Against all odds...
Unique Indian identity
India is a land of contrasts and contradictions. We’re colourful, confusing, wonderful, and at times, simply obnoxious. We are like this only, but what makes us so? How have we maintained our character, spirit, and that intangible but unique Indian identity amid all the chaos? Daily life in India is rife with challenges. Rapes, robberies, murder and mayhem make lack of law and order the order of the day. Yet India manages to keep functioning. Tenacious people have found a way to keep things limping, if not running. Indians somehow make their lives work. They survive, and even thrive, in adverse conditions.
News headlines on any given day proclaim our swings from good to bad to downright ugly. Over mountains of garbage and the stink raised by scam after mega-scam shine rays of hope. Systems in our country continue to work despite the mandatory hiccups. Although political turbulence rattles India now and then, democracy continues to survive. Setbacks which do not destroy us only seem to make us stronger and more tenacious. Prime ministers are assassinated, wars are won, inflation runs amok, and crisis after crisis looms on the horizon. We carry on with our lives regardless, as flights, trains and buses run, though not always on time. Commuters rush to high-rise offices, and new-age hypermarkets offer a kaleidoscope of choice to Indian consumers. We can stand on soapboxes and criticise the powers-that-be, because we live in a free country. We can change governments with the power of our votes. Our elections continue to be free and fair for the most part, and India continues to stand tall above the chaos as the world’s largest democracy.
The stable Indian
Rampant corruption has become a way of life, but our pragmatism and penchant for ‘adjustment’ enables ordinary Indians to continue to thrive. When life tosses us lemons, we make nimboo paani or pickle them. In fact, such is our capacity for assimilation and acceptance that some of us even strive to make corruption work to our advantage. We are burdened with a disorganised, inefficient, bloated and corrupt bureaucracy. Yet, educated young Indians make a stampede for the Civil Services exams. They promise to put service before self and clean up the system, much like aspiring beauty queens looking to emulate Mother Teresa. What many of these bright, enterprising youth are also attracted to is easy money of the sort passed under the table. It’s this ‘never-say-die’ and ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude, which keeps India thriving.
Our cultural heritage is enriched by timeless philosophies and wisdom. This has helped us evolve as clever masters of the art of doublespeak, and of feathering our nests under the guise of altruism. This also enables us to cast aside negative aspersions and feel good about ourselves even though our deeds may not always pass the benchmark of holiness. Our ingrained philosophical attitude helps maintain peace and harmony, because we accept crooks and hypocrites as well as do-gooders non-judgementally, choosing to carry on with our trademark Indian placidity. Thanks to our spiritual grounding, we remain unfazed by just about anything. With acceptance comes peace and stability, helping us carry on with business as usual.
Two faces of a coin
In intelligence, ingenuity and versatility, our countrymen are second to none. These qualities stand us in good stead, no matter which way the wind blows. Newly-elected political leaders are quick to declare their aversion to tainted netas. Yet, those same political leaders are routinely accused of murder, scams and motley scandals. Ordinary citizens follow their leaders by paying and accepting bribes whilst hatching innovative little scams of their own. Like our leaders, we also use our ingenuity for positive ends if, and when, we have a mind to. Some enterprising young persons were recently detained for impersonating candidates in the Comed-K test. On the same day, a team of Indian engineering students announced the development of the world’s smallest, lightest car.
News reports trickle out of another sex scandal rocking the Navy. The Territorial Army’s first lady jawan is found hanging inside a hospital under dubious circumstances. Yet our armed forces continue to maintain discipline and risk their lives to valiantly safeguard our country. A ‘chit fund’ owner in Odisha claims to have spent a whopping Rs 75 crore to grease the palms of politicians and scribes. The ex-boss of an industrial group is held for fraudulently siphoning Rs 1,000 crore into his personal accounts. Scams aren’t the sole preserve of netas and business leaders. Our sportspersons are second to none, with one IPL scandal closely following the last. Yet we garland our netas with currency notes, lionise our cricketers, and business continues as usual.
Seemingly insignificant efforts by common citizens have the combined effect of our keeping our motherland stable, and preventing her from becoming the newest entrant to the league of banana republics. Inflation skyrockets and law and order seems to deteriorate by the day. Dams dry up and fears of severe drinking water shortage loom over our teeming metros. Yet, ordinary Indians continue to keep the country running. Average Indians persistently innovate and contribute to society, despite their penchant for dumping garbage at their neighbour’s doorstep, or turning a blind eye to the corruption of petty officials. Take the example of a team of nameless Indian researchers, who recently claimed to have produced a vaccine for killer diarrhoea at one-twentieth the price of similar vaccines offered by multinational pharmaceutical companies. If this vaccine lives up to expectations, it will be an affordable means to save thousands of lives.
Meanwhile, India has become the latest nation to eradicate polio with no new cases reported since January 2011. Millions of children are immunised through the pulse polio programme in the biggest drive of its kind in the world. Legions of our men and women in uniform guard our borders night and day. They brave the world’s most dangerous and severest conditions, such as the Siachen Glacier, so that we can sleep easy and carry on with our daily business.
Indians continue to thrive despite all odds. It happens only in India! And it happens because of the sincere efforts of ordinary, right-thinking Indians. Average Indian citizens have proved their mettle repeatedly in the face of the gravest challenges. Earthquakes, floods, droughts and other natural disasters have repeatedly battered many regions of our country and yet the victims have rebuilt their lives stoically from the ashes. India’s ancient heritage has given us a firm spiritual base. We naturally tend to do our duty without expecting immediate rewards. Our faith in higher powers makes us more accepting, strengthening our resolve to carry on with life. The terrible tsunami of 2004 is a case in point. Thanks to the tireless efforts of resilient local people and nameless dedicated individuals, the tsunami-hit villages have limped back to normal life.
The great Indian resilience
Terror attacks have not spared even Mumbai, Bangalore or the bustling Sarojini Nagar Market in the heart of the nation’s capital. Yet, resilient citizens reopened their shops and offices and resumed their daily activities rather than brood or cower with fear.
Centuries of wars, upheavals, invasions and exploitation by colonising powers reduced the newly-independent Republic of India from a land of fabled wealth to one of the world’s poorest and hungriest nations. But today, 20 years after the liberalisation of India’s economy, we are witnessing sustained economic growth. This growth in business and commerce is fuelled by the tireless efforts of average Indians like us. In today’s hyper-connected world where events in any part of the globe can have worldwide economic repercussions, ordinary Indians are working to equip our institutions and
industries to brace global uncertainty and volatility in a flagging world economy.
The inhuman attack on a young physiotherapist in New Delhi on December 16, 2012 created nationwide outrage. This is not an isolated incident, but an example of gender-related violence that Indian women continue to face in daily life. Yet, ordinary Indian women are creating successful business enterprises, sustained by sheer grit and persistence. India’s women are a valuable workforce, helping build skyscrapers, tending farmlands, keeping industrial and commercial establishments running whilst providing their expertise in every field from science, technology, medicine, education and governance.
Our ancient philosophical heritage of tolerance and acceptance has been distilled into today’s catchphrase ‘sab chalta hai.’ This philosophy makes us unique in our acceptance of the most outrageous and harsh aspects of life. Powers above us have decreed how life must be. It is not for us to challenge, but to accept and continue to do our duty without expectations. We take in our stride man-made and natural adversities, put behind us the gravest injustices and crimes, and get on with our lives. It is this shared attitude that binds our mish-mash of ethnic, cultural, regional and linguistic identities under a broader identity as Indians. Scams, scandals, bribes are happening everywhere. Everyone has a finger in the pie. Why waste our time and energy fighting what fate has willed? ‘Sab chalta hai’. Let’s accept it and continue with the business at hand, rather than wallow forever in the muck.
I personally experienced the unifying nature of our common philosophy recently. I also realised its positive and constructive aspect. I lost my father, and had to do the mandatory rounds to get the death certificate. An official helpfully offered to spare me the bother, if I would pay him an advance of Rs 800 for his services. I promised to think it over. I then directly approached another office, to which the papers had been forwarded. There, after several fruitless visits, I felt as though I was chasing wild geese. “Nonsense!” said other applicants waiting with me in queue. “The certificate is issued on the same day. They must be after money, but don’t tip more than the going rate of 80 to 100 rupees.”
“Why don’t you flaunt your press connections and jolt them into working,” advised a friend. Easier said than done. In a world which refuses to look beyond appearances, I cannot live down the impression I give of a soft-spoken, muddle-headed eccentric with hair like a bird’s nest. A relative offered the most pragmatic advice. “Put yourself in the official’s shoes,” he said. “The poor fellow has to pay under the table to put his kid through school and college, get the garbage in front of his home cleared, and even just to stay undisturbed in the same job and not get transferred to Huliyurdurga or Periyapatna. With salaries being low and disbursements often getting delayed, how else can he make ends meet?”
‘Sab chalta hai’
When I see things your way and you see it my way, there’s a chance that we can work things out without conflict. This is at the heart of our national character. Like most of my compatriots, I’m tolerant, peace-loving and somewhat shiftless. I firmly stand by our time-honoured philosophy of live-and-let-live, simply because it’s the path of least effort and resistance. “Sab chalta hai,” I said to myself with a shrug, hinted at a ‘little something for his trouble’, and got the certificate promptly. I could have troubled the overburdened Lokayukta with a formal complaint and the headache of dispensing with yet another petty case. But, being a typical easygoing, tolerant Indian, I chose to expend my limited energies constructively on writing this essay instead. See how our ‘sab chalta hai’ philosophy can bear positive fruits? I left the office with my certificate and a feeling of comradery towards the man who had at once seemed to me to be an enemy of the people.
Our ‘sab chalta hai’ mantra is a rallying cry that binds our radically diverse country. The gaping chasm that divides the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, differences of ethnicity, and a multiplicity of religion and language, are all bridged by our attitude of acceptance. We have retained our myriad differences whilst evolving a national identity which accepts our diversity under its fold. Our nation’s founding fathers wisely infused our polity with the ideal of ‘unity in diversity’. This has helped us survive and thrive, despite our differences, as a nation and as a democracy. Our Constitution does not try to remove our diverse regional, linguistic or religious identities in order to bind us under a uniform national identity. Rather, we are permitted various identities, which can overlap and co-exist.
There is space for opposing views to exist and compete legitimately. Our growth may be slower compared to the economic boom of our Asian neighbour to the north, but we are more politically stable. Unlike them, we are not prone to coups and other upheavals of a totalitarian nature. Our growth is more sustained in the long term because of our openness, inclusiveness and flexibility. It’s no simple matter to live together harmoniously, but despite all odds, we try. We are like many wheels of every possible shape and size, attached to a cart. We creak and stumble, and sometimes even break off and roll away in different directions. But together we manage to keep the cart rumbling ahead, miraculously making progress.