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An outside eye on India

By Rrishi Raote
July 10, 2007 14:22 IST
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The English are obsessed with the question of their Englishness. What marks them out as a people, as a nation, what makes them English? The question, and attempted responses, are self-consciously visible in virtually every cultural product, from newspapers to fish fingers; and replies are heard from the lesser nationhoods of Great Britain: Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Pakistani. When did this start -- the Venerable Bede? 1066? Elizabeth I? Napoleon? Victoria? 1947?

When did Americans start asking this question -- 1776? Earlier? Since Vietnam, at any rate, Americans have agonised continuously about who they are and what they stand for. The richer they get, the more it worries them. And now it is India's turn.

The question of Indianness has rarely been raised because there was no India until Alexander, and then the Greeks took it away with them as a category. It returned again and again in the views of outsiders, travellers like Hiuen Tsang, Alberuni, and commercial travellers like the early European merchants.

Indians only started asking the question after curious and persistent East India Company employees (like James Prinsep, an inspiring figure) had begun to answer it for them with detective work among the classics and ancient sites of their new empire.

When Company yielded to Crown, antiquarians gave way to administrators. The India they saw was one that needed them, and could not do without. It was full of cruel, primitive practices like untouchability and sati. Thoughtful Indians like Vivekananda, and some Europeans too, responded by seeking out in Indian civilisation the spiritual basis that was lacking in the West. And there, in some ways, matters stood.

Yet none of this tells us what Indians are really like. It needed the right moment in history to bring us to this question. In 2004, Pavan Varma, a bureaucrat and culture czar, published Being Indian: The Truth about Why the Twenty-First Century Will Be India's. Since before the turn of the century the talk has been of an India in transition, "emerging from the shadows of history," as Varma writes, "into the glare of a globalising world".

This is the context, the sheer astonishment at our success, that turns us back onto ourselves to ask: who on earth are we, where have we been, why are we doing so well, and what holds us back?

However, success creates fear of failure. Modern economies can be compared to an elephant on a downhill trot. If the mahout (the government, etc) keeps control of the elephant, it will go nice and steady and carry its passengers safely. If it trips or is scared by a mouse, ugly and irreversible things will happen very fast.

That fear of faltering, the reluctance to take any bad consequences whatsoever (consider what the slightest doubt does to stock prices), makes success a fragile thing. Hence people find they must know about themselves to forestall mistakes born of their own ignorance.

A number of recent books tell us what their authors think it means to be Indian. Pavan Varma first identifies the old stereotypes, which are oddly paradoxical: India is "fragmented but spiritually transcendent", ungovernable or self-reliant, venal or unmaterialistic, opaque or "ancient and revealing"; Indians are lazy or diligent, superstitious or evolved, servile or rebellious, talented or imitative, cultured or too poor, and, always, "far too many".

Then he throws the stereotypes out. He tells us what all of us secretly know: that Indians are extremely and uniquely status-conscious, highly materialistic, pragmatic and oblivious to inequity and suffering. Rather than religiously tolerant, they prefer "insular coexistence". They can be violent when violence has social sanction, such as in the enforcement of caste hierarchy or in a communal riot.

Varma sees three engines of change. The first he calls "a new pan-Indianness", shaped by growing cultural unity (Daler Mehndi sold well in Kerala), communications, politics, people moving across the country to work (Indian cities are truer melting-pots than New York or London). He doesn't explicitly mention the power of aspiration, but that too is now characteristic of Indians of every class.

The second is the loosening of social hierarchies alongside the increasing assertiveness of lower castes and the urban poor. And the third is IT, which one can take as shorthand for the service industry in general.

In The Indians: Portrait of a People, Sudhir and Katharina Kakar, drawing mainly upon psychoanalysis, explain why Indians are the way they are. Psychoanalysis provides the perfect tools to examine, for instance, the roots of Indians' awe of authority, the mother-son relationship, notions of dirt and pollution, and patience in adversity. But they assume that change starts in the upper-middle class: this is no longer true, and it is the reason why change is so noticeable to those who look.

To see through the eyes of one such, read Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Luce, as a Financial Times bureau chief, has universal access, and makes good use of it. Where Indians writing about Indian identity, including Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian, look for roots and origins, understanding the present first and foremost through the past, Luce uses real-life anecdotes that nicely capture present trends. Thus his India is instantly recognisable, where the others are, by design, notional. One is in almost visceral agreement with him.

But to get a picture of a true Indian and ideal Hindu, read Mark Tully's India's Unending Journey: Finding Balance in a Time of Change. The true Indian and Hindu is Mark Tully. He writes of his lifelong struggle to find a place for his Christian faith, and the influence of 40 years in India on him.

This is a book written from vanaprastha: it describes turmoil but is full of the sense of a life reasonably well lived. Qualify every certainty, the Upanishads tell Tully, with a neti, neti: "It is not this alone." Many rivers lead to the sea; many religions to the ultimate reality.

"The latest god is the market," Tully writes, and globalisation the current economic certainty -- just as socialism was in the mid-century. In these frantic times, it is important to remember the perpetual swinging of the pendulum. Nothing is permanent.

One sees oneself best through an outsider's eye. Even Indians writing about Indians temporarily become outsiders. Reading these books should remind us that our prized subjectivity is not all our own, that our responses and opinions are influenced by what we all have in common.
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