Notes on Indian Chauvinism – 1


Chauvinism – regional, cultural, religious and linguistic – is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. I’ve felt strongly about this since my college years in Delhi. Growing up in Ahmedabad, which pretends to be a big city, but is really a small town with all the trappings that come with being one, I’d been largely sheltered from unsavoury attitudes. I had friends who were Hindu, Muslim, Punjabi, Bengali, Marwari, Kayastha, Khatri – in short, representing various castes, communities and religions. Of course, I was aware that religion was a touchy issue and that certain communities were perpetually looked upon with distrust, and just before I left for Delhi this fact was brought home to me with sickening force. But more about that later.

Delhi was like another world where I encountered bewilderingly new and different attitudes. Also, I took up History as my main subject and as anyone who’s seriously studied History knows, it takes the mind in totally new directions. I’ve thought more deeply and more widely in those three years of my life than any that preceded or succeeded them. It helped that my teachers were radical feminists, some of them even had leftist sympathies, and every one of them loved a good debate.

One of the things that struck me the most was the hostility that was directed at students from the North Eastern states. I’ve been reading this insightful blog on the same subject by Illusionaire. Illusionaire is from the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram. I lived in Delhi long enough to understand what he’s talking about. The University of Delhi (DU) has many students from the north-east and when I first got there, I was a little surprised that the students were unofficially, but sharply, divided into two groups – The North Eastern students and the ‘Mainstream’ students. The two groups rarely mingled socially, led completely different lifestyles and regarded each other with mutual scorn.

It puzzled me that this was so and initially, I thought it was because of group-ism on the part of the north-eastern students. As it turned out, I was wrong. Given a chance, the NE students would’ve befriended the rest of ‘us’. But we rarely gave them the chance. The pejorative ‘chinky’ was often used by us to describe them and while I never actually heard anyone say that they should go back to China (WTF?!), I can well believe that that suggestion has been thrown into the face of many a NE student.

The lack of knowledge about and appreciation for the north-east region of India among other Indians is appalling. One of my closest friends is from Meghalaya (incidentally, she’s a Bengali) and it is from her that I’ve got some of the deepest insights into why north-easterners feel so estranged from the rest of the country. She described to me an incident that occurred when she was applying for admission to various colleges around the country. She called up a very prominent university in Pune to ask them about their admissions procedure and told them she’s calling from Shillong. The person at the other end asked her ‘Sri Lanka?’. When my friend repeated that she’s from Shillong, the response she got was ‘Where is that?’.

This wouldn’t have happened if my friend had said she’s from Mumbai or Lucknow or Chennai. Not even if she’d mentioned some smaller town like Mirzapur or Belgaum. And it’s not as if Shillong is an insignificant little place; it’s the capital of Meghalaya. Presumably, the person who answered at the university in Pune had studied about all the Indian states at school. Why then was it so difficult to remember that there’s a city in India called Shillong? This is just one incident. There were many more, like the time when some of the freshmen in our department taunted two of my classmates, calling them ‘Chinkies’. Or the time when a girl was sexually assaulted because it was assumed that girls from the north-east are ‘open to such things’.

I like to think the best of my country. It’s has a rich history, lipsmacking cuisine and a vibrant culture, and that in the face of all odds, we’ve made democracy work here. But attitudes like this make me despair. One of the most frequently heard arguments during the Bhajji-Symonds row was that Indians are not racist. What a black lie that is! We’re racist, very racist and what’s more, we’re racist to Indians.


What will Kosovo Bring?

>If a Kosovo is born and is supported by the US and major European powers, what hope is there for nation states that are still battling separatism on the basis of religion?

It’s not surprising that Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Russia have refused to recognize Kosovo. They’re all dealing with separatism themselves. China too has expressed it’s reservations about this unilateral move by Kosovo.

What is surprising, and disturbing, is that India has not joined this group of naysayers, especially since what happens in Kosovo today, could very well happen in Kashmir tomorrow.

And anyway, quite apart from the implications that Kosovar independence has on Kashmir, is the unnerving fact that multi-ethnicity seems to be an increasingly failed concept as far as nation states are concerned.

The writer of this article thinks that India should recognize Kosovo, because as the world’s largest democracy India has proved that ‘it is possible to be democratic and poor and even to achieve high rates of growth without sacrificing civil liberties. India is a model for developing countries, in no small measure because of its commitment to democratic values and human rights.’

He only leaves out the question of multiculturalism, which is one of Indian democracy’s greatest assets and something that makes it’s success all the more laudable. A trivial question? I think not.


>‘In Heaven there is Paradise, on Earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou’, goes a famous Chinese saying. As I walked around Hangzhou, I could see why the Chinese believe that they have Paradise right here on Earth. It was during the week-long break for the Chinese New Year that I visited Hangzhou and therefore, quite understandably, it was crowded. But strangely, it was still peaceful. There were milling crowds of people; there was noise; there were celebratory fire works. And yet, it was a soothing place to be.

Hangzhou is an ancient city. It has been an Imperial capital, a commercial center, a religious hub and the muse of numerous poets and painters. It impressed Marco Polo so much that he called it ‘the finest and most splendid city in world’.

I had only two days to soak in as much of Hangzhou as I could. The first day was spent visiting a couple of famous monuments.

The Leifeng Pagoda was our first destination. This pagoda, built in AD 975 of wood and bricks, is associated with the famous legend of Bai Suzhen, or Lady White Snake. Little remains of the original building. The picture on the left is of a more recent structure, built over the ruins of the original. The government, has done all it can to make this monument tourist friendly. There’s plenty of parking, restrooms and even escalators for the aged, the indisposed and the plain lazy. I of course took the escalator.

The ruins of the old structure can still be seen inside, preserved behind glass walls. Each level of the Pagoda houses artwork which illustrate the history and the legends associated with it. My favourite were the intricately carved wooden panels which depict the legend of Bai Suzhen.

Our next stop was the Ling Yin temple. It was built by an Indian monk and is one of the ten most famous Buddhist temples of China. Quite frankly, temples bore me. But this one was interesting because of one particular hall which contains the statues of 500 sages. Apparently, every person in the world, resembles at least one of these statues. We discovered one which looked like my Dad and another which looked like my Mum’s brother. Unfortunately, I omitted to take pictures of them.

We devoted the next day to exploring the areas around the West Lake. Walking here is a pleasure. Not only is the view of the lake from the various pavilions gorgeous, but there are numerous cafes and restaurants tucked away behind foliage, and plenty of benches strewn about, on which to sit and contemplate life. That’s what I liked so much about the West Lake. Modernity is not allowed to strike a jarring note here. Every modern convenience is so discreet and blends so well with the natural and historic sites of the place, that it remains beautiful and tranquil.

While it was charming place to be in during winter, Hangzhou is supposed to be at its best in March when the flowers begin to bloom. What little I saw of it, left me convinced that two days is not nearly enough time to really appreciate it. So I’ll be back there in March with my camera, when the willows are green again and when the lotuses bloom in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever been more smitten with a place.

When in Mumbai, say Mumbai

>’Say Mumbai, not Bambai!’ say the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and its leader, Raj Thackeray. Forty years after his uncle led a campaign against South Indians for allegedly taking jobs away from the ‘sons of the soil’, Raj’s native Maharashtrian blood is boiling. Why? Because North Indian migrants in Mumbai dare to celebrate North Indian festivals like Chhath Puja and Uttar Pradesh Diwas.

If I remember my civics lessons correctly, it’s a fundamental right of every Indian citizen to live and work in any part of India. And to be able to celebrate any festival – be it Chhath Puja or Eid or Hannukah. And if I remember my history lessons correctly, Mumbai is ‘The Maximum City’ because of the inflow of people from all parts of the country. It was not just the Maharastrians who made Mumbai – it was also the Gujaratis, the Sindhis, the Tamilians; people from almost every part of India played a part in converting a group of fishing villages into Mumbai the Megapolis.

A friend told me that it’s pointless to talk about this, since nobody is going to take Raj Thackeray seriously anyway and that in any case, all he wants is cheap publicity. Maybe he’s right. But this ‘us vs. them’ issue seems to be popping up all the time, not just in Mumbai but all over the country. Be it Modi’s ‘Gujarat Gaurav’ or the anti-Bihar riots in Assam or Raj Thackeray’s attack on North Indians – this trend of regionalism is growing and threatening to consume the Nation.

People who know me well are aware that I’m not a big fan of the concept of nations and nationalism. That said, I do believe that in this day and age, nations are the only hope we have. National governments, at least theoretically, are supposed to provide people with stability and security. They’re supposed to make resources available for their citizens. But Nationalism has one inherent flaw – how is a Nation to be defined? Is it a geographical concept? Or is it linguistic, or religious?

Modern India was born out of the geographical idea of ‘Hindustan’ or ‘Bharat’. We’ve multiple racial, cultural and religious groups within this country. The fact that India has survived as a democracy for 60 years is a testament to the power of the idea of a Nation. Surrounded by failed or failing states, India has remained stable. But who is to say that this might not change?Call me an alarmist or a pessimist, but I can’t help wondering – has Regionalism become the new Nationalism?

The Woman In White – Reviewing A Classic

I just finished reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Yes, it’s a 19th century work. But no, it’s not boring. At not a single point is it ho-hum. I’ve read a great many mystery novels, but none of them have been as complex, as thrilling and as satisfying as this one (with the possible exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The story begins with what Dickens described as ‘one of the two most dramatic scenes in Literature’. Late one night on a lonely road, the hero, Walter Hartright, encounters a mysterious figure, the eponymous Woman in White. She’s lost and distressed and he helps her out. The next day, Hartright sets out for Cumberland, where he’s been appointed to teach drawing to two young ladies. One of the ladies, Laura Fairlie, bears an uncanny resemblance to the nameless woman Hartright had met the previous night. What follows is a tale of deceit, greed, loyalty and love, which forever changes the course of the drawing master’s life. And at the heart of it all is the mysterious Woman in White.

The tale is told from many different points of view. Collins got the idea from the way court proceedings are conducted. In his own words, ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness…’
This style inspired other works, among them Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The characters, major and minor, are all well-fleshed out and have their own distinct voices within the narrative.

Collins got the idea for the novel from a book of famous French cases, Receuil des Causes Celebres. The inspiration for the hero’s encounter with the title character, however, originated much closer to home. Apparently, Collins and a friend were walking home one night, when they heard a piercing scream from a nearby villa. Running from the house in terror, came the figure of a beautiful young woman who was dressed in flowing, white robes. She was a widow with an infant daughter and she claimed to have been held captive by the owner of the villa . It is believed that this woman was Caroline Graves, who became Collins’ companion and who is buried next to him in Kensal Green Cemetary.

The Woman in White was a commercial and critical success of its time. Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement so that he could go on reading it uniterrupted. Bonnets, perfumes and even waltzes were names after The Woman in White. To this day, it is one of Collins’ most popular books and is the prototype for many of the Gothic thrillers (including Dracula) which followed it. It’s popularity is well-deserved in my opinion. As the narrative unfolds, Collins proves to be an expert weaver of plots and machinations, concealing secrets with one hand even as he reveals them with the other. It’s certainly no surprise that this book has been called ‘one of the greatest mystery thrillers in the English Language’.

Image from Amazon