We Indians are rather contradictory and confused about whom to foist our national pride on.
Two very different individuals, whose roots can be traced back to our country, dominated global headlines this week. And we reacted quite oddly to both of them. One evoked a maudlin and somewhat overdone sense of ownership; to the other we responded with a typically unresolved ambiguity.
I’m talking about Sunita Lyn Williams and Salman Rushdie.
As this column goes to print, Indians are living on the edge of a prayer, waiting in nervous anticipation for the Atlantis to hit earth safely. Little children in schools, temples and mosques are folding hands and bowing heads in a strange emotional mix of hope and fear. And even before she’s back on terra firma we have already claimed Sunita Williams as a national icon, as one of our own. When Williams spoke about how heavenly samosas and chhole tasted up there in the skies, we felt strangely validated. We acted as if she was India’s brand ambassador in the galaxy of stars.
Not to be party pooper, but isn’t this just wishful thinking?
It’s almost as if a country that hasn’t sent anyone into space since 1984 has transferred all of its national dreams onto this sprightly American citizen. And American she most certainly is — Williams was born to an Indian father and a Slovenian mother in Ohio. Unlike her close friend Kalpana Chawla who went to school in a small town in northern India, Williams was shaped and formed entirely by America. Militaries, they say, are the ultimate guardians of maps. And Williams’ patriotism led her to the US Navy where she served as an aviator during the Gulf War. What can be more American than that?
Admittedly, there’s still something about watching her afloat in space that tugs at the heart and brings us to tears. Perhaps it’s that humbling sense of us humans being mere specks in the universe; of realising that the earth is not necessarily the epicentre of life. Perhaps it’s because the memory of the skies opening up to swallow Kalpana is still fresh and raw. Sunita Williams’ story (and that of her crew’s) is an astonishing illustration of the courage and adventure the human spirit is capable of. But, sadly, it doesn’t quite make her ‘our woman in space’.
Much as we play up Sunita Williams’ Indian ancestry, we haven’t quite figured out how to respond as a country to her fellow American resident, Salman Rushdie. This is despite the fact that his ‘Indianness’ is actually much more direct and indisputable. Not just was he born here, his greatest works of writing have borrowed from the smells, sounds and stories of India. On his last visit here for a literary festival in Rajasthan, he told me that coming to India was “like drinking at the well, ever so often you have to come to drink at the well”. His parents may have migrated to Pakistan in the 1960s, but Rushdie has always been outspoken about where his sense of identity lies, despite his “complicated notion of home”. “I know which side I am on in cricket,” he joked last year, “it’s always India, not Pakistan, no problem for me.”
So, why has the Indian response to the author’s knighthood been so muted?
The politically correct among us may want to argue that an award from the Queen of England is not just an anachronism — it’s feudal, colonial and in poor taste. Others contend that the honours are farcical and lightweight. (This year, the winners included a global lingerie tycoon, Joseph Corre, who turned down his prize saying he could not accept anything from the “morally corrupt” Tony Blair.)
But let’s own up to the truth. Had an Indian-born steel magnate or business tycoon or even an academician been bestowed with a snotty little prefix from the British monarchy, enough awe-struck Indians would have been jumping through hoops.
The reason we are so understated about Sir Salman is not because we disapprove of royalty; it’s because we are hypocrites and mixed up about whether we want to claim the author as our own or not.
Parts of India treat Rushdie like he’s a rock star; we especially like boasting about him to our Western friends and acquaintances. It’s nice to act like one of the world’s most successful authors is as homespun as our handloom saris.
And yet, other parts of India (most noticeably the political establishment) continue to treat him like we would handle an embarrassing relative. We know he’s ours, but don’t force us to officially admit it.
Our television channels self-righteously debate whether Pakistan’s government had any business getting involved in the controversy. We are passionate about not mixing art with politics. And we feel appalled at the lunacy of politicians across the border who have warned the world that the award may spur on suicide bombers. For us, it’s just one more example of how Pakistan is hurtling down the path of self-destructive fundamentalism.
But how many of us have demanded an explanation from our own governments? Do we ask our politicians to clarify where they stand on the ban on Satanic Verses? Can we ever escape the blemish of being the first country in the world to ban the book? And for those of us who got so worked up over the attack by right-wing goons on the arts faculty in Baroda, will we speak up as vociferously for Rushdie’s right to express his creativity without censorship?
This isn’t about whether you like his books or him; it’s about double standards.
If we defended (as I did, for the record) the right of a young student of art in Gujarat to paint Christ and Vishnu in images that were sexually explicit and possibly offensive, we must also give Rushdie the same space to say his piece.
The freedom of expression cannot be defined selectively.
It’s time we owned up to the fact that Salman Rushdie, even more than Sunita Williams, was at least partially made in India.
Barkha dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7