Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who's Indian, What's Authentic

This appeared in today's DNA.


The ultimate triumph of colonialism is to keep the subject’s mind in chains long after the land has been set free. This assertion is at the heart of Pavan Varma’s Becoming Indian, in which he looks to India’s cultural past as a panacea for the ills besetting the country today.

Such a way of thought is not new; it was central to, for example, the romantic nationalists in Germany and then other parts of Europe from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We all know what that led to.

Varma, however, is too polished a polemicist to indulge in rabble-rousing. The book isn’t merely an airing of views; it’s studded with personal memories and anecdotes, starting with his father’s joining the ICS as well as his own visits to Bristol to see Raja Rammohun Roy’s grave, to the Tower of London to view the Kohinoor, to Southall to interact with the Indian community there and several other locations.

His cri de coeur is that “freedom is not only about having one’s own flag and Constitution and Parliament; freedom is as much about re-appropriating your cultural space, of reclaiming your identity, of belonging authentically to where you come from, because without these your articulation of freedom has a synthetic and imitative quality”. The key word here is “authentically”, and the question that remains unanswered is: because something belongs to the hoary past, can it be deemed authentic, or is it itself the result of intermingling of thought and expression?

Fanon-like, Varma targets colonialism’s damaging aspects on the Indian sense of self, taking aim at individuals such as Macaulay (of course) as well as declining standards of architecture, theatre, classical music and dance. There is some merit in his argument that we blindly embrace the West, but most of it sounds curiously old-fashioned – after all, there’s been an upsurge in cultural confidence of late, hand-in-hand with the country’s economic performance. At times, Varma’s reforming zeal is curiously misplaced: for example, he lays the blame for the Yamuna’s becoming a cesspool on Lutyens’ decision to build on Raisina Hill and not along the banks of the river.

At other times, he is not averse to dissembling. His unabashed promotion of Hindi makes him assert that had Nehru spoken in that language during his “tryst with destiny” speech, large numbers in the southern, eastern or other parts of India may not have understood, but it would yet be a “language of the soil”. Well, there’s more to India than the “soil” of its Hindi heartland.

He can also be misleading – writing of Salman Rushdie, he claims that “the pedestal he has been placed on…may become very wobbly if his brave prose is used to criticize the west.” He ought to be aware that Rushdie has been critical of US foreign policy on more than one occasion; moreover, one of the characters in The Satanic Verses itself went by the name of “Margaret Torture”. Varma also takes Amartya Sen to task for confusing a person’s identity with a person’s interests, something that smacks of semantics and appears to miss the point.

Better editing would have helped, too: there’s a long rambling chapter on the Indian disapora, mainly in Britain, all to make the often-made point that you can take the citizen out of the country but not vice versa.

The crowning irony, however, and one that appears to have escaped the author, is that a book extolling the virtues of “Indianness”, deriding colonial occupation and emphasising the primacy of Hindi is written in – heaven forbid -- the English language.

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