According to geologists, the landmass that is now India moved northward for tens of millions of years, eventually slamming into the southern part of Asia. It may look like a puzzle piece that’s right where it’s supposed to be, but the truth is, India and its people have always struggled to fit in. Surrounded on three sides by water and walled in by the towering Himalayas, India is a world unto itself. With a long and complex history, it strains to hold onto its rich culture, even as it assumes key roles in the developing global economy.
Priya Dubey Sah and Charles Gulotta collaborated on this post. It is an effort to shine a small light on this beautiful land, home to one out of every seven people.
* * *
CG: For many in the West, India is still a place of mystery. With a population of well over a billion, it is a land of extreme poverty, ancient wisdom, polytheistic religions, spicy food, torrential rain, meditation, violence, abundance, and waste. Oh, and the Taj Mahal. But for a growing number of Westerners, those images are being largely replaced by outsourced jobs, and feelings of resentment about that recent development. Does India have a self-image that can be pinned down in words? And if so, how does it differ from the way Indians are perceived by other nations?
PDS: Some might like to add snake charmers, elephant and monkey gods, beef-less existence, sadhus and swindlers, heat, suffering, bright colours, and leery men. The list is endless, much as it is stereotypical. But regardless of the things on this list, India is a difficult subject to define. The mystique lies in all of these things as well as some deeper, less definable traits that have supported its people in rising above the overwhelming number of problems and quirks. And becoming accomplished enough to steal away jobs.
By that very premise, it may be not easy for the Indians themselves to define India and their being. We who have grown up here and inherited the terrific duality — brilliance and corruptibility — see our country as you would perhaps see yours. For us, it is a place that feeds us, nurtures our being, and sutures our wounds (sometimes after having caused them).
How do you paint an entity that has incorporated thousands of years, multiple invasions, several languages, religions, and sub-cultures in it? Especially when none of that is extinct. I suppose the key lies in understanding and accepting the entity just the way it is. It is a land where everyone and everything has a right to flourish; and, believe it or not, there is room for more. Provided you are equally willing to share it with a billion more of your kind and some multiple trillion flies and other so-called gifts of nature. And leave everyone to fend for themselves in this glorious soup.
India, and indeed Indians, is like that prodigal child, who has been told many times that it is not good enough, that there are better toys around than the ones on its lap. This child is now a confused one, who likes its home but is drawn by the lights outside. In its confusion, it makes mistakes and is further reduced in its own and others’ esteem. This leaves a strange craving for appreciation of its goodness.
CG: For a long time, Westerners thought of India as a spiritual place. Its religions were exotic and obscure, accessible, but for the most part localized. The typical symbols — Gandhi, the Taj Mahal, the Ganges — all represented something exalted and non-threatening. It was almost as though India itself offered the perfect balance to the West’s industrial, materialistic, aggressive society. Then, as you said, the child began to look around and see more attractive toys, and there were choices to be made. But don’t all nations go through the same kinds of evolution? Japan, for example, became an economic superpower without abandoning its history or its culture. Is it more difficult for India to do the same?
PDS: You are right, evolution is a part of everyday existence. Our evolution has been slow, but definite. It may seem that the defunct acceleration is because of a confusing choice between the local ethos and temptations from abroad, but that is not the case. The intrinsic preferences of an average Indian remain the same, but the way they display them may have changed with time. If, for instance, you see a Bengali girl who has been working in Dallas for a number of years, there is a possibility of her appearing ‘less’ Indian. That is probably because of her desire to be accepted in the general milieu. The same could happen to a girl moving from Hawaii to New York City.
The people living within this country are learning to respect their modern achievements, which, if studied closely, are more than just excelling in tech-support jobs. While more and more youngsters are following modern style statements, they still prefer dancing to Bollywood songs, traditional marriages are still carried out, sons and daughters still enjoy visiting parents and in-laws. More or less, that is.
And Ganga is still the ultimate destination for washing away sins and sorrows. (Some concerted research in this area will probably help answer a common question: “With so much squalor and poverty, how do they manage to smile?”)
Could it be that the West is now choosing to see Indians only as people who are no longer limited to this region, but a community on the move? People who dress up in tuxedos and cocktail dresses, but look different? Non-violent recluses who come from the land of Mahatma Gandhi, but swamp the Silicon Valley with curry? Perhaps that is what has taken that obscure exotica out of the image. We are still the same people — with more confidence, and an ancient value system with modern masala added to it. We are much like Japan and other countries from this continent, with one difference: some of them have peaked their economic graph. We are trudging along on the bullock cart, but getting there.
CG: The United States, Canada, and India were all once ruled by Britain, and all won independence. Is there any feeling of common bond among those three nations? Do Indians feel ignored, or in some ways not treated as equals?
PDS: I do not think Indians have ever noticed the connection. Of course, I speak for the literate majority. The illiterate minority (which is probably larger than the population of Germany) is more worried about the water canal that hasn’t arrived in the village yet, or the corrupt police officer in charge of the slum they live in. There is so much going on here, so many concerns and triumphs, that there is no room for feeling ignored or seeking equality.
CG: People everywhere wish certain things were different about the country in which they live. This isn’t a sign of disloyalty, but rather of intense love and patriotism. What do Indians wish were different about India?
PDS: Many things. We wish for a clean, green country. We’d like to attain goals, make them visible, and hear the ovation. We’d like to remove the ills our society has created over generations — the dowry system, the caste system, female infanticide, raging corruption. You will notice that I have not listed poverty, even though it is, arguably, the worst ill of all. The fact is that the corruption we have at all levels is the root cause of a large part of the economic suffering. Our farmers produce the best wheat and rice in the world, enough to feed our entire population twice over. But people still die of hunger. And the grains lie wasting in warehouses, because some betel-chewing babu wants to bring home a BMW. It’s sad but true that corruption will always exist in this world. But once the corruption is minimised, we should see happier, healthier homes.
CG: How will the corruption be reduced? Are India’s people turning up the heat?
PDS: There is so much to do. Public opinion is becoming more proactive, rather than merely accusatory. Things will be done. In a frustratingly slow speed, but done nevertheless. The news exposes new scams everyday. That is not because we are an exceptionally unscrupulous people, but because money guzzling is no longer tolerated. Thankfully, television talk shows that invite officials to face the common man’s questions have designed their studios without furniture. Otherwise, the frustration of a society wronged and the resulting heated discussions would lead to a lot of chairs being broken on the heads of those officials. Such is our passion. Our democracy may well be a sterling example of what can go wrong if people have too much power!
Since we’re discussing our wish list, and you mentioned turning up the heat, let me tell you one more thing. If it’s at all possible to tweak global warming, we would like to bribe whoever is willing to listen to somehow ease up on our “kill me, God!” humidity. Hopefully, we might all breathe a little easier that way.