Saturday, August 18, 2012

Indian? Who? You? Me?

This comes after an off-the-cuff discussion on Facebook about the British being good or bad for us. We've all had a million put together, I know, but this was a little more specific and had a lot to take home. From the many conclusions I reached during the course of the discussion, one, which was strongly contested, was about when we became India indeed.

When we study about India in our history books, we are referring to what we became (and what became) years later, as a culmination of those identities. We weren't India yet, until the British proclaimed the Indian Subcontinent as one of their territories overseas. We were Bharata Varsa a long time ago, according to the Puranas. India is the Greek word for "beyond the Indus". But we really never meant what we mean so passionately when we say India now until we were one people under British suffering. Our unity was not in our common culture, but in our common suffering.

Before that, we were small little and humungously huge kingdoms who pursued our own interests each. There was no national interest that we all celebrated despite being so divided. One of the contentions of the argument was that when the British came and offered peace with these kingdoms with riders that spelt control, the kingdoms "sold out"; they were, at the most, "thousands" of them and "crores" of us. I responded that the kingdoms simply responded in their own interests and didn't "sell out". Saying they did so would be commenting subjectively on individual expression of values. Their submission to the British invaders did not betray national sentiment simply because there was no national sentiment to betray because we were just a bunch of small little and humungously huge kingdoms who pursued our own interests each. Even if there were crores of us, we still had to count ourselves in whole bunches of lakhs because our interests headed in different directions.

Another assertion made during the argument was that it was the British that made us realise that we were better off as one nation, as opposed to killing each other all the time. Well, we weren't exactly killing each other all the time. We were basically happy people doing exactly what kingdoms do, which includes sometimes making war which results in loss of life to various degrees. We weren't going at it at a pace as a result of which we'd eventually kill ourselves.

Here's what I'm getting at: the assertion that it's because of the British that we are India and Indians. We both agreed on this but with different approaches. His was that they (the British), at the end of it all, drove some sense into our heads about this identity of ours and we should be ever grateful to them. We would've either remained warring kingdoms or been all killed, whichever came earlier. Mine was that our unity has a political history that is not natural. By no instance of natural consequence would we be the India we are today.

Had the British not decided to swoop down on us, going by the pattern of many similar small kingdoms that did join up into nations, or those kingdoms that came to have modern citizen serving administrative systems, we'd actually be better off and on our own. We'd have the glory of the Nizams, a more awesome Dusshera, Kashmir in all its beauty (minus China's bogus occupation tactic) and lots more. What's more we wouldn't have to struggle with our Indian identity. It'd be perfectly Indian, as we would have probably called it in the case of another eventuality, but without the generalisation that throws out most of the nuances of our subcultures, languages and traditions under that common bracket.

That would have not made us unIndian. It would have allowed us to fully understand what being Indian really is, if we can really do that completely. The tag sorta narrows down our perspective on what is Indian indeed. The consequence of being banded together as Indians is that we've diluted all of these cultures into one, not fully representing each (or enough) of them. To do so in the first place is an impossible proposition. On the other hand, to aim to completely live alongside each one, keeping our own, is very doable.

Today, we're stuck with an unnatural cultural identity, choosing between so many options of language, tradition and values - most of which we don't really know (a lot of us). I say choosing because we are, more and more, growing up among varied kinds of cultural expression that is norm, which aren't practices we are naturally proud of because we didn't grow up with them. Those of us who are brought up in naturally conservative setups, each with their own degrees, will be able to keep away from the agony of that stock of choices and will have blood that's a little more mixed, I suppose.

Hindi isn't anymore Indian than Malayalam, but in either majority state, the other one's a foreign language. Case in point. God bless a Kerala born Bihari who spends his years living in Punjab and Manipur. Where you're from becomes a question no more. Who you are is a much more important question, and given the confusion, is a question that's all the more important. If you define yourself as a child of your specific ethnicity, you'd better be brought up like you know it like the back of your hand, or so it must be apparently.

A whole new young generation is probably making the easier rational choices among those - speaking more English, becoming more open-valued, actually being religion tolerant - resulting in a culture that is way more natural and preservable in blood lines than the stock of choices we are forced to choose from our wide ranged culture options. They are allowing norms and rules in society to be built naturally in an environment that encourages peaceful coexistence, without fighting over which language is spoken more (or spoken only), what traditions are celebrated more (or celebrated at all) and what culture is lifted more (or maintained at all). They're allowing a culture to be built primary centred around peaceful coexistence - one that holds no ideological stand with regards to tradition, language and place of origin. Those things are your private matter, as long as they ensure peaceful coexistence. They also make intermingling and cross cultural exchange natural and healthy.

The question is what is Indian indeed? Is Indian a name for anything that doesn't further confuse our present identity? That may have to be read locally, relevant to each pocket of local cultural extremism, in the light of which we'd have to give the question a lot more consideration.