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This article was first published 14 years ago

'Market's ability to process info is a lie'

Last updated on: August 10, 2009 

Prem Panicker

Author Rajni Bakshi discusses with Editorial Director Prem Panicker how her latest book Bazaars, Conversations and Markets came about.

Conversations: when did we stop having them, and how do we start having them again? That is the premise underlying 'Bazaars, Conversations and Markets', the latest offering, under the Penguin imprimatur, of journalist/author/activist Rajni Bakshi.

As 'market' books go, this one is as different from the glut of 'India is the world's fastest growing market, how do I exploit it to the hilt' tomes tumbling off overloaded bookshelves in recent years.

That the market is flawed is taken as a given -- Bakshi's working brief is to delve deep into the past to discover ways it can be improved, through the combination of trade and conversation that characterized the bazaars and choupals of antiquity.

"I have been writing about development-related issues and what in the eighties we used to call alternative development," Bakshi, seated in her Prabhadevi, Mumbai home, recalled in the midst of a busy Saturday.

That preoccupation has powered earlier a vast archive of columns as well as her earlier book-length works: 'Bapu Kuti' (1998), 'The Dispute over Swami Vivekananda's Legacy' (1994), and 'The Long Haul: The Bombay Textile Workers' Strike'.

Of these, 'Bapu Kuti' is the one most akin, in structure, to her latest effort that will hit the bookshelves August 6. "I crafted 'Bapu Kuti' as a series of stories that addressed middle-class India, the class that believes that idealism died with the freedom movement," Bakshi says.

"That book had stories through which we looked at where we had taken the wrong turns, post independence, and how by grappling with the issues in material and psychological ways we could find solutions. I thought such stories would help people find solutions."

She discovered, as ambitious writers often do, that the book had only halfway hit the mark it aimed at -- a cautionary tale, for when she embarked on her latest and most ambitious effort.

"I realised that even among those people who liked the stories, they found it inspirational only in a Mother Teresa kind of way. In any society, at all times, there will be people of extraordinary talents, skill and idealism and high moral stature. Such people will always come along in history, we will love reading their stories -- but they remain in the realm of bedtime tales, it does not make anyone rethink their own lives or even the model of development and where we are headed."

Yet change -- even microscopic change -- is worth the effort, she discovered. "I met several people who came back to India from the US in the 1990s and the early part of this century, before this current exodus, before it was fashionable to do so, who said to me that they had been thinking about it for a while, and it was my book that tipped the balance."

The book also inspired a brief flirtation with films -- director Ashutosh Gowarikar sourced the spine of his Shah Rukh Khan-starrer 'Swadesh' from the themes of 'Bapu Kuti', and Bakshi ended up working on the script and even parts of the dialog.

What the book also did, serendipitously, is to get Bakshi thinking of the whole idea of markets -- an epiphany, she points out, that predated the Wall Street collapse by over a decade.

"Somewhere along the way, while working on the book and on my columns, I began to ask myself what was the over-arching issue when we think of development, and what is the means through which this issue can be probed, and crystallized into effective communication."

'Market's ability to process info is a lie'

At which point, like Alice in the story, she fell down an unending rabbit hole -- "and I can tell you it really felt like falling into a rabbit hole," Bakshi recalled.

"I felt like Alice a lot of the time these last ten years. This is when the Enron protest was happening, and I realised, hey, wait a minute -- if someone had a magic wand, then the activist vision could be actualised, of individuals owning natural resources -- land, water, all of those. Wouldn't it then be much easier and much cheaper for Enron to buy up the village directly, as opposed to the process they had to follow -- one that drove up acquisition costs so much, they were then forced to mark up prices accordingly?"

The problem with such thoughts, Bakshi-as-Alice figured, is that they are too off-center, too kooky-corner on the face of it. At which point, initial epiphany became a full-fledged mental revolution, when George Soros wrote the seminal book The Crisis of Global Capitalism.

"I was hit for a six," she recalls. "I had a vague idea of who he was, but after reading this book I thought, this man, sitting where he is and thinking like this -- I mean, much of what he was saying could have been written by my activist friends. What struck me was, Soros was saying all this from the center table, where he was a star."

That in turn led Bakshi to think of conversations; of why some voices gain traction and others don't, and from there to whether the single biggest ailment of the modern market was that 'market forces' tended to damp down free-flowing exchange of ideas and thoughts, and thus create an informational vacuum which precipitates chaos.

"The fundamental building block of the market is supposed to be its unfailing ability to process information, give or take a few minor errors. This has turned out to be a colossal lie," Bakshi points out. "Collapses have happened before; what is remarkable about the latest meltdown is that the warning data was so glaring, the cloud gathering above was so large. The market was a house of cards -- this was a widely known fact, and it was widely ignored."

The meltdown actually underlined the 'down the rabbit hole' feeling Bakshi had from 1998, when she finished work on Bapu Kuti and began germinating the first seed of this project, through 2002-2003, when she won a Homi Bhabha Fellowship that allowed her to pursue the thought seriously, all the way through to this week, when the result of over six years of hard labour finally sees the light of print.

As she followed a particular thought through the labyrinthine layers of Internet-fuelled research, she was confronted by rapidly changing events in the real world -- events that directly played off the topic she had so serendipitously stumbled on.

"Imagine," Bakshi says she found herself thinking, "if the guys on Wall Street had to answer to a community structure, like a self-help group does -- would this have happened? I am not answering the question -- as with much else, I however pose it as a legitimate question that deserves to be thought about, to be answered."

Bakshi started out thinking that her book would be about marginal people fighting on the fringes of the global marketplace -- but as her explorations deepened and broadened and contemporary events occurred to change the landscape of inquiry, the book took on a life of its own.

"The kaleidoscope kept changing, and the exciting part was whatever I learnt about the conceptual, historical things kept manifesting in unfolding events," she recalls.

Time and again, she found herself going back to one fundamental question: if the modern market is so susceptible to collapse, why then was there about the structure of the historical marketplace, the bazaars and choupals of antiquity, that permitted them to survive for 5,000 years and more?

Inspiration came from the likes of Nicholas Stern, from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who has written a blurb for her book and who, she points out, won the top prize not so much for his theories as for the fact that he brought the concept of ethics back to economics.

"After three years of pottering about, the canvas was so large that one part of me wondering how to even tell a story on such a large canvas," Bakshi recalls. "Yet I couldn't leave it, because I had seen what was there in terms of argumentation and information, and it was clear to me that there was a narrative that linked all of my research -- except that it was still in a big, academic box; it didn't have the accessibility to appeal to the average reader."

Bakshi doesn't see herself as a writer's writer and suggests, with no trace of modesty, that she is more a craftsman, capable enough of conveying an idea, but relatively unschooled in the tricks of the narrative trade.

'Market's ability to process info is a lie'

And from that perspective, her problem became, how to consolidate realms of research, immense archival treasures of conversations with businesspeople, academics, activists and others worldwide [her acknowledgements run into four pages] into a tight, coherent narrative?

"And then this friend sent me a mail from Thailand, with pictures of these enormous, intricately carved Buddhas -- sort of like the ones in Bamiyan. He told me they were absolutely amazing, so he asked the people there how the sculptors had done that. 'Simple,' a monk told him, 'they just chipped away everything that didn't look like the Buddha!'"

That random email served as lighthouse -- as did an encounter with a then retired, one-time director of Greenpeace.

"I met her in 2003, and she asked me how it was going, and I told her I was feeling terrified - how can I do this? Oh, she said, I met a man recently who had done this whole encyclopaedia on birds -- an enormous work, richly detailed about every sort of bird known to man. I asked him how he did it, and he told me, 'Bird by bird'."

Inspired, Bakshi set about reducing her research, her six years of exploration, into a book of seven thematically linked chapters across 400 pages [not counting an extensive bibliography that is a treasure trove of links to articles and books on the market and its idiosyncratic behavioural patterns].

"It would have been impossible for a single person to write this without the Internet," she says now, from journey's end, "and even with it, it is a collaborative effort, if you look at the four pages of acknowledgements you'll realise just how many people have been part of this."

Distilled to its essence, the book hooks four ideas up, each naturally transitioning to the next:

  1. The emphasis is now shifting from 'market reforms' to reforming and reconfiguring the very idea of markets;
  2. 'The market' is not an entity in and of itself, but is an amorphous being shaped and constantly reshaped by the choices that communities, governments and private enterprises make;
  3. Across the world, as awareness of the risks and dangers of the contemporary market concept sinks in, there are creative endeavours aimed at morphing the market culture to make it more directly useful to rich and poor alike, while simultaneously conserving the environment, and
  4. The figure of civilization as we know it now depends on such innovations gathering momentum and giving shape to a more mindful market culture.

If that precis makes you anticipate a dense polemic, perish the thought -- though the book deals with the idea of holistic market reform by dialogue that draws inspiration from the past, the idea is brought out through human stories that put an accessible face on the subject.

"I would say the stories in this book are hints that we are already moving in the direction of such dialogue," Bakshi says.