Monday, 23 June 2014

Of Being Indian

I recently read Pavan K.Varma's Being Indian: Inside the Real India as part of the project of reading my own books. I understand that there are quite a few books that attempt to distill the essence of India into chapter sized generalisations, such as The Argumentative Indian and India Unbound. Like all good social commentators, Pavan K. Varma acknowledges that for every generalisation he offers, the opposite is equally true for a vast country like India. He sets out to break certain myths - that Indians are spiritual or other-worldly and inherently non-violent - and takes on the behemoths of technology and pan-Indianness.
Varma argues that Indians are as materialistic as any other people on earth and that their spirituality co-exists undisturbed with materialism and the quest for Lakshmi. I agree with most of his observations about the pursuit and relentless exhibition of wealth and power in India. I have two main quibbles with these sections of the book though. For one, some of these myths are not as widespread as the author thinks they are. The book was first published in 2004, and by then we were sufficiently into the liberalised economy for materialism to have become a common societal malaise. The idea of India as a spiritual and non-violent cocoon may have been an Orientalist construct, but by 2004 it is more an easy straw figure against which Varma can lay out his argument. One should argue against stereotypes, but neither the stereotypes nor the arguments against them should be simplistic.
Which brings me to my second quibble. Yes, Indians are materialistic, pursue and display power blatantly and chase wealth as an ideal goal without any niggling sense of discomfort. But how is that different from a majority of people anywhere in the world? We do not grow up outside the world, and the world today, whether London or Ludhiana (the problem with easy generalisations is that they are catching!) is a world that extols the virtues of wealth and success, that thrusts the messages of consumption down our throats 24/7. I do not think I can say of any space in the world that the people living there do not pursue power. Yes, I am aware that there is a minimalism movement in the West, and I am thankful for it. That movement however shapes itself as opposed to the dominant culture, and unfortunately the dominant culture in the world today is very similar, no matter what part of the world you are in. If I wax philosophical, I would argue that this is not only about the world today. The desire to acquire and possess has always been a part of the human condition. Merchants found plying the Silk Route profitable because there were men and women desirous of buying silk and willing to pay well for it.
As far as technology is concerned, Varma argues that the almost universal emphasis on a certain kind of higher education - engineering and English (the language and not the literature) for example - makes Indians better at being the outsourcing capital of the world. He also discusses how they are usually software coolies, doing the more manual of the work while the creative work is done in the West. Some Indians working in American environments are able to tap into creativity and compete alongside the first citizens of the online world. Varma states that "Indian society encourages status-quoism and tolerates mediocrity" (p. 122). As a student and a teacher in India, I came up against the vagaries of the system often enough to sympathise with this idea. At the same time, I would argue that these phenomena are as much about colonialism and structures of power as about systems of education. When you praise Indians for their 'jugaad' in the chapter on business but declare their inability to be creative in the chapter, you are not only undermining your own argument, but also demonstrating that perceptions change as context changes. Current perceptions in technology rest along the Orientalist axis of Western work as inherently superior to Eastern work. After all, it is American freedom that sets glorious Indian minds free! I have studied in both Indian and Australian universities, and I would argue that a lack of resources is as much of a problem as the lack of innovative thinking. Universities in both India and Australia have good and bad thinkers, and I am sure both Indian and American IT companies have similar pools of creative and not-creative thinkers.
The final section of the book focusses on the idea of pan-Indianness. This topic is of special interest to me, given that my thesis flirts with the ways in which ideas of India are constructed. Varma attributes greater cohesion in Indian identity to the usual suspects - popular culture, which is mostly Bollywood, and greater mobility within India, courtesy transportation and the new jobs of a liberalised economy. I am just surprised that he does not mention cricket. It is a familiar argument, and I do not oppose it in the sense of 'no, this is incorrect'. Yes, Bollywood does interest a large number of people in India (except me, of course :P). At the same time, the rise of the vernacular television channels and movie industries show that both these seemingly contradictory arguments - "Bollywood brings India together" and "the rise of regional cinemas shows that regional identity is not dead" - are equally valid and relevant. They bear each other out even as they cancel each other out.
It is in this section that Varma brings up the stereotype of non-violence. He argues that Indians can be violent when it has social sanction, and prefer to compromise when the opponent in superior and there is the prospect of annihilation. The violence perpetuated on a regular basis against Dalit, minorities and poor people certainly makes the notion of Indians being nonviolent seem like a cruel joke perpetrated on those who live with the routine violence of everyday Indian life. At the same time, Varma argues that violence levels are relatively low because of a certain kind of pragmatism in the Indian fabric. Violence is bad for business, and different religious communities find ways of living and working together that work for them and keep violence at bay as exceptional rather than the norm. Again, I do not disagree with the argument per se. I do have two quibbles again. One is that 'not too much violence' is a slippery slope kind of an argument. In a nation of a billion people, how many people have to die before we think that too many people have been killed? (yes, I badly paraphrased the song) What I mean is this: the idea that India is relatively peaceful works in certain contexts, wherein we look at violence and deaths in other countries or at an abstract number that seems large, and so we derive notions of relative peace and relative goodwill. Just like everywhere else in the world, religious identities are far more complex, and ways of living and working together enmeshed in these identities in far more complicated ways than 'we are all a relatively not so violent family' would suggest. Yes, people from different communities work together, but who owns the business and who is the labour?
My second quibble is similar to the one I made above. Violence is endemic to the human condition, as 'natural' as natural can be. These instances - of violence against specific communities or groups of people, as well as co-existence - are not exclusive to India alone. Across history, in all sorts of conflicts and wars, we have seen the best and the worst of human behaviour on display. This brings me to my central problem with the book, and probably with other such books, with the idea of such books. Whatever the aspects identified as being Indian, whether positive or negative, are ultimately narratives created to serve their purpose in arguments. They may or may not be true, but their truth or falsity is not the point. Any series of circumstances or phenomena can be woven together to present one picture, and we can go on creating multiple such pictures. Some arguments are more compelling than others. I am sure some books on Indian realities are more insightful than others, and I hope to find and read them. At the same time, all these books create realities as much as document them, and there is not an Indian reality that exists outside of such documentations.