Going through Priya Ramani’s much-talked-about article in the Mint, I was quite a bit confused. [Link]
Recently I’ve become increasingly convinced that I’m not an Indian. After all, it is possible that someone did a baby switch at Breach Candy Hospital where I was born, or that my parents have carefully hidden the truth about me for 40 years.
Quick proof that I’m not Indian? I have no furious loyalties to the Baganapalli or Alphonso. In fact, I can think of at least six fruits that I prefer to the mango. I have never eaten an entire paan or a pot of mishti doi (though I have tried both) and I don’t spit in public or private (except for that one time I tried a meetha paan).
I don’t understand that other national obsession, cricket, either. White is not my favourite skin colour. I don’t read Chetan Bhagat or Paulo Coelho. I feel depressed every time I wear a salwar-kameez. No sir, I will not discuss my private life with a stranger on a train journey. And I don’t think I’ve ever begun a conversation with: “You’ve lost/gained so much weight!”
I don’t like (or understand) a single Indian soap currently on air. I never talk loudly to my maid, stockbroker or random friend during a movie. I always wait to let people exit an elevator before I enter. I don’t believe that Mumbai’s moviegoers should be forced to stand to attention every time they want to see Shrek (or anyone else) on the big screen. I don’t feel pride—only impatience that my popcorn’s getting cold—when I’m forced to listen to Lata/Asha do a slow-mo version of the national anthem before every single movie I watch in the city of my birth.
Is being “uncouth”, as manifested through acts of varying degrees of distastefulness (spitting, liking Paulo Coelho, remarking about other people’s weight), synonymous with being Indian, as if being one necessarily implies the other? If that be the case, Bullah ki jaana main kaun?
I love cricket, have a genuine appreciation for subaltern music videos of the “Eh Buchi bolo seal kaha tuthi” type and do not feel bad that my popcorn is getting cold when I am asked to make a gesture, however symbolic, in honor of those people who have made it possible for me to sit in an AC multiplex and enjoy a movie. Which possibly means I am Indian.
But at the same time, I do not spit in public, do not inquire about people’s weights (purely to avoid any reference to mine), do not talk loudly to anyone, find Paulo Coelho grossly over-rated and do not refer to domestic help as “maids”.
So who am I? If you ask me to settle the issue, I would say I am unabashedly and proudly, yes proudly, Indian.
The confusion regarding identity is even more confounded when I think of my father, a former professor of Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an intellectual legend in his time. He does not appreciate any of the lowbrow things I so admire and neither does he spit in public, nor does poke his nose in other people’s affairs. He also does not raise his voice. By definition then, he should not be Indian.
But he refers to himself as an Indian.
So if I take him at face value (i.e. of being Indian) , does that mean he is automatically not “serious scholar” enough (Gurucharan Das is quoted as saying ““Basically, after independence we did not produce any serious scholars,”)?
Even more disturbing, has he been secretly reading Chetan Bhagat?
Today, when I was going to the airport from a client meeting, I saw the driver, a non-South Asian true-blue son of the Pennsylvanian soil, spitting out from the driver’s seat onto the road. Should I have been convinced then that he was Indian and asked for a des-wala bhai discount? When I got stuck, a few weeks before, right behind two other pure red-white-and-blues who got out of their cars mouthing obscenities in a raised voice after a fender-bender in front of a College Park shopping plaza, should I have tried talking to them in Hindi?
I just don’t get it.
What I do get is this. And I agree whole-heartedly .
I don’t think we’re the greatest people on earth
Absolutely we are not. No country is. Yet everyone says they are. If I had a dollar every time someone on US TV, including intellectual powerhouses like Obama and columnists of the best newspapers in the world (and no I am not referring to Fox News anchors), say “There is no doubt that America is the greatest nation of all” and similar hyperbole, I would have been able to buy myself a ticket in a major party to contest an Indian election.
Similarly outrageous is the chest-thumping desi patriotism that makes us go “Ooh Aaah India” during a cricket match, a feel-good buzz as empty as the calories of the products of the companies who sponsor such slogans.
No doubt that.
However being proud of one’s country does not imply a belief in its “bestness” and its infallibility. As a matter of fact, patriotism lies in accepting our faults (and we have many, a few of which Ms. Ramani mentions). But that should not be taken to an extreme because then we lose sight of what it is we have got right. And once that happens, we stop working to safeguard it.
When I say I am proud of being an Indian, I mean I am proud of its culture of plurality and its intrinsic tolerance of contrarianism. This is why in a major newspaper someone can say this below, without any fatwa for boycotting of the paper or dire consequences of the Danish kind.
Personally, I’ve always believed Ram was a loser and I have no idea why Sita didn’t leave him many years before he threw a tantrum that resulted in her walking through fire. The first time I heard some goon in the Bharatiya Janata Party use the words Ram Rajya, I wanted to vomit. Vomit, not spit, I said.
As an example, in the US, when Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope (mind you not Jesus Christ), NBC was fined by the Federal Communications Commission for USD 2.5 million dollars and the reaction of other stars, like Sinatra and Joe Pesci to her act, might be interesting to read. [Link]. The only time in which anything against the Pope or Christ would be allowed in the US on public fora would be if there was a humorous context and only when the comedian is an “equal opportunities offender” (i.e. skewers all holy cows). But the above paragraph, as far as I understand, was not one written in jest or with a creative purpose.
The Indian spirit of acceptance is something that is often not in evidence in some of the “freest countries of the world”. USA is a country that prides itself (and this is to a large extent justified) on its inherent egalitarianism. But still many people have a problem with Hillary Clinton becoming a President just because she is a woman. When the Republican smear machine rakes up Obama’s Muslim origins, the Democrats say “He is not Muslim. No no not at all” rather than saying “So what if he is a Muslim? Why should that it be a problem?” South-Asian origin politicians like Nicky Haley and Bobby Jindal have hit big-time only after converting and strongly advertising their Christian faith. And by the way, the US is not a Christian nation. [Link and Link] so there is no constitutional reason why there should be no realistic chance of a non-Christian/non-Jewish person holding positions of high authority.
In contrast, we in India have been far more accepting of our religious minorities and of women being represented in the highest offices of power. Can you imagine, a foreign-born woman having as her religion one not held by the majority and who speaks the native language in a very tentative way, becoming the most powerful person in any other land? I cannot.
However in today’s India it is this tolerance which is under the most attack. Violent gangs, of for-hire goons, under the guise of “taking offense” are terrorizing people who express their opinions or lead lifestyles “not acceptable”—-attacking pubs, raising fatwas and pouring invective on the Net. Books are being banned, offices are being destroyed in the conflagration of “spontaneous displays of anger”. There is a justification for this too—“For far too long, we have taken insults lying down. Can so-and-so say the same thing in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan about their God without any kind of repercussion?”
Here is when I want to say in response—-“Yes but that’s why we are not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan”. And I intend for my country to stay that way. No politician, even if they born outside the country, should be deprived of their right to exploit and misrule the country. No speech, no matter how hurtful, should be met with threats of violence or crude language.
Unfortunately, we are marching fast down a path of competitive intolerance, one that will lead to us to become a mirror of Pakistan, characterized by bigotry of the worst kind.
When and if that comes to pass, then yes I am going to raise questions about my identity as an Indian.
But till that happens, it is vital, at least for me, to not only recognize what ails us but also what does not, to stay grounded between the extremes of self-flagellation and gratuitous back-slapping.