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A vibrant entity

India bended easily to the will of foreigners and allowed the world to shape its idea of itself. A little xenophobia now might not be such a bad thing, writes Aatish Taseer.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2012 23:38 IST
Aatish Taseer

Patrick French, writing in the Sunday edition of this newspaper - Writings on India (and the foreign hand on the keyboard) (The Big Story, April 22) - raises too important a point not to be taken up. In arguing against a new defensiveness among Indians, related to foreigners writing about their country, he mentions a number of invaluable accounts of India by foreigners over time. The Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang; the Uzbek polymath, al-Biruni; William Hawkins in the 17th century. What he does not say, and what I suspect is at the heart of the Indian anxiety about foreigners writing about India, and especially its history, is that this body of work is often the only way Indians can form an idea of their past.

For, few places in the world have as long a history as India's and so few historians. Fifty odd centuries, full of big impulses and no one we can describe as an Indian Herodotus. No Tacitus. No Ibn Khaldun. No equivalent of the Chinese annals. As someone whose primary motivation for learning Sanskrit was to form an idea of the classical past - through the epics, charitas and the Kavya literature of the first millennium, a little bit of Kalhana - let me say that the void is real enough. And probably no country has had to depend as much on foreigners, and later its conquerors, for historical information as India.

The gaps are real, but we, in modern India, have done little to fill them. We have allowed the study of epigraphs - one of the chief sources of information about the classical past - to grind to a halt; we have stood by and done nothing as the centres of Sanskrit learning shifted away from India to Europe and America. We fooled ourselves into believing that we did not need the humanities; and, even as the imaginations of our young people were paralysed, including those in the sciences - for they no less than artists need the past to enlarge their idea of human possibility - we did not build institutes of classical studies to rival our IITs and our IIMs. We let foreigners do the hard work of studying our past and humanities.

It is humiliating not to know one's history; and that humiliation, when one meets a foreigner with a more intimate knowledge of your past than you possess yourself, can turn to wretchedness and anger. It is like the story an Islamic art dealer friend of mine used to tell of putting on one of the first exhibitions of Islamic art in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi prince, who had commissioned the exhibition, was at first full of questions for the English dealer about the Islamic past and culture. The dealer tried his best - perhaps too hard - to answer the prince's questions. What he didn't know was that the better he answered them, the more the prince resented him for it. At last, the prince, apoplectic with rage, yelled: "But how do you know these things?" How indeed!

When you don't study your past, you expose yourself to people distorting it. I grew up around many such distortions, the ugliest of which was the idea, advanced by the British, and supported by Muslims because it trivialised the harm done by the Islamic invasions: that there was no idea of India. It was like Churchill said: "India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator."

Such an offensive thing to say! A near complete dismissal of India's classical past. And so untrue. One has only to open a work of Sanskrit literature, like the Kumarasambhava, say - and what an opening: "There is in the north the king of mountains, divine in nature, Himalaya by name, the abode of snow. Reaching down to both the eastern and western oceans, he stands like a rod to measure the earth" - to know that while there was not a unified political entity (as neither there was in Europe or Greece) there was an incredibly powerful notion of India, asserted again and again in its literature. Of a cultural unity. A world so vibrant, so inter-connected, that it allowed for a man like Vallabhadeva in the 10th century in Kashmir, to write the first commentary on the Kumarasambhava, which in all likelihood was composed five centuries before in Ujjain. And, nine centuries later, Mallinatha, working in modern-day Andhra Pradesh, felt the need to improve on what had come before and wrote his marvelous exegesis on the same work. Would it were that India today, with armies securing her borders, had such a profound sense of who and what she was.

I offer this as one distortion of India by foreigners. But there have been many: old and new, they range from mangoes and slum dogs to apologising histories of the Mutiny; there are the correspondents with their povertarianism and exaggerated fears of Hindu fascist take-overs; and there are the orientalists, who would turn hard gritty India into a fantasy of sweetmeats and fakirs. All problematic, all irritating enough. But the foreigners are not to blame; what is to blame is India's historic and continuing dependence on foreigners for an idea of herself.

Patrick French - though serious writers, like him and Katherine Boo, whose book could not have had a better reception in India, have little to fear - is right: there is defensiveness these days, there is over-sensitivity and perhaps a degree of xenophobia too. But in a country which has bended so easily to the will of foreigners in the past, and where foreigners are still invisibly able to occupy positions of great power, both politically and intellectually, a little xenophobia is not such a bad thing.

French writes: "Let India accept the world, as the rest of the world accepts India." I would say that India, if anything, accepted the world too easily, too unquestioningly; it allowed the world to shape its idea of itself. And if now, in a different time, there is a pushback, it is only to be expected, and even welcomed, so long as it is the accompaniment to intellectual labour.

Aatish Taseer is the author of Stranger to History and Noon. The views expressed by the author are personal.