Slumdog Billions and Leap Frogging the Recession


The miniature ecosystem, see figure, has an eagle, a vulture, a small community of frogs, a tree and a very deep well.  The eagle and the vulture come to perch on the tree.  The frogs always lived within the deep well from which they had never gone out nor can they move out of it on their own, other than dream about it. Every night the granny frog tells bedtime stories to the young ones in the well, most of them passed down over generations with an occasional improvisation here and there. The eagle could hear the stories.

One morning when the thermals had begun rising in the air, the eagle swoops down into the well, grasps one little frog in its claws and rises up with the thermal. The heights and the fear of death grip the little one. The eagle stayed with the thermal circling for some time and when it finds that the little one has calmed down a little, releases it from its claws from above the well.  The vulture waits in the hope that the frog will turn carrion. But the frog lands back into the same well, unhurt, still afraid and probably elated. While circling in the sky with the eagle the frog had opened its eyes for a brief moment to get a glimpse of the world outside the well.

The eagle went back to the tree waiting for the sun to set, to hear the new stories.

The Oscars.

The curious case of Benjamin Button and the Slumdog Millionaire

The Slumdog Millionaire swept the first Oscar since the recession. It is perhaps more than coincidental that we dream up another version of the rags to riches story when billions vanish in the stock market and the market caps reach rock bottom. There is no greater fantasy to beat a recession when the ‘developed world’ reels in its flames. ‘Developed’, stands for the ‘top of the pyramid’ within the context of this post and has no geopolitical connotations.

The kids from Dharavi, the Bombay (Mumbai) slum, flew up to Oscar heights, shedding their slum maps of the world to the eagles view from the top, for a fleeting moment. or was it the vultures view? When they come back to the same old well, the well wouldn’t have changed much. Yet some things will never be the very same again. For fleeting moments the bottom and the top connects and the media goes into overdrive vying with each other to generate our daily dose of adrenaline.   The Slum dogs and the dogs in Beverly Hills (or Malabar Hill) have the same DNA – the same potential. So does the human. Other than the cosmetic, the dog’s potential is not far behind in terms of its performance. It is still a dog’s life. Some might quarrel for morsels while the lucky ones, the adopted ones, don’t have to.

The story of the human is not the same. We could be much better than the dogs, wherever they are. The bottom and the top of the pyramid are connected through fantasy and fiction. The Oscar jury sits in judgement to decide which story is the best.

We need a design to make this leap-frogging to happen on a regular continual basis. The recession is a brief window of time to grab wider attention to mull on it. Mobility accelerates learning. Dreams, celluloid or lucid, connect better to our deep structures and at times can help us to awaken into a better future.

In 2008, 2, 90, 000 candidates appeared for CAT, the common admission test to the IIMs, Indian Institutes of Management. The process is not far different from the Dharavi kid turning into the Slumdog millionaire though the chances are less than 0.6 %. Another 100,000 will join US universities to pursue their dreams of flight. Some of them will join the $ Million league and work towards reaching the top of the pyramid, now capped at $, 500,000 if you have taken the bailout. Others will trail behind and wrack their brains how to beat them in the race.  A few of them would turn entrepreneurial or find other ways to win their millions. Some will completely opt out of the race to move to the bottom of the pyramid. Bose, one who  opted out of the race from one of the IIMs, tells me that the b-school days still bring back memories of street dogs fighting for their morsels, for whom the bell tolls, and Pavlov’s dogs. The CEO of a bank walks away with a lifetime pension of over £ 6.50,000 /annum leaving the ship he was captaining to sink, a  typical role model for the participants of the race. But things have changed overnight. With the slow down, governance is back in fashion, and many of them would join the public sector companies this year. The champions of free market will take a voice rest till things warm up a little. Most of those who fail to make it, along with a larger number, less ambitions or unfortunate than them, would aspire to join the sunshine sector of IT that emerged during the India shining phase of the growth story. Many of them would keep flying between the top and bottom in delivering outsourced solutions to the top of the pyramid. These dreams have turned sour now. Much of the shine has vanished with the recession.

Around 30,000 Indians will return from the US every year to settle down in their home country for various reasons, people who successfully chased similar dreams.  The story is a much better version than Danny Boyle coming down to Dharavi. Within an individual life span, a critical mass of people have flown out of their individual wells, fulfilled their dreams  and return to the same well. The well has not changed much but many of them see new possibilities in leapfrogging at a larger scale, bringing together the best of both the worlds. 27 % of the world’s poor are in India. The bottom suffers from abject poverty and the top from intellectual poverty, the two sides of the same coin.  The challenge is to see the third side, the side/s that connect the two. The farmer who feeds the bottom and the top hope and pray for the monsoons continue to be favourable, that the government will increase the procurement prices, that the loans will be written off ( As in  the case of the bailout billions, the relatively non-performing are more likely to end receiving such relief)  or perhaps in an election year, the procurement price will be higher than the cost (which includes the share of the rats and lions too) at which the government builds up a buffer stock.

Climbing Mount Everest, (Hillary and Tensing), Wright brothers and flight, the moon shot, in short every human achievement has a common thread that connects to the whole. At one end of the continuum is the well, the local and at the other is the very large, the global. To learn is to connect between the two, a bolt of lightning from the blue connecting to the earth.

Once we take the invariant position, that we are here to learn and learn continually, then it is a journey of connecting the small with the large, the local with the global. What we see changes with the variant positions we take during the journey. Something new comes into our perspective improving the old maps.  Development is a process of connecting potential to performance and narrowing the gap between the two. The eagle/frog frames are joined together to produce the movie of our individual lives.  Do we direct it on our own or get directed is what matters most! If we learn the lessons right and shed our preoccupations with the maps of change and quantitative growth over quality, we could leverage it to come out of the recession, out of the booms and busts to a phase of continual improvement in the quality of life, community and sustainability.

Prahlad reinvented the pyramid for our time. There is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid! It has always been a trend with the top of the pyramid coming down to the bottom in search of the treasures for different reasons. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates connect to connect to the bottom. We hear academics wondering now, a bit too late perhaps – Is business ANTI social that wealth needs to be balanced with charity? What does charity beget? The circle is now complete! Until creation of wealth and business turns pro-community, charity seems to be the dominant paradigm by which we connect to the bottom, the current version of the missionary zeal of the colonial era. Some of them were in for a surprise and those who connected in a spirit of learning to the bottom brought to light many a treasure. Mohammad Yunus showed the way in more recent times – the royal road to beating the recession which the white revolution had demonstrated in an earlier phase of the India growth story.

The moral is more important than the story. Be a frog, be an eagle and keep switching positions continually to connect between the local and the global, the big and the small, the telescope and the microscope, Hubble and the Femtoscope and the myriad connections in between. The devil is in the details, the well and God in the heavens and at times like a bolt from the blue the two connects and there is a leap in learning. With every leap of the frog there is a collapse of an old world and a new world takes birth. Yet we are in the same well, the well – of Nature, which we will never fully comprehend. It might make us a little more humble and help us realize that we cannot reinvent the basic design.  Meanwhile there is a lull. No thermals seem to be in the make to those who reel in the flames of the recession. The eagles wait on the tree and the frogs continue to be in the well.  The recession is raging on and the vultures have a feast.  But the thermals are always in the making, some place or the other.

The original story of ‘The curious case of Benjamin Button’ was published in 1921, the same year that Einstein received the Nobel Prize. We cannot age back like the protagonist of the story and meet Scott Fitzgerald to find out why he wrote the story or he would agree with the film adaptation of the story which begins with a curious clock maker which goes well with the overall theme.  Let us also hope that he wouldn’t find objection to colouring the story to suit our present context. The extreme geriatric, the process of his aging back and the curious clock that goes back in time triggers one to reflect on our present reality.  The clock is a simple machine without self-regulation. The technology that we have developed remains mostly at this level of maturity. While we are no doubt scaling up the ladder to higher levels of technology with increasing self – regulation, as a culture we are no better than a non-self regulating, self-destructing clock work system, a product of the Newtonian world-view. (1642-1727) Extreme geriatry has come to be our collective illness. Benjamin Button is turned out of Yale because he ran out of his cosmetics to hide his age. The gates of knowledge is closed to him though later on when he grows younger, he makes a second attempt to make it to Harvard but fails to graduate as he loses his learn-ability to the pace of his growing young.  The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was first published in 1859.

We have three different sets of maps but we fail to connect these maps together and evolve a common one, unable to grow out of the Newtonian maps. Darwin was in a way ahead of Newton and Einstein to deal with emergent qualities between classes of life. Even to the untrained eye, these qualities are discernible that no machines come anywhere near a cell, that from the unicellular to the multi-cellular is a giant leap and within the multi-cellular, plants, animals, human and community have higher levels of complexity and potential that the lower levels do not possess. Still our collective reality has not moved ahead from the level of the clock.  We are caught up in what is fashionable, the world of machines.

Even after 150 years of the origin of species, the essential learning remains outside our collective understanding of reality and makes us a less favoured species in the struggle for survival. The curious case of BB captures all the limitations of the Newtonian paradigm. While humanity moves ahead on the path of decay and ageing to self-destruct itself, the hero goes against the flow, but the ultimate destiny is not altered.

Cosmetic solutions will not gain us admittance to understanding but they contribute significantly to the bubbles  and busts.   Real learning would help us design real solutions. Between the positive and negative flows of time, is emergence, the bolt from the blue that negates entropy and decay. Accumulating real learning helps us to beat the fate of the tragic hero. The curious case of Benjamin Button proved predictive, prophetic, of our current reality.

Conflict is part of the story of evolution. We have reached the apex of the pyramid of conflicts. Yet another emergence is in the offing.

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One thought on “Slumdog Billions and Leap Frogging the Recession

  1. Pingback: Meta: The post on posts | First Discipline

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