Heart of the Matter

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A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

The Jetsons got it wrong

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Flying cars and gizmos aplenty; automation in the service of liberating people to live middle class lives without having to cook or clean up, that was the 21st century panacea personified by the Jetsons.

In the 1960s cartoon sitcom, George and Judy Jetson were high-tech White Ango-Saxons; their lives an idealized, cookie cutter vision of Middle America transposed into a world of progress and possibility. Words like globalization were not on their lips; American dominance was a given.

As a kid watching the antics of Rosie the robot maid, the thought would never have occurred to me that she would be manufactured in China or Korea, let alone India. George might have tousled with his boss, but didn't worry that his job would be outsourced to Bangalore or Mumbai.

And the notion that his boy Elroy would marry a woman from there? That surely wouldn't fit the Jetsonian weltanshaung.

Fast forward to the real future, old George, and let me tell you about the wedding I'm attending today. The groom grew up with my kids in Middle America, a place that may have lost its qualitative edge as other nations find their groove.

The bride is a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, the fast-growing IT capitol near where the nuptials are taking place. The couple met in college in Iowa. The wedding party is an international jet set, young people whose horizons have no borders: Indian doctors, PhDs and business people living in every corner of India and the globe; Ethiopians with skills that qualify them to work anywhere; Americans who well understand that they must compete not just locally, but globally, and take that challenge as a given.

The Nargehole Wildlife refuge, with its elephants and tigers, is a quaint venue for this sophisticated crowd of India's cream of the crop, and we American baby boomers, who remember the Jetsons, take it all in and wonder. The India we see emerging here is no paper tiger; tomorrow it might eat our lunch.

Meanwhile, my new Indian friends and I have been feasting together, toasting not just a new couple, but a new world, where the abundant Tatas and Mahindras on India's roads seem just as good as our Chevys and Fords. The playing field is getting leveled, and that's probably all for the better. By definition the globalized world has only one playing field; and given the problems of overpopulation, pollution, and dwindling energy supplies we better not play zero-sum games. Whether Indian, American, or anyone else, we're all in this together. We need to embrace our future if not like newlyweds, then like newfound friends who've all been invited to the same party.


Dissolving anonymity in India

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How many times have I spoken with a customer service representative in Bangalore, India? How many times in this globalized world have I encountered a distant stranger and bent his ear around my inscrutable computer glitch or foible of my phone?

Often during these encounters people introduce themselves as Sam or Cindy, and I wonder, what's your real name? Who are you really? Here we are, two of seven billion on this lonely planet; how might we sanctify our chance encounter? Tell me, I want to ask, what's your life like? How do you live? Tell me about your family, and how you'll relax when your shift at the call center ends.

Since arriving in India several days ago I'm having close encounters aplenty, sharing the jammed and harrowing streets, the dry dust mixed with diesel, the day-to-day bustle of people among whom, I'm sure, are more than a few of my random interlocutors. Who knows, maybe I've passed them on one of Bangelore's clogged arteries, which cry out for automotive angioplasty.

Today at the Shri Bull Temple, women in bright, intricate saris, and men in open collared shirts, swarmed to offer prayers and receive blessings. New cars jostled through the crowd so their proud owners could have them blessed too. Once sanctified, the cars reenter the halting stream of traffic, and instantly become a curse.

But when the traffic grinds to a halt, people quickly make contact. They stare at me through the window of my taxi, and then dissolve into a smile. Where are you from, they ask? How do you like Bangalore? I like it I say, and then comes that sweet rocking of the head from side to side, the Indian nod of affirmation, which closes what otherwise might feel like an unbridgeable gulf.

I'm in India for a wedding, not for business, and I've not yet met anyone here who works for a call center. No mind; so far I've met PhD candidates and filmmakers, drivers and shopkeepers, waiters and even a policeman, who, rather than shooing me away, offered me a delicious snack as I sat writing this blog.

But if by chance I do meet a customer service rep, you can be sure I'll ask about every detail of his or her life. And I'll learn to say their real name in Tamil or Hindi. Thus we'll sanctify the encounter, and be anonymous no more.

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