visit a new place, I primed my mind to hold these stereotypes at bay, and prepared myself to be surprised by what I would find. I wasn‟t disappointed. Yes, in my eyes, there were many unsavory features of the place. I was led to many areas in the slum that constituted a threat to wholesome and healthy living. And yet, there were many other things about the people in the slum that were equally remarkable and easily missed. I found in that slum a sense of community and interconnectedness, a feeling of shared destinies. I found an aliveness that was palpably missing in the humdrum of city life. The anonymity and disillusionment of modern life seemed far away in this post-urban colony of joy. The inhabitants seemed willing to share the little they had with each other. There weren‟t many religious statuettes and wall paintings of India‟s playful deities like you‟d find in the city – but perhaps this was because there wasn‟t any need for those. The gods themselves participated in the spontaneous singing and merry-gorounding of the little children. 5 Overtaken by this new invigorating and sacred experience of India, I whispered to Ej, saying: “You didn‟t show me India…until now.” Most of us may never get to hear that story of the slum. The mainstream media will most likely continue to extol the virtues of mindless growth, economic expansion, and consumerism. We will learn to see the totalitarian conversion of our local wealth and livelihood into asphalt and steel as not only legitimate, but necessary. We will continue to trot into slums like the one I visited, perched high atop our perspectival horses of superiority – messiahs of the development gospel, conquistadors of poverty and misery, heralds of a single story. This then is the insidious cloud threatening the once pristine skies of India – the monoculture of corporate dominance, and the increasing rationalization and bureaucratization of her livelihoods. The point has been made earlier – but it bears repeating again and again that this monoculture of mind is responsible for the deepest challenges we face today. The narrative of development has chased away all the enchantment in the world, and has installed a deathly logic in place of our local stories, our commonwealths, our cultural riches, and our connections to each other. This mechanistic, imperialistic worldview has inspired a troubling social linearity – in which all of human life is rearticulated and valued only in terms of its instrumentality to the dynamics of profit and control. As a result, children in Ladakh (as well as other parts of the Indian sub-continent), like children in Africa, are being drafted into schools and warned not to speak their own languages or fined for doing so. They are trained in English, and made to sit in classrooms for endless periods of time to learn what the state would have them learn. They are told that their ways of life are primitive and backward, and that the city offers them the best chance for living a good life. Eventually, they will be conditioned to getting jobs and told that their lives are to be spent as consuming units – designed to populate markets and malls. As a result of this monoculture of mind, 17,000 farmers in Uttar Pradesh took their own lives in 2009 because Monsanto and other corporate giants divorced them from their means of wellbeing, from their networks of trust, and from the good of their hands. As a result, India‟s precious lands will continue to be stripped, her people displaced, her cultures colonized, her identities plunged before the whims and fancies of the capitalist market, her children programmed into consumptive units fit for the perpetuation of a dying system. We now live in a mercantile system that runs on the fading assumptions that we all are separate entities, and that the earth is a 6 resource we can continue to exploit forever. This globalizing epidemic has fashioned a school system that has nothing to do with our questions, our hopes and our dreams; it has fashioned a monetary framework that is a zero-sum game, designed to make the rich richer, and the poor more miserable. The world is now in the middle of a chilling blizzard – and, clearly, India has caught the flu. Obviously, the entire planet – which includes India – is imperiled by this most unsustainable set of assumptions. But how do we respond to these challenges today? How do we even begin to think about these issues? This globalizing monoculture? This machine that plunders lands and identities and replaces them with mass produced, ready-made, profit-friendly versions? How do we reclaim the soul of India? What can we do? These are the urgent questions of design and agency. When we think of design, it is very easy for most of us to see it as the shortest, most exquisite distance between a problem and a solution. We imagine that all we need to do is think about the problem, ask questions, scribble this and that, and the contours of a solution will emerge on our drawing boards. And this is very often the case. Unfortunately, the solutions to some of the problems today have only served to deepen the crisis in our hands. Why is it that the history of schooling has not ushered in an age of unbridled knowledge and utopian living conditions? Why is it that our many curriculum updates have not served to banish „ignorance‟ once and for all? Why is it that printing more money has not eradicated poverty? Why is it that programs designed to protect the environment have not made so much as a blip on the radar of longlasting impact? Why is it that the influx of foreign direct investment has only served to entrench the so-called „advanced‟ nations on their lofty perch of development? Why is it that technology has not released us from the humdrum of hard work? Why is it that our many „solutions‟ aren‟t working? The answer lies with Dostoyevsky‟s white bear. Many years ago, the legendary novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of the Brothers Karamazov, remarked: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” This remark inspired a psychological experiment in thought suppression – in which participants were requested not to think about a polar bear for a given period of time, but were told to ring a bell as often as the thought actually occurred. As you might have suspected, given the fact that most of you have already conjured images 7 of the animal in your mind, the participants rang their bells more often than their control groups. It‟s like when we try to avoid a thought, we end up thinking it. It‟s as if our thoughts are not ours…as if consciousness leaps on new playthings like a spoiled child. In other words, once we problematize anything, we ironically build conditions around it that sustain it. Paradoxically, when we design solutions to problems, they often tend to reinforce the problem. This is because we approach solutions with the same assumptions that manifested the problem in the first place. Solutions and problems are both complicit in perpetuating something deeper: stories. Problems are a function of narratives. The prevalent groupthink of the herd drives us to see solutions as the antithesis to problems – whereas it takes some sensitivity to notice that when solutions are framed in the contexts, language and on the assumptions behind the problems they supposedly address, they reinforce our addiction to seeing the world in particular ways. Perhaps it is a further consequence of our world context and rationalized society, drunken on dualistic categories, to attempt to outwit and cancel out the other, to attempt to see the world in units of problems and outcomes. Ironically, we only serve to perpetuate it – to keep it relevant. In this sense, schools are not the solution to illiteracy – the very concept of school thrives on the existence of illiteracy. In other words, the very existence of institutionalized schooling reifies the concept of illiteracy. The more schools we create, the more illiteracy we will valorize. In the same vein, more money is not the answer to poverty – poverty is the function of a narrative of scarcity, upon which our current monetary frameworks are based. Poverty doesn‟t arise because of a lack of money – it arises because of the existence of money. The same logic follows through for other problems – genocide, malnutrition, crime and so on. When we try to „solve‟ these problems, we often fall headlong into a convenient solutionism – a state wherein we satisfy our senses of justice but fail to truly address the critical issues before us. But what if we rethink design – not as the quest for solutions, but as something else? What if we didn‟t succumb to the dualism of problems versus solutions? The less glamorized aspect of the thought suppression experiment was what happened when the participants were invited to actually think about polar bears. The report states that the thought didn‟t actually occur as much as when the participants were told not to think about polar bears. It is possible to see this as reflecting the fact that when we attempt to embrace, connect with, and feel a 8 problem – instead of trying to fix, suppress or avoid it, the problem becomes less worrisome. A deeper, more holistic, more enchanted way to approach design is to see it, not as the shortest tolerable distance between problems and solutions, but as the shortest distance between „us‟ and „others‟. This approach teaches us to realize that we are very often part of the problem we try to get rid of. The rationalized world conditions us to envision problems as systemic glitches that can be fixed in a detached manner. By creating the subject and the object, the modern worldview prioritizes expertise above experience, technology above talking with others, finance over feeling, and shared profit over shared pain. This has not served us well. A more enchanted design philosophy derives from the idea that everything is connected in a non-dualistic sense, and that there is no „other‟ as such. Taking the analysis even deeper, this design orientation recognizes that problems aren‟t things per se. They are perspectives, frozen conversations, illusory entities we make real via our own attempts to measure, quantify and isolate. Hence, when we try to fix them or avoid them or suppress them in an offhanded manner, we make them stronger – just like the cursed polar bear of lore. In this orientation, problems become invitations to be with another, not contrived attempts to fix things. So instead of asking: „what can we fix?‟, the discourse of design then becomes the question: „what hurts?‟ Design becomes about melting the spaces between us. Let me make it clear that I am not saying that technology, expertise, or the language of solutions is a bad thing. The issue here is the set of assumptions that empower these technologies, our notions of expertise and how we speak about solving our problems. We need good technology and good expertise – and speaking about solving problems seems only natural. We cannot do without having expectations. It definitely feels counterintuitive not to begin our days by first articulating problems and our expected outcomes. It seems the only rational way to navigate the world. How else can design proceed except by first reifying a challenge, articulating expectations, drawing on resources, and mapping solutions? It may be mechanistic – but at least it works! Of course it does. It is however important – I think – for us to recognize what it works for! It has proven to be especially successful in building a civilization wherein our real challenges are never really addressed – just institutionalized and bureaucratized and compartmentalized. At the heart of our social institutions today is the narrative of distances – the story that you are separate from me, and we both are alienated in a hostile world which we must strive to control if our survival is to be assured. This original violence is perpetuated in the strategy of seeking outcomes and measurable feedback – no matter how successful the approach turns out to be. 9 Long story short, the emphasis on solutions often serves the purposes of bureaucracy, more than it addresses real problems. But once we let go of that goaloriented, result-driven urge, we open up spaces for healing to actually occur. A more natural way of solving problems is thus to first fully identify with the „other‟, and hold off our modern urge to „solve‟ their problems. No one puts this better than India‟s sages and mystics. Nisargadatta Maharaj wrote that „once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.‟ For too long, design has been the handmaiden of a broken story. Now we can tell a new story. Today‟s imperative of design hides a sinister politics of control, but today we can choose to upend that dynamic. We must change the politics of design from one of control to one that feels with the distanced „other‟. Truly impactful design must unlearn the parameters of the memo, the convenience of the drawing board, the utility of funding, the monologue of technology, and the correctness of expertise. This imperative lies at the heart of disruptive thinking today. In other words, design must begin to address the panting need to fundamentally shift perceptions and alter the course of civilization. We have been satisfied with what is „practical‟, at the expense of what is extraordinary. It is no longer enough to play half measures. It is no longer enough to aim at branches while roots remain resolute. It is high time we cut through to the deep assumptions that shape our world. It is high time we rise to our exalted place as storytellers and path-wielders and gurus of the future. We will do this not merely with our heads, but with our hearts – beating as one with those who hurt. Imagine for a moment that we truly found our courage, and addressed the schooling system in India – not by carving out convenient „solutions‟, but by going to the villages, the cramped neighbourhoods, and asking: „what hurts?‟ In the tears of the mothers, in the disillusionment of the students who are forced to learn answers to questions they never asked, in the drudgery of teachers who are underpaid and are just as beholden to the monoculture of mind, we will find our solutions. Imagine that we created conversational spaces around India where people can connect again with each other? What if we listened to the farmers, and learned that what hurts them is their alienation from their own communities – imagine what we could create with that! 10 Instead of fighting an imaginary enemy, or increasing the violence by trumping up new dualisms, we can choose to turn our attention away from corporate relevance towards community building, towards conversations, towards gift cultures, towards programs that emphasize indigenous learning and the benefits of speaking our own languages. The world our hearts know is possible is a heartbeat away – a perceptual shift away – and in making that shift, we will begin to see ourselves as part of an energetic universe…one that longs to bring us to a healthy reciprocity with the earth and with community. Do you want to know why there are no slums in India? It‟s because the spirit of India has retreated from the cities of glass and brick, away from the big banks that cannot see life except in terms of money, away from the giant projects designed to convert green land into suburban layouts and homogenous living quarters, away from the school halls and teaching places that teach her children the words of strangers and denies them their own tongue and indigenous ways of life, away from the fields of plastic crops and dead seeds, away from the government buildings and parched memos and orange-green flags, away from the fasting senators who contrive dead feats to mimic the music of Gandhi‟s passion, but instead produce hollow, empty sounds. She has taken refuge in the hearts of what the city calls the slum, but what could very well be Govardhana Hill, where little boy Krishna safely ensconced his people from the wrath of Indra. She has taken refuge in the eyes of children who still manage to see the world as a discourse between magic and possibility, in the hands of the mothers who still share their milk with their neighbours, in the tongues of the families who do not feel inadequate when they speak their own language, in the bones of the grandmothers who still have their eminent place by the storied fireside at night, and in the bliss of a community at play. Most of all, India is hidden in your hearts, in the moments when you choose to be vulnerable with another, in the moments when you allow the silence of the lotus to rule your minds, and in the epiphany of a joyous instant when you realize that you – You! – are the solution the world really needs.


Thank you so much for listening.


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Falling might very well be flying – without the tyranny of coordinates.