Wednesday, March 24, 2010

India: An Experience

I am Indian, but I don't know India. That's an honest admission. I could have added - it is not possible to know India. It is so huge and diverse. The diversity is everywhere: India is the ultimate tower of babel, a modern day wonder of unification of languages, castes, religions and nationalities.

But, then, I should not say it is not possible to know India, because there are some unifying principles. Vincent Smith, an Englishman who wrote a popular history of India, saw 'Unity in Diversity'. Others believed that you can always see India the way you want to see it. Yet others saw an ancient land, with eternal continuity, which is stirred by modernness but not yet greatly transformed.

Whatever it is, it is complex. It is a rich mix of all varieties imaginable. It is a diverse geography, climate and people. The most common question I face is 'how is the weather in India?', to which I usually answer - it depends - leaving the enquirer perplexed. When the businessmen talk excitedly about the 'multiplier' effect India will bring to their businesses, like just the middle class of the size of the population of Europe, I usually remind them that the moment they set foot in India, it will be an infinite exercise in division, not multiplication. When asked about desperate poverty, I point to the fact that some of the world's richest men are resident Indians; and when asked about the affluent middle class consumption, I end up pointing at the huge underclass who scrape by with next to nothing every day.

May be, what I do is wrong: I paint a picture that India can not be understood.

But, then, that's not true: India can be understood. It is actually an easy country to understand. Here is the key, if I may suggest: Don't try to fit India in your stereotypes. Don't be a know-all, and approach India with a set of theories in mind. Don't start with preset shapes which India must be moulded into. And, India will come to you. It will come to you the way you want it. If you wanted to discover the rich spiritual treasures and eternal peace, it will uncover its soul to you. If you wanted to see dynamic entrepreneurial class, etching out great business and scientific successes, it will show its brains to you. And, if you wanted to discover that welcoming neverland, ancient and unstirred, you will reach its heart.

Here is a rider, though. Whatever you find, you will find the opposite. You may say that India foxes you all the time; it does. It almost seems like the country is an endless fancy dress party, not just in its literal sense. It seems that everyone is intent on disproving you all the time. If you wanted to hate, they impose love. It you wanted to respect, they throw arrogance. If you wanted to go away, they invite. If you wanted to stay forever, they make it unwelcoming. If you thought it is dirty, they show purity. If you thought this is sacred, you discover pungency. It is that endless dialectic, active experience that makes India so interesting.

Sometimes, indeed, people ask what India is. Is this a country, an idea or a culture? I know it seems a stupid question, but it does not feel strange once you have stepped outside the Mumbai airport [or any other Indian airport]. The moment the contrast between the modern terminal building and smartly dressed airline staff, and the melee outside, the chaos and the traffic, becomes apparent, the question starts. It persists all the time thereafter. As people try their best to explain India to you, you notice that everyone has a different opinion.

All Indians don't even agree on the geographical boundaries of the country. Some don't accept that it even exists, except for a political convenience. Others feel that it defines the essential grain of their existence - they are Indians first - wherever they are. You wonder whether India is sum of all these micro-stories, or it is the source which is reflected in all these crystallized moments. You get the hint of an answer - it depends - it can be an idea, culture or a country, depending on who you are speaking to.

Sometimes, what sums up India is the expression: It depends. Everything depends on everything else in India, and everything moves in a puzzlingly circular way all the time. Or, may be, it does not move at all. At the end of each and every journey, one invariably ends up what one started with. If you started with love, you end up with more love. Similarly, hate ends in hate, pride in pride, oneness in oneness and confusion in confusion. India seems like an ocean that moves all the time, but takes nothing and gives back whatever you throw at it.

At the root of it, therefore, India is more an experience than just a country. A country is a geographic entity that does not expand, or at least, does not expand without causing great misery. But India expands all the time. It is an idea, indeed, but an evolving one - and diverse too. No two person's idea of India is the same. India is an idea reflected in the broken mirror pieces of many million hearts. And, India is a deep cultural expression, which is about continuity with openness, and of absorption without change. But, again, as reflected lights do, this culture seems different every time you look, making the sense of continuity so puzzling, so challenging.

So, in the end, India is an experience. It is greater than the country, more diverse than just the idea and more dynamic than what is understood to be its culture. You and I create our Indias all the time. It is both the source and the sum of all our collective reflections. It is an ongoing, evolving process that we plunge into, and it can define, and can be defined by, everything that we bring to table. This is the India I wish to write about: Not just the facts or micro-stories, but the perceptions, beliefs and ways of seeing, which makes India so interesting and so worthwhile to study.

1 comment:

zihva said...

hello Supriyo!!! now i know how many Indians are trying to understand that is something they are part of and own... i had many many discussions, arguments or whatever we call it.. and your thoughts or opinions in the blog were part of some... but one thing i know that could be much better for India is self respect. why are we learning to make jeans when all we need is a lungi!!! anyways... this is what i am trying to say .. the kids should be able to say.. we had really good history (whatever US is facing now had been faced by India 500 years back..) so they not only respect their own house but their neighbors also (not throwing trash on road). we keep saying everything was done by outsiders which kids take it the wrong way and think our country has nothing.. better follow west... i dont want this comment to be any long.. keep exploring your thoughts..

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