How Downton Abbey and an Indian Hip-Hop Artist Explain The World

Aspiration, One Of The World's Most Disruptive Forces, Remains a Relatively New Phenomenon in History. It Will Continue to Rock Our World.

“The nature of life is not permanence, but flux,” Mr Carson, the famously fastidious and traditional butler of Downton Abbey said with a hint of frustration toward the end of the wildly popular British period drama of the same name. A traditionalist uneasy with the changes sweeping society in early 20th century Britain, Mr. Carson (pictured far left above) was acknowledging reality. His world was changing, and he would need to find ways to adapt.

The concept of change lay at the heart of Downton Abbey, the television series that broke viewership records (it was the most watched PBS series of all time by far), won multiple Emmy awards and earned tens of millions of dollars and devoted fans from the U.S to China and beyond. The winds of change — sometimes gentle, other times furious — whipped against the the lavish and serene country estate in Great Britain from 1912-26 that was home to Lord and Lady Grantham, their family and the world of upstairs lords and ladies and downstairs butlers and housemaids - the fictional creation of the talented author and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (born in Cairo in 1949, itself on the cusp of dramatic changes).

Many commentators have written about the underlying theme of social change in Downton Abbey. The last words of the series underscore this theme, spoken by one of the most popular characters, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, masterfully played by Maggie Smith (pictured below). The Countess had a penchant for zinging one-liners and a surprising flexibility and a soulful heart buried beneath her prim, sometimes obstinate traditionalism.

As the series came to a close on new year’s eve 1926, she sat with her cousin Isobel and they reflected on the future and the past.

Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess: “It makes me smile the way we drink every year to what the future may bring.”

Cousin Isobel: "What else could we drink to? We're going forward into the future, not back into the past."

Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (chuckles): "If only we had the choice."

Obviously, change is not a choice, and she understood this, even reluctantly. From the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ famous remark that “there is nothing permanent except change” to our lived experience of high-speed change, we know that our world is constantly evolving and the most resilient are those who can adapt.

But there was something else at play in Downton Abbey that has not received as much attention. What Downton Abbey showed us, particularly among the downstairs servants, was the new, not always comfortable but radically disruptive phenomenon of aspiration. One of the biggest changes Mr. Carson, the Countess Dowager -- and the Western, industrialized world -- was facing revolved around a potent force recently unleashed in society: the aspiration of the individual.

What do I mean by this? I mean a form of meaningful aspiration, a belief that one has a right and the ability to try to rise “above their station” - and that by education, entrepreneurial flourish, the acquisition of a technical skill, or possibly migration, one could rise above their fated lot. This is a revolutionary concept that began broadly with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th century. Before then, in most of the Western world, you could hope for a better life, or wish to rise above your lot, but it was not something that individuals meaningfully aspired toward with an expectation of results.

In the downstairs of Downton Abbey, we saw several of the characters who worked “in service” - a respectable job for sons and daughters of farmers or laborers - aim for more. It was the beginning of mass aspiration.

These early aspiration pioneers did not have it easy. When the housemaid Gwen dreamed of moving up in life, possibly becoming a secretary, she faced opprobrium from both upstairs and downstairs. Her words were moving when she told one of Lord Grantham’s daughters who was helping her: “You’re brought up to think it’s all within your grasp, that if you want something enough it will come to you.  But we’re not like that. We don’t think our dreams are bound to come true because they almost never do.”

It was a heartbreaking statement, but one that bore truth. But eventually Gwen — after learning to type — managed to get a job as a secretary and make the transition. Countless other Gwen’s were striving to do the same at that time, unleashing a wave of meaningful aspiration in Western societies - the belief that you can rise “above your station.”

I see many of those same patterns playing out across the developing world and emerging markets today - and aspiration remains a potent and disruptive force in societies worldwide. After all, a world in which you are content with your “station” is a less disruptive (and a less just one, too) than a world of aspiring individuals wanting more.

Aspiring individuals wanting more or, at least, believing that there is no Divine right of kings or aristocrats or “presidents-for-life”, have been revolutionary forces from France in 1789 to the Arab Uprisings of the past decade. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot over the past five years. In 2017, I wrote a piece in which I argued that “the story of the Arab Uprisings is largely a story of aspirations unmet, and heavy-handed governments slamming the doors on young populations seeking opportunity, dignity, hope, and freedom.”

And since I’ve already committed the sin of quoting myself, indulge me once more, if only to share my thought process on this topic (and a co-written piece of which I remain proud). Alongside fellow traveler Mishaal Al Gergawi back in 2016, we wrote - “The first quarter of the 21st century might be dubbed the age of aspiration. Just about everywhere in the [emerging world], people are seeking more – more education, more goods, more connectivity, more opportunity, more rights, more entertainment, more jobs, more of almost everything.”

As the 19th century French diplomat and author Alexis de Tocqueville warned us, rising expectations that are unmet can be a revolutionary driver. But there’s more to it than political protest. The son of a Kenyan farmer or daughter of an Egyptian taxi driver today generally assumes that with the right mix of conditions - education or entrepreneurial flourish or migration or some combination of all -- they can rise toward a life of greater material progress and less hardship than their parents. 

As the author Evan Osnos astutely points out in his fine book, “The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” the greatest change to come to China has been “aspiration, the sheer ability to make a better life.”

The danger lies in the fact that those expectations are often not met by reality. Instead, they face the reality of corruption and nepotism, lack of available jobs, and venal establishments unwilling to make the changes necessary to level the playing field.

There’s also generational clashes of younger aspirants wanting more than their cautious parents. A recent Indian movie (a must watch, fellow travelers!) that featured a rapper on the rise captured this Zeitgeist moment beautifully. The movie, Gully Boy, directed by Zoya Akhtar, has an Eminem 8 Mile quality to it - a young man from the slums in Mumbai, the wrong side of the tracks, finds meaning in rap music and rises to the top of rap contests with his powerful lyrics and music videos.

His abusive father, of course, disapproves and wants him to maintain a sensible job in an office owned by a relative, Ateeq. For his father, that office job was a gift given to his son, one that would allow him to rise above the slum life, and he grew angry when he walked out of the job.

In that dramatic confrontational scene, his son told him the “good news” that he won a rap contest and a dramatic showdown ensued. I watched the film on one of my last international flights pre-Covid and was so struck by the dialogue that I pulled out my phone and recorded it (thankfully! as I could not find the dialogue in English on Youtube).

Here is the dramatic scene’s dialogue:

Son: “Over 50 rappers tried out. Only five made it. I got selected. I made the right choice.”

Father: “Choice? Who are you? What are you worth? Call Ateeq and apologize!”

Son: “I won’t apologize! He called us servants!”

Father: “But we ARE servants!”

Son: “That means we serve and work hard! We are not slaves! Whatever we are, we deserve respect.”

Father: “You wont get such an opportunity again. Who do you think you are?”

Son: “So now someone else will tell me who I am? Look at this.” He gets up and shows his father a smartphone. “Over 400,000 people saw this video.”

Father: “So what?”

Son: “Read the comments they’ve posted. They’re thanking me for making a song about people like us.”

Father: “So what?”

Son: “So it means something! It matters to people. After I die, people will still watch it and feel something. That has value. I have value! Don’t ever call me worthless. I am something. And I’m worth something…”

Father: “Listen, son. Life isn’t easy for people like us. We can’t afford big dreams. Haven’t I told you to keep your head down? The world…”

Son:Did you ever consider you might be wrong? That you’ve wasted your whole life believing a lie? Believing this is our fate. That only scraps are in our lot.”

Father (his face torn with pain): “No. It’s not a lie. I’ve seen more sunsets than you have. I’ve taught you only what I’ve learned. Your dream must match your reality.”

Son: “I will not change my dream to match my reality. I will change my reality to match my dream.”

In a way, the Indian hip-hop artist confronting his father was no different than Gwen from Downton Abbey. They both simply aspired to something more, something beyond the confining walls of tradition or “fate.” They chose to change their reality to match their dream.

******************************************************************************************************

Let’s give Gully Boy, the last word with his song, Asli Hip-Hop (video below). And I can’t recommend the movie enough (the female lead, the Muslim medical student, Safeena Ferdausi, played by Alia Bhatt, is a stereotype-shattering firecracker of love and emotion, and Ahmed Murad plays the lead artist with quiet power).

“The dark nights helped me find the light…I am an artist today that will shape your tomorrow..” From Asli Hip Hop

**********************************************************************************************************

As always, fellow travelers, you can reach us at eworldairmail@gmail.com

Vartan Gregorian: (1934-2021) From Humble Roots in Tabriz to the Pinnacle of American Education and Philanthropy

At this part of the newsletter, we often point out what we’re reading or watching or hearing on podcasts, but I’d like to note two noteworthy deaths this week. The first was a man I had met only once and exchanged a few emails with, received a kind inscription of his memoir once, but did not know well, though I admired him greatly - Vartan Gregorian, the President of Carnegie Corporation. He led an extraordinary life, from humble roots in Tabriz, Iran to the pinnacle of American education as president of Brown University to president of the Carnegie Corporation and savior of the New York public library.

Our fellow traveler Karim Sadjadpour summed it up in well this tweet

The New York Times obituary reminds us of the extraordinary journey of Gregorian, who embodied the best of his ancestral homelands and the best of the new world in America that he did so much to shape. It also reminds us of the importance of strong parent or grandparent figures. From the New York Times obituary:

Vartan Gregorian was born on April 8, 1934, in the Armenian quarter of Tabriz, in northwest Iran, to Samuel and Shooshanik (Mirzaian) Gregorian. His father was an accountant for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Vartan’s older brother, Aram, died in infancy, and his mother died of pneumonia when he was 6. His father was drafted in World War II and later became an often-unemployed office worker.”

Vartan and his younger sister, Ojik, were raised by their maternal grandmother, Voski Mirzaian, an illiterate but gracious storyteller whose allegorical fables instilled in the children lessons in morality: about telling the truth, possessing integrity, and the dignity to be found in stoicism and good deeds.

“‘She was my hero,’ Dr. Gregorian said in an interview for this obituary in 2019. ‘I learned more about character from her than from anybody I ever met or any book I ever read.’”

In his honor, I remember one of my favorite lines from the 13th century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi, someone I know he revered as well.

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

He seemed to live that line. May he rest in peace, and my condolences to his family, his colleagues, and the many close friends he had across multiple worlds.

************************************************************************************************************

Fatma Zakaria - Pioneering Indian Female Journalist (1936-2021)

Another death struck me this week, though I never had the privilege of meeting her - the distinguished journalist Fatma Zakaria. Her life, like Vartan Gergorian’s, was a life well-lived. She did not settle for being a drop in the ocean, and she steadily rose up the ranks in Indian journalism, becoming editor of several publications, including the Mumbai Times and Sunday editor of the Times of India.

Her son, the author and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, delivered a moving tribute to her on air that deserves your time and attention. He describes her vital role in his life and it’s a powerful reminder of why love remains the most powerful force on earth. It’s also a reminder that for every successful immigrant story, there is, as Fareed notes, “a family left behind, a mother who would quietly weep at night, distant from the child she loved.”

Fatma Zakaria, it seems to me -- like Vartan Gregorian — embodied the best of what the Emerging World that we write about in these pages has to offer: cosmopolitan, hard-working, devoted people making our world a better place. In one case, Vartan chose to bring his considerable talents to America, enriching his new home. For Ms Zakaria, she stayed in India, enriching her homeland.

I hope you have a good weekend and good week ahead. We’ll be back with our daily Emerging Markets round-up on Sunday.

P.S - Thank you all for your outreach and comments on my two recent columns, How BTS and K-Pop Explain the World, and Why Travel Matters. It’s gratifying and humbling to hear your own stories. This humble caravan we’ve constructed - Emerging World - has become a lot less humble with fellow travelers like you, so thank you. And we have plenty of road to cover.

To join our caravan…