The joke travelled at the speed of rumour across Madras, and the high-caste shook with laughter. The chief guest of the convocation ceremony in the Indian Institute of Technology had said in the course of his lecture, “Brain drain is better than brain in the drain”. This couldn’t have happened now; it happened just over 20 years ago. He may have flogged an old epigram or may have invented it — those days everything seemed new and you had to just say something to be granted its ownership. In any case, it was a piece of wisdom that impressed the students of IIT, many of who are now long-distance patriots. As they transmitted the maxim to their family and friends, a social class that had raised its sons to abandon the country and migrate to the United States laughed with the relief of hearing a sublime truth.
It was a time when people were so clear about their cultural moorings that they did not have to remind themselves that they were patriots. As a result they could see India for what it was. India had no immediate prospects, there was no ambiguity about that. ‘Tolerant’, of course, especially for the sort of people who did not require to be tolerated, but it was a good place to quit.
Those who chose to leave did not face the accusation of treason but were constantly reminded by newspapers that their departure amounted to a ‘brain drain’, which was a warm compliment if you think of it. As it so often happens to ideas that depend on catchy rhymes, it turns out ‘brain drain’ was a lame analysis. India was, of course, impoverished by the departures of the young but that was not because the nation lost their brains — many of them had easily replaceable intellect, actually — but because India lost their lament, which is a political emotion.
It was not the smart alone who left. Anyone who had the means left. Most did not return. If you had attended a private English-medium school and have the data to calculate how many of your high school classmates have left the country, you may realise that 50% to 80% of the class do not reside in India anymore. It is true that their numbers are small when compared to India’s gigantic population but the migration of the youth over the decades among the social and economic elite, who have a disproportionate influence in any society, had the effects of a bleeding wound.
As escape from India was a plan and an inevitability the upper class youth were not interested in politics, which they regarded as the filthy mess of the poor and the vernacular. They did not wish to hit the streets in protests, or to fight corruption and crime. They were never moved to protect the weak or to guard the cultural aesthetics of a building or a street.
Across the world and the ages, the young of the finest extractions had contributed greatly to build their nations, but India lost them. They were leaving, and so they abandoned their stake in the society. The rest, who did have a stake because they were going to be stuck here, were too preoccupied with their own survival to reform the society. As a consequence, for decades Indian politics did not change.
But, by the time the filmmaker Kiran told her celebrity husband, Aamir Khan that sometimes she wished to leave the country because there were too many morons around, the nation and the world had transformed. Indian youth are still preparing to leave. In fact, as more Indians have the means to study in western countries, more among the young, than ever, are leaving. And those who do not have the means are borrowing or selling whatever they can to send their children to the West. But now, when the young say that they wish to return, they probably mean it.
India has prospects for the elite. And, as most Indians are poor, India is a paradise for the middle class, and they have it easier here than in the West, where there is too much distribution of opportunities and social equality to make an elite Indian feel comfortable at all times. The attraction of India for these reasons has many honourable names. Also, thousands of Indians are returning to work in India for cultural and economic reasons, and, of course, to protect their present or future daughters from going astray. As a result young Indians are more involved in the nation than ever before.
About 12 years ago, for Outlook magazine, I went around Mumbai asking the young elementary questions like: What’s ‘LOC’ in the film ‘LOC Kargil’? What’s the VHP? What’s a stamp paper? Where did the Babri masjid stand? And, whether the Lok Sabha elections were the same as general elections. A representative reaction was, ‘Oh my god, quizzzz’. I asked a young Muslim girl, who was a very intelligent worker in her own sphere of activity, if she had heard of Narendra Modi. She had not. I told her he owned Modi Xerox and she accepted it as information.
I am confident that such a prank story would not be so amusing anymore. The modern youth are informed and more nationalistic than ever. They even ignited an anti-corruption movement. Yes, they were fooled by a fasting truck driver and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but still they did form the core of a national movement. Later, they hit the streets to protest against a gruesome rape and brought a quasi-state government to its knees. Across the nation they are taking up issues like road traffic and industrial pollution. And they are giving India their laments. They are, finally, behaving like homeowners and not tenants.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. He tweets as @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal