Saturday, 10 April 2010



How much do I know about our country and our heritage? The question stares at me as I read Pavan K Varma's book Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity. In his book, the career diplomat has analysed the nation's history, and the roles of some of the iconic figures --- Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru among others --- vis-à-vis the British domination of the region, and their policy of gradual imposition of English language.

I ask Varma about his choice of English as the language for this book. Referring to his education at the convent schools and at St Stephen's in Delhi, Varma says he's “condemned” to write in English. “I have nothing against English, but my preference would have been to write in my mother tongue Hindi,” he asserts. In this context the author says the target readers of his work are all Indians who are concerned about “what we are”. The book is “certainly not confined to English-speaking elite which is an incestuous and narrow circle which has largely run out of ideas in sync with the interests of our country,” Varma adds.

It is somewhat discomforting to read Varma's analyses of Ram Mohan who is considered as a pioneering social reformer in the 18th century. Ram Mohan, according to Varma, ridiculed his own cultural heritage and identity to win the support of the ascending powers in the English East India Company. Ram Mohan's intentions were good, but, Varma questions the propriety of the erudite reformer's support for western education. The author cites documents to show that Ram Mohan contradicted himself in criticising the ancient texts of Hindu philosophy and religion.

The broad theme of the book being reappropriation our heritage and identity, Varma talks about the need to decolonise our minds. “It must begin with the educated classes, and the government has to make important policy changes to reflect this change in attitude,” Varma says. “The poor are absolutely entitled to learn English, if it helps to get them a job. But English can be introduced in the sixth grade after a child has acquired an effective grounding in his or her own mother tongue,” he maintains, adding that there's a “foundational difference between a language of communication, English in this case, and a mother tongue”. While English helps to interface with a globalising world, the mother tongue helps to understand one's own mythology, lullabies, folklore, history, fairy tales and the rest, Varma affirms.

It seems from the book that the author has made a generalised statement about the Indians who often prefer English over their mother tongue; some of them even feel proud about their inability to communicate in their own language. I express my doubt to Varma about how correct he is in painting all Indians with the same brush. “In our country, people may know their mother tongue, but English has the label of superiority and our languages labour under a self-imposed sense of inferiority,” he replies. “That is why I quote the example of a person in the Shatabdi Express (train), to whom you ask a question in Hindi (in north India) and he replies in English, lest you think that he does not know English” In the same context he says, that though there may be no conscious disrespect of our culture, but if the knowledge of our own culture becomes a matter of tokenism or ritual, then the disrespect becomes inevitable.

Varma, currently based as the Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, had earlier been posted in other parts of the world. The postings gave him opportunities to interact with people across nationalities and cultures. Varma has included several of his experiences to show the asymmetry exists in our relationship with the West; how often we tend to overlook the ignorance of people from the erstwhile colonial nations about us, though it is expected that we will be well-informed about them. Referring to his experiences, Varma says: “When one is abroad, one has the distance and objectivity to observe what is happening in one's own country. However, it is your country which provides one the inspiration to think and write about what needs to change”.

While discussing the question of 'identity', Varma has criticised Amartya Sen's theory on this issue; which is fair enough, considering one can have a different view. In this context he discusses the debates over multiculturalism and race relations in the UK. Varma cites examples of non-White British citizens in the UK who often face the annoying question:”Where are you from?” I draw his attention to the questions over regional identity that often shows its ugly head in India. Are we heading towards hyphenated identities --- Marathi-Indian, Bihari-Indian, Arunachali-Indian? “Indians have an identity which is pan-Indian, even though there are surface difference between us,” Varma says. “We can belong to different regions, but that does not make us hyphenated Indians, because the overall civilisation to which we belong for the last 5000 years subsumes us in spite of our diversities”. The differences, he adds, are “not fundamental”.

The book also looks into our heritage in art and architecture, and the impact of globalisation. Varma critically analyses the architecture of Lutyen's Delhi and the rather “racist” attitude of Lutyen towards the Indian architecture and craftsmen. The general tone of this interesting chapter once again is that of loss of our pride, or what Varma calls our “amnesia”. Perhaps, the amnesia and the blind imitation of the West is due to our own gradual decadence and mediocrity compared to our forefathers, I suggest. Varma replies: “We need to a cultural audit of what have been the consequences of colonialism, in the past and in the present. Only then can we deal with the rampant mediocrity, mimicry, tokenism and cultural rootlessness in our country today”. The 'unfinished revolution' that the title of the book mentions, is the “reappropriation of our cultural space in authentic terms, but without xenophobia or chauvinism, so that we can become a voice in the world that commands respect for where we come from and who we are as a civilisation,” Varma asserts. India being a deserving candidate to claim a high position in the world community, cannot afford to be come photocopy of the West, the author adds.

It is clear that Varma has done extensive research for the book that took four years to write. And it is indeed a thought-provoking book. So it left me wondering: What the author would have done to gain support from the ascending British powers, if he would have been in the situations of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. I also wondered how could Yeats write in 1835 that “Tagore knows no English...” (page 74 of the book; the Index says it's Rabindranath Tagore) though Rabindranath was born in 1861.

Moreover, the author who vehemently opposes the asymmetry in our equation with the West, keeps referring to the British people by their titles of Lord, Sir, Her Majesty. Furthermore, in the book Lord Meghnad Desai seems to have preference over Baron Bhiku Parekh, the latter having been denied his British title all across the pages.

I did ask Varma specifically about all of these.
But he preferred to remain silent.