26 January 2011

What does it mean to be an Indian?

The Indian identity
The underlying theme of the R-day this year (as with every year) is patriotic. It made me ponder what exactly does it mean to be an Indian? Having grown up listening to mythological tales of Lord Krishna and Ram, and political legends such as Gandhi and Nehru, I thought the entire world identified us Indians with these names. In contemporary times, its Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan who were among the first Indians to be 'waxed' at Madame Tussaud's after Mahatma Gandhi. Much to my surprise then, when we arrived in the USA about a decade ago, I realized that people associated India with elephants, snake-charmers and the Kamasutra. One of the most well-known cities of India was not Delhi - our nation's capital, but Goa(!) for its beaches, feni and rave parties. 

Lately, in the wake of Deepak Chopra's remarkable rise to popularity, India is also in the limelight for Ayurveda and Yoga. Sadly, among the Indians living abroad, India is still defined by corrupt politicians, filthy roads, loud noise during weddings & festivals; raucous, nosy relatives and spicy, tasty food. Despite being a civilization that is hundreds of thousands years old, with a rich cultural heritage; though India enjoys enviable unity amongst diverse religions, communities and languages- sadly, it has no definite identity for the world at large. Known as 'Sone ki  chidiya' (golden sparrow) in ancient times for its abundant crops and spices, it was reduced to one of the 'developing' nations of the third world post numerous invasions and plundering. 

Steeped in (oft debated) virtues of forgiveness, sacrifice and non-violence, we have nonetheless achieved significant progress on almost all fronts be it business, technology, medicine, education, entertainment, sport and even space travel. Today we are an economy to contend with, students across the globe flock to our universities, our films are respected and acknowledged at various premiere film festivals, our cuisine one of the most popular ones in international restaurants and our cities are coveted tourist destinations. India has finally arrived despite grave reservations (pun intended), natural as well as man-made calamities(read terrorism). 

Somewhere along the line though, our joint family system, our definition of right and wrong, our values of 'pran jaayi par vachan na jaayi' (Life will end but promises once made won't die) and simple living have become diluted. Exhibiting our famous flexibility and expansive nature, we have embraced the culture of other nations along with their daughters as an integral part of our families. Where else can you see people tucking into salads, sushi, noodles and pasta with as much gusto as with makke di roti, sarson da saag and aamti-bhaat! Shopping malls and cineplexes have replaced the chaupati and dhabas. But then where else can we find maids who tote cell phones yet clean your homes as if its their own! Indian culture of today is a curious amalgamation of the traditional and modern. A glass-fronted restaurant and paan ki tapri stand side by side and make equal business.

For me, being an Indian means growing up to the melodies broadcast on Vividh Bharati, watching the sole channel  - Doordarshan on television, playing hide and seek and carom during summer vacations, reading Archies comics, Asterix and Tintin, walking to school, corresponding with relatives over snail mail and eating a simple meal with very little variation every day. But for my daughter, being an Indian will be mean something very different. As the neurologist and philosopher Gerhard Roth observes, "Irrespective of its genetic endowment, a human baby growing up in Africa, Europe or Japan will become an African, an European or a Japanese. And once someone has grown up in a particular culture and, let us say, is 20 years old, he will never acquire a full understanding of other cultures since the brain has passed through the narrow bottleneck of culturalization."

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