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The cover of Pavan Varma’s charmingly polemical book is intended to be a photographic caricature. It portrays a man wearing a white silk kurta and red-bordered dhoti over a pair of black argyle socks and Oxford shoes. The apparent incongruity between the attire and the footwear encapsulates the book’s central thesis: Indian identity has been distorted and made ridiculous by colonialism.
It’s an old argument. From Franz Fanon to Edward Said and Ashis Nandy, and from Gandhi to Golwalkar, scholarship and politics has often damned the imperial inheritance as a hideous perversion that affected both the coloniser and the colonised.
For Varma, the colonial inheritance remains a curse. An obsessive preoccupation with the English language and western sensibilities has marginalised indigenous culture, warped intellectual development, sullied art and aesthetics, and transformed India into a nation of philistines. India is unworthy of a leadership role because the national psyche has been built on “borrowed plumes and transplanted paraphernalia”.
For 300 years, writes Varma with eloquence, “an entire nation and its people became the object of an external curiosity, brown fish swimming around in a bowl held in white hands”. He peppers this imagery with anecdotal evidence of passengers on the Shatabdi choosing to speak in indifferent English, the non-availability of Ghalib’s poetry in Delhi bookshops and the steady erosion in the popularity of Indian classical music.
Predictably, it all began with Macaulay. But what Varma finds most galling is that Macaulay’s project was accepted and internalised by Indians. Those selected by him for inquisition and denunciation include Raja Rammohan Roy, writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the Bengal School artists and, naturally, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Varma doesn’t admit of an ability to retain identity while taking from the West. Examples of India’s abject yielding is drawn from Delhi.
The Raja is berated for freezing his deep knowledge of Hindu philosophy in favour of endorsing Britain’s ‘civilising mission’. Niradbabu is debunked as “the most flamboyantly learned mimic of an alien civilisation”. “None of his books,” Varma writes with vicious inaccuracy, “sold more than 5,000 copies...despondent showing for a man who became the biggest apologist of British rule.” The Bengal School is critiqued for being a reaction to western sensibilities, rejecting anything that deviated from a depiction of India’s glorified past and “caricaturing their potential”. Nehru gets short shrift for speaking in English at the stroke of the midnight hour and imposing the questionable modernism of Le Corbusier on an unsuspecting Punjab.
Varma’s critique of the contrived modernism of Nehruvian aesthetics is compelling and should warn against the unilateral imposition of a leader’s personal preferences. On the two Bengali stalwarts, he tends to be more doctrinaire than historical. Like many “post-colonial” intellectuals, Varma underplays the quantum of bhadralok acceptance of British rule. This was partly due to its being an improvement over anarchy. Bengalis were also excited by the potentialities of new knowledge. The East-West encounter did not lead to natives forsaking their own: it witnessed a spectacular flowering of Bengali literature. Rammohan and Niradbabu personified Bengal’s breakout from provincialism.
Varma doesn’t admit this ability to retain self-respect and identity while imbibing from the West. His anecdotal evidence is drawn primarily from Delhi, a city yet to develop roots and where the self-esteem of many Hindi speakers is fragile. In Calcutta Club they speak Bengali, dhoti is encouraged, and a good steak served. In Madras Club, ladies elegantly sipping whisky are attired in kanjeevarams; its ambience one of rootedness. The problem of identity and the triumph of philistinism is mostly a problem of the Hindi sphere. These can be rationalised by history and politics: Hindi’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis Urdu and Persian; the relative lateness of its exposure to the ‘civilising mission’; the many outlanders in the political class.
False consciousness isn’t a pan-Indian problem. And does it matter that Lord Romsey mispronounces ‘Ahluwalia’ and we make a dog’s breakfast of Lord Cholmondley. For many decades I have tried to tell north Indians that my surname is Dasgupta and my first name isn’t Swapandas. One day I may even succeed.