The 'I' in nation

The 'I' in nation

We all know what ‘country’ is: those blank maps we got in Geography class sure helped. I remember struggling to mark important cities like New Delhi (I could never get Hyderabad right — it was quite a mobile city on my maps, sometimes travelling all the way to Indore), and trace the paths of rivers like the Ganges.

But, what is ‘nation’? We know it is something that wants to know, as shared repeatedly by Arnab Goswami. But, who is it? What is it? The internet says it’s a social concept — it is a large group of people with strong bonds of identity — an ‘imagined community’. India, the nation, hence is a large group of people who are deeply attached to each other by means of what they stand for.

The problem is that India, the nation, is so diverse. There are around 645 listed tribes alone in addition to the scores of religions, communities and groups.

That means we have to constantly make sense of the people around us by summoning useful stereotypes. ‘Christians eat cake’, ‘Punjabis are businessmen’, ‘Malayalis wear gold chains all the time’ and ‘Rajasthanis sing beautifully’ were some beliefs I grew up with. Well, till I heard a friend from Jaipur sing. I realised my whole life had been a lie, just as he completed the opening verse.

“We need national symbols, values and beliefs to identify with to build a coherent sense of nationalism,” says an expert. I think he lives in the middle of the Indian ocean with no internet to boot. How do we have one shared artefact in a country as richly diverse as India?

We don’t have many shared ideals other than some ubiquitous ones like cricket, rioting, and comparing our children with the neighbour’s? So, what can possibly bring us together when the cricketing season is over and the neighbour has had vasectomy? I tried to introspect to get the answer (since introspection is easier than researching for facts).

I was taken back to last year, when I grappled with breast cancer and was in chemotherapy for 8 months. I was in the care of 2 accomplished oncologists who not only operated on me and administered the drugs, but also advised and comforted me right through. They also shared with me titbits around the latest research and the rationale behind them choosing the course of treatment they had opted for.

They even laughed at my jokes. And then I get a couple of emails from people settled abroad — “Are you sure the doctors in India are good? I really wouldn’t trust the medical system out there.”

These kind of messages really got me mad. I never responded to them because I am too dignified, and more so, because chemotherapy has damaged my short-term memory and I forgot to reply. But, I would be so upset. Indian medical care and our doctors are amongst the best in the world. In my hospital, I’d see patients from different countries flocking here for treatment: if I had chemo any longer, I would have definitely learnt some Swahili.

Then there are these people who want to send their children to study abroad.
“We wouldn’t really bank on the colleges here. It’s better the child gets the ‘best of education’.”

I just find that laughable. I have nothing against colleges in other countries. I am sure they are good, too. But, we don’t have any less. Plus, the challenging ecosystem with its several dimensions and rigour promises to build characters of tungsten.

I tell my children to study right here and start their own ventures post that — I tell them that their goal should be to provide jobs to those children who’ll be coming back to India in search of jobs after completing their studies abroad! Yes, that’s what nationalism means to me.

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