Speaking Volumes: The intellectual poverty line

(Published in the Business Standard. You can usually fit a good argument into 800 words, but this time, I couldn’t fit in all of the data: the hard evidence that countries from Mexico to China to the US have seriously good, accessible public libraries and art spaces because they saw these things as essential public services, rather than luxuries. Digital literacy–where again, we lag behind because we haven’t invested in the infrastructure–should have been part of this column, but the space crunch meant I couldn’t address it in detail. If you’re interested in the subject, this is why the UN believes that access to the Internet should be a basic human right.)


“Are we hating intellectualism now?” That tweet, from the writer Sidin Vadukut, came at the end of a standard-issue Twitter “debate”: the public disagreements between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati had become equally public property and set off several ugly brawls.

It had also allowed many on Twitter to take up an increasingly popular refrain: as Vadukut had noticed, “intellectual” is often used as a term of abuse, on and off social media, by many Indians.

It is not just that politicians excoriate “Westernized” Indians for being out of touch with “Indian reality”; it is also that few politicians cite thinkers, intellectuals or historians (Western-made or Eastern-made) when they debate issues of national importance.

It is not just that a great deal of Indian pulp fiction is written by authors who boast that they rarely read books themselves. It’s that these young authors represent an entire generation who were brought up to dismiss, sneer at or be suspicious of the idea of reading. Last week, a popular writer thought little of attacking thinkers he hadn’t actually read; but his belief that you don’t need to go through the hard grind of reading/ learning before you express an opinion is commonplace in his generation.

Bluntly, this isn’t about “us” and “them” any more, however you choose to see the two sides—intellectuals versus aam aadmi, readers versus TV viewers, thinkers (by implication out of touch with ground reality) versus doers (by implication those who understand India). In addition to a nation’s GDP and economic growth, there is, for all developing democracies, the very urgent question of how healthy their investment in a strong cultural and intellectual life has been.

India has the human capital, a young and vibrant population, emerging into their first elections and their first attempts to understand public life. Even those pulp fiction writers have at the very least a healthy curiousity about their country and their generation. But what this generation was given, in terms of a thriving intellectual life, was so paltry as to be shameful.

If we don’t have the cultural capital, what are we losing by not making that investment? In the World Cities Report 2012, an unusual study of several key cities around the world from Paris and New York to Istanbul and Shanghai, the researchers observed that Mumbai has the energy and rich history a major city requires—but not the cultural infrastructure.

Part of this infrastructure is in the form of museums, art galleries, bookshops, public libraries and just as key, open green spaces that all citizens can access. It is of equal importance that these spaces be accessible to all, and easy to use. India is nowhere near the Singapores and Shanghais, in terms of working bookshops, large, friendly, public libraries, welcoming museums and galleries. These exist, in several Indian cities, but in tiny pockets of privilege, not as automatic public goods that should be available to all.

The economic cost of not setting up libraries is actually quantifiable: a key US study indicates that the US library industry spends as much (roughly) as magazine advertising, video retail sales, bars and taverns, and more than, say, the golfing industry. US librarians claim that they do far more business than Amazon.com, simply in terms of buying and distributing books among readers.

In contrast, Indians who became teenagers in the last decade grew up at a time when independent bookstores were shutting down, and when the large bookstore chains in most malls carried bland, predictable stocks. Few Indians have access to public libraries of any worth.

Despite the presence of some libraries with extraordinary collections—the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, the Khuda Baksh Library in Patna, the Mithila Sanskrit Shodha Sansthana in Varanasi—we have nothing like a thriving library culture. The best humanities libraries in India are often open to only scholars, not to the public at large. In their book on libraries in India, Jashu Patel and Krishnan Kumar note the lack of good science and technology libraries and specialist libraries as well. When Indian companies complain of a lack of skilled recruits across a variety of fields, that absence is the direct consequence of the gaping holes in our cultural infrastructure.

It isn’t just libraries and museums, important as these might be. A thriving intellectual culture is almost always a culture with a memory—with an awareness of the many strands of its own history. Behind the taunts and the easy dismissals of intellectuals, “readers”, “big words”, “arty” people, there is the anger of the disenfranchised, those who have, for no fault of their own, been denied access to their own intellectual history.

This generation may not know about the marginalisation of historians, artists and philosophers across India in the last two decades, but some absences are felt, even when they are not articulated. This unwillingness to invest in and create cultural capital has gone on for decades. The price we’ve paid is to create a situation where most Indians live well below the intellectual poverty line.


4 responses to “Speaking Volumes: The intellectual poverty line”

  1. namita Avatar

    wonderful piece, nila…bombay has truly let itself down.

  2. abheekgupta Avatar

    I share this feeling of unquenched thirst for libraries. But looking at the real picture, somehow, I feel that we, ourselves are hugely responsible for this apathy towards us, the masses, by our administrative bodies. Sometimes, it is we who, having the right and chance to elect the rightful person, have given the administration to those who promised us upliftment on the basis of how we worship or which family we were born in. But that is still not a great fault on our side, what is even greater of a crime that the mass of us have is the tendency of theft and enjoying free lunches.
    I remember when I was in school, a publisher held a book exhibition in the school. We were in 10th standard, so, one can easily say that we were not that young that our conscience will not stop us from sneaking a book out of there. Then, it happened, the boy considered to be the most innocent and decent and docile and disciplined, he had a book tucked into his waist and was trying to sneak it away from the exhibition, because he liked it, but he was not ready to buy it with the money which he had saved for buying a brick of ice cream on the next Sunday when he gets an outing. We were in a residential school. Still, for once one may say he is pretty young and can be taught that this is not the right thing to do.
    Then I came into college. Befriended a guy from a law college. One day I went to his room, and the first thing he showed me was the humongous collection of books that he had issued from the University Library, but never returned them. And I did see the seal of the Library on each of these books. Yes, he showed them with pride, as if they were his Nobel Prize.
    This attitude of ours represses the inception of the idea of building a library or public service in the first place let alone such things materializing. Take for example our roads, or the public toilets we have at places like bus and railway stations.
    For the want of a developed Nation, we need to change ourselves individually first. We need to develop ourselves into the citizens of a developed Nation, the Nation will itself become one.

  3. INSIGHTS Avatar

    Reblogged this on INSIGHTS and commented:
    Intellectual Poverty Line – good take on India’s lack of interest in creating cultural capital in its cities. Our cities neither feed the people living below the ‘poverty line’ nor the ones hungry for intellectual space. Indian cities have become dens for all types of garbage – hypocrisy, corruption, philistinism and politicians.

  4. subir nag Avatar
    subir nag

    as someone facing this abusive epithet every day of my professional life, i thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
    i have one request to make. can you please consider changing the font, as it is not easily readable?

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