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A journey without maps

Why do we get so worked up about cultural nationalism? It is as uncertain as a Delhi fog, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Jan 29, 2010 23:54 IST

Cultural nationalism is a fickle business. On Republic Day, we learned that South Korea’s first lady traces her bloodline back to Ayodhya. We were so happy. Here was more evidence that all the things that matter originated in India. But the next day, there was disturbing news about a Chinese pop star who sings in Sanskrit. How cunning! Would the Chinese lay claim to Sanskrit next? That’s what they’re really good at, laying claim. Some people are good at maths, at cooking, at investing, at PHP. The Chinese are good at all these things, but their core competency is laying claim. As George Fernandes once said, it’s like having an elephant in the room and it’s eating up everything in sight.

But relax. The pop star in question, Sa Dingding, is not really a ‘Sanskrit singer’, as she is being branded. She is an interesting fusion composer and performer of mixed Han and Mongolian descent whose songs are written in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and a language that she classifies as “self-created”. I had me a listen, and the Sanskrit was Greek to me. Beijing isn’t about to use Dingding to lay claim to Kalidasa. It is promoting her as an instrument in a more important project — to lay claim to multiculturalism and gloss over its history of minority oppression. It’s working already. Seek on Google, and ye shall find pots of reports from journalists who have just discovered that China has 55 minorities. They are quite prepared to go easy on the Tibetan question, or disremember that the Uighurs have issues with Beijing. They think China has invented multiculturalism.

Utter bosh, of course. Any cultural nationalist can tell you that like all good things, multiculturalism originated in India and we have a patent on it. Everything worth having originated here — the number zero, Ayurvedic cough drops, idlis, bananas… What, bananas are not Indian? ‘Banana’ is a word from the Congo? These Africans want to take credit for everything, even for originating the human race. And anyway, banana chips are of guaranteed Indian origin, so there.

The trouble with cultural nationalism is that cultural history is as uncertain as a Delhi fog. You can’t go back too far in time without encountering the imponderable, or discard academic caution without embarrassing yourself. In this journey without maps, nothing is as it once was, and it’s silly to believe that things hold still so that we can fit them into familiar geographies.

This fascination for owning and treasuring the past extends beyond the cultural domain. The environmentalists are all excited about saving the Himalayas, but they were not supposed to last. The mountains did not exist before the Gondwana Plate came wandering by, and they will vanish in the distant future. This is normal. So R.K. Pachauri was not only wrong in believing that the end of the world was nigh, he was also misguided.

Sure, parts of India will vanish too, in the meantime, thanks to global warming, but should we despair? We can always move to China. I understand they’re turning multicultural over there. By the time we emigrate, they could all be speaking Sanskrit. And they should be happy to have us. As you know, everything worth having comes from India.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal