August 12, 2010

Being Indian

The current issue of Business India (dated August 22) is an "I-Day Special". The cover story is "Proud to be Indian", and the tag line is "Indians today are comfortable being Indians, no matter where in the world they are."

(For at least the next few days, you can see the cover I'm talking about here.)

Something about that tag line gets me.

Here's the thing. I lived outside India for over ten years, through the '80s. I lived outside India again for three months in 2001. I travelled on my own outside India for over three months in 1991. I've travelled for shorter spells in various different parts of the globe. I've lived in India pretty much the rest of my young life, and travelled to various different parts of this country too.

Never once in all that stay and travel was I uncomfortable being Indian (whatever that means, anyway). Honestly, the thought didn't even occur to me.

This is hardly just me. I have innumerable Indian friends and relatives whose stories of stay and travel are broadly similar. I have never heard one of them say "You know what? I'm uncomfortable being Indian."

Over two years ago, I found Shobhaa De had said something on these lines to Tehelka: "Our self worth was in the doldrums, we used to shuffle around the world feeling ashamed of being Indians, holding out our begging bowls. The most radical change in India is our self-perception ... Today there is a new assertiveness. It's given us a spine."

I had much the same reaction then. In a column I wrote for the Hindustan Times, I asked (rhetorically, of course): "Who is this 'we' that 'shuffled around the world feeling ashamed of being Indians'?"

Similarly, who are the Indians who lived their lives feeling uncomfortable with being Indian? Who makes up this stuff about Indians feeling comfortable being Indian "today", implying that we felt uncomfortable being Indian yesterday?

Whoever you are, if you felt ashamed and uncomfortable, if you shuffled around the world carrying begging bowls, fine. But please don't presume that I felt the same way. On that count, please never speak for me.


Geetali Sharma said...


wise donkey said...

beautifully said. i would have been less polite.

but there are blogs by Indians, claiming to be patriotic, which mock Indian attitude

globalbabble said...

I think it is not just a question of being ashamed or not. It is about feeling defensive about how people perceive India and its myriad problems.

I don't normally put my blog on other people's blog. But since I wrote something on feeling defensive of India's poverty and don't want to reproduce the whole thing here - I am putting it here.

I don't feel ashamed of being Indian, but I do sometimes feel defensive...

Jo said...

I am wondering how the Indians who have lived all their lives in India feels about being Indian. Whether they feel like belonging here or feel like being Indian at all. And whether there is this 'new assertiveness' for them or if they have been given this 'new spine'.

I wonder what they would tell Shobha De.

Suresh said...


The vast majority in our country have enough troubles making a living to ponder about such issues. So, let us be clear, even if Ms. De is not, that we are talking about the middle and upper classes here. (In Ms. De's outlook, presumably, only "we" AKA the English speaking classes count.)

Feeling "ashamed" may be extreme but it is not so far off the truth either when applied to the classes I mention. It is present even now.

One manifestation is the defensiveness that globalbabble talks about; another is extreme prickliness where offense is taken even when none is meant. The likes of - oh well, why take names but you know who I mean - who comment here frequently are a good example. Outsiders have noted it too: I think I did mention here that Clinton (Bill) compared us to the American comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, whose trademark line was "I get no respect."

Relatedly, is a third aspect: the extreme sensitivity to how the "world" (meaning Western Europe/America/Canada) views us. Haven't we heard enough about how the "West" focuses on Indian poverty etc. and "ignores" our achievements? (Why shouldn't they? And why should we be so bothered?)

Have things changed much since 1991? A little, perhaps, but not much. "We" are still insecure to the extent that we cannot take criticism with equanimity. In the middle of the Mumbai terror attacks, I happened to read one Israeli newspaper where an official commented that "Indians can take criticism but in private." (This was in response to criticism in Israeli newspapers about the way the operations in Mumbai were conducted.) "We" still take pride in meaningless things like being the "world's largest democracy." And so on and so forth.

Anyway, if "we" are more self-confident and not "ashamed" as Ms. De says, well, good. Perhaps "we" will now turn our attention to addressing our problems instead of worrying about how the "world" views us.

PS: My observations are about general trends and obviously don't apply to particular individuals.

Chandru K said...

To really get a clear or complete picture, you would have to speak with someone who has lived in the West from childhood, and grown up while being a minority Indian. the amount of ignorance and lack of acknowledgement and empathy for India, in the West, is stupefying.

Jai_C said...

1. Were there huge loans from IMF and such agencies in the 80s? I seem to remember some concern about their stringent conditions on opening up the economy, and on restricting govt expenditure or funding to some schemes.

Maybe the act of submitting ourselves to these and still requesting for loans came across to some as "shameful".

2. Some googling on this subject threw up a couple of things:
-we needed food aid under PL480
-we were losing the 1962 war.

We were requesting desperately ("begging"?) for help and our defeat was mitigated pretty much only because they withdrew.

3. Poverty and the lack of resources is being directly equated to shamefulness?

4. My take:
We did what we had to. There is no sense of 'shame' attached. We are still a considerably poor country. We have miles to go.

Those who have a heightened sense of 'shamefulness' about poverty could be expected to actually do something proactive about it? like demanding better governance and working to eliminate corruption... (heck they could begin by just voting) maybe a little more shame will do the trick.

5. Pride for an accident of birth is a quirky way of putting it... but if you're feeling proud to be Indian, (or a right-hander), I'm happy for you.


Anonymous said...

Actually, being the world's most populous democracy is very significant, and as a corollary, running the world's largest election is also very significant. It shows that a developing country can have democracy, and on a huge scale; there's no compulsion to go the China way. But it's not just democracy and the act of voting, impressive as those are. It's the freedom to think, speak out, criticise in a free press, in academia, on the streets, in one's home, on the internet, anywhere. That quality did not, and still does not, exist in a large number of countries in the world.

Shashi Tharoor's lucid, eloquent and brilliant exposition of modern India-one of the most brilliant expositions of any country- is a must see for any Indian or person of Indian origin.

Anonymous said...

Quite strange & eerie that this topic comes up on the same exact day I'm filling out my N400 ( its a form to renounce Indian citizenship & accept American citizenship by naturalization )

I have given a lot of thought to the topic. Ultimately, one can be polite & all & fool the public, but I must be honest with myself. So I will say this. I am very proud of certain aspects of India. But couldn't care for the rest.

Aspects I'm very proud of - Bollywood, in particular Farhan Akhthar, Piyush Mishra, Imtiaz Ali, Anurag , Irshad , Pritam, and a few others I know on a more intimate basis. The ladies ie. Deepika, Kat, Bips.
Somewhat proud of 7th-9th cbse.

Aspects I'm not proud of -
my horrible engg school :( complete waste of 4 years.
Indian politics.
Indian food especially rice & rice based pakwaan.
Indian social mores ie. customs, religions.
Most non-Bollywood Indians.
Lots more here.

Ofcourse all of this is independent of my feelings for America/ The West. Right now I don't have any feelings in that department. Maybe 10 years from now I'll feel strongly about it.

Anonymous said...

chandru, youre always good for a laugh. to find out about being indian, your'e saying, i have to (quote) speak with someone who has lived in the West from childhood (unquote)??

what would someone like that know about being indian?

Chandru K said...

I was talking about the image of India, and how that impacts on one's sense of either being 'ashamed' or being 'proud' or simply being balanced, about India and an individual's connection( to whatever degree) to the place. A mention of that category of people would give the article a greater completeness. It can be pretty safely said, that NRI's and PIO's( persons of Indian origin) do not feel that hesitation,diffedence or yes, shame, that they might have felt say, 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Indians, especially middle and upper income, have never been comfortable being Indians. At first, Indians started to be comfortable being British. Then, they started to be comfortable being American, Australian, European and so on. Real Indians, comfortable with being so, would invite their foreign business partners to a round of Gulli-Danda or Kabaddi. Not a round of golf. Not a day sunning on the beaches of Goa, but a day sweltering under a neem tree. Not a "Cola" but a "Lassi". Not an a/c car but a rickshaw. So forgive me, Indians are not comfortable being Indians. They are comfortable being exclusive. Exclusive by association, adoption or acquisition. Of course the poorer Indians have always been uncomfortable, being Indians. I rest my case. Why else would this subject come up anyway?

Chandru K said...

The above posting is ridiculous. India is an open society, which accepts many if not most things that originated abroad. Recreational activities like Golf and Tennis etc are now international, not "Western", whatever their exact origin. Going to a beach in Goa is now accepted as something legitimately Indian. And yes, Indians can, if they choose, do all the 'traditional' things associated with India as well.

Sounds like a Pakistani envious and disgruntled at the progress India is making, leaving Pakistan way behind.

Anonymous said...

"The above posting is ridiculous. "

You see, Chandru K, your brisk ad hominem response makes my case. If your arguments had any merit, you would rebut the criticism on its content, and not based on caste, creed and national origin. The point is that golf and tennis are NOT Indian, ie, no ordinary Indian plays golf or tennis. They do, however, swelter under neem or pipal trees with their cooling shade and wonderful aromas. The fact of the matter is that the Western powers have been the ruling classes and Indians (and Pakistanis) continue to play obsequious second-fiddle.

Jai_C said...

1. In slight moderation of my earlier comment, I must clarify that I havent lived abroad for any great length of time, and have had, within that span of time, 2-3 incidents that made me feel "uncomfortable" and targeted for my Indian-ness. They were hardly serious and informed me only of the insensitivity of the individuals behind those acts/ speech. I think foreigners visiting India experience much the same (though I'm reminded right now of the cabbie dumping dilip to serve the bleached blonde).

2. The expression of pride is more familiar to me in these contexts: black/gay/Dalit/female [pride]. Its actually a more benign form than the other:

black/gay/Dalit/female [power].

These contexts seem to be approved or acceptable.

3. If its even close to true that Indians were being discriminated or targeted, (say in Australia since last year?) on a scale anywhere close to say Dalits in India then I can understand a developing assertiveness and "pride".

4. Maybe earlier generations of Indians abroad were overly obsequious and meek; they were adjusting to new milieus and feared any trouble could get them sent back home to a very bleak landscape career or oppty-wise.

Maybe those today are 2nd gen, settled in and dont take shit so easily anymore and even new immigrants consider they have some options back home. Less bowing and scraping.

There could be a latent sense of increased self-worth or pride.

5. I dont consider the above statement 3 evaluates true by a long shot and dont know about 4. From dilip's assurance it would seem 4 is fairly exaggerated.

This above is a framework within which I can "get" the pride thing.

6. I saw a couple of news articles today gloomily asking us whether I-day is worth celebrating.

And indeed I am not comfortable with mighty parades and state pomp. But the gloom and doom brigade does create in me a reactive kind of pride.

For all the murk well detailed in those articles, I still feel upbeat and would like to offer to all of you that are not offended to accept, best wishes of Independence Day.

Happy birthday, Pakistan and India!


Anonymous said...

Check this out. About Anglo-Indians.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Happy birthday, Pakistan and India!

Let me echo that. Happy birthday, both countries!

Chandru K said...

"the point is that golf and tennis are NOT Indian, ie, no ordinary Indian plays golf or tennis."

Even if true, so what? What's wrong in playing golf and tennis. As India develops and prospers, more Indians are going to want to do more international things. And yes, there will be an accompanying pride in 'things Indian', including neem.

Chandru K said...

"Happy birthday, Pakistan and India!

Let me echo that. Happy birthday, both countries!"

A lot of Indians are not comfortable or supporting of the hyphen i.e India and Pakistan. They would prefer not to be associated with Pakistan. India has corruption and other ills, but it is not a gigantic criminal enterprise, as V.S Naipaul has accurately described Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

"a lot" does not equated to "all". as dd said at the end of his post, if you want to feel uncomfortable, go ahead, but please dont spk for me. ever.

Chandru K said...

Not uncomfortable being Indian or of Indian origin, but of seeing India equated to the terrorist, army-with-a-state entity next door to India. Yes, India has its problems, but India is a dynamic, vibrant place that should be equated to other countries on a similar path.

Chandru K said...

"A country needs respect, so does a military. We will retaliate if we are offended," Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences, wrote in an editorial in the PLA Daily."

The Chinese attitude is to demand 'respect' at all times; so Indians are not way off in being offended by so called mild criticism, which often is not even mild!

Chandru K said...

Incisive comment posted by "Kamboja" in a forum:

If one were to make the statement that one of the major factors driving Pakistan's hatred of India is religion/ ideology/ spirituality, I doubt many of the gurus here would disagree. The religious interpretations of Fundamentalist Sunni Islam and the latter's utterly hostile attitude to paganism drives much of Pakistan's hatred of us.

If an Abrahamic religion that despises pagans can influence Pakistan's entire world view, why could it not equally affect Americans or Europeans? Maybe in different ways, maybe not to as great an extent given history of 'secularism' (sep. of church and state) in West vs. Islam as basis of Pakistan, but nonetheless there is no reason similar dynamics would not apply.

To assume that Packees are 'Eastern', therefore irrational and driven solely by religion, whereas Americans/Europeans are 'Western', therefore rational and driven solely by cost/benefit analysis, is to fall for Orientalism as peddled by the West itself.

We should not assume that Westerners are any less susceptible to irrational bias based on religious/civilizational prejudices. I am still not sure where I stand on whether the Americans who determine foreign policy are in fact hostile to Hinduism/Indian ethos, but there are strong arguments for that interpretation.