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Home > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

Neti Neti or Indian identity?

April 19, 2007

Why don't you write about 'What it means to be Indian?'" Paul, my friend and guide to American culture asked me. He had seen my column 'What it means to be American', sometime back, had in fact liked it, and had told me that immoderate individualism and unbridled capitalism was not what defined him.

"Otherwise, why do I spend time and energy educating you?" he had asked jokingly. "But what about you guys, you all seem to speak in English but say that you have so many different languages, seem to go to different temples, even celebrate New Years on different days. How do you define yourselves as Indians?" he had asked seriously.

Now, to try to even venture characterising Indian identity is not for the faint hearted. Historians, sociologists and other breeds of scholarly analysts have grappled with this. No less than Gandhi himself went on a Bharat Darshan after he came back from South Africa to understand India. Nehru imparted his 'discovery of India' to his daughter.

Many scholars, among them recently, Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India, Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian and Shashi Tharoor in From Midnight to Millenium have tried to distil their insights. Foreign friends with an abiding interest and love for India, Mark Tully, William Dalrymple and Ed Luce have their own tales to tell in deciphering India, and there still seem to be 'no full stops' in the process.

Some ideas and words come readily to mind as you think about trying to find the features of Indian identity: antiquity, complexity, plurality. And familiar cliches, true but moth eaten with repetition: unity in diversity, a beautiful garden with many flowers, mosaic of many tiles, and a land of million mutinies.

Witty summations or pithy observations abound: 'Anything that anyone can say about India is true; its opposite is equally true!'; 'Centuries coexist in India -- both the bullock cart and the satellite are in their trajectories at the same time' and many more.

All true, all useful, all known instinctively to us as Indians, but difficult to impart to foreigners.

Which, as it happens is part of my job. I have a professional obligation, a great privilege in fact, to frequently speak about India to foreigners, to render the noisy, complex, even chaotic many layered aspects of India in simple images and terms.

And it is not easy. Not only the more esoteric and complex realities of India, but its simple aspects as well.

I realised this a long time ago, during my first assignment in Germany. It is a silly and trivial story, but is illustrative, nevertheless.

My landlord downstairs, who spoke only German had invited me to watch football, a German passion which he wanted to share. As we settled down, he offered me a beer, another German passion. As we took the first swig he asked me: 'What do you normally drink in India -- beer?'

Now I was young, impulsive and not prone to meditating my answers. Besides my German was rudimentary and I answered: "Well, depends, but whiskey-soda is popular."

"Of course, whiskey-soda, I understand, you were a British colony. And Gin-tonic, in the afternoon I suppose."

Something in the way he said it struck me. He now had this image of hundreds of millions of Indians settling down to watch cricket -- and not football, as I had educated him earlier -- with whiskey-soda.

What a gross distortion of the Indian reality. And yet what should have I said? Given him a lecture about the elite, the middle class, the poor and their drinking habits/problems from whiskey to xxx rum to desi tharra to water to nothing. And confuse him thoroughly and all this in bad German?

"Actually there are too many different practices and drinks," I said lamely. "Ya, Ya, you are always saying that," he nodded.

Which is kind of true. The most useful word to describe Indian identity and reality is 'multi'. We are multi-ethic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural and any other multi that can be thrown at us. We wear the multidimensional and multi layered identity as a badge.

But all this is baffling for others and I have often wondered about the difficulties in characterising and describing the Indian identity. From experience I have learnt that the problems in communication can be clustered around three concepts: Demography, diversity and dichotomy.

First, the sheer size of the Indian population is beyond the grasp for most foreigners except perhaps the Chinese. (Americans with a population of 300 million and their GDP of trillions may also have a good head for large numbers, if they are so inclined.) Others find it difficult to conceive our millions in every category, not to speak of lakhs and crores.

This came home to me vividly many years ago, when I was posted in Saudi Arabia. There was this constant talk about the 'status of minorities' and whether the identity of a small minority would be protected under the Indian State.

Tired of this talk, I once asked my Saudi interlocutor as to what he understood by the 'small minority'. I realised that his impression was that of a small group, a few thousand, struggling to keep their religious practices and habits alive.

When I told him the obvious -- yes, the Muslim minority in India is only 12 per cent of the population but then in absolute numbers, they are more than all the Gulf countries put together and are the third largest Muslim community anywhere in the world -- his eyes popped up.

Similar is the case with any other category, say, number of people below the poverty line, in the middle class, graduates or any other. The demographic dimensions of India are such that what we convey in percentages for example that 21 per cent are below the poverty line, and what the absolute numbers are, over 210 million -- these project totally different impressions.

Diversity adds to the complexity. Take food alone. What do you typically eat at home, is a question often asked of Indians by their inquisitive foreign friends. And the answers? Is it naan and butter chicken? Or dosa and sambhar? Or khadi and khandivi? What about kabab and biryani? An attempt to explain the regional, religious and cultural attributes underlying any of this becomes a long discourse on the bewildering diversity of India.

To add to this, the dichotomies: Isn't India rich and poor, imbued with modernity and rooted in antiquity, progressing and stagnating? Both aspects of any of these are true, as we all know. We have lines for going to super specialty hospitals for heart transplants and yet millions with lack of access to primary health care; world class IITs and schools without benches.

And all this is likely to stay with us at least for sometime.

Faced with all this, how does then one characterise the essence of India? My mind goes back to the Upanishadic description of the supreme reality neti neti -- 'not this' 'not this'. To the philosophical idea that to name, to particularise is to falsify. An escapist approach? Perhaps. But applicable to the many layered and multi faceted reality of India?

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at cg@cgisf.org


B S Prakash




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