Saturday, April 21, 2007

Being Indian

or, The truth about why the 21st Century will be India's. This book, published by Penguin, cost me just Rs 250 and the back cover says that it is for sale in the Indian Subcontinent and Singapore only. How odd. Btw, I have not finished this either - I've been distracted by The Argumentative Indian and my rediscovery of my 500+ book collection from which I've extracted a few old favourites.

I'm also still digesting much of what it means to be Indian, something I rejected being, quite honestly, for most of my rebellious life.

Pavan Varma is a diplomat, his biography seems to imply an erudite, well read and well travelled gentleman who evokes a subtle sense of Pico Iyer in his approach and writing. I'm not comparing the two, no one comes close to Iyer in his distinctly global style, but the faint whiff perhaps of mixing Indian with British with a touch of the world feels familiar. I've only completed the first chapter on the relationship that Indians have with power - political or fiscal - rather than charismatic or physical, and it's been a learning exercise for me. I purchased this book for myself, to satisfy my desire to understand what it means to be Indian.

Being Indian - the title itself is so evocative of the complexity of any nationality, race and culture. I carry an Indian passport, of this I am sure, and my skin is brown, my hair black (let's ignore that occasional colours, shall we?) and my eyes brown. Yes, that means I'm Indian. Ethnically. But what about culturally?

What has changed ? Is it the author's perception of things or is it a more fundamental change in ground realities? Or is Varma saying that the take-off stage has been achieved not because of the middle classes he censured earlier but in spite of them? Varma's book makes for good reading.

But should it also make the Indian in you feel good? It depends. Depends on whether you believe ends justify the means. Depends on whether you accept hypocrisy as a way of life. For Varma's evaluation of the forces that fuel India's launch into the new century makes it clear that there is a lot that is unscrupulous and hypocritical in the Indian's way of life that has served him well. This, a friend, has echoed to me time and again. The one, who has grown up in a literal global village.

But while Varma does draw our attention to the gross inequities and prejudices that are still prevalent in every walk of Indian life, the fire in the belly seems to have burnt out somewhere along the way, the sense of outrage dimmed. The result: the Indian middle class that he urged to introspect or perish may actually feel great on reading his new book.

As the book suggests, India is bigger than the sum of its parts. But the "big thing" that emerges is neither scary nor unstable.

And best of all, I found
the book listed on this wonderful website online called Khazana (Treasure trove) - that calls itself a source for hard to get books from India and South East Asia. Just $27 - smiles - only a few dollars more than my Rs 250.

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