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Book Review: Becoming Indian

Nehru’s first words to the nation were in English: “ Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time has come to redeem that that pledge…”

india Updated: Mar 06, 2010 13:32 IST
Lalita Panicker

Nehru’s first words to the nation were in English: “ Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time has come to redeem that that pledge…” And this is what Pavan K. Varma is trying to say in Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity. The author makes the very valid point all along of the need to be rooted in one’s own culture. “My mother was the repository of traditional culture in our home… as a child she was escorted to the Girl’s High School in Allahabad where the medium of education was English but she studied Indian classical music…”

The most interesting part of the book is the chapter, ‘The Empire at Your Threshold’. Varma speaks of a visit to see the Kohinoor, which he describes as curiously small. He also examines why English remains the most powerful medium of communication in modern India. He goes on to say that perhaps our classical arts and literature have been overcome by our desire to be conversant with English — without dismissing the importance of English for communication and its power as a means of social and economic exclusion. We can see where the author is coming from, but wonder whether he should have brought so many people into the book. “I walked down from the changing room looking like someone from outer space… I was introduced to a lady who supervised the preparation of forty-six different spices…” No one’s sure what purpose that passage serves.

Varma’s main point: we need to include our classical tradition and thought without becoming ‘enemies of Macaulay’. He dwells in depth on architecture that have little to do with ‘Indian landscape’ and on our emergence as an economic power even as we remain overly sensitive to both praise and criticism from the West.

I only wish that Varma had not wandered so much from topic to topic despite being a raconteur extraordinaire. For example, when he talks about religion as the core of identity and goes on to the importance of madrasas and mosques for Muslims after 9/11, he moves on to a dinner with Bhikhu Parekh and a discussion about the abrasive French sensitivities on the issue of hijab. Somewhere the issue seems to have got lost.