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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Shakespeare Baboo

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution Of Culture And Identity
By Pavan K. Varma/Allen Lane/Penguin | 275 pages | Rs 499

Pavan Varma’s inveighing against a baleful colonial influence is rooted in the Hindi sphere’s fragile ego

By Swapan Dasgupta

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution Of Culture And Identity

The cover of Pavan Varma’s charmingly polemical book is intended to be a photographic caricature. It portrays a man wearing a white silk kurta and red-bordered dhoti over a pair of black argyle socks and Oxford shoes. The apparent incongruity between the attire and the footwear encapsulates the book’s central thesis: Indian identity has been distorted and made ridiculous by colonialism.

It’s an old argument. From Franz Fanon to Edward Said and Ashis Nandy, and from Gandhi to Golwalkar, scholarship and politics has often damned the imperial inheritance as a hideous perversion that affected both the coloniser and the colonised.

For Varma, the colonial inheritance remains a curse. An obsessive preoccupation with the English language and western sensibilities has marginalised indigenous culture, warped intellectual development, sullied art and aesthetics, and transformed India into a nation of philistines. India is unworthy of a leadership role because the national psyche has been built on “borrowed plumes and transplanted paraphernalia”.

For 300 years, writes Varma with eloquence, “an entire nation and its people became the object of an external curiosity, brown fish swimming around in a bowl held in white hands”. He peppers this imagery with anecdotal evidence of passengers on the Shatabdi choosing to speak in indifferent English, the non-availability of Ghalib’s poetry in Delhi bookshops and the steady erosion in the popularity of Indian classical music.

Predictably, it all began with Macaulay. But what Varma finds most galling is that Macaulay’s project was accepted and internalised by Indians. Those selected by him for inquisition and denunciation include Raja Rammohan Roy, writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the Bengal School artists and, naturally, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Varma doesn’t admit of an ability to retain identity while taking from the West. Examples of India’s abject yielding is drawn from Delhi.

The Raja is berated for freezing his deep knowledge of Hindu philosophy in favour of endorsing Britain’s ‘civilising mission’. Niradbabu is debunked as “the most flamboyantly learned mimic of an alien civilisation”. “None of his books,” Varma writes with vicious inaccuracy, “sold more than 5,000 copies...despondent showing for a man who became the biggest apologist of British rule.” The Bengal School is critiqued for being a reaction to western sensibilities, rejecting anything that deviated from a depiction of India’s glorified past and “caricaturing their potential”. Nehru gets short shrift for speaking in English at the stroke of the midnight hour and imposing the questionable modernism of Le Corbusier on an unsuspecting Punjab.

Varma’s critique of the contrived modernism of Nehruvian aesthetics is compelling and should warn against the unilateral imposition of a leader’s personal preferences. On the two Bengali stalwarts, he tends to be more doctrinaire than historical. Like many “post-colonial” intellectuals, Varma underplays the quantum of bhadralok acceptance of British rule. This was partly due to its being an improvement over anarchy. Bengalis were also excited by the potentialities of new knowledge. The East-West encounter did not lead to natives forsaking their own: it witnessed a spectacular flowering of Bengali literature. Rammohan and Niradbabu personified Bengal’s breakout from provincialism.

Varma doesn’t admit this ability to retain self-respect and identity while imbibing from the West. His anecdotal evidence is drawn primarily from Delhi, a city yet to develop roots and where the self-esteem of many Hindi speakers is fragile. In Calcutta Club they speak Bengali, dhoti is encouraged, and a good steak served. In Madras Club, ladies elegantly sipping whisky are attired in kanjeevarams; its ambience one of rootedness. The problem of identity and the triumph of philistinism is mostly a problem of the Hindi sphere. These can be rationalised by history and politics: Hindi’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis Urdu and Persian; the relative lateness of its exposure to the ‘civilising mission’; the many outlanders in the political class.

False consciousness isn’t a pan-Indian problem. And does it matter that Lord Romsey mispronounces ‘Ahluwalia’ and we make a dog’s breakfast of Lord Cholmondley. For many decades I have tried to tell north Indians that my surname is Dasgupta and my first name isn’t Swapandas. One day I may even succeed.

Outlook, March 15, 2010


Arun Italics said...

In Madras Club, ladies elegantly sipping whisky are attired in kanjeevarams

Really? I don't know if I am hallucinating or you are, but I saw a very different Madras Club. And why is sipping whisky "elegant"? Because the British said so? The British perhaps also told you that real Indian culture can only be found in snobbish clubs.

Anonymous said...

One has only to read this exercise in apologetics (and other recent ones like it by this blog's author) to see why it is Bengal where the Raj established its beachhead and its emaciated post-independence successor continues its dubious hold.

Ravi Patel said...

Well Said Swapanda,
As an unabashed and a proud Gujju political Hindu I fully agree with you.So pulverised many of our north Indian brothers and sisters still are by the brutal Islamic conquests of the past that most of them are still holed up in their little piegon holes and this includes most of the suited,booted and western attired delhiwalas.

Anonymous said...

" For many decades I have tried to tell north Indians that my surname is Dasgupta and my first name isn’t Swapandas. One day I may even succeed ".

That is a good one:))

Intermingling of cultures & imbibing whatever appeals to us is a given in this globalised world.

Once I heard PVerma loudly claiming in a discussion on tv that pursuit of Vedanta is highly " selfish " blahblah. I decided such an uninformed scholar deserves to be ignored.

Anonymous said...

Get over your Bengali superiority complex, Swapan Dasgupta! Wow, this North Indian correctly spelt your name, as I always have done. And, I know at least two others who have spelt your name correctly too. May be, the fault is not in them but the kind of company you keep.

Anonymous said...

In the age of globalization, cosmopolitanism is not just an aspiration, it is an essential tool for survival. An understanding BJP could do with as a matter of urgency.

Sipping wine/whisky and enjoying a well done beefsteak or chicken manchurian while attired in Kanjeevarams or dhoti-kurtas or mundu-jubbas or kurta-pyjamas is not just a common sight at the Madras Club, it has been part of the cultural life of the Bangalore Club, the Bowring Institute, the Catholic Club, the Secunderabad Club, the Nizam's Club, the Lotus Club, the Trivandrum Club, the Calicut Club and hundreds of Lion's and Rotary Clubs all over the South. The Lion's and Rotary clubs even have a quaint name for it: they call it 'fellowship and dinner'.

The members of these clubs are influential opinion and economy leaders in their local communities. And they fund everything from Karnatak sabhas and Bharatanatyam performances to Kathakali performances and Bhasha plays. They also fund a lot of local election campaigns.

@ Arun Italics: I see from your profile that you are a parasite. Which particular species would that be? A tapeworm, a round worm or a pinworm? Just curious.


Anonymous said...

Isn't most of the Western colonial scholarship on native cultures (Indian or African)based on anecdotes? They come here with their backpacks and travel through for few months and then suddenly become experts and scholars on native cultures... last word and ultimate authority on everything Indian and Hindu!

PS: As a northie, I have tried telling people that "Bengali" is the inhabitant of the state of Bengal and the language they speak is called "Bangla", I hope one day they will understand.

Anonymous said...

I guess the author is seriously suffering from inferiority complex or insecurity. As nobody gives damn about bagali or south culture in North. We are better than marathis or southis as we welcome all!!