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Pitfalls of imitating the American Dream

Sunday 5 February 2006, by KULKARNI*Sudheendra

Does good literature teach us anything about what constitutes good economics? Prevailing punditry on economic reforms says no. What have novelists, playwrights and poets got to do with economic growth? Leave that to businessmen, economists, financial engineers and management gurus. That’s the consensus which even the political class is veering round to.

As the BSE sensex stands all set to cross 10,000 this week, a minuscule minority of the super-rich are going to get richer. However, with all the attendant trumpeting by the media, that’s enough to cause millions of additional middle-class Indians to become converts to the paradigm of stockmarket-driven prosperity. At a jolly time like this, who wants to hear voices of scepticism and disillusionment from the world of literature? Don’t you know about those rags-to-riches business families whose wealth is now several thousand crores, and rising? That’s what constitutes, according to the dominant philosophy of wealth-creation, the Great Indian Dream, the 21st-century version of the Great American Dream of the last century.

A play I read in my college years during the radical Seventies, and re-read recently, makes me disbelieve this paradigm. This week marks the first death anniversary (February 10) of Arthur Miller, the renowned American playwright who wrote Death of a Salesman. Those familiar with theatre know that it is one of the finest plays of the 20th century. Written in 1949, and enacted and adapted in theatres all over the world since then, it questioned the very dream that we now see being hard-sold by our salesmen of unbridled capitalism more than 50 years later. It is a powerful portrayal of an ordinary salesman who buys into the Great American Dream and spends all his working life in fervent pursuit of wealth, success and status.

A good-hearted and honest middle-class American at a time when being a member of the middle-class meant being pride of the nation and not an increasingly insecure nobody as is the case now in the US, Willy Loman believes in the myth that any American can become rich by working hard. He is also led to believe that, apart from hard work and honesty, success in life depends critically on status, popularity and personal attractiveness. But the more he chases these false values of capitalism, the more he feels that he is just not making it. Life teaches him that capitalism creates dreams for all, but fulfills them only for a few. He chooses not to become one of those ??successful’’ few by becoming dishonest in his dealings. However, as age catches up on him, his own son begins to consider him a failure in life. Soon, he too starts to think likewise. Slowly, his sense of self-worth fades and he dissipates to his hopeless death.

Though place-specific and time-specific in its content, good literature always gives expression to experiences, aspirations and angst that are universal. Thus, there is a line in Miller’s play that echoes the experience of millions of ordinary workers and employees in today’s heartless and impersonal economic system in India. ??You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away,’’ Loman protests, when his boss fires him for not notching up the same high level of sales as in his youth, adding, ??A man is not a piece of fruit.’’ If you have the eyes to see, you can see tens of thousands of these meekly protesting but essentially powerless Lomans in India, China, United States and other countries. They provide the labour that helps a few become millionaires and billionaires, but who themselves live largely unhappy lives, unhonoured in their workplaces, unknown in their habitats, mostly worrying about their children’s education, employment and housing, their family’s mounting medical expenses, life after retirement, etc.

When Miller died last year at age 89, he was mourned as the ?Moral Voice of American Stage’. In an excellent obituary, Time magazine’s theatre columnist Richard Corliss wrote: ??Miller saw the American Dream as a kind of curse, for it led us to mistake ambition for destiny, and to suffer the inevitable slump and crumble when reality makes mock of the dream.’’ There is a stirring line in the play that expresses the anguish and anger of those whose dreams go bust. Just before Loman’s death, his wife Linda, who loved and cared for her husband both in his prime and in his crisis, poignantly cries out: ??Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the papers. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.’’

After the worldwide success of Miller’s play, ??Attention must be paid’’ became a popular line in pro-people theatre and political writing. That line bears repetition in the present Indian context, when the same myths, half-truths, false promises and counterfeit values, which were castigated by Miller and countless other great poets, playwrights, novelists, journalists, philosophers, political activists and spiritual leaders all over the world, are now being propagated by consumerist advertising in India. Individualism is extolled. Obligation to contribute to the well-being of the collective is underplayed. Our young people are being led to believe that life is all about getting rich quickly, gaining status in society, and having a ??good time’’. Those who can’t make the grade are adjudged ??failures’’, even if they are honest and display other superior qualities at workplace and in their personal lives. The rich and the powerful are the new icons in our society, never mind how some of them got their money and power. Surely, ??attention must be paid’’ to these life-impoverishing imbalances in our ideas of prosperity, economic growth and development.

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