Midnight’s children will retire next year. If Salman Rushdie had sat the civil service exams and made the grade, he’d be doing sums about his pension in anticipation of turning 60 on August 15, 2007. When independent India completes 60 next year, India’s civil service will be staffed entirely by men and women born after independence’s midnight hour, born into freedom. While marking the nation’s 60th anniversary we should remind ourselves that our great institutions, both private and public, are now run by people who are natally post-colonial. Such memories as they have of subjecthood and British India are inherited. First-hand experience of the Raj is, for the first time in republican India’s history, the monopoly of the superannuated.
The transition from colony to republic was bridged by the generations of Indians born before independence who managed the professions, the economy and its institutions, the schools and colleges and the great engines of State for the first 50 years. They’ve all retired now, even the nominally colonial Indians born a year or two before independence. For the first time every person in every hierarchy in India, from the jawan to the chief of army staff, from the call-centre trainee to the CEO, from the kindergarten child to the veteran school principal, has this in common: he or she was born in independent India.
Does it matter' Only if this lowest common factor has real-life consequences. We could argue, for example, that with this generational shift, the influence of nostalgia on policy-making might wane. As the Lahore Nostalgists, sentimental about Kinnaird and Aitcheson and the Mall are displaced as editors, civil servants, broadcasters and artists by younger men and women, perhaps Indian attitudes towards Pakistan will become more pragmatic and matter-of-fact. Or not. Still, if we believe, as most of us do, that being independent was a new and possibly superior state of being compared to the condition of colonial subjecthood, then it makes sense for us to consider what might have changed when Bibis (Born In British India) began to disappear from the working population to be replaced by Bibtis (Born in Bharat That is India).
The other reason to be interested in generalizing categories is simply that other countries have come with ways of naming generations that seem to sum up in a phrase important developments in the life of those nations.
Welfare Britain for example, with its free universal education and the National Health Service, transformed the nature of British society and the lifestyles of its people. To take a small example, the iron law of English adulthood, that you leave home after school, never to return to the parental home as a permanent free-loader, might have had less to do with the inherent nature of the English family than with the fact that the state would pay your maintenance costs and and tuition fees in any English university that accepted your application. Australian students at this time stayed with their parents longer because the Australian government paid tuition fees but didn’t give students grants for maintenance. Also, it is at least arguable that the remarkable infrequency with which adult children visit their ageing parents in Britain has as much to do with the state paying for the cost of medical care in old age, as it does to the logic of the nuclear family.
Similarly, the ‘baby-boomers’ — the post-war generation in the US that produced many more children than the generation immediately before it — are seen as a defining force in contemporary America. The scale of college education, the extent of consumption, political anxieties about social security, the cost of medical insurance, the nature of popular culture, virtually every part of American life is or is said to be determined by the collective behaviour of this demographic bulge.
A couple of years ago when I was temporarily living in New York, Baby Boomers came up in conversation. I asked an American friend how Boomers were defined. “Anyone born between 1946 and 1964,” he said. “When were you born'” “1957” I answered. “There you go,” he said, “You’re a Boomer, even for the demographers who want the end date to be 1958.” For a second, I felt gratified, as you sometimes do when your life is made coherent by a category. But only for a second, because, I wasn’t, despite my birth date, a Boomer. Baby Boomers were an American generation, defined by a huge uptick in American post-war fertility, that went along with massive economic growth, the GI Bill which allowed millions of Americans to go to college, and the invention of suburban America. Okay, so I’d listened to some of the same music as my American contemporaries had, but being an honorary Baby Boomer was nearly as undignified as being an honorary white. Like a good achkan a useful category has to be made-to-measure; it can’t be bought off someone else’s shelf.
We know, for example, that one of India’s neighbours, China, is studying the generation created by the strict family-planning policies of the Chinese State — the Baby Busters, for want of a better name. The country’s coercive one-child policy brought population growth-rates down in an unprecedentedly short span of time. As this scaled-down generation comes of age, China will have to cope with the difficulties created by a much smaller generation of working people supporting a much larger generation that has retired.
There must be categories that make sense of the patterns of independent India’s generations, but they lurk unread in demographic monographs or lie waiting to be assembled out of the odds and ends generated by specialist scholarship. Perhaps there aren’t catch-all categories large enough to encompass India’s differences and inequalities. But even categories limited by age, class, community and location would be a start, an attempt to find shape and explanation in what otherwise seems the din of a billion lives
As a Delhiwallah, I know that the Asian Games of 1982 were a watershed in this city’s modern history. The renovation of its roads, the fly-overs, the coming of colour television in time for the Games, the arrival of the Maruti car, the Khalistan troubles, the pogrom of Sikhs, the rise of DDA’s apartment communities, all happened at roughly the same time and together they changed the way Delhi’s residents consumed, commuted, lived and socialized. The secession of the upwardly mobile middle-class, the rise of gated localities that culminated in Gurgaon’s yearningly named apartment complexes (Beverley Hills, Malibu Towne, Silver Oaks), the privatization of infrastructure, all seem to have their origins in that new epoch in Delhi’s history that began in the early Eighties. How much of this was peculiar to Delhi and how much was part of some larger Indian trend in urban living, that’s the issue that generalizations about India might help disentangle.
Fifty-nine going on sixty isn’t old in the life of a republic, but it is enough time for its citizens, collectively, to have acquired a bunch of habits, routines, opinions and anxieties, that can be treated as that country’s republican nature — a frame if you like, for their lives. It must be worth our while to seek patterns in this nature, to make generalizations about it, the better to place ourselves and plot our place in the world.