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An Open Letter To The ‘East’: Who Are ‘We’?

The issue of McDonalds is not a rhetorical or decorative question: it has an all-consuming salience for the 'East'

A customer carries take-out food from a McDonald's Corp. restaurant Photo: Representative Image/Getty Images
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A westerner practising yoga or judo is as bizarre as a Japanese or Malaysian wearing a western business suit. The latter is ‘immersing’ himself or herself into the ethos and practices of the "East" while the former is attempting to become what in British India was called "sahib" – a ‘brown sahib’ to be precise. Both constitute mimicry. But then form can lead to substance: the white westerner through immersive practice can partake in the ethos of the "East". And the Malaysian or Indian man or woman can become the "gora sahib or gori memsahib"( white man or woman). Mimicry then can lead to osmosis, crafting a porous identity in the process and a fluid cultural identity. Discounting the obvious (and potential) dangers of osmosis when taken to extremes, this metaphoric allusion has great salience and significance for contemporary times- defined by geopolitical, cultural and economic complexity.

Can the mimesis alluded here lead to a "world culture" – a universal one- a potpourri of cultures and identity matrices that can approximate world civilisation? Maybe. The answer is contingent because the proverbial airwaves are dominated by the West and its culture - a mass culture emblematized by McDonalds burger, and Coca Cola plus vulgar forms of music. But is a universal civilisation desirable? While the answer again is contingent, I would posit an answer in the negative. Each culture despite being porous and fluid at its outer edges is unique. The point to note here is unique; not exceptional. And given that cultures are unique, they must not be subsumed in larger cultures (say western) and be mere appendages of that. Homogeneity even if made to sound as a neutral term in the sense of Western expansiveness and capacious ability to absorb needs to be avoided. McDonalds may serve McAloo Tikki but this is to cater to taste in its glocalization strategy; the outlet’s nature provenance is as western(or American) as can be. Should then McDonalds be banned and its franchising model limited? No. That would amount to squeamishness.

The issue of McDonalds is not a rhetorical or decorative question: it has an all-consuming salience for the "East". The "East" – held to be an entity that is as different "as chalk and cheese"- is however defined by its common experience of Western imperialism and colonialism- a humiliating experience – conceptually and practically- that came to an apparent end after the constituent components of the East  attained "national consciousness". On the face of it, the Imperial aggressors were driven out but residual elements of imperialism remained. These elements were, in the schemata of the great Edward Said and the postulates of dependency theory cultural and economic. Not an original postulate at all, I would posit that while "territory was decolonised but the mind of the 'native' remained in thrall to the former imperial masters". This internal genuflection was then not entirely ‘kneecapped’ by the formal accoutrements of decolonisation.

In the minds of the "free citizens of the so called free world" , the native- even though  "free" now-remained a strange and exotic species , brilliantly delineated and adumbrated by the great Edward Said. Similarly, the white man or woman was (and remains) a figure of mystique and reverse exoticism. This had a lot to do with the administrative techniques of the imperialists and the power(enduring) of their narrative techniques (yet again brilliantly explained by Said). As if validating the theories and ideas of the "native", the "East" and its peoples had attained formal independence but their "inertness" was now reflected in their inability to sustain the hard won independence. Be it military advisers and equipment, economic and financial aid and  technical advice, and culture matters, it was westerners that set the tone.  The "East" paradoxically was free but yet unfree. While there was resistance to this genuflection, it was more or less in angry , enraged terms that validated the stereotype of the ‘native’ in the West. Was the "East" so denuded by the west that it could not holds its own – ideationally, culturally or economically? Or was there something to the colonial assessment about the lazy, indolent, half witted native?

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Imperialism and colonialism had debilitating effects on the collective unconsciousness, psyche and body politic of the colonised. Freedom from both was then just one aspect of the healing process. The psychic wounds and injuries were too deep. The natural corollary of this was that for the "brown native" , wearing a western business suit meant, howsoever superficially in his or her mind that he/she was equal now to the white master. But this notional equality was given short shrift in the real world where the west and westerners surged ahead; the native could only copy and imitate to ‘catch up’. What does all this have to do with "world civilisation"?

A lot.

Given the preponderous nature of the West’s cultural, economic, technological and political power, any talk of "world civilization" would be hollow: It by its very nature be a western defined civilization homogenised by the appeal of mass culture and its products- McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Hollywood. Pared to essence, this is not what the actual west is(as I understand it). But mass culture has mass appeal and superficiality can become the default setting of the native. Can this be obviated by hybridity? Once a great fan of hybridity ( my dress choices would reflect a synthesis between the "East" and the "West"), I now have become a sceptic. 

The scepticism emanates from the fact yet again hybridity’s well spring is western.  For me this has immense psychical and spiritual implications: stripped of accretions I am a western educated Easterner. This means I am both a man of reason and emotion- a great synthesis , in principle , but has implications of belonging: where do I belong- the "East" or the "East". Given the East West dichotomy, who am I? This question and its answer has a searing significance in the contemporary world for the East: there are multiple contradictions that define "us". How do we resolve these? There’s two choices: one is to resist "western encroachment". The other is to offer an indigenous response that takes on the West and "beats it in its own game". Both entail some degree of confrontation. But fortunately , there is a third option: we , people of the East must dig deep into our traditions and philosophies, discover our temper, discover but do not fall into the "cultural superiority trap" and counterpose these with what the West has to offer – in a non-conflictual idiom. This parity may yield the most salubrious outcome: a dialogue whose terms and tone are not set by the West but are done in a mutually satisfying way. It is from this conversation that a world civilization may emerge where different cultures have both a stake- ideational and emotional-and interest in it. But the essential first step toward this is the decolonization of the mind of the "native".  By its very nature then, the process has to begin from and in the "East".

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