A successful joke is one that is not introduced as a joke. If it is not meant to be a joke in the first place it may even become a classic. That is how India’s preeminent Ramzadons have inadvertently preserved the genius of India’s funniest self-regard. They might have repeated it many times in many forms, yet they have not ruined it because they are very serious, very dangerous people. Sometimes it is not the act that is funny, nor the delivery, but the clown. And, there is a deep reason why nobody in a circus looks graver than a clown.
The joke in question begins roughly this way, ‘Ancient Indians were so great that…’. In the tradition of immortal jokes, one can add almost anything to this line and it would still be funny. And many things have indeed been said by luminaries, many more will be in the future. Ancient Indians were so great that they invented the microwave and aeroplanes. They performed head transplants, cloned humans, developed nuclear weapons. Also, the Taj Mahal was once a temple (The cartoonist RK Laxman, who was not aware of the hypothesis, depicted the same in a cartoon). Over the years, in the course of my interviews with serious men, including scientists, I have been told about the extraordinary qualities of the cow, which is usually white. Never the buffalo, which is black. And that cowdung can resist nuclear radiation. The reason why ancient Indians were so great, an old scientist said, was that at some point in Indian history there as an alien contact, “and a transfer of technology”.
What this is about is the pursuit of pride, a pursuit that academics like Romila Thapar have dismissed as a symptom of inferiority complex. But then the fact is that most of humanity grapples with low self-esteem, so it should not be dismissed with contempt or considered an ailment, but accepted as human nature.
Indians who laugh at the pronouncements of elite Ramzadons only laugh at the content, not the motive. Because they too search for reasons to be proud of a civilisation that once occupied this land. They search for respectable reasons. When Manjul Bhargava, who was awarded this year the greatest honour in mathematics, the Fields Medal, said that he was inspired by ancient Indian mathematicians, he probably filled millions of Indians with pride. As one would expect, the Canadian-born American was described in the Indian media as a genius ‘of Indian-origin’. Something in him originated in India — his parents, in reality — and that fills Indians with pride. Why?
He is among many brown Americans who are described enthusiastically in India as ‘of Indian-origin’. After the ‘Indian-born’, American-British scientist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he said, “All sorts of people from India have been writing to me, clogging up my email box. It takes me an hour or two to just remove their mails…Do these people have no consideration? …I, personally, am not important. The fact that I am of Indian origin is even less important. We are all human beings, and our nationality is simply an accident of birth.” He said that Indians whom he never knew were claiming that they were once his teachers in universities he never went to. And that it was totally false that he has been offered a job in India. “However, I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately.”
What is the lure of civilisational pride? That modern Indians wish to be reassured that their genes are respectable? That they have emerged from high culture? Is that it? But, do new humans always emerge from the old? Is modern society a consequence of the ancient? What is it about contemporary Italy that has emerged from its great undeniable past? Until recently, one of its most successful politicians was Silvio Berlusconi (“politics is like courting women: you have to confuse the girls.)” You take a train to Rome and what you see as you approach the distant suburbs is a miserable urban folly that is almost on a par with the unspeakable ugliness of Indian cities.
What is the relevance of ancient Rome to modern Italy? Is heritage overrated?
Among the answers that the questions elicit, there is one that is essentially parental. Because a child is a conservative deeply concerned with the idea of home and how it measures up to what is not home. What does an Indian child, say an urban child, see when she looks around? The visible heritage is largely that of the conquerors. Very little of ancient Hindu architecture has been left standing. Except for the great classical music and a few epics, there is very little for the child to be persuaded that the cultural, aesthetic and scientific bar is set very high for her. It does affect her, hence the society.
When I was in school it was a time when the failure of India was unambiguous to all children. It was funny in the way death is funny sometimes. In fact, after the dumb Pakistani, the most popular jokes were about the dumb Indian. Only that generation and older would fully understand how amusing and odd the nationalism of the new middle class is.
From all evidence, the Indian quest for national pride is meaningless. Sometimes comical as was evident from its hosting of the Commonwealth Games. But, usually destructive. India has often done better when it has responded to the emergency of shame than when it has gone in search of pride.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel
The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed by the author are personal