Lactating Cows, Detection Bias and CNBC

Oh, I’m embarrassed. I just crouched down to take a photo of 1912, a famous night club here in Bangalore, when I was spooked by the appearance of yet another sunglass tout. This time I snapped at him. “Look,” I said, indicating my face. “I’ve already got a pair!” Now, I said it with a smile on my face, and the fellow sheepishly walked on, but I feel like crap. Really, the dude is just doing his job. But why try to sell milk to a lactating cow? (Geez, the Indian penchant for metaphors is rubbing off on me!) Thirty seconds later, of course, I was beset by three other fellows also trying to sell me sunglasses.

Then another weird thing happened. I was accosted by CNBC television to talk about euthanasia in India, which I did. The interviewer seemed a bit shocked that I was able to lecture on for 6-7 minutes on a topic that was just dropped into my lap. But therein lies the advantage of having a blog: you tend to have ready-made and verbose opinions on everything. But consider what has happened. In small-fry Canada, I struggle to get PR for my various careers. But here in a land of a billion people, in less than a month and without even trying, I’ve been on television twice. And next week I will speak at the enormous Nehru University in Delhi. Yes, I’m scared.

I continue to get irate emails about my earlier post about India’s youthfulness manifesting as inexperience in romance. All the emails are from educated middle-upper class Indians who have moved to the West, and who insist that young Indians are as, if not more, sexually and romanticlly active as their Western counterparts. They might be right. I’m certainly not an expert in this, but merely proposing some theories. However, consider what I just wrote: all the emails are from educated middle-upper class Indians.

One thing that is clear here is a gaping disconnect between the educated middle-upper classes and the ocean of the labour class beneath them. India is one of the few rapidly modernizing nations whose population is still mostly rural, despite her enormous and growing cities. The values, behaviours and lifestyles of the urbane, educated middle-upper class set are not those of the village class, nor of the enormous urban underclass who keep the cities running. Do you think the chaiwallah‘s daughter is freely dating and exploring her sexuality with her peers? Or the hundreds of millions of teens in the villages? How about the young touts selling maps and sunglasses 14 hours a day, do they have time, let alone the familial tolerance, for such a lifestyle?

Yet all go to the movies and all help define the totality of Indian values. It is thus inaccurate to claim that one group –urbanite or underclass– defines the geist in isolation. But the latter group is certainly more populous.

Do keep in mind that everything we of the West learn of the new, emerging India is provided by a specific class of people: middle or upper class, English-speaking, Hindi- or Tamil-speaking, and largely Hindu –and almost always men. India’s exported publications, diplomats, intellectuals, celebrities, business leaders, etc, are mostly of this type. Who speaks for the rest?

I once interviewed a Delhi publishing company, Kali For Women. Their entire mandate was to give voice to this enormous, unrepresented underclass. Sadly, after decades of producing excellent books, they have folded. But they were adamant in convincing me of one thing: the India we of the world are presented with is not the India of the masses, but of a minority ruling class who probably don’t even realize they are a minority ruling class. Certainly, haunting the wealthy and asset-strewn streets of Bangalore, it would be easy for me to conclude that 99% of India is shopping malls and IT millionaires; their attitudes and values are shouted most loudly. But clearly that would be a mistake. In epidemiology, we call this “detection bias”, the tendency to make conclusions based solely on the factors most easily accessed, which may or may not be a representative sample of all actual factors.

So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the subcontinent is a hotbed of teen dating, sex, revolving door relationships and the like. Or maybe I’m right, and those who insist that India’s teen-romance conservatism is a thing of the past are really just accessing their own peer groups, who tend to be of the upper-middle class and thus not truly representative of the whole. Remember this axiom, it is the key to all science: the plural of anecdote is not data.

Please, if you have an opinion on this matter, leave it in the comments below.