Via Yemen, to America

Via Yemen, to America
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First Published: Sat, Jul 28 2007. 12 34 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jul 28 2007. 12 34 AM IST
A chance exchange with my former barber, Solomon, an erstwhile citizen of Uzbekistan, made me realize that we both shared our cuisine preferences: His staple diet was nan, chicken tikka and tandoori chicken sans masala, and sams (the baked version of our oily samosa, and with minced meat as stuffing). Since what we know today as Uzbekistan is from where the Mughals, to whom we owe this cuisine, made their journey to India, it was to me the uncovering of the greatest culinary scam—where we pass off tandoori chicken as an Indian creation.
To Nayan Chanda though, this was yet another instance of globalization, which he argues has been in vogue ever since humanity came into being. In his new book, Bound Together, his central argument—that took him six years to conceive—is that the trigger was the basic human desire to improve personal and collective well-being. According to Chanda, former editor of Far Eastern Economic Review, this whole process was made possible by four broad sets of actors: traders, preachers, warriors and adventurers. As in our example, the Mughals moved out in search of better fortune and settled down in India, creating, among other things, a culinary inter-connect: the chicken tikka became chicken tikka masala as it assimilated in its new-found habitat; but, at the core, it remained true to its origins.
Add up the innumerable examples that Chanda cites in the book and you have as he says: “These globalizers left their original habitats in the pursuit of a more enriching life or to fulfil their personal ambitions. In so doing, they not only carried products, ideas, and technology across borders, but with increased interconnectedness they created what Rolan Roberston calls ‘intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole’.”
For those who have read Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, this may sound familiar. Trust me, it is much more. Not for unearthing the zillions of examples. Instead, it is for the ability to connect these dots into a coherent argument on globalization.
An instance is the journey of coffee, from its discovery in Ethiopia to its use by the pious as a means to retain their energy during midnight Sufi prayer in Yemen, and eventually to an international money-spinner for coffee chains such as Starbucks. “Within less than six hundred years,” says Chanda, “a prayer aid has been turned into a multibillion dollar business employing twenty million families in fifty countries and giving flavoured kicks to hundreds of millions: it is a summary of the story of globalization.”
In short, globalization has always existed. Thanks to inter-connectivity, the world is a far more integrated place than it ever was and empowered us in ways we could not have imagined. Less than a decade ago, owning a telephone in India was a rarity; calling internationally was a luxury. Now, you can do both with a cellphone; not to mention at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, a journey to the West would have taken our grandparents months and seasickness to boot. Now, you could do a trip to London in less than eight hours and probably for a fraction of the cost. It is, as Francis Cairncross argued so brilliantly in her seminal work, The Death of Distance—another eminently readable book that was among the first crop in the genre of books on globalization.
Nonetheless, it is no secret that globalization is a four-letter word in many parts of the world; the most flamboyant display of dissent has been by activists, who used the very means of communication made possible by globalization, to run amuck in Seattle, also home to Starbucks, during the 1999 meetings of the World Trade Organization. The reasoning, according to Chanda, is not difficult to figure.
Change, the underlying force of globalization, is like a broadsword and cuts both ways. Just as some people benefit from change in status quo, there are others who lose out. This is not new. The Industrial Revolution demonstrated this when it gave British companies a big boost, but turned out to be a death wish for the Indian textile industry.
The difference is that this time, we are talking about billions being impacted. And now information is power: What happens to a worker in the US, a poor farmer in Latin America, or back home, the naxal-inspired unrest in Telengana, are all flashed across our television screens or beamed to our cellphones or BlackBerrys, in real time. And, as he points out, the rapid acceleration in the pace of globalization has, while disrespecting geographical borders, also made the world vulnerable to pandemics—SARS being an apt example.
Strangely, the poor and uneducated in India are as vulnerable as workers being laid off in the US as work gets outsourced; India is adding nine million to its workforce every year, of which 70% are either illiterate or semi-literate. Will the workers of the world unite? Unlikely.
The first casualty, as Chanda points out, has been the rise of economic nationalism. “Short-term political maneuvering and populist concerns have prevented governments from taking the hard decisions necessary to sustain openness (to trade).”
As he puts it: Economic integration, and with it cultural globalization, has far outpaced our global mindset, which is still rooted in nationalist terms. The politician is clearly behind on the curve.
This is clearly a non-starter, if the history of globalization is to be believed. Its very inevitability, delightfully developed by Chanda, means that attempts to bottle the genie will not work. The trick is in managing this process of change.
The onus will clearly be on the politicians. Will they rise to the challenge? They better. Or, as a philosopher put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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First Published: Sat, Jul 28 2007. 12 34 AM IST
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