Posts Tagged ‘Indianness’

Being Indian – a book review

Friday, January 15th, 2010

To draw a pen-sketch that could represent any of the 1.2 billion people inhabiting the land of paradoxes and contradictions that is India is a Herculean challenge, with the odds against being able to successfully accomplish the task fairly high. In “Being Indian”, Pavan K Varma, a career diplomat and a writer of several books analyzing the lives of iconic characters from Indian mythology and history, attempts to do exactly the same, with a fair degree of success.

 The Indian as the world knows is a well-perpetrated myth, says Varma, “created by a quantum leap of logic, an ideological sleight of hand that derives an untenable ought from an undeniable is”. For example, the democratic temperament, spiritual outlook, tolerant nature, peaceful and non-violent character, unmaterialistic thinking and ecletic disposition– traits that are often attributed to Indians in general are mere illusions, he claims, that not only the rest of the world but also Indians  themselves (unfortunately) have come to believe in.

 With examples and excerpts drawn from diverse sources ranging from historical Indian literature to theories by contemporary sociologists, newspaper columns to social meetings, and the jokes and proverbs used in routine conversation to the legends at the back of trucks on the highways, Varma sets about deconstructing the “myths” and cast the mould of the real Indian. Despite sometimes stretching the point too far, these illustrations serve not only make the book more readable (and “less scholarly”, as Varma admits), but also help the universal reader more easily identify with the characteristic being described.

Varma poses innumerable questions related to the striking contradictions in almost all aspects of Indian society. He attempts to answer them by structuring his treatise through four sections on the impact of the phenomena of power, wealth, technology and pan-Indianness that governs the way Indians are and will be in this century. The picture that emerges is unflattering at most times as he exposes the Indian’s inherent lust and respect for power and the unabashed pursuit of wealth and materialistic pleasures with the credo that the end justifies the means. Corruption is rampant and accepted without any compunction precisely for these reasons. Democracy prevails in India not because Indians are democratic, but because “democracy has proved to be the most effective instrument for the cherished pursuit of power”. He talks about a ‘natural amorality’ where private beliefs can never come in the way of personal benefits, a slavery to positions of power that manifests in a predictable subservience of Indians in superior-subordinate relationships, and the propensity of Indians to accept the status quo and thereby breeding mediocrity.

Varma argues however that some of the apparent negativities deeply rooted in the Hindu society — he uses the terms Hindu and Indian interchangeably due to the overwhelming majority of Hindus in the country— are also symptomatic of certain characteristics that have not only allowed the nation to survive thus far but will also help Indians to make their mark globally in the coming decades. The Indian, when viewed with this angle is endowed with all the traits that could make one extremely successful: pragmatic, incorrigibly hopeful, extremely enterprising (and opportunistic), and extremely result-oriented.

 With every one in six human beings in the world expected to be an Indian sometime in this century, the book serves to give some quite an insight into the Indian psyche. But the sheer enormity and complexity of the task means that there are bound to be inconclusiveness and gaps in the hypotheses. Moreover, the book seems to discount the social impact of some of the rapid changes that are taking place in Indian society driven by an economic liberation, coupled with the fact that over half the population is below the age of 35, which could present a completely different Indian persona to the world. The book certainly stimulates interest, inquisitiveness, debate and probably even disdain at some points (the natural ‘defensive’ mechanism of an Indian), but it is rather doubtful that it has made a conclusive case for revealing “the truth about why the 21st century will be India’s”.

Being Indian: The truth about why the 21st century will be India’s

Pavan K Varma

2004, Viking

[An edited version of this review was published by the South China Morning Post]