Sunday, June 22, 2014

Being Indian

I have chosen to live outside India for more than a decade. This was my attempt to become Indian.

I did not leave India because I felt constrained. Rather, I was comfortable. And, it is that comfort that I wanted to overcome. My persistent requests for transfers abroad, even to remote locations in Asia and Africa, were often met with puzzlement by my bosses, who could never figure out why I would want to go away, leaving what seemed to be a promising and safe career. 

Eventually I went away, but I never really left. Most of my conversations always centred around India. All that I learnt along my way added to my perspectives and changed me. I lived in Bangladesh first, which made me cross the first boundary, that of religious stereotypes that afflicted so many conversations when I lived inside the cocoon in India. Travelling in South-East Asia opened up my mind to the value of working by hand, and challenged the deep-seated caste-based presumptions that I grew up with. And, eventually, living in Europe not just taught me about its culture and philosophy, which I greatly enjoyed, but also its limitations, its rather irrational claim to be rational, and allowed me to have a realistic perspective about the Indian deference to all things European.

The idea that one becomes Indian when someone travels is not mine. This idea of India as a deeply cosmopolitan entity comes from Rabindranath Tagore, and it was him who urged the Indians to travel and experience the world to understand India. My journeys were a quest for such experience.

The debate has always been whether knowing India is the best way to know the world, or knowing the world is the best way to know India. There are so many things in India I don't know. In my life in an Indian city, or cities, most of India, rural, local, often pre-modern, was completely absent. But the question perhaps is whether one goes to search for that Inside India first, and then discover the world through those lenses; or does one break the cocoon of the comfortable middle class existence first, by interacting with the world, and then take that experience back to find the inside India? True to Tagore's prescription, I sought to do the latter.

The advantage of doing it this way round - I now know - is that one finds out what is truly Indian. The idea of modern India has been shaped by the competition of two opposing ideas: One, that of a poor, primitive, distressed country, which is being rescued by English speaking middle classes; and two, that of a country with glorious past, which invented everything and knew everything, only to be corrupted by its interactions with the world, by those marauding Muslims and conniving English, and must now be rescued by by reviving its past. While the differences in these two views are apparent, and the competition between them is fierce, there is an essential consensus : The acceptance that India and the World are in an essentially opposing, confrontational relationship. 

Tagore's idea of India was based on the rejection of this conflict, and started with an embrace with the diverse, the unknown. In his vision, India's greatness rested in its ability to accept, to change and to assimilate, to learn and to be humane. To him, any fixed identity of India was bound to be challenged by the variety of the country's population, its multifaceted history, its natural and intellectual diversity; but India as a meeting place of civilisations, a great melting point not in the pursuit of material well-being (that would be America) but of the unity with nature, transcended all such constraints. Essentially, his idea rejected India as a nation but held up India as a way of life, as a civilisation.

Travel, as I did, strips away all the superficial rituals and symbols lately invoked to define India as a nation, and allows one to appreciate the civilisational aspects of India: Those bit that never goes away. At that essential level, I discovered three things that remained, even after I grew out of everything else:

One, the idea of being in debt: Despite living abroad among many cultures for more than a decade, the essential Indian idea that I am not the centre of the universe but rather a beneficiary of the universe, and therefore, in debt. The sense that I have a natural obligation to all around me and to the nature, never went away.

Two, the fact that the divine is inside the beings, human, non-human and even innate, an idea central to Hindu thought and ingrained in the culture I grew up with, survived all the challenges. There is an essential unity between this and the Kantian ethics of never treating humans as a means, but always an end in themselves.

Three, the idea that the human civilisation and the nature are not in a dialectical relationship, but rather a harmonious one (one would claim such ideas come easy to people from Ganges delta, where nature was so abundantly gracious), is an essentially Indian idea, though one gets to appreciate this only through the interaction with other ideas.

In these lie the civilisational conception of India: A civilisation seeking an essential harmony with the nature and unity with other human beings; one that treats life as a responsibility, and death, not as mere end of life, but the great accomplishment, life's final assimilation with and return to nature. This India is different from the one divided by caste, by religion, by language, by the symbols of its Gods and its narrow European conception of a Singular nation, but this India is real: Tagore saw it in the essential dignity of the common people (he resented the entitlement-seeking city folks) and its abundant nature.

Indeed, the Europeans claimed that such an approach may condemn us to accept our fate. However, accepting harmony with nature is not necessarily giving in to superstitions or to eliminate agency to change our lives. The harmonious relationship with nature is an ideal how one should live one's life, rather than being obsessed in the mad arrogance to change its course. Tagore praised modern science and wanted Indians to embrace its progress; however, he was equally aware of its limitations. The superficial claims that one gets to hear about in the geek fests of Silicon Valley (or its various smaller versions around the world) celebrate human agency but also conspicuously and irrationally lack humility; modern science indeed knows a lot, but it is still ignorant because it does not acknowledge what it doesn't know. This was indeed Tagore's point: That one should continue to seek, but never be unaware of one's limits of knowledge. Acknowledging this was, in his idea, an essential part of being Indian.

Without the journey, these ideas, which I read and grew up with, would not have made sense. This was, therefore, an worthwhile enterprise. All this journey of exploration, was indeed to know India, the place I started from, for the first time. It was my journey to be an Indian.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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