High marks for India

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

The Genius of India by Guy Sorman; Macmillan; pages 232, Rs.326.

EVERY statement about India is true. So is its opposite. This has now become a cliche. It was not, when I first used it over a decade ago. I could make a perfectly good case against Indian democracy. I can make an even stronger case in its favour.

I am generally sceptical about books on India by foreigners. There are obvious exceptions. Guy Sorman's book is uncommonly absorbing, analytical, adulatory and very French. No Englishman or American could have written a similar book. Guy Sorman has done a splendid job debunking that infamous and harmful book by Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. Guy Sorman writes:

The book, which is factually rather shaky, outlines a new world order based not on blocs or ideologies, but civilisations, a term for which the author has not bothered to provide a definition. In truth, it preaches only hatred and ought to serve an intellectual warning to those who talk of pan-Islamism as well as to anti-Islamic obscurantists.

Guy Sorman is roaringly amusing about Indian Gurudom - most modern-day gurus are like "call girls who never refuse an offer; no invitation is ever turned down, be it to a conference, symposium or congress". Both Sri Aurobindo and Sai Baba get their spiritual and magical legs pulled gently. Sorman is not so polite about Auroville and the Matrimandhir.

I have been to Pondicherry several times. On my first trip in 1956, I watched the Mother playing mock tennis. Several friends of mine are great devotees and spend long periods at the Aurobindo Ashram. I have not become a convert. The same goes for the great Sai Baba, who did produce the magical "vibhuti" for me but little else. Perhaps the fault lies with me.

Sorman approaches Ramakrishna and Vivekananda via Romain Rolland (1866-1941), who apart from admiring Gandhiji also had a noble but over-hopeful vision - "May the genius of India marry the genius of the West." Unfortunately, this dream remains unfulfilled.

Between China and India, our Bharat gets higher marks. This is somewhat surprising as most French intellectuals fall for China. Malraux too began with China until he met Nehru in 1936. For the Brahmins Sorman has idiosyncratic praise. The Brahmins kept knowledge and art alive in India.

This is true also of the intricate and varied cuisines of the subcontinent. Cooks are always Brahmins (not true, but never mind) so that everyone, irrespective of their caste, can taste their preparations without running the risk of impurity. This is another telling comparison between India and China and it is not as trivial as it appears. Now follows the funny part of Sorman's India cliche theory:

The Communist Party has exterminated or exiled most cooks to the extent that in China authentic Chinese food has become a relic... If one goes by the old French adage, which says that a man is known by the food he eats, then the Indians owe their Indianness to their Brahmin cooks.

Comment is unnecessary.

Sorman, like Octavio Paz, makes an interesting observation about the role of music in Indian life. "It is perhaps in this fusion of music that lies the real genius of India." Music does break barriers. Amjad Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan have more Hindu admirers than Muslim. A raag has no religion. Neither does art.

Sorman's view on identities are arresting and sound. Each of us has several identities and these co-exist with ease. This, some in the West cannot comprehend. Sorman here invokes Ashis Nandy, who "going against Western rationalism... urges us not to exclude what we cannot understand."

For me the most worthwhile chapter is the one on Kabir, the weaver-poet who is recited and respected by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, the literate and the illiterate:

I don't touch ink or paper,This hand never grasped a pen;The greatness of the four ages,Kabir tells with his mouth alone.

In another chapter Sorman advances the theory that "on three occasions, a wave from India swept across Europe". First during the time of Emperor Ashoka; the second during the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire said that the world needed India, which alone needs no one. Paul Verlaine, in his sonnet "Savitri", wrote about Hinduism:

By Indira! How beautiful it is, and how it knocks down the Bible, the Gospel and the spew of the Church Fathers.

The third wave hit Europe in the 1960s and continues. Gandhi became fashionable. India became a pilgrimage and Indian musicians cult figures. The author expects a fourth wave, which will, "in all likelihood appear as a symbol of tolerationism". It is a clumsy word, but the meaning behind it is not. Tolerate each other or perish.

The chapter on Gandhi breaks some new ground but is nearly ruined by the author calling Delhi's notorious trivialiser a Gandhian!

This is an unusual book. This is not a defect. The author looks at India with critical sympathy and understanding. This is rare. There are one or two major errors. Even his most ardent admirers would not call Dr. B. R. Ambedkar a freedom fighter. Sorman for some strange reason does so more than once.

Finally, why no index?
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