Friday, June 12, 2015

What Is India?


Things of greatness are often hard to decipher. Understanding India therefore is an exercise that echoes the upanishadic story of the son who is asked by his father to find the tree within the seed. Will Durant, the American philosopher, while showering praises and acknowledging contributions of India to philosophy, science and religion concludes that “Mother India in many ways is the mother of us all”. However, for an Indian on the other hand it might be harder to conceive let alone articulate what India actually is.  For someone who dwells in the belly of a whale, while knowing its essence, and being in many ways, one with it unfortunately misses the bird’s eye view.

Everything that India is now is a culmination of over 5000 years worth of History and the meanings and contradictions that come with it. To understand India, therefore one must dig deeper than ‘India’, deeper that ‘Bharat’ and stand at the doors of the Indus Valley Civilisation. From there on the veins of our history like rivers spread into the ‘Saptasindhava’- the land of seven rivers, the cradle of the Vedas.  Like a canvas that has been painted over and over, again and again, India witnessed a splash of colours through multiple invasions, immigration and fusion of races and ethnicities. The Aryans, Scythians, Parthians, Huns, Turks, Mughals, Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally the British came to India, enriched India and in return were enriched by India. Until in the end the painting abstract and indiscernible, glowed in the enigmatic beauty that only blurred boundaries and shapelessness can give. 


Demographically, India is 29 states and 7 union territories with a population of 1.2 billion people who are mostly harmless. In geometric terms India is a quadrilateral. The gleaming white Himalayas on its upper end can put Colgate to eternal shame. Down south, on either side the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea caresses India tenderly while in the West the sands of the Thar await the footprints of weary travellers. The scenic East is home to the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills and happy tribesmen who are really into flute music and rice wine. Rivers and mountain ranges run across the Indian heartland. The age old Aravallis, the Vindhyas, the Eastern and Western Ghats stand tall and proud, silent spectators of the many stories that played out on this soil. With the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Godavari, the Narmada and many more rivers flow centuries of faith, belief, customs and worship. Indians share India with some of the world’s rarest plants and animals such as the Crinun lily, Himalayan snow leopard, the Bengal tiger and the great Indian Bustard. Apart from the rare and the exotic we also have the monkeys, lions, buffalos and crows. While it is true that the geographic and the bio- diversity of India adds to its splendour as the French historian Ernest Renan says, mountains hardly carve out nations.  

India resides in the heart of the multiple races and ethnicities that dwell in this country. It is a cobweb of religious, political, racial and linguistic identities. A confluence of celebrations and conflicts. India celebrates Diwali, Holi,Pongal, Onam, Bihu, Christmas and Eid. India also fights about who worships who, whose God is the real God, who speaks the best language, how much river for the neighbouring state to drink and so on and so forth.

 India is Hindu. India is Muslim. Christian, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist. India is black, and white. Dravidian, Mongoloid and Aryan.  India worships Cows while a good percentage of its population feasts on its delicious God. India venerates the Shiva Linga, the symbol of cosmic birth while those of ordinary men are things of great taboo. The temples of Khajuraho stoically watch as the couples get beaten here on Valentine’s Day. India claps when women their clothes off on screen and frowns at the slightest display of skin in real life. India tucks in Giordano nicely and preaches how the Vedas are the home of all knowledge. India is the speeding BMW and the sweat broken on a rickety horse cart. India is rasmalai. India is thairsadam. India is also chicken biryani. 


On the surface India is another country in South Asia holding a lot of promise on the path of economic growth and political strength. The erstwhile land of snake charmers and elephants now replaced by IT professionals and BPOs.  In the international scenario India is definitely the next big thing. To the world, India is the land of yoga, the soul of Mahabharata, the origin of shoonya (zero), the inventor of Chess. To the average foreigner India is where Gandhi comes from and one of the quintessential places the Hollywood protagonist has to go to for spiritual uplift.  India is all this, the legends it gave birth to, the stereotypes plastered all over it. 

While it is true that India is inside the head of every Indian, India is more than what Anderson would call an imagined community, a social construct. It is more than Renan’s collective memory and collective forgetfulness. Finding India requires more than an atlas. Maps can’t lead one to a nation. India is a feeling that dwells in the sultry April heat and cold January mornings. The fine balance between overcrowded trains and empty school buses. India is Mangalyaan, India is also the coconut that is broken for the safe journey of the space shuttle. It is honour and honour killing. The majestic peacock and also the crow that idly sits on an ox. The glorious tiger and the hungry street dog. 

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