Identity crisis

Identity crisis

The early thoughts I had of my Indian identity — I am talking of the schoolboy days, when we had no clue about what this 'identity' was — revolved around a slight sense of shame. “Foreign” was a place where people had a better quality of life, followed rules, owned swanky cars of all makes and sizes (remember we had just the good old Ambassador, Fiat or Premier Padmini, and the Standard Herald). “Foreign” people did not litter — our teachers told us about Singapore and how you would be fined if you ate chewing gum or threw wrappers on the pavement. “Foreign” had clean drinking water that one could drink straight from the tap, and no power cuts.

And more importantly for us school boys, “foreign” had sports and athletic teams that won. We had a cricket team that rarely won matches, although we had greats like MAK Pataudi, G R Vishwanath, B S Chandrashekar, E A S Prasanna, and Sunil Gavaskar — although skipper Ajit Wadekar famously won a series against the English. We had a huge Olympic contingent that simply went abroad and returned without even a bronze medal — with rare exceptions like Milkha Singh and Bahadur Singh fighting hard. Our hockey team ruled the world.

We had poverty. That added to the sense of discomfort of being an Indian because all acts of wasting food resulted in elders and betters telling us that we dared not do that, that hundreds were dying of hunger. That we were lucky to go to school and live in a house with electricity. I listened, without comprehending, as grown-ups talked of Pather Panchali and Satyajit Ray — we had this novel as our 10th Standard English text, and could not understand why some adults were angry about his depicting India as a poverty-stricken country to the world. I was confused — were we not a poor country, with floods and famines? I remember the Indian News Review newsreels that all cinema theatres would play before a film — there was no television then. The images of flood-hit Bihar, or some other state, with the perfectly enunciated English commentary, and suitably sad instrumental music, with some deeply moved members of the audience loudly exclaiming or clicking their tongues in distress — added to the guilt of actually watching and enjoying the English film that followed the news reel, when hundreds were homeless and starving. This is what we grew up feeling. I think that rather dented our sense of the 'Indian identity’. But then we had to stand to attention in the theatres while the Indian national anthem was played, at the end of the film, with the tricolour fluttering proudly.

Free India

Of course, there was a lot of pride in our freedom struggle and how we had gained independence from the British — although we were in school nearly 25 years after the ‘tryst with destiny’ speech. There were enough stories from family members about how they had witnessed the actual struggle for freedom. My mother’s tales of how she and her siblings had to hide in the loft that ran across three houses, and shift patriotic literature and books published by my grandfather from one end  to the other, while the British police searched the houses below in vain, sent our young pulse rates soaring with excitement.

Indian identity

Images of my mother and her siblings sitting quietly huddled in the attic, hoodwinking the British police, was something we loved. Yes! This India, fighting back the British, everyone doing their bit, I liked!

When we were in high school, massive defections from one political party to another had become common, and Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram was how newspapers were describing the politicians who changed colours faster than chameleons. Everybody was talking with disgust about the state of Indian politics. People who had either taken part in the freedom struggle, or had seen it from close quarters — many times the same people who had told us those rousing tales — could be heard talking about how it was all of no use, that all those ‘sacrifices’ by the ‘freedom fighters’ was a waste. Add this to the other inputs we were getting — no wonder we had no clue what our ‘Indian identity’ really was.

Today, many years later, we are sadder but no wiser. True, we have a World Cup winning cricket team that seems to do no wrong. We are beginning to win medals in the Olympics. Our hockey team no longer rules the world.

We have all kinds of satellites that we have put into space. They are talking about having an Indian presence on the moon. Leading economic powers like the USA talk with awe about the bright futures of India and China in the same breath. Even while I am stuck in the daily traffic of Bangalore, I can be proud of the fact that I am stuck in the IT Capital of the world, that I can constantly text messages on the status of the traffic every minute, so that people waiting for me a mere 15 km away will know I will arrive hours later.

My city is now linked directly to the world. Gone are the days when we had to exit the country via Mumbai or Chennai. Highways of prosperity link my city with the rest of the country. You can cruise down double-carriage expressways to anywhere in the country, provided you have a car, the money for the fuel, and of course, the time. Swank petrol pumps dot the route. Gone are the days of looking for a bunk that looked respectable enough to give you good fuel. Indian and multinational food giants wait to feed you en route. Even the humble dhaabas have transformed themselves to offer you Chinese noodles and Gobi Manchurian.

But we still have poverty. The Indian News Reviews have gone, the single-screen theatres showing them have gone, but the same images of floods in Bihar are beamed on about 20 to 30 satellite TV news channels every year. But we have some improvement in the choice of visuals. Apart from the floods, we also have separate in-depth stories of 1,000s of tonnes of food grains left to rot. We have amazing graphics showing us the exact figures of children dying in the country due to malnutrition. We have ‘sting operations’ on corrupt politicians. Reality TV shows that make participants weep.

I still have no clue of what all this is doing to my sense of the ‘Indian identity’, or indeed what it is.

Yes, I do feel proud of the fact that I belong to an ancient country with a culture that is as old as the hills. That we have great epics like the Mahabharatha. That our ancient sages were experts in medicine, nutrition and science. That our diet — whether it is South, North, West or East Indian — eaten the traditional way, with the right mix of rice, wheat, dal, vegetables, turmeric and all our spices is perhaps the most balanced in the world. I like this ‘Indian identity’ very much.

I had often wondered how Americans feel, with so many people across the globe envying them for their super-power status. I got my answer when I visited Cambodia 11 years ago. My wife and I toured the stricken nation extensively, trying to understand as visitors how the people had endured under Pol Pot. Cambodians in almost every village we visited asked us with awe, “You are from India, no? Great country.” I felt like I was coming from some super-developed nation, technologically superior, with a wise democracy, a strong economy, and as the Cambodians said, “the great country of Buddha.” It was a great feeling. I think I really liked this ‘Indian identity’ of mine a lot.

What, then, you ask is my true sense of Indian identity? I think after all this going back and forth, what it means to me is a mixture. Of pride, that we are emerging as one of the world’s super powers, that my identity links me to one of the world’s most ancient cultures, that I belong to a race that is capable of adapting to anything that is thrown at it.

Awed that I am part of this vast, mind-boggling sub-continent that changes in climate, culture and language almost every 100 km. Sad and ashamed that poverty and hunger still stalk the land, not because we are incapable of tackling it, but because our political system simply has not come together and declared it as the top priority. Deeply humiliated that corruption is something that has become inextricably linked with India, and nobody really gives a damn (save one or two fasting social leaders).

Do I sound sad, happy, proud and confused? I am sorry, but that’s what Indian identity means to me...

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