21:23 on May 3, 2016:
Aaruran Chandrasekhar, a 19-year-old student from the University of Michigan currently in India researching its textile industry, shakes hands with Johny Basumatary, a disgruntled, 27-year-old corporate finance consultant residing in Mumbai. In that moment, the Silk Road was reborn.
It’s hard to even picture how I perceived the world before I came here. To be honest, I forget what America is like. I remember images, people, moments, yes, but the collective totality is a memory lost. Since setting foot on this magical land, I have been bewitched, enchanted and appalled. It’s officially been 2 weeks. I’m still alive and haven’t gotten sick yet: safe to say I’m outdoing expectations. If I could put it simply, my conceptions of world, society, individual, culture, youth, spirituality, knowledge, belief, art, and fashion have finally synergized. Raised an Indian but molded in West, I have been torn by conflicting, overarching ideologies all through my life. It’s amazing, I finally see how these seeming disparate beliefs and intuitions connect. I can’t believe how I thought I knew anything about these people, this culture, my homeland.
This is my fourth time in India.
I came once when I was too young to remember. I came once in 6th grade for a marriage. I came once in the summer of my 7th grade, enrolling at a boarding school in Chennai: St. John’s International Residential Academy. As a student there, I was supposed to complete my high school equivalent, after which I would enroll in an Indian medical school.
Since before I was born, my family has had a tendency to frequently relocate. Before I moved to India, I had been living in Wheeling, West Virginia for 3 years. At that point in my life, this was the longest stretch of time my family had ever lived together in a single place. My decision, the culmination of a couple months of one-sided parental advising, brutally reflected the poignant stereotypes that pervade and impede India’s culture’s growth. Yet, all I thought in that moment was: Why not?
I was 12 years-old. I didn’t really grasp the gravity of 11 years abroad in India minus an occasional summer back home. Time was not yet of primordial philosophical interest. I packed my bags and said goodbye.
It wasn’t that I was disconnected from my American friends and lifestyle. I remember crying with Zach Sherman – my best friend in middle school – after the school bell rang on my last day at St. Michael’s. I want to believe I cried when I read the letter he sent to me while in India. No, there was something above friendship and social interaction and comfort and safety. It was discovery.
Absolute culture shock, multiple bouts of food poisoning, and God knows how much diarrhea later, my brother and I moved back to the states. A US education and cultural readjustment ensued. I eventually found my way to the University of Michigan where I was exposed to cultures all over the world. By that point, I thought I knew what India and being Indian was like. I thought.
Off the airplane, I was itching to use the restroom. Scrambling to the bottom floor with suitcase in hand, an employee spotted me searching for a washroom. Soon enough he ushered me inside. Not just inside… straight to the commode where he reached for tissue paper and proceeded to wipe the toilet seat down in front of me.
——— Here you go, sir.
He quickly shuffled back to the restroom entrance. Following the miracle that is human digestion, I exited the bathroom, expecting this employee to haggle a tip out of me. To the uninformed, India operates on a semi-primitive economic scheme, in which everything can be bartered for. The government’s in on it too, but that’s for another day. Looking him in the eye and nodding my head, I expected him to extend his palm if not say a couple words.
He didn’t. He was just doing his job.
I go and pay for a prepaid taxi, my accent too thick for the uneducated teller. Following the brief miscommunication, I hustle over to my designated vehicle. I get in, my driver strapping suitcase to roof. I made sure my taxi didn’t have A/C, a man must abide to his principles. As I slowly begin to broil, the Mumbai chaos grabs my attention. I ask my driver a question.
Turns out he didn’t speak English. Turns out that a lot more people here than I originally expected don’t speak English. Turns out this isn’t the only time something like this happens. Turns out it’s pretty fun. Anyways, at this point I know neither where I’m going nor where I am in the first place.
Thank you, Airbnb. I am forever indebted.
I call up my host, handing off the phone to the taxi driver. Following a brief exchange, everything was fine. So, I spend the rest of the ride glued to the window, observing the Mumbai urban sprawl. Man, woman and child all toil under the sun, fending to thrive: their labor almost primitive, Darwinian. In Ghatkopar, the locality in which I stay, there are few high rise buildings, that is, by American standards. Rather, it is constant noise and crowded streets. Street after street, the headcount seems infinite. Their clothes, their faces, their scars, they’re all different. Deep down, each has a story, a belief, a hope.
Yet, they all do the same things.
Ok, I admit that is a gross oversimplification, but there seems to be this system-wide ideology that if you keep doing the same thing then somehow your situation will improve. That isn’t to mean there is no innovation here. In fact, India is making baby steps into what could be the present day’s most lucrative financial bubble: Asian e-commerce. Yet, looking out at the Mumbai streets, no one seems to recognize all the potential latent within this country. Everyone is pigeonholed in this belief that mimicry will have the same ends as genuine innovation. For example, I was having a conversation with a high school student who was working part time at a street shop. When asked about his life plans, he said that he was interested in business, and intended to get an MBA. An MBA! The youth ! I ask him what he planned to do with that degree.
——— I’ll come here and start my own shop like this.
He was working at Rs. 200 fixed rate, women’s clothes street stall. 200 Rupees is the US equivalent of $3. This young kid wanted to get an MBA to sell $3 shirts on a street corner. Why? Why? Why? He is bright, he is willing, he is motivated. Where is his sense of innovation?
Observing the streets on the way to my host’s apartment, the seedlings for these questions began to sprout.
I made it to the apartment, eventually. Resting from the jet lag, I got to know my host and all his roommates. It was at this point that I realized I struck a gold mine. All four of them are self-described “bachelors.” Each between the age of 26 and 34, they all work within the Mumbai corporate finance industry. Each had come back from a normal days’ work, upwards of 12 hours at their respective financial offices. Just as their Western counterparts, I could sense a veiled rage, one rearing its head at the system that has glorified the economic security of corporate finance. Each had a distinct perspective, but the significance of their overlap is paramount: they hate their jobs, feel confined by the system, and believe it to be almost impossible to live the way they actually want.
I’ve heard this. Many times. Many, many times. Although most are not yet employed, American youth share this general sentiment. I thought how? These two countries are so radically different. How can it be the case that students at the Michigan Ross School of Business feel the exact same way as their grown-up Indian counterparts? It can’t just be finance. It has to be something bigger, something that rings true even in the light of the starkly contrasting social and geopolitical climate.
Paralyzed with questions, I watched them downi alcohol, enjoying Coldplay. Within me, an eerie sense of foreboding began to grow. That’s when weed entered the picture. In my original plans of India, I did not expect to see any aspect of the economy that the West refers to as “the underworld.”
On the Art of Peer Pressure, Kendrick Lamar raps “I never was a gangbanger, I mean, I was never stranger to the folk neither.” Within the realm of weed, I never have been a stranger. I’m not supposed to write about this. I know. I’m expecting a disorienting phone call from my mother later.
Yet, to ignore the underworld and drug culture is to ignore a crucial aspect of the human psyche. All men cast shadows. To shield yourself from the illegal, the perverse, and the taboo is to self-immolate. Only recent, the sanction upon drug research in behavioral economics alongside the growing boom of grimy, near-snuff, independent media such as Vice is catalyzing the increasing acceptance of drug culture.
Anyways, at this point, I realized that four psychological case studies laid before me: grown men in corporate finance who, according to Western norms, ought to be at “the peak” of their lives. Rolling up joints, they talked to me about the city’s drug culture, about how, among the most-urban, there is this silent acceptance among the younger generation that remains unvoiced to their elder counterparts. Here’s an interesting statistic: In 2009, it was shown that 70% of India’s population is below 40 years while 80% of India’s politicians are over 70 years of age. As the conversation progressed, I was increasingly aware of how big of a disconnect there exists between the current generation and its previous. Yet, what makes India distinct from America is that this schism between generations is three-generational rather than just two.
I realized that I had to study the Indian economy and political system if I was to really get a hold on this issue. Following that night, I proceeded to sit on my laptop and peruse the deep repositories of the Internet to understand this social, political, economic, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual phenomenon for the next 4 days and 4 nights.
I looked back at the beginning of it all. Before the Common Era, there was an extensive series of empires and dynasties that shaped the Indian country, most deriving from the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian peoples. The ancient history is not very clear, but with what remains of the Vedas and other Sanskrit texts, there was a rich, intellectual culture that dominated this sub-continent, rivaling and in some ways surpassing their Greek counterparts. For a period of time of which I am not qualified to properly estimate, these cultures developed alongside the Chinese dynasties.
Then came Marco Polo and the meeting between East and West. It proved profitable, birthing the silk, spice, and incense trades. Both Hemispheres thrived economically, setting the foundations for an equally beneficial globalized economy. Then came the dawn of Western Imperialism. At this point in history, India and China were estimated to contribute to approximately 40% of the world’s economy. Yet, the West held the superiority of firepower, and as a result, both countries were ravaged. There was British India and the Opium Wars. The treaties in China led to a political fragmentation and the reign of regional warlords while British East India Company sucked out all the wealth from India, refusing to investing anything back in. This too was in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and global mechanization. As a result, the Western economies exponentially surged while that of India and China seemed to approach negative asymptotic slope. I don’t exaggerate. Near Indian independence, the country was estimated to only contribute about 1.5% of the world’s economy.
India became independent in 1947. The Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Given their horrible experiences with the West, both countries, with their formerly thriving economies and vast access to resources, decided to close off their borders and pursue complete self-sufficiency. Thus began the dawn of eastern socialism: the rise of Mao Zedong in the People’s Republic and a successful independence movement under Gandhi and Nehru. Yes, India began as a socialist nation. Before coming here, I didn’t know this. On top of that, most of the Indian population doesn’t understand the ramifications of the choice between socialism and capitalism. Closing off its borders and making international trade more expensive than it was worth, India set the foundations for the massive bureaucratic crisis that plagues its government today.
Most modern economists will tell you how wrong of a move this was. Regardless, history showed the truth, culminating into the 1990 Indian economic crisis. On the verge of bankruptcy, India was bailed out by the Western nations one 1 condition: globalize its economy.
Now, both India are China are both competing for the throne of world’s fastest growing economy. Yet, the significance lies deeper than this: India has only been part of the global economic system for 25 years. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS. That’s almost twelve years younger than the median age of the average American (36.8 years). The entire Western world is the continual compounding of hundreds of years of global trade. The disparity between the two, that is East and West, are huge, because necessary conditions of the global economy are innovations, better infrastructure, cheaper prices, larger demand, the list could go on and on.
As a result, the economic liberalistation of 1991 has led to this massive snowball effect that may lead India to becoming the future of the world’s economy. In regards to the aforementioned e-commerce bubble, the market was worth $3.9 Billion in 2009. In 2013, it was worth $12.6 Billion. India’s total retail market was estimated at $470 Billion in 2011. Current statistics estimate the value is closer to $675 billion in 2016. Even still, the market is expected to grow to upwards of $850 billion by 2020. This level of growth is historically and economically unprecedented: the value of an entire industry is expected to nearly double in under 10 years.
The central reason for this inflection point-like state of affairs comes down to 3 central things: infrastructure, mechanization, and liberal economic policy. The pieces finally settling into place, that is, India’s acceptance of the global, capitalist economy, this country right now is undergoing what America experienced in the Industrial Revolution. In that period of history, alongside the World Wars following it, America laid the foundations of its eventual rise as the world’s superpower. If done right, the same could happen in India.
It took me 4 days and 4 nights to understand this. The real explanation is even more nuanced. Realizing the gravity, I saw hope, I saw the future in a way even greater than I ever believed prior. Yet, I still did not understand why the youth mimic rather than innovate. Spending time with my host, his roommates, and their friends, I soon realized how hard the East bites the West. Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Sean Paul, Maroon 5: their musical tastes are brutally reflective of the past and present American pop scene. Selfie culture pervades the commercials.
It’s all so familiar, so disgustingly familiar.
I continued to question and interview my housemates, that is, until it culminated to a full-blown intervention. I will keep the details scant, but I stared alcoholism straight in the face. I saw the denials, the rationalization, the endless pushing away of help, the desperate desire to find dirt to throw, the incessant denial of blame, of agency, of the force that I derive my life’s meaning from.
That’s when it clicked: The Internet. I finally understood it. I finally understood why the world has entered stagnancy. I finally understood why the masses are frozen in place, pointing fingers away from themselves rather attempt to thaw themselves.
Art. Art. Art.
The single pillar of my ideology that I believe the world marginalizes most. If I’m right, it could be the solution to the world’s biggest problem. Gears clicking into place, I wrote the following manifesto:
To All the World’s Youth: This is a Call to Arms
The message didn’t spread nearly as much as I hoped. It’s just affirmation of the old ideal: trust no one. Especially when it comes to your dreams: trust no one. That isn’t to mean that I’ve given up on my plan. I’m still going to meet the Indian prime minister, it’ll just be through my direct words than through social media. I hope. There’s that fine line between between self-confidence and arrogance one must straddle.
This is where I return to the first sentence of this blog post: the rebirth of silk. Although more of a component to archaic China than to India, silk played a vital role in the global economy spurred by Polo. Yet, since the wake of socialism, closed borders, self-sufficiency, this youth paralysis, and all that comes with it, the silk industry has been decaying for hundreds of years.
Handlooming – the textile practice that machines once eliminated in the 1800’s – is still active within the wild silk center of India: the seven sister states of the Northeast. Of my biggest concern is Assam, an area that has been characterized by small-scale insurgencies and political turmoil alongside the East and West struggle.
In truth, the culture there is actually distinct from its Indian sovereignty. Although it is characterized by similar spiritual influences and the geography of the mighty Brahmaputra, its culture and traditions are closer to those of Southeast Asia. The historical languages are Assamese, Bodo, and Bengali. If I’ll be honest, I had never heard of the first two before I researched this area. In my defense, this culture has been of historically isolated from the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
Important to its history was the dominance of the Ahom Dynasty. While the Mughals held almost the entirety of the mainland continent, the Ahoms managed to maintain their Southeast Asian empire – of which Assam was a part – for nearly 600 years, until the invasion of the British through Bangladesh. Famously, the Mughals failed 18 times in its attempt to conquer the Ahoms.
In my first blog post, I wrote that little to no research exists on the Indian textile industry. If that is true, then there is no research at all on Assam’s best kept secret: Muga Silk. At this point of my investigation, I know things that even Wikipedia doesn’t.
So I’m traveling to Assam this Friday with Sayed – my Airbnb host – and Johny – my Airbnb neighbor. Johny is actually the one who first approached me and pointed me in the direction of Muga silk. He was planning on travelling to Assam for a friend’s wedding. I had talked to him about my research, so he invited me to tag along. Two details: plane tickets cost me $498 and Johny is actually from a tribal compound in rural Assam. Not only are we going to investigate the supply chain of Assamese silk, but we are going to a tribal wedding.
After I booked the tickets, I thought about this industry. I thought about the people, the culture. Their voices have been quelled in the chaos that followed Western Imperialism for no reason other than the pursuit of wealth that capitalism seems to invariably instill. From what little remnants I can find online, there was once a culture that rivaled the mainland Indo-Aryans and Dravidians.
In olden Assamese culture, Muga silk was only worn by nobility. Under the Ahom dynasty, it received great patronage, thriving and becoming integral to their culture. Yet, with the advent of industrialization, Muga silk has received neither the resources nor research to thrive. As a result, its industry is on the verge of death, supported only by nearby domestic demand. How is it the case that silk served for Emperors has no place in our modern society?
Since landing here, there have been a series of moments in which a mysterious force has seemed to be guiding. I call it God. Some will call it otherwise, but a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. I see what the world has missed for hundreds of years. I see opportunity. Have I stumbled upon it or have I been guided? I’m not sure. We all have to choose our own reasons, and at times the ego blinds us from the obvious. Now, I finally see the road I must take. I will use this opportunity to reinvent the world’s silk industry, and use what money entails into the fostering of a global world culture. Allow me to elaborate.
We would begin by establishing a Muga textile mill in Assam. Before we do this, we need to research and create more advanced textile and production methods in regards to Muga silk. Although research is occurring within the industry, its problems and shortcomings have not been exposed to the brightest minds of the West. As a result of history, political and economic trends, Western education and research trumps that of the East. In pursuit of my goal, overcoming this will be paramount.
So, my first steps when I come back from India will be to approach the world leaders in biology, textile science, infrastructure and other related fields. As I generate interest, I will then coordinate the individual travel of these individuals to Assam, where my partner Johny will help promote and manage their research.
Time will pass, and whatever methods those researchers and scientists develop will reflect in the constructed textile mill. From here, we will purchase a very large piece of land for our future complex. Then, we will start from the ground up and begin building the roads and physical structure of this building, as well as begin cultivating the necessary trees from which silkworms feed off of. Time will pass, and then we will soon be able to produce raw silk at the highest quality as well as at international standards of cleanliness, worker rights, eco-friendliness, and all other aspects of business that are not concerns in the general world textile industry.
From this raw silk, we will be able to meet local demand. It turns out, that India is the world’s biggest silk consumer – 60% – but it has to import 7000-8000 tons of silk a year from China just to meet this domestic demand. Government officials are actually openly complaining about the prices, so with our methods and background, meeting this demand will be our first focus.
Now, I said in my first post that fashion is and has always been about more than just clothing: it is a culture. There is a reason why everything dealing with clothing is called textiles in India, while the same is called fashion in America. Since coming here, I have been aware of the absence of a centralized culture. Inevitably, the fashion industry is affected, as it is driven primarily by the youth
Understanding this, I realize that silk’s role in the world of fashion is something I cannot fully understand. I am not from this place. I may share distant blood with these people, but at the end of it, this tradition, this heritage, it does not belong to me. It belongs to the youth. Not just the youth of Assam, but the World’s youth. I am one of them, and I see this. So I am making it my job to give the youth a voice, a medium through which their understanding of the world can reflect.
So, we will move from this base establishment of a raw silk mill to a global cultural center. In the same way that I will bring together the brightest Western minds to research the silk itself, I will bring together the world’s most important and influential artists and thinkers. To complement them, I will create a world program where we can bring together the world’s brightest, young artistic minds. The size of this academy will be small, the total of teachers and students under 100. From here, we will cultivate those who I hope will be the future of the world’s culture. By the time these youth graduate, we will launch the clothing brand internationally. From there, this organization has no limit. I want to build a utopia.