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New ideas of India

With more than 300 million people listed as migrants, identities and cultures are mingling and clashing. Who, then, is an Indian, asks Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2009 21:24 IST
Samar Harlankar

“When I was leaving for New York to do my Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, I always knew that I wanted to return home and I knew that I would. Call it patriotism or obsession or passion — for me my home is where my heart lies. And, that place is India. Its dust, grime, humidity, heat, warts and all, is like the masala in my chai, the tadka in my dal and the lasoon chutney in my vada pav. I could do without them, but then life wouldn’t be so chatpata!”

I thought this typically Indian paean to, well, Indianness, was a good description of what being an Indian in 2009 was about. It’s a happy, inclusive description that reflects the joie de vivre of a young, aspiration-filled India.

Recently, though, my thoughts about Indianness have turned darker, more pessimistic.

On the streets of Srinagar, every whisper of an atrocity — real or imagined — is enough to bring hundreds of smart, young men onto the streets, ferociously battling paramilitary soldiers. Look at their faces, contorted with rage in their now ceaseless fight for azadi. But like the 110 people who die in road accidents across India every day, Kashmir’s angry, young men pour out with such regularity that their protests rarely constitute news.

On the streets of Delhi, it’s rare to meet a woman from the North-east who hasn’t been stared at, mocked or groped. It’s equally true that every woman in Delhi has it bad. Only, most men from the North-east report another kind of hostility — to being different.

Any nation of 22 official languages is, you would think, a nation respectful of diversity. But this isn’t a nation built on diversity. The British forced it on us. Even so, we were comfortable within our communities, cultures and ignorance. After 1947, we lived our own lives, without realising Kokborok is the official language of Tripura, or that Tamil Nadu has more meat-eaters than Uttar Pradesh.

India’s great economic leap forced an unprecedented mingling. The internal migration of 307 million Indians (2001 census) is straining identity, culture and asking of us the big question: Who is an Indian?

India once looked on man as greater than any purpose he could serve, the Kannada poet Masti Venkatesh Iyengar observed. It is true that Hinduism is open to, moulds and accepts outside philosophy. That is why a Hindu will show up at a Sufi shrine, or pray to Infant Jesus, as she might to her Ganesha. But it has never been easy for Hindu society to accept outsiders.

“If the square rod sees a round hole, there cannot be attraction. If the round rod sees a round hole, there can be attraction. There should be a counterpart of values for attraction to arise.” So said the ancient Hindu sage and philosopher Yajnavalkya, in conversations with his second wife Maitreyi (herself a Vedic philosopher) recorded for posterity in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, some of Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, dating to a time before the 5th century BCE.

In Europe, freedom was about finding work and acquiring knowledge, to build institutions and permanence, to live well for today and plan for tomorrow.

For India, tomorrow was too soon. In many ways, it still is.

Life itself is transient, so it’s all right to accept semi-finished roads, semi-permanent sidewalks and in general an ill-maintained country. It appears to override our desire for knowledge, self-improvement and acceptance of those not like us.

So, we stare at the outsider, deride his habits and degrade him and ourselves. We mock the individualism of the West and celebrate our community spirit. Yet we keep our home clean, and throw the trash out.

This is the pessimistic view: That we are unconsciously or otherwise still guided by fate or faith.
The modern view of India comes from people like former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani. “Some people might consider me a hopeless optimist here,” Nilekani says in his book Imagining India, “but I think it is likely that we Indians are finally becoming more than what is defined by caste, religion, region and family, and are linking ourselves more closely by the nation of Indianness.”

So, what is Indianness?

Bollywood? Sure, except it’s nice to remember that a few hundred million people across the south and east of India get their cultural cues from Kollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood and — in Mizoram and Nagaland — from South Korea’s Arirang TV.

The army? Sure, I am one of many whose heart swells when I see regiments parade down Rajpath on January 26. But there are equally many millions in Kashmir and parts of the North-east whose hearts sink when they think of this same army.

I really like that simple description of “being Indian” at the top of this column. It makes no grand claims, just a simple acceptance of what India tastes like, what it feels like. If that generates a feeling of togetherness, so be it.

That little passage is taken from a blog ( written by a former colleague. She did return to India, “the first glimpse of the motherland giving me goosebumps all over”. Her name is Arlene Chang — a Bambaiyya girl, and in her words, “a SUCKER when it comes to India”.

Oh, when she traveled to the US and China, no one thought she was Indian. After all, her family migrated to Mumbai from Hubei province, China.

What do you think? Let me know.