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In our salad days

There has been much discussion in the newspapers these days about the Idea of India. We desperately need the answer to this vital question. Manas Chakravarty writes.

columns Updated: Mar 30, 2013 22:50 IST

There has been much discussion in the newspapers these days about the Idea of India. We desperately need the answer to this vital question.

Doctors have been known to stop heart surgeries midway, throw up their hands in despair and walk away from the operation theatre brooding on the meaning of India.

Farmers reeling from the terrible drought in Maharashtra have stopped worrying about their crops and are agonising about the essence of India instead. Aeroplanes have narrowly escaped disaster because the pilot’s mind was focused, not on landing, but on the soul of India.

What’s disquieting is that, 65 years after Independence, we are still groping around trying to find out what India is. Our freedom fighters apparently had no clue about the India they were fighting for. And India must be the only country in the world where we debate the contents of its soul in a foreign language.

People lived for millennia in this ancient land, completely unconscious of what it means to be Indian. One pities them, poor souls, for they had not read the German philosopher Heidegger who explained, “consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself”, which clears up the whole issue.

Be that as it may, the current discussion seems to revolve on whether India is a melting pot or a salad bowl. I don’t know about the
melting bit, but India has some of the best pot in the world and a fine old tradition of smoking it. But they’re talking of a different kind of pot.

The debate about the India idea is not so much about the pot or the bowl, but what’s in them. The competing ideas of India are of a gastronomic kind. Much depends on what the pot or bowl contains. Since it’s a melting pot, it’s probably either butter or cheese or chocolate that’s in it.

There’s nothing very Indian about those. Also, the problem with the votaries of the Indian melting pot theory is they want to bung in all the different languages and religions and ethnic groups into the pot and grimly boil them till they turn into little Narendra Modi clones.

In a salad, on the other hand, the ingredients remain separate, yet part of the same dish. But everything depends on the kind of salad. The Caesar salad may have Roman undertones, but is frankly inedible, a chicken or ham salad would be a no-no and any salad with a mayonnaise dressing would leave out the Jains. What’s Indian about a salad anyway?

This talk about salads and melting cheese betrays a slavish mentality. Everyone knows the idea of Britain, for instance, is contained in its patriotic chicken tikka masala.

Why then can’t we choose from our local pulaos or biryanis, which too blend many ingredients together, yet allow them to retain their different flavours? Even better, don’t feni or toddy best express the spirit of India? That nationalist spirit is worth dying for.

But wasn’t it Tagore who said, “I would let the cuisine of the world blow through the doors and windows into my kitchen, but I will cook them my way”, or something similar? If he was alive today and taking part in this erudite discussion, I suspect he would find the idea of India in McAloo Tikki.

Manas Chakravarty is consulting editor, Mint
Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 30, 2013 22:47 IST