July 05, 2020
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The Eternal, Ephemerised

Is it a time, a place, a culture or a look; or does being Indian have to do with intensity?

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The Eternal, Ephemerised
The Eternal, Ephemerised
Whatever its failures, at least the late summit reintroduced the Taj to all of us. That 17th-century gift of perfection remains part of everyone's image of India. Alas, there are other pictures too. An image imploding inside me for years, and one that hits me again and again—for I am a constant traveller by rail—is of the parade of litter and excreta offered at all windows when a train rumbles into or out of a station. It is a sort of two-sided guard of honour for the traveller. If windows are open, the scene caters to the nose as well.

India does not approach the doors of the senses with a shadow or a soft tap-tap. It hits the senses frontally and hard, with inspiring or shocking sights, stirring or deafening sounds, overpowering smells, flaming colours, tastes that water mouths or trigger tears, and touches that may bless or pinch. Assaulting the sixth sense as well, India can traumatise the spirit, or transmit ecstasy to it.

Thus the Indian temple offers clanging bells, incense smoke, flower scents, chants trying to reach the finishing line, shoves from the devout, multi-coloured gods and goddesses in various degrees of gleam, and sweets blessed at an idol's feet.

So is being intense (or violent, sharp or concentrated) the distinguishing Indian feature? It is supposed to be Swiss to be antiseptic, German to be thorough, Japanese not to give offence, British to rain, French to be romantic, Australian to be passionate about sport, Canadian to be multicultural, and American to run the world. Does Indian intensity match these stereotypes? Perhaps it does, but unlike these other phrases 'intensity' has to be explained.

Is being Indian an ethnic concept? Does it mean not being African or white or Mongolian or Melanesian in a racial sense? But old ethnography speaks of the 'typical' Indian's European features, whereas in numerous other Indians a resemblance to Africans, the Chinese or Australia's aboriginals may be detected. Moreover, ethnic is no longer synonymous with racial. Differences in language, religion, geography or politics are also at times labelled ethnic, and it is not impossible (though hardly satisfying, clarifying or popular) to say that being Indian is to belong 'ethnically' to the Asian, non-white, Afro-Asian or third world.

Which raises the question of Indian as a political idea. Isn't being Indian a matter of nationality? Surely an Indian is one who holds or is entitled to hold an Indian passport? Not quite, because holders of American, Canadian, British, Australian or other non-Indian passports are treated as Indians if, to employ a notion we know is imprecise, they are of 'Indian ethnicity'. Simultaneously foreign and Indian, non-resident Indians (nris) can receive facilities in India's banks and government offices that are denied both to resident Indians and to non-resident non-Indians.

While in this ethnopolitical zone, let me refer to two 'Indian' situations in the West, one of quite recent origin and involving the UK, and the other existing for several years in the US. After a sequence of riots between white Brits and Britain-resident Asians, mostly Pakistani and Bangladeshi, several Indians in the UK recently asked to be described as Indians, not Asians. "Don't confuse us, please, with unruly Paki and Bangla gangs. We're Indian, not Asian."

In their unspoken thoughts they probably added that though indeed they were Indian, and certainly not Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Asian, they should not be confused even remotely with Biharis, or Kashmiris, or Punjabis, or Nagas, or Manipuris, or Tamils, or Assamese, or Gujaratis, or anyone else in the Indian subcontinent associated with violence or disorder, or with dishonesty over disaster relief.They might be called Indian, but they were uncontaminated Indians. Moreover, their stay in Britain had purged them of any impurities descending from their unavoidable origin.

Some Indians flourishing in the US have been acquiescing for some time in references to the Indian community as a model minority—solvent, law-abiding, making no trouble, and contributing to Republican as well as Democratic coffers, in all these ways contrasting, it is implied, with the performance of African-Americans.

This ethnopolitical (or ethnocommercial) definition of Indian is a suitably updated and globalised version of the homeland/holy-land thesis bequeathed eight decades ago by Savarkar, which laid down that only he to whom India was both homeland and holy land could be a good Indian. ('She' had little place in the discourse of one who wrote of India as his fatherland.) The formulation made India's Muslims, Christians, Jews and Parsis less than patriotic by definition, and also provided a theoretical foundation for a united front of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists for tackling 'anti-national' Muslims and Christians.

Though the Hindu-Sikh divide can be sharply felt in the West, some nris are probably sympathetic to the Savarkarite formulation. However, their holy sites being not where they live but in India, the thesis would make the nris anti-national in their Western home. They seem to resolve the problem by being loyal to a concept of the Hindu nation of India while behaving as a becoming minority in the US, the UK or wherever.

This politico-religious equation of Indian with Hindu parallels Islamist calls in Pakistan and elsewhere. If the equation prevails, 'India' too would begin to evoke images of intolerance and bigotry.

Is Indian a cultural concept? Or perhaps a civilisational one? These appealing thoughts run up against the sharp contrast at times seen between cultures within India, some of which are part of an evolving (and hardly soothing) global culture while some other cultures struggle inside their long-surviving, seemingly unchanging worlds of hill and jungle in remote parts of our land.

India's 'schools' of art, dance, music, poetry and drama are distinct from one another and also numerous, their number larger perhaps than the large figure (1,652, I'm told) for India's languages and dialects. India's philosophical and religious thoughts and ways of living also add up to a considerable number. The totality of these schools, thoughts and behaviour might be called an 'Indian civilisation', but that would be a label, not a definition.

Is being Indian part of being South Asian, and suggestive of links with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Maldivians? The South Asian region and its environs, an Indic Asia different from Sinic, Arab or Turkic Asia, is unquestionably distinctive; in history, ancient and recent, there have been times when much of South Asia was politically united; and similarities in attitudes, language, dress and food are well known. Yet the equation of Indian with South Asian does not quite satisfy.

We cannot deny Indian its geographical and environmental meaning. Our proudest physical assertion—and one we share with Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Tibet—is the Himalaya. Its walls blocking Siberian blasts and a Chinese spillover, its snows allowing crops to grow a thousand miles to the south, its air invigorating the human spirit down the ages, the Himalaya is now proving vulnerable to global warming and a victim to indigenous exploitation.To an Indian it is a chilling thought that even the eternal Himalaya might be mortal.

It is very Indian to worship rivers, to go to a stream for pilgrimage, boons or at a near one's death, or simply for washing, and take dubki in it: bending the knees and holding your nose with your fingers and sinking all of yourself into the river where it is not deep, and, when you can take it no more, pushing your head out of the water, and breathing again; and doing this with disbelief in what you see, namely the water's filth, and belief in what you've been told, namely the water's magical powers.

India's heat and aridity have made rivers and monsoon rains, and tap water when flowing, synonymous with the life-force. Yet the filth of our rivers, streams and ditches sticks to the onlooker's mind. To repeat a thought I have expressed elsewhere, we could have made our mountains and rivers a little less divine and a little more human, attracting our pity (and care) rather than our worship, which we humbly offer along with endless donations of our dirt. Being divinities, the Himalayan peaks and Ganga and her sister goddesses will transform dirt. Being gods or goddesses, they will defend and cleanse us. Being worshippers, we need not do a thing to protect or clean them. For our relationship with nature, a bow, a short mantra, and an occasional dubki will do.

There was little nature did not endow India with. Yet we have ravaged our inheritance of rivers, soil, forests, animals, desert, sea-coasts and mountains. Two years ago, with the active cooperation of our Pakistani cousins, we desecrated with roars, blasts and other marks of violent intrusion the abode in the heavens around Kargil that the gods had reserved for themselves.

In Siachen, working drop by drop, grain by grain, and second by second for God knows how many millennia, nature shaped a miracle of rock and ice. There we and our Pak relatives continue to prove each day, as we have done without pause for some years, our disregard for that miracle and for life and sanity. I fear it has been very Indian, very South Asian, to let greed and anger destroy what is precious beyond imagining.

A medley of races and faces are Indian. According to an American scholar of politics and genetics, ours is the world's richest country in genetic range, a view supported by the variety of faces that even an untrained eye notices in India. How a nation that recited for centuries a whole ideology of racial non-mixture ends up with vast genetic variety is only one of India's paradoxes.

Heterogeneity probably helps block a Hindu rashtra. Whatever one's inner biases, no Indian politician disavows secularism. All that can be opposed is pseudo-secularism; and political realities push extremists in office towards moderation.

If, by and large, being Indian means being politically secular, it also on the whole means being democratic. Thus on the summit-eve controversies over the Hurriyat, the question most often asked was whether or not it represented the people of j&k. The Hurriyat was openly separatist and often sounded pro-Pakistan, but its democratic credentials became the bigger issue.

Yet democratic India's political and governing skills are such that every month elections are required somewhere in India, and twice a day power is cut almost everywhere in the land. The babu rules over the citizen, giving him the run-around, and the rupee brings the babu round. Indians loving their soil find foreign soils more rewarding, and the long lines they form outside foreign consulates are a graphic comment on India's performance.

In governance it is very Indian (and very Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan) to repeat the offences of the ones you have ousted, be it the British, Congress, Karunanidhi, Benazir, Nawaz Sharif, Hasina, Khaleda. It is very Indian (and South Asian) to dismiss opposition governments in the provinces and to send opponents to the courts, if not at once to jail. Taking badla is as Indian as taking a dubki.

Yet it is also Indian (another contradiction) to forget yesterday's impassioned scenario. Hence the cordial reception, two years after Kargil, for Musharraf. The exploitation of old hates or construction of new hates (for example, over Babri) is not easy in India. It calls for years of preparation, funds, commitment, campaigning and organising skills, and a special set of circumstances. Though drawn to badla, perhaps Indians know from personal and family experience that yesterday's quarrels are best left to the past, and they suspect that persons like Ashoka, Nanak, the Bhakti and Sufi poets and Gandhi had a point.

The Honda and the heap of garbage in the same camera frame—that is the Indian economy, or should I say society. Our IT success so far has had to do with a flair for numbers, familiarity with the English language, a perfect time difference (plus or minus 12 hours) with the US, and a skill of going over, under or round a problem that resists frontal tackling. But to most Indians IT is a world too far.

It is Indian to be resourceful and ingenious at the personal level, not to manage or organise on a larger scale. Consider this: India needs an immense number of teachers; India has an immense number of the jobless; every Indian, no matter how poor, wants his or her child educated; and what basic schools require is not capital but community involvement. But the task of steadily putting together good schools for all of India's children seems to be beyond us. We manage only to enlarge the world's biggest pool of the uneducated.

Allied to governance is reconciliation, again not an Indian strength. 'Know thyself' may well be an Indian motto but 'know thy neighbour' is not, especially if the neighbour belongs to a different caste or fold. One hurdle to the coming together of all Indians is their marked preference for talking over listening. The individual holding forth is a familiar Indian sight and sound, but something tremendous will happen to India when Indians begin to offer one another their ears.

We also like to emblazon ourselves on visiting cards, shop signs, hoardings and walls. Though desiring future fame, we are eager to announce ourselves today. As a result, India is the land for foundation stones that remain roofless, for opening ceremonies when there's little to open or show, and Indian history may be seen as a procession across time of tent cities, or cities fragile in other ways, that rise and fold up. We seem less interested in a road that will last for more than a year.

Indian offerings irresistible to Indians and the world are in food and music and, occasionally, in two indispensable areas of contemporary life—sports and films. However, the chief role of our movies is to dish up illusion as reality. Considering the discomfort of India's daily reality, this reversal of the maya doctrine, which asked humans to see the world as illusion, is surely understandable.

Despite TV's rapid and continuing spread, its potential for enabling Indians to know one another and know the world has not yet been sufficiently scratched.As of now, TV's main purposes in India are to provide titillation and, secondly, to enable the Indian masses to deepen their familiarity with gods and goddesses, including the god of crorepatis.

What else is Indian? To litter public space. To jump a queue. (Within seconds of returning to India, an nri too also starts to jump.) Suspecting the humble fellow of being a crook, and being fooled by the well-dressed talker. To be asked at a government office to return with additional papers, never mind the relaxations announced.

Also, milling crowds on the floors and stairways of hospitals, their incredible patience, and the equally patient and skilled role of many doctors and nurses. The vegetable seller in the dim light who tells the customer at his tiny stall, "Don't take that lauki, it's bad", pointing to one of only two he has. Gesture after silent gesture of helpfulness to people in need from people themselves in need. Fortitude in survivors of massacres or disasters, the need to start life all over again, and an indomitable resolve to do so.

That tolerance is an innate and possibly original Indian gift is also a very Indian and sometimes off-putting notion, but a little secret pride in Indian secularism and democracy and in India's goal of social justice is surely in order. Lands a good deal smaller and less varied than India, and with fewer legacies of disputes from the past, have made some of their citizens more equal than others, or given elites the right to control the masses. Then there is the unmistakable appearance of a new form of Indian, the Indian-in-the-world, interacting with, assisting, sometimes leading a multinational community.

Above all, however, India is defined by its contradictions and ironies. A few we have seen. Let me mention some others: Advaita ('All is God, he and she is me') on the one hand and untouchability on the other. Ahimsa and the atom bomb. Meditation-in-noise. The exaltation of purity and life amidst dirt. The sacred cow and indifference to its suffering. Dislike of white rule and a fondness for names such as Windsor, Bristol, Oxford, Boston. 'Buy Indian' is a good slogan but to sell your product let it seem American, French or British. Build more and more temples, mosques and gurudwaras—the bigger and the more ornate the better—but do not admit a link between religion and how you conduct a day's transactions. And so on. Everyone has a list.

No doubt India and Indian are evolving concepts, works in progress. Yet I am finally ready to define what Indian is today. It equals 'x' and minus 'x'. Since intensity too is so Indian, perhaps both x's in the equation should be raised to the power of 'n'. And remember that in India something minus the same thing produces not zero but a billion dramas.

(The biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, C. Rajagopalachari and Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajmohan Gandhi's most recent book is Revenge & Reconciliation, Penguin.)

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