Thursday, 21 March 2013

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity
Pavan K Varma

The author is a member of the Indian Foreign Service, and has served in Moscow, New York, United Nations, London, Cypress. He is at present India's Ambassador to Bhutan

As usual, I will start the review with  an excerpt, which should make at least the more discerning reader sit up and take notice; an excerpt that accurately diagnoses the rising tide of fundamentalism that is raising its head even  in Hinduism...

Even as the complex and deeply problematic legacies of colonialism continue to shape our world, we are faced with the equally complex effects of globalisation which now appears irreversible. It is imperative, therefore, that those at the receiving end of the often imperceptible project of co-option preserve and reassert their cultural identity. Nations and peoples that do not will be relentlessly homogenised. However, this very process will unleash huge tensions: societies may be unable to resist homogenisation, but there is always a remembered past, which creates deep resentments against the homogenising powers. Such resentment will eventually express itself in religious extremism or atavistic and fanatical nationalism that strengthens fundamentalist leaders. The clash of civilizations is then inevitable...

It was after a gap of some 18 years that I was seeing a drama. Once a drama enthusiast myself who came close to going serious on it, I was now divorced from it in every way. So, it was a welcome relief to be doing something I enjoyed. The play (Macbeth), to be honest, was superb. There can be no doubt as to that; it was of a high quality. I even remember congratulating the team after the play.

But my mind mind went back to 1993, when I watched a Marathi play. I cannot now remember much of it, but I do recall that I enjoyed that much more. I do not even recall the theme, or the story. But the recollection is still vivid in my mind; much more than the more recent play in 2012 - after 20 years. Why should this be so? This is precisely what the current book explains, while raising some very pertinent questions along the way. This book is a recommended read for anyone who is beginning to question the distance from our culture - in fact, I would go so far as to state that this is a recommended read for every college student.

The book delves deep into both our psyche and our history, hunting for the answers that I asked in the post Urban India: The English Republic... or Macaulay's Children. It starts from colonial rule, and the introduction of English education. It traces how jobs became dependent on knowledge of English; how cultural imperialism imposed its ugly head on our ancient land, and the attendant inferiority complex that became associated with being "Indian". Hence the apt title of the book: Becoming Indian. The book very successfully traces how the ugly combination of livelihood dependency on English, and constant debasement of everything Indian by the British became associated in the minds of the people with western superiority. This is a link that still holds powerful sway over India - especially over the teens, the 20 and 30 -- something generation - such is the ferocious power of the cultural imperialism that the British let loose on us. That this has been exacerbated in recent years by western television, movie and economic might does nothing to exculpate either us Indians or the British. 

The book into the modern times and tackles head-on the avowed elitist viewpoint of English superiority, and the habit of educated Indians to regard anyone who is not fluent in English with utter disdain; as though it is not possible to succeed without being as fluent in English as an Englishman. It forcefully makes the point that while knowledge of English is indeed a needed asset, it cannot be an Indian language. It is indeed a fact there are innumerable nations that are succeeding economically without sacrificing their heritage. And the best way to earn the respect of the world is to respect your own heritage and culture, rather than ape an alien culture. 

The hallmark of the book is the study of the cultural degradation and destruction wrought by the British, resulting in the interruption of the natural development of our art and culture, and its transposition into a reactionary phase. This can even be spotted in modern times, with the reactionary anti-valentine's day protests that happen every year. By the way, we Indians have never needed a Valentine's day to tell someone we love them; strange that such a step back can be regarded as a development by our youngsters! (My personal opinion - not in the book). 

Then there are 2 eye-opening chapters - one being a painful look at the NRI diaspora, and their detachment and isolation. Since this has been buttressed with personal interviews and practical observations, the conclusions are not open to question. Further, the author himself has stayed as an NRI in the course of his job for a long time. The at times ludicrous efforts of the NRI diaspora to fit in, and their attendant discomfort is brought out with tremendous feeling, as is the powerful observation that even the 2nd and 3rd generation Indians have not forgotten their culture, or have a yearning for it. This is supported by examination of Indians abroad - and their pesonal habits as well as thoughts. 

The most brutal chapter is the ruthless stripping of Indians' fauning over western symbols and icons to the exclusion of everything Indian. The euphoria over Lutyen's Delhi is used as one example: in the backdrop of the euphoria over the function to commemorate Lutyens in 2003, the author has exposed the utter disdain, racial views and reprehensible condescension and hate of everything Indian in the man we commemorate: Edwin Lutyens. The excessive fauning over what is an imperial edifice, and the total ignorance of our own rich past and its monuments - ranging from the Iron Pillar to the magnificent forts is a brutal indictment of our continuing inferiority complex. This can be readily seen in other examples - the Oscars and our fauning over them, the western icons and  the belittling of our own (Excuse me, anyone followed by a billion-plus people is in no way small! Learn to respect our size and our history both! We dont need to faun over anyone, we are big enough to culturally hold our own. Look at China!), Valentine's Day, disdain for Indian dressing etc etc. This is evident everywhere...

This is one book that I would recommend as a complusory one in senior school or perhaps college. As I observed in the opening paragraph, regardless of how good the Macbeth performance was, the sight and sound of Indians speaking Shakesperean English is incongruous at best - and ludicrous at worst. I can only recall Indian plays- decades after seeing them - while I am already forgetting Macbeth, which I had seen barely 18 months ago. It just did not touch a chord; while the Marathi and Hindi plays linger on in my mind years afterward.

This can also be seen in our Music and Movies - for all the brouhaha associated with modern Hindi Cinema and Music, S. D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Yesudas, Mohd Rafi, R. D. Burman, Mukesh, Pradeep still hold sway even over our youngsters. Cinema from the 60s and 70s are still watched at every opportunity, while the western themed pictures come and go. It is only the rate 3 Idiots, or Taare Zameen Par, or Lagaan, or similar purely Indian canvasses that survive the test of time... 

The clash of civilizations will inevitably lead to unrest,as is evident in a changing India today. You cannot expect 100% of the population to be co-opted into westernism; this will lead to reactionary steps, as are evident now. This deepening chasm will further harden positions of both sides; hence it is essential for us to respect our culture, for our own sakes. Even in the modern trend to western cultural imperialism, the impact has not gone beyond the top 3% of the population. And it is being foolish in the extreme to expect the 97% to not react. They will; just as they are reacting. The need of the hour is for the anglicized urban India to do a deep introspection... 

For, as the author says, the flashpoints of the future may appear to be political, but the real causes are rooted in the unresolved issues of culture and identity... a reality that can be easily spotted in the real world of modern times. India needs to understand that it is not cool to ape anyone - you are not a westerner. Like it or not - you are an Indian. That can never change...

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