Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-12
NEW DELHI - My journey back home to the land of my birth has taken me 37 years. This is an utterly new India that I've come back to, one that is poised to become an economic superpower and not simply a demographic giant that will outgrow neighbouring China in another 30 years.
With 1.1 billion people now, India isn't just the world's biggest democracy; it's shedding its moniker of misery and underdevelopment, and rapidly becoming a global player of economic and political consequence. It is also exporting its culture in a way that's inviting worldwide attention to its philosophical values, art, fashions and music. These aren't just exports of traditions to be admired and studied; they bring hard currency to a nation that had lived for too long at the edge of an economic precipice. Now India's foreign exchange reserves - a key measure of a country's financial health - exceed US$120 billion.
This is a country of change, yet continuity, of a new injection of enterprise and vitality. Even a veteran journalist long resigned to drawing sad, crabby conclusions about failed Third World states, cannot help but be proud of an ancient country that's being transformed into a modern nation with stunning velocity. If there was ever a better time to cover the daily drama of development here, I do not know it.
I am now a foreign correspondent in my own native country, looking at it with both journalistic scepticism and personal curiosity. I am a storyteller for the global bazaar, interpreting India and reporting on it for foreign audiences that may still see this as a mysterious and exotic land and yet want the financial benefits that India's booming economy has to offer. A sustained seven percent annual growth rate is impressive by any contemporary criteria, and global investors want more and more to come here.
Consider this: on the basis of purchasing power parity, India is already the world's fourth strongest country, after the United States, China and Japan. Consider this, too: if India sustains an annual economic growth rate of 6 to 7 percent over the next decade, it will overtake Japan in sheer economic might.
That generates pride in me, especially since I long watched in dismay as nearby nations with far fewer natural and human resources overtook India in economic growth through free enterprise while this country remained shackled by outmoded socialism and Statism.
The India I left three decades ago for the United States was a despairing state of shortages, food insecurity and political uncertainty. And while the politics of today - in India, as in many other democracies - remains turbulent, the widespread sense of hopelessness that I was accustomed to during my early youth has yielded to a tangible new ethos of accomplishment. That's largely because of today's rising generation of young women, especially in urban areas.
Their enterprise, backed by economic liberalization has meant that India, at long last, has become a competitor in the global bazaar; it has become a serious player. Take almost any field - fashion, industry, films, the arts, the media, hotels and restaurants, financial services - and you will, more likely as not, see smart and savvy women in the lead. Women today constitute more than half of India's labour force of 300 million.
For example, Mrs Naina Lal Kidwai of Mumbai almost single-handedly introduced modern financial instruments such as mergers and acquisitions in India; recruiters from all over the world constantly besiege her, but she has chosen to stay on in India because this is where the opportunities are for more creativity and income in finance.
Women have, for far too long, been India's most underrated and underused assets. What a pity, what inexcusable neglect of talent that could have accelerated India's economic and social development. I truly believe that women are far more evolved than men, not just in India but also in virtually every culture around the world. It's the fundamental insecurity of men concerning sexuality and intelligence that makes them want to retard the progress of their womenfolk. Although both the private sector and the government could do much more to encourage the participation of women in India's economic affairs, the opportunities of today are unprecedented.
Need evidence of how sparkling and accomplished the women of India are, how brimming with ideas, how filled with verve and vitality? Look no further than Ms Mandira Wirk, the young Delhi-based fashion designer who's already in demand in South-east Asia and Europe for her bold styles, bringing in valuable foreign exchange for India. Those styles incorporate traditional Indian colours and patterns, but they are meant for the contemporary global woman who's both career-driven and family-oriented.
There's Mrs Sonya Philip, the US-trained educator, who's starting a school for children with learning disabilities; it was her son's reading problems that got her looking into learning disabilities. She found that tens of millions of Indian children were similarly afflicted, prompting her to launch a campaign to help these students. Mrs Philip is generating social change, helping shape more productive citizens of tomorrow.
There's Mrs Sandhya Mulchandani, an oceanographer who became a Sanskrit scholar. She discovered ancient manuscripts, and translated them into works that are being studied at institutions here and abroad. Her new book, "Kama Sutra for Women," seeks to redefine female sexuality, restoring to the Indian woman pride in her essential sensuality - which has been suppressed by Victorian values of the British Raj and by hectoring Hindu fundamentalists of recent years - and also tutoring the Indian male to be more sensitive to women's needs. The book is being translated into German and other European languages - once again marking India's imprint on the international publishing market in the footsteps of celebrated writers like Mr Salman Rushdie, Ms Arundhati Roy and Ms Madhur Jaffrey.
Like Mrs Mulchandani, Ms Durga Jasraj of Mumbai has become an international personality in behalf of India. An impresario and musician - and the daughter of renowned vocalist Pandit Jasraj - she is a pioneer in creating fusion music of classical Indian themes and modern notes. Her latest work is "Tiranga," a tribute to the tri-coloured Indian flag, in which Pandit Jasraj sings while Mr Javed Akhtar, the famed lyricist and screenplay writer, recites his own poems about pride in nationhood. "Tiranga" has played to full houses in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, and now is on its way to South-east Asia.
Finance, ancient scholarship, education, the arts - these are the building blocks of the "New India." Mrs Kidwai, Ms Wirk, Mrs Mulchandani, Ms Jasraj - they are all highly ambitious women who attribute their early success to the emphasis their parents placed on education, and on the economic liberalisation of the last five years. In them resides the hope of India - which is why India needs to invest more in educating the girl-child. An educated girl-child will inevitably grow up to become a responsible citizen; that's been proven in country after country - only in India do we mostly treat our women as chattel in rural regions.
That's bound to change as the nation is pushed by a more enlightened new generation into keeping up with the sensibilities of India's women. Still, I am saddened by the time and opportunities that we have lost in tapping into their brightness and soul. One recent day, I went for a taxi ride around Delhi to look at monuments and statues. I was struck by how green the city is, and how moving its monuments are. But there were hardly any memorials to women who contributed to India's independence, or to its post-independence progress.
I asked Ms Wirk what explained her drive and dynamism. Was it just the lure of lucre? Of fame? "Of course money and prestige are important," she said. "But what I do in the fashion and design business contributes, most of all, to strengthening national pride."
What she and other contemporary Indian women are doing - with an assist from their men-folk, of course - is to put India permanently on the global map of progressive nations. That is why I'm so delighted to be back home again, to be able to report on the energy and enterprise of modern India.
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist