Saturday, May 5, 2007

Nation and identity

Despite its tremendous linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity, the image of India one draws from the media (particularly outside the subconty) is usually of the northern plains -- bhangraing Funjabis or colorful Rajasthanis, usually accompanied by a camel or two.

So I quite enjoyed this week's Outlook, which had two passable articles on Indian identities to which less attention is paid: Franco-Indians living in Pondicherry (and preparing to cast votes for either Sarkozy or Royal) and young people from the Seven Sisters (an increasing presence as employees in the capital's hippest shops and cafes).

On a related note, I just finished Pavan K. Varma's Being Indian. It's interesting, in that it tries to debunk some of the myths that have been created about India. Varma writes:
"The Indian reality is transparent and opaque simultaneously. What is visible is as much a part of the truth as what remains unseen. Foreigners see what is overt, and conflate it with their preconceived notions of 'the great Indian civilization.' In the process many assumptions evade critical scrutiny, and a great dmany inferences are either incorrect or only partially true. But foreigners can be forgiven their errors. Not so the Indians. Over the years the Indian leadership, and the educated Indian, have deliberately projected and embellished an image about Indians that they know to be untrue ... What is worse, they have fallen in love with this image, and can no longer accept that it is untrue.
"The image has been created by a quantum leap of logic, an ideological sleight of hand that derives an untenable ought from an undeniable is. India has been a parliamentary democracy since Independence in 1947; therefore, Indians are undeniably democratic by temperament. Several important religions were born and flourish in India; therefore, Indians are essentially spiritually in their outlooks. People of different faiths have found a home in India; therefore, Indians are basically tolerant by nature. Mahatma Gandhi defeated the British by relying on ahimsa; therefore, Indians are peaceful and non-violent in temperament. Hindu philosophy considers the real world as transient and ephemeral; therefore, Hindus are 'other-worldly' and unmaterialistic in their thinking. India has nurtured a great deal of diversity; therefore, Indians are of an eclectic and catholic disposition.

"India is much too important today, and its potential far too significant in the coming decades, to be held hostage to this simplistic myth-making."
Although there are points within Varma's narrative with which I disagree, this excerpt fairly accurately reflects the relationship I've embraced as regards explaining India. People want quick and easy answers, a 30-second soundbite about how spiritual and loving and wonderful my two years here have been. The thing is, they haven't been. Certain moments fall into these categories, but to generalize -- to try and synthesize a country of more than a billion people into neat little boxes -- is simply impossible.


SBT said...

I just went back and read a lot of your blog entries. I'm so sad I didn't find your blog sooner. But as the saying goes, 'better late than never.' The issues you discuss about identity and women, are very close to my heart. Too bad you won't be in India when I return. We could have had lovely discussions over chai!

Zoey said...

Hey SBT! Glad you enjoy the blog. When are you returning to India? I'm leaving to set up shop in New York in a month or two, but as my husband is Indian and we have family here, I'll be back and forth a few times a year, if all goes as planned. Perhaps we can have a nice cuppa yet!

VR said...

Ah...looks like I have to find another interesting blog which describes so many interesting facets of day to day India. i.e. I am guessing staying in NY would be kinda hard to write about the happenings in the subconty. This blog over the last few months has been an interesting and great source for following the happenings back home. Thanks Zoey... I guess I'll miss this interesting perspective of the subconty. Wish you good luck in what ever you intend to pursue.