Becoming Indian By Pavan K. Varma

Name of the Book: Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity
Author: Pavan K. Varma
Publisher: Allen Lane
Place of Publication: New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2010
Reviewed by: J.N. Manokaran

Most probably the author Pavan K Varma has written this book with ‘identity crisis’. With many years in Indian Foreign Service, he feels the pressure of being Indian in foreign context and tries to analyse the problem that bothers ‘global nomads’ today. Unfortunately, unlike his previous books this book seems to be lacking clarity, vision, coherence.
Chapter 1: Choosing Exile
During British rule and even after, the author bemoans that the Knowledge of English and English manners had become a factor of great consequence, a necessary tool for upward mobility. Even in Victorian period English schools taught Greek and Latin; there were no professors of English literature in Oxford and Cambridge until the 1870s.
“In India, people crowd around you, even when you want to be alone. Family, relatives, and acquaintances feel they have a right to be part of your life.” Silence is alien to Indians. Sound is everywhere to India, by turns infuriating and reassuring.
Cultures are ultimately opaque to the outsider, and there is a subterranean stress of not belonging, an effort to adjust that is mostly unable to bridge the gap of difference. The sense of inferiority was an inherent part of the colonial structure, but it did not provoke rejection of the colonizer’s language and ways or even cause significant resentment.
Though English language was difficult to master with phonetics an issue, Indian try to mimicry. The colonial empires of the past succeeded not merely in the physical subjugation of the ruled, their real success lay in the colonization of the mind (through the language) and, in this respect, the British were perhaps the most successful. So, elite Indians became cultural orphans.

Chapter 2: The Imperishable Empire
Lord Macaulay, when he was eight wrote a well-argued essay on the desirability of converting heathens to Christianity. On 2 February 1835 he wrote a minute that rubbished heritage of all Indians. When the ‘Hindoos’ studied their texts, all that they learnt was how ‘to purify themselves after touching an ass, or what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat’” Lord Bentinck passed an order that all public funds would be used only for teaching English.
The impact on Indian people was that they spoke like newspapers when they are not speaking their own languages. They learn the big words, but can rarely acquire the fluency and effortlessness of the connecting spaces and this is noticed by those to whom the language belongs.
The emphasis on rote, was the result of making English the condition for government employment. The author simply ignores memorizing slokas in Sanskrit made Indian learning rote and blames on English education.

Chapter 3: Macaulay’s legacy
“The truth is that English has become a language of social exclusion; the upper crust of the Indian middle class presides over this linguistic apartheid; the rest of India consists of victims and aspirants.” He advocates that children are taught in mother tongue and Hindi while Hindi speaking people should learn one more Indian language and also English from sixth grade.
Language is a symbol of a people’s identity. It is the most vital part of their culture. A people must be proud of their language. But, the author ignores the fact of identity politics in the name of language has hurt Mumbai city.
The resolve to give our own languages the respect that is their due is part of the unfinished agenda of Independence. This revival must talke place volitionally, at the level of mass realization. The author fails to say how that can happen. Can medical education or engineering be taught in Hindi or Tamil or Gujarati?

Chapter 4: Colonial Amnesia: A Tale of Two Cities
The construction of modern city of Delhi did not derive from Indian classical architecture according to the author, so is the case with Chandigarh. “A yearning for a modernity heavily influenced by western notions, and a rejection of the past strongly influenced by colonial assessments, became key elements of Nehru’s worldview.”
“Chandigarh, therefore, rose as a monument to the post-colonial deference of India to the west, not as a statement of her rediscovery of herself. The city, intriguingly and unthinkably celebrated as ‘the city beautiful’, is in fact a symbol of the absence of synthesis between what needed to be borrowed and what should have been preserved.” Unfortunately, the author forgets the contribution of Nek Chand to the city of Chandigarh.
The author considers Architecture has been the single biggest aesthetic failure of modern India, because having lost the animating impulses of its own traditions it reduced itself to rudderless mediocrity and mimicry.

Chapter 5 Creative and distortion
The author says that the Natyashastra written 200 years before Christ in 6000 slokas in Sanskrit has given all creative expression, including theatre. It has nine sentiments like: heroic, erotic, comic, marvelous, pathetic, odious, fearsome, furious and peaceful. The author says the anthropological work done by British as dehumanization process.
“In Hindu mythology, Krishna is regarded as the purna avatara, the complete incarnation, because he incorporates within himself all the sixteen attributes of human refinement, including the erotic – the sringara rasa. His role as the divine lover is in sync with the four highest purusharthas or goals of life enjoined in the Hindu world view: dharma (right conduct), artha (the pursuit of material well-being), kama (the pursuit of desire), artha (the pursuit of material well-being ; kama (the pursuit of desire) and moksha (salvation).” “The concept of Krishna as lover was part of such an integrated, pragmatic world view, linking the sacred and the profane in a joyous celebration of life. It was certainly not evidence of some primitive hedonism or mindless carnality.” The author says the right extremist in India have Victorian morality and protest any display of public affection and denying the legacy of kamasutra.
The centre piece in Indian music is raga not harmonic of the west. The author talks about classical music as Hindustanic and Carnatic and does not speak about folk music at all. In the area of education, Nalanda university had 2000 teachers and 10000 students before destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1197. But he does not analyze and ask why it was not rebuilt?
The author says the Bollywood term in unnecessary. Most films are borrowed ideas. Hollywood created hundreds of movies to ensure the Holocaust is never repeated in history. If the Italians invented neorealism in cinema, the Germans expressionaism, the French new wave, what did Indians invent? In Delhi, until recently, even the haveli of its greatest Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, was occupied by a kabadiwallah, and was recently rented out for a wedding reception.”

Chapter 6: The empire At Your Threshold
In the First World War 60000 Indians died fighting for British. Indian soldier was paid Rs. 18 as salary while a British soldier was paid Rs. 75 as salary. ‘Differences in culture and identity, especially where colour and religion are involved, cannot be erased; and attempts to underplay them, as has become fashionable in a globalizing world, will lead to wrong solutions’.
The author honestly admits: “Indians themselves are notorious for their colour consciousness.” “Colour will not wash away; religious loyalties are not easily swapped; value systems, acquired by a process of osmosis, cannot be discarded like a soiled costume; language, with all the sbleties of meaning embedded in its usage, cannot be easily jettisoned. Together these constitute a core that sets people apart in perpetuity.”
Religion is at the core of the issue of identity. He forgets the nations that were formed in name of religion like Pakistan have not progressed like India. The author does not state what would be the identity of Muslims and Christians in India. He echoes right wing extremist unfortunately. Identity has a ‘stickiness’ and cannot be got rid of simply by wishing it away.
“Indians are the most racist of all. They may marry a white person, but they will never marry a black. Even in Trinidad, where they have grown up with the blacks, they will never marry a black.” Immigrants suffer if they do not learn the host country language.
“Third-generation migrants, who were born in Britain and have very little direct or emotional contact with India, appear to be far more integrated into the mainstream.”
“The cultural part of our personal identity, modern neuroscience tells us, is wired into our brains.”
“In fact, it was a colonial argument that India was a civilizational unity and that it was the British who forged her into a nation.” The author ignores historical developments and simply makes statements out of ignorance.

Chapter 7: Within the global village: Asymmetry and co-option
In the globalized world, many Japanese children consider ‘backward’ eating with chopsticks. A clash can be averted, but only if each culture is able to find expression and is not throttled by the homogenizing pressures of globalization.
The book is superficial and does not deeply analyze issues. The author needs to have a better grasp on sociology and history before he ventures to write a book with such a grand theme.

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