Indian Personality Complex
Being Indian: The Truth About Why the 21st Century Will Be India’s By Pavan K. Varma 325 pages, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2004 Publishing a book on "India Shining" just before Indian voters slap the slogan out of power is, at the very least, unfortunate timing. In May, the electorate rejected a complacent Indian ...
Being Indian: The Truth About Why the 21st Century Will Be India's
By Pavan K. Varma
325 pages, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2004
Being Indian: The Truth About Why the 21st Century Will Be India’s
By Pavan K. Varma
325 pages, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2004
Publishing a book on "India Shining" just before Indian voters slap the slogan out of power is, at the very least, unfortunate timing. In May, the electorate rejected a complacent Indian government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite a massive state advertising campaign claiming the government economic policies made India "shine." But bad timing is less worrisome than self-delusion. Pavan K. Varma’s new book, Being Indian: The Truth About Why the 21st Century Will Be India’s, reveals how portions of India’s elite have begun to confuse their own optimism with the nation’s more complex reality.
The shine is real enough: The Indian economy is surging, growing by more than twice what Indian economists once dismissed as the "Hindu rate of growth" of 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) per year. But the glow only reaches roughly one third of the population, perhaps explaining why the BJP won only one third of the votes in the general elections. And numbers — whether growth indicators or statistics about the booming information technology (IT) industry — hardly tell the whole story of India’s success. Varma recounts a comment by Robert Blackwill, then the U.S. ambassador to India. "Human resources and intellectual capital are India’s greatest asset," gushed Blackwill upon leaving New Delhi in 2003. "As a nation, you have great DNA." Varma takes it upon himself to unravel that Indian genome. He concludes that the "Indian personality" is utterly practical, indifferent to human suffering, naturally amoral, and power-obsessed: A nation of people whose "feet are firmly on the ground, and their eyes fixed on the balance sheet."
A successful diplomat who translated former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s poems while serving as ambassador to Cyprus, Varma now heads the Nehru Centre, a London cultural-exchange club run by the Indian government. But diplomacy is only his day job. Varma has authored books on a range of subjects, from a well-received analysis of the Indian middle class to a biography of 19th-century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. In his latest work, Varma wants to "attempt a new and dramatically different inquiry into what it is to be an Indian."
Varma begins his bestselling book with factoids about the success of India’s IT sector and economic growth, but this exercise fails to impress. Yes, outsourcing is a genuine Indian success story, but a nation must do more than answer complaints from British Airways passengers to conquer the world. A serious book needs serious evidence that the 21st century can be India’s just as the 20th century belonged to the United States — that India will become arbiter of destinies across the globe; that the Mumbai stock exchange will replace New York’s as the index of international markets; or that Indian generals will lead battles to eliminate rogue states from Asia and Africa and Latin America.
Curiously, much of the book reads like a litany of what is wrong with India, often with an undertone of subdued merriment. The chapter called "Power: The Unexpected Triumph of Democracy" comprises several stories about Indians’ weakness for unsubtle flattery and status worship. Sources include Varma’s own observations, classical Indian treatises on statecraft, and the timeless Bhagavad-Gita story about Lord Krishna’s use of deception to slay his enemy’s guru. Varma attributes Indian Americans’ growing involvement in U.S. politics to an increasing material prosperity that triggers a genetic urge for "status and recognition." Yet the author fails to explain how these traits will help India master the 21st century, unless Varma’s implicit contention is that such virtues (or lack of them) are necessary for success in an immoral century.
Other evidence for Varma’s thesis is similarly weak. The text is littered with hit-and-miss quotations from predictable authors, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and V.S. Naipaul, as well as from fashionable names like Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Henry Kissinger, all of whom he rebukes for ignoring India. Varma finds journalism more nourishing for his argument. His copious references to opinion pieces and editorials lead to pat generalizations, such as the suggestion that globalization, through modern communications, is the glue of India. Bollywood, Varma believes, "has been the single biggest integrating factor in the evolution of the pan-Indian persona."
India’s emerging economic strength certainly merits analysis. GDP grew by 8.2 percent in the 2003–04 financial year. But it does not justify breathlessness. The creation of the modern Indian economy has been a laborious process that began during the 1950s under Nehru’s visionary leadership. He established the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management that created generations of entrepreneurs responsible for today’s stunning statistics. The economic reforms that began in the 1980s took time to gain traction. India is, after all, the world’s largest democracy. Competitor China has the advantage (some would argue a temporary one) of being run by dictators who do not have to taste the bitterness of electoral defeat.
Indeed, India’s success stems from the nation’s refusal to take shortcuts, including an unwillingness to sacrifice its past in the face of modernity’s onslaught. In a compelling passage on the mathematics of astrology, Varma asserts that Indians see no contradiction between mythological elements of their past and scientific elements of their present. Millions consult the Bhrigu Samhita, a treatise written in Vedic times some 3,000 years ago, that "claims to have an infinite number of records of people and events in their lives," from which "45 million horoscopes can be permuted." The West has outdistanced other civilizations in science and technology during the last three centuries — the true reason for its economic, military, and political dominance. Although the West derided Indian traditions such as the ayurvedic system of medicine, Varma says Indians never considered their culture, dance, music, or ethics primitive, even during the worst days of colonial subjugation. And, he adds, they are now asserting their heritage in other fields as well.
Thus, an Indian technology geek can cheekily assert that, because India gave the world the zero, Indians are natural leaders in computers. An Indian musician can take the ragas of classical music and transform them into a Broadway musical, as did the popular composer A.R. Rahman with his hit Bombay Dreams. And Indian publishers ensure black ink for their bottom lines with exotic foreign editions of the ancient Indian sex manual the Kama Sutra. (Incidentally, Varma is currently working on a book about "the wisdom" of the Kama Sutra.)
This dynamic provides the most interesting and viable answer to Varma’s inquiry on how Indian identity will lead the country toward a glorious future. The United States created the future because it had no past. India, conversely, has placed a calling card on the doorstep of history precisely because it can easily link the glory of its past to the story of its future. "A potential global power must understand what makes its people tick," Varma concludes. "This book would have served its purpose if it contributes to that end." That is the book that Varma wanted to write. He still should.
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