Friday, April 9, 2010

How Indian are we?

Becoming Indian
The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity
By Pavan K Varma
Allen Lane
Rs 499/-

Rajesh Singh

This is truly an Indian heart at work. Alternately anguished, upset and outraged over what it sees as growing insubordination of the Indian cultural identity to superfluous western influences, the heart skips a beat or two in its impassioned narration of the betrayal by the educated class of many things Indian – language, art, literature, architecture, films, the performing arts, mannerisms. At first glance, it may appear to be the lamentation of a spoiler, a cynic, or even a hypocrite who uses the very same medium that it derides as ‘un-Indian’ to express its very Indian outpourings. Indeed, some critics say this Indian Heart has gone overboard and is perched dangerously close to becoming a fundamentalist.

There are also those sufficiently aroused ones who have taken exception to the `assault’ on English – a universal language without which the nation would in their opinion come to a standstill. In their agitated state, they have even gone to the ludicrous extent of claiming that Indian languages actually flourished during the English rule.

But Pavan Varma is not a bigot. Disenchanted he may be, he has no cause to be a spoiler. He belongs to the elite Indian Foreign Service cadre, is a distinguished government servant and has many of the comforts of life that millions of ordinary Indians cannot even dream of. He has traveled the world, dined the best and with the best, has a job that will keep him secure even after he quits it and is miles away from the daily crises that the average Indian confronts: power outages, water scarcity, untrustworthy public transportation etc. He is after all a product of the system that he now finds stifling. What, oh, what, asks the agitated Middle class India, is wrong with this man? Someone please shut him up.

(Yes, Pavanji, it is the same Great Indian Middle Class you had lampooned in an earlier book which is out to take revenge. You have yet again dared to take it head on. Then, you had questioned its moral ethos, now, its loyalty to Indianness. How ch-e-e-p!)

So, even as the author’s critics froth around the mouth and condemn him to the cave age, with perhaps only the Vedas for company – for, in their perception the Vedas represented the caveman period – they are unable in their over-exuberance to understand that, not once does Varma in his remarkable book speak against English or the foreign attitudes. He makes just one point, over and over again, throughout the narration: be proud of your language and culture; demonstrate it, wear it on your sleeve. Platitudes will not suffice, go beyond.

The book acquires a greater meaning for us if we appreciate that it represents an inner journey for the author in search of an identity. Varma is not a preacher who is bent on converting us to his way of thinking; he is a victim of an emotional turmoil that is rocking his very cultural roots. He can no longer be ambivalent; he has to take a stand. Would he like to be swamped by the external influences or would he prefer to promote his Indian identity in ways more than merely formal? And, that is the question before us all.

One can argue that the Indian heart is a robust one and can withstand knocks one too many; that being Indian is a state of mind and not of physical display; that the likes of Varma haven’t patented the right to be Indian culture’s torch-bearers – in fact they are the cry-wolf types. Bravo! The Great Indian Middle Class at work again. But seriously, is it possible for a cultural identity to survive beyond decades and centuries if it is not practised – and thus passed on to succeeding generations? We have the recent case of nearly 200 Indian languages facing extinction because of their diminishing usage by newer generations. And, a language represents a vital thread of the nation’s cultural fabric.

But, as Varma argues, language is but one element that binds us to our culture. There are other milestones that indicate the direction our cultural instincts are taking us in. They are to be found in our art, literature, architecture, films, the performing arts, mannerisms – as mentioned earlier. The author has chosen these parameters rather cleverly as they would help a multitude of readers across the country to relate to his battle-cry. They are also fields where cultural ‘corruption’ – distinct from desirable fusion – is most alarmingly evident.

For instance, he talks of the penchant of many travellers on the Delhi-Chandigarh Shatabdi train to respond in English even when spoken to in Hindi, lest the traveller is considered uneducated. None can dispute the tendency. The fixation with the English language is all around us. In Varma’s words, the marvellous English prose of novelist Nirad Chaudhuri made him no less of a “caricature” of the “pucca Brown Sahib” or the “Brown Englishman”. The author holds him responsible for not using his “vast intellectual resources to chisel an authentic identity for himself. Instead he chose to become the most flamboyantly learned mimic of an alien civilization.”

Varma is scathing in his assault on the Indian establishment’s fawning over Western icons – and even over those who were far from being icons in their native countries. He talks of Nehru’s almost child-like fascination for things and people Western. If he had not got the New Delhi project, Lutyens would have remained unknown as he was considered a failure in the West. Le Corbusier could not get major contracts back home in France and one of his architectural plans for Paris had been summarily rejected. Yet, he is an iconic figure in India for `designing’ Chandigarh. The author of course is dismissive of both efforts. In his view, while New Delhi got planned by systematically brushing aside the cultural epicenter of the Old, thus condemning that region and the river Yamuna on which it once thrived to a pitiable existence, Chandigarh, with its over-systematic lay-out lacks the soul of India.

The author gives us an insight into what these men really thought of India and Indians. He quotes Lutyens on a train journey from Delhi to what was then Bombay: “Some fat blacks occupied the only ladies carriage – and you mustn’t occupy a carriage they have used.” In Varanasi, while cruising down the river Ganges, he remarked: “Every sort of black body doing every sort of thing.” Finally, the great Lutyens’ take on the inability of Indian princes to dance: “…a pity, but the only possible solution to the horror of seeing a black man embrace a white woman.” All in all, as Varma points out, Lutyens considered Indians to be “natives with low intellect,” – but that did not prevent Nehru from rewarding him.

It is today fashionable to think globally and shun anything that appears parochial. Thus, projecting and promoting one’s cultural identity is passé. But, as the author says, “There is no contradiction between being culturally rooted and being a global citizen. On the contrary, only those who are so rooted win genuine respect.”

As the world grapples with a number of socio-economic and political conflicts, Varma notes with a touch of deep insight, “The flashpoints of the future may appear to be political. But the real causes are rooted in the unresolved issues of culture and identity.”

Is anybody listening? The Great Indian Middle Class, especially.

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