I like Manish Vij. I really do. Aside from everything else, he gives me solid publicity by plucking things I write here and plonking them on his most entertaining website Ultrabrown. Which is why it’s incredibly infuriating to find him not just mentioned in an essay that had me chewing on the edge of my table, but agreeing with the flawed central thesis. Now I’m livid because a) the essay makes no sense, and b) I can’t believe Manish would agree with such ridiculous (absence of) logic.
I was with Manish when he bought Tourism (for the aesthetic quality of having a barely-sheathed breast and nipple on the cover, naturally) but had I imagined that simple purchase would lead to a rant on a blog of mine? No. Possibly because there was no blog at the time. One random book buying spree has resulted in Vij being quoted – pretty darn extensively – in an essay by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, author of Tourism, in a recent issue of Tehelka magazine. This would be great if the essay didn’t have in it phrases like “special emotional DNA” and lines like this: “Globalisation should not be feared as the engine by which India is subsumed into the west, but heralded as the process by which India will Indianise the globe.” With Manish apparently agreeing wholeheartedly with Dhaliwal’s argument though, fortunately, exhibiting far more sensible and less melodramatic language.
Dhaliwal writes in his essay that he is “amazed by the lack of confidence Indians have in their civilisation, whose essence has endured for thousands of years longer than that of the West.” He finds this particularly ironic because he feels it’s Europe “that has lacked the ability to maintain its identity and resist the power of transnational ideas and influences”. To buttress this theory, Dhaliwal points out that partying urbanites dance hardest to Bollywood remixes, eat samosa chaat to cure hangovers (really? Someone give the man a mutton roll) and haggle comfortably in Hindi when they need to get home. He also tells us about his mum with her “elemental values of an Indian village woman” and states that “India has a pull on our hearts and minds in a way that Britain never will.” For Dhaliwal, being Indian was something that lacked definition (wait… didn’t he just say India’s stuck to its identity guns for thousands of years?) and he figures it is this lack of definition that makes the Indian identity capable of withstanding the onslaught of globalisation.
Enter Manish Vij (“It was also fascinating meeting people who’d grown up as a majority in India their entire lives. They’re both confident and oblivious to the world.”) and poet Jeet Thayil (“In the new India, Westernisation is just another Indianised accessory, like the English language.”). After a short ode to India’s multiculturalism, Dhaliwal ends with the pronouncement that “westernisation is a myth” and that “the future of the globalised world will ultimately be determined by its willingness to be Indianised.” Cue in the soundtrack from the Matrix here. Dhaliwal plays Morpheus, India is Neo and Vij and Thayil are … Trinity? I’m not sure who the Oracle would be in this version – Ayatollah Khomeini with his fatwa which made Rushdie our most notorious export? Or maybe Arundhati Roy.
Contrary to what Dhaliwal would have us believe, the West is not one homogenous identity. Tell someone from Los Angeles that their identity is a photocopy of someone from Alabama and see how they react. The natives of the European continent share racial similarity and a history of empires but Swiss German is perceptibly different from German German. Italy is not like Spain. Southern France speaks French completely differently from Belgium. Before we get pigeon-chested with the pride of not having a Holocaust in India, let’s keep in mind Partition, Kashmir, the North East, the Naxals, communal riots, the diversity that is ignored with the label “South India” and continued caste-based violence.
Remember feeling uncool because your food was eaten with hands rather than cutlery? Remember being associated with malaria and the dude who drank his own piss? Remember cringing when Mum wore her fuchsia ensemble and teamed it with gold jewellery? Remember the almost-foreign accents Indians acquired within months to distinguish themselves from the corner shop/ news stand guy? Remember feeling ashamed about not using toilet paper? Those were our Mr. Anderson days, to continue the Matrix metaphor. We felt vaguely embarrassed about being Indian because that was how the West perceived us and we worked damn hard to rid ourselves of the signifiers that were considered “native”.
India became Neo about 10 years ago when America and Britain started considering India cool. It was about time. We’ve been doing our best to get the Caucasian certificate of approval for centuries. Perhaps it was the all about wanting to tap an enormous market. Perhaps it was the fact that India adopted English without Indianising it (someone tell Hendrik Hertzberg that Benny Lava’s lyrics are not Hinglish but gibberish). Thayil holds up the accent as a signifier of having claimed a language but it isn’t how you pronounce a word that makes a language but rather how you use it.
Why India turned from geek to guru is a different debate altogether but one thing is for certain – India became less intimidating to the developed world when it became home to Mercs, malls and monogrammed bags. The India seen in today’s media is a cult as much as culture and it’s one that has been constructed out of the opinions of the (American) white man/ woman.
Indians “lack … confidence in their civilization” because most of our notions of India have been formulated on the basis of how someone else viewed the “native” culture and that remains true to this day. The parts of India that we are eagerly celebrating are those that have been deemed acceptable by the West (once the Mughals, then Britons and now Americans). Madonna isn’t cool because she wore mehendi. Mehendi is cool because Madonna wore it. Studying India became cool with foreign students traipsing around the cities, learning Hindi and eating rolls from Bade Miyan. Wes Anderson didn’t show India in The Darjeeling Limited but we love him because he turned Indian Railways arty and upped the exoticism of Satyajit Ray and temples. Without awards from Venice Film Festival and the Golden Globes, how many Indians would have watched Monsoon Wedding is something we can only make educated guesses about as we cast a glance at the languishing indie film circuit. Is Salaam-E-Ishq more representative of the essence of India?
Under the auspices of colonisation, the Ajanta caves, the Taj Mahal, Tirupathi, Jew Town, Bollywood and much more came to be squished into the term Indian culture. This is perhaps why Indians continue to need validation from the Western world. Our “exceptional spirit” is a received idea – created by outsiders and received by us, unquestioningly on most occasions. If you’re looking to define the “essence” of Indian culture, the one which Dhaliwal believes is going to take over the world, what do you look for? Vedic Hindu culture? The height of the Mauryan period with Ashoka? Mughal India? The East India Company? Gandhi’s ethics of non-violenc? Nehru’s Socialist India? Bandra? If you look at all that comes within the boundaries of the political Indian state, you’ll find examples that contradict each of these options. There isn’t one Indian identity that is going to stride a la Neo and scramble the zeroes and ones of Occidental thought. It is particularly impossible by the India being celebrated by Dhaliwal because that India is a construct that operates very definitely from within the Western matrix. This is the India of socialites wearing Prada and tweenies dressing like hip hop stars and parents speaking English to their kids because they want to craft a new India that will be like the West they’ve idealised and idolised for so long. Fortunately, there are about a billion more Indias within this country. I’m sure one of them is like the one Dhaliwal writes about but I’m highly relieved it’s not the only one as Dhaliwal is making it out to be.
p.s. I have it from the Vij’s email that he’s been used, dammit! He wrote a very relevant chunk about the strength of hybrid cultures but I suppose that didn’t quite fit into Dhaliwal’s thesis. Hmph.