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.

22 thoughts on “Not like this only

  1. holy moly – somebody is NOT amused. seeing this from Western Europe i am inclined to think that somebody has a very good point not to be, to.

  2. I just love it when you go on the box…
    and you are so right… In a way it’s true to ay “westernisation is a myth” because We (S-E. Asians, Asians, Africans and Europeans) will all be americanised before we even start to think we could be Indianised….

  3. blanket westernisation/homogenised culture – sounds as dodgy an idea as i’ve come across. Imagine if you will the reaction caused by someone saying to a Scotsman ‘oh yeah, Scotland, that’s in England, right?’ – (i think it may have been someone from the US!)

    …and when you start bringing dialects into the language question, …well there is a village 5 miles from where i was born that has a dialect that is utterly impenetrable!

    gods and geography save us all from globalization.

  4. Indians who have grown up in India are oblivious to the world? Well, I suppose if you compare them to cosmopolitan globe-trotting desis in the West, they might appear oblivious by comparison but I was actually rather struck by the contrast between educated desis vs Americans in dinner table (or college cafeteria) conversations, with my (elite American university) Amriki classmates being much more reluctant to talk politics or exhibit a knowledge of the world than we were back home. But I guess everyone has their own experience.

    There’s also a curious shared Proud Desi cultural space being created by elite Indians who work for MNCs, often having got an MBA or something from the West first and then being sent back home by their investment bank to set up the India office, or desis who grew up in India and are proud of finally having salaries and lifestyles comparable to those in the West, the sort of space that Karan Johar’s New York-based films represent, in which the Old Uncle rhetoric about how They might have wealth and technology but We will conquer the world with our spirituality is updated to talk of how We export our knowledge economy and beat the West at its own game, and Brand India is on the rise everywhere, and little examples of Indian validation or success in the West are celebrated. I’d imagine it’s this crowd that the Tehelka essay was directed at, because these are the people in India who’ve long had a sort of anxiety about how they compare with the West, rather like those of Indian descent who’ve grown up overseas and had to be self-conscious or defensive about their cultural identity.

    Another group, oddly, that sometimes has a reductive homogenous view of the West, is found among some old-fart desi social scientists and historians (like Ashis Nandy) who essentially buy the West’s press releases of itself as utterly rational and secular and scientific, and use that as a straw man to discuss Indian social evolution.

  5. great post…and certainly there are billions of Indias in India but the one that looks up to the West for everything from education,lifestyle,’inspiration’for songs and daily soaps is on the rise, ..

    ..there’s nothing wrong in accepting something that’s good like professionalism,innovative thinking,lifestyle….but it’s foolish for someone to judge a person from his gucci or armani..that he/she idolises the Occident…culture is the ethos,values not visible from outside.

  6. Mango Girl, are you having to study post structuralist post colonial theory? =D Because if you’re being subjected to that, my sympathies. Academia is an odd ivory tower.

    Thanks to everyone who’s read. Am amazed by how many people (400+ and still counting) have swung by to read this rant. You have no idea how sad this makes the visitor stats graph look – one day HUGE spike and then iddly-piddly numbers that look like crawling ants. *sigh…. =D

  7. Oh no, I don’t study that stuff at all – in fact I hate all that theory and am solidly empiricist 😉 but sometimes this stuff just hits you in the face, whether or not you want to see it that way, you know?

  8. Pingback: Popular Weekly Links: Apr.07 - Apr.19 | DesiPundit

  9. Man, you have me agreeing with everything and then you drop these stinkbombs –

    “Remember feeling uncool because your food was eaten with hands rather than cutlery?”

    Uhh, no. Never seen anyone eat pizza with silverware. Well, except for a friend, whom we make fun of ALL the time, for whipping out a knife and fork to eat a slice, instead of digging in fingers first.

    “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”

    What? I thought Bholu (http://www.irfca.org/misc/bholu.html) made the Indian Railways cool. You hipsters and your Nouvelle Vague.

    But all is forgiven, I love you, honest.

    Man, I don’t know, i’ve always felt proud of Indian style toilets (better bowel movement, less chance of contracting germs), eating with hands (tastes better, and you can wash your hands ensuring hygiene, use less resources that would’ve gone into silverware manufacture), drying clothes on a clotheslines (you have no idea what an energy hog a dryer can be), and that’s just off of the top of my head.

    I will stop being such a pest, I promise.

    • Haha, we were like all (1brown, 1 jewish, 2 white) sitting around on the pavement eating pizza, crepes and tacos with our modest hands, sans silverware, on newspapers, like India I guess, and I remembered my little comment. I love the USA, every bit of it uniformly and equally devoted to modernity, blue jeans, coca cola and rock and roll, ahahaha.

  10. It is a diff “color”. Jews are a separate ethnicity. Judaism is matrilineal. My other caucasian friend, incidentally, isn’t jewish, even though his dad is and he has a jewish surname, cause his mom’s lutheran.

    later, we brushed the crumbs off and used the newspapers as makeshift umbrellas as it started raining, and ran for cover. The world isn’t all that different. Far more disingenuous things have been said.

  11. Nice try, Mr. Crapweasel (seriously, that’s not really your email, is it?) but I wasn’t contesting that Jews are an ethnic group but rather that white and brown can be described as ethnicities. Because if brown is an ethnic group, that would mean that a Malay and I — being pretty much the exact shade of brown — are the same ethnicity, which we definitely are not.

    Newspapers as makeshift umbrellas…awww! Rarely ever works in Bombay. Most often, I see people with plastic bags around their heads. Pull them a little lower and they could kill themselves but plastered around their hair, they feel protected against pneumonia.

  12. You should ask your friend Ultrabrown, about the intricate politics of color codification vis a vis ethnic descriptors. Brown, as far as pop culture goes, is a fairly universal indicator of South Asians. Ask Das Racist. Whether it marginalizes other brown(definitonal issues?) skinned ethnicities is a contentious or, in your words, ‘nitpicky’ issue. I’m not committing to a platform yet.

    Anyway your reproachful comment indicated you had problems with ‘jewish’, since the main object (within quotes no less) that followed the predicate was ‘jewish’. This is again a communication breakdown related to the written word. But maybe you should structure your sentences in a way that is less subject to interpretation? 😛

    It is my email id as much as anonandon00@gmail.com is yours. You’re welcome to test it.

  13. “Oxford town, Oxford town, guns and clubs followed him down, all because his face was brown, better get away from Oxford town”

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