Often, an author or journalist who exposes the naked truth about India faces severe backlash. VS Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Arvind Adiga, Ramachandra Guha, Harsh Mander and P Sainath all belong to this category. Invariably, these authors who are thorough in their research, eloquent in their prose and scathing in their criticism are branded as anti-nationals. But why is that so? Why can the truth be such a bitter pill to swallow?
A popular saying today, often attributed to Jim Rohn, goes “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with”. The British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar studied a related measure. Based on our cognitive abilities, Dunbar examined how many social relationships the average human can maintain. He arrived at the number 150 – what we know today as Dunbar’s number. Therefore, our social world is the synthesis of the the data we gather from the 150 significant people in our lives. If we are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with, our world is the average of the 150 social relationships we can uphold at any point in our lives.
How significant is a sample of 150 people in understanding a nation?
Statistically speaking, the larger the heterogeneity of a population, the larger your sample ought to be to arrive at correct conclusions about it. If you wished to study the behaviour of ophthalmologists, you need to interview about 30 eye specialists. If you wished to study medical doctors as a whole, you would need representation from several disciplines – ophthalmologists, dermatologists, oncologists, pediatricians and the rest of the lot with Greek titles. Naturally, you would need a much larger sample than 30 lab coated professionals.
However, our upper limit, as Dunbar tells us, is 150 people. A sample of 150 people could be representative in a homogeneous society. A country like India with its languages, cultures and extraordinary social disparity is anything but homogeneous. Using 150 to understand the country is like trying to sample the vegetation in a tropical rain forest with a clump of grass.
Our understanding of this vast country is highly skewed by the handful of people we interact which. This sample need not be drawn from the sections of society that those authors portray. The dissonance between the authors’ India and that of their critics leads them to being accused of anti-nationalism.
And yet, both groups are correct in their own way. Central to this outrage is our inherent statistical limitation in understanding a country as vibrant as the one we are blessed to be born in.