There is no dearth of scholarly books on India. The sheer wealth of books on sociology, history, politics, ethnography, culture, religion, and philosophy in India can overwhelm any major library in the world. There is an equally amazing range of creative writing in Indian languages describing Indian people, their emotions, aspirations, experiences, perceptions, dreams, and disappointments.
Besides, there is quite an ocean of oral compositions and traditions that provide us glimpses of the life and times of Indian society in the past. Yet, no single work can be picked up as a comprehensively representative work on India. One often notices that whatever one states about India as the truth always has a counter view that is equally true. If one says Indians are brought up on great spiritual traditions, one can also point to their limitless materialism, their petty quarrels over pettiest material belongings.
When one talks of Indians’ relative lack of sensitivity to history, one always finds that they recall with greatest precision their kula, gotra, caste laws, myths, legends, centuries-old folklore, village boundaries, pedigree of animals, peculiarities of trees and plant species, and of course insults received from their forefathers. One often thinks of them as being indifferent to filth in public places and misery of the old and the poor. Yet, one also notices how terribly attached they are to personal hygiene and to punctually washing their bodies. They are found to be compassionate to complete strangers too. Whatever you say of India, the opposite of that is as much true.
What really is it in India that defeats any precise description of Indians? What is it in this culture, so often described as a vast and a sprawling banyan tree, that bewitches the observer? In Shankara’s philosophy of the brahm, he proposed a “never possible to assert” – na-iti, na-iti, na-iti (not this, not this, not this) definition of the invisible but all encompassing essence. One may find the classical method useful as a descriptive strategy while defining India. Yet, a much better descriptive strategy would be, perhaps, the exact opposite, to assert all, by saying “Yes, this, and yes, this too, and yes, this as well” endlessly.
About half a century ago, sociologist M.N. Srinivas proposed “sanskritisation” as the driving principle of social dynamics in India. He was pointing to the tremendous craving that Indians display towards enhancing their social status—as different from their economic status—particularly in the caste hierarchy. At that time the Srinivas principle looked like a near complete depiction of Indian society. But, if one were to look at the number of agitations over the last seven decades by members of communities demanding SC or ST status, one may conclude with equal ease that “tribalisation” is as powerful a drive as sanskritisation.
“India is the name of what is inside us, the wealth of our interior spaces, just as it is the name of a people and their nation. That name is essentially plural, though grammar thinks of it as singular. ”Ganesh Devy
Also, the language movements and literary trends that changed the literary sensibility in Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, and Telugu point to a raving for “prakritisation” rather than sanskritisation (if one were to take the term literally).
The struggle for women’s rights in India beginning with Savitribai Phule in the nineteenth century has been one of the most glorious pages of its history. Women in India have come a long way from what they experienced under the oppressive patriarchy of ancient India.
Yet, the number of school dropouts among girls has remained unflinching. The rituals chhat and ‘Savitri pooja that lead to perpetuating women’s slavery show no signs of decline. Rather, they are growing as fashion of the day. The phrase “missing women” brought into circulation by Amartya Sen is even now the unmistakable characteristic of India’s sociology. Which of the two are closer to the truth about Indian women, “inhuman oppression” or “empowering emancipation”, or is the paradox to be brushed aside by calling it as work in progress as yet?
Indians like to travel. Many migrate out of compulsion, others for professional betterment. The global spread of the Indian diaspora has been unprecedented. Yet, the peculiar nostalgia that Indians have for their place of origin is phenomenal. Migrants from eastern Europe to mainland western European countries or European settlers in North America are not seen returning to their “native” locations in a yearly pilgrimage. Indians invariably do, with the rare exception of the COVID-19 years, at whatever cost.
The most complex question is about the nature of urbanisation. In the first place it is almost impossible to say if India is a predominantly rural and agricultural country, or an urbanised and industrial country. For one thing, we are great adepts at the art of carrying our rural environ to the city, such that every tier-two city looks like a simple addition of numerous villages.
At the same time, on going to a village, one is often surprised to see how attached villagers are to whatever city-like gadgets they can get. I am not sure if accurate national data on motorbikes are available; but I shall not be surprised if such data reveal that the number of motorbikes in villages is many times more than the motorbikes used in urban spaces. In a few years, the same will happen with four-wheelers. And, is it then the case of a rapidly changing nation? The answer is, clearly, that it is not so.
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The villages have been what they were. Indian castes and tribes have been what they were. Indians—back home or outside—have been what they have been for centuries. It is just that we do not know exactly what they have been—the villages, the people and society. To think of and to talk about India is, indeed, an exasperating task.
For one thing, India is the name of what is inside us, the wealth of our interior spaces, just as it is the name of a people and their nation. That name is essentially plural, though grammar thinks of it as singular. India is India because of its variations and not because of its steadfast unity. The Constitution got it absolutely right when it defined India as “a Union of States”. It is a union or perhaps a complex coexistence of many historical epochs, many sensibilities, and many world views. Every attempt at reducing it to a single track of narrative, order, or analysis is likely to end in a frustrating realisation that the exact opposite of that narrative, order or analysis is as much valid.
Therefore, if India has to continue to be India, it will have to avoid yielding to being spoken in the singular. The acceptance of the diversity, contradictions, surprises, and enigmas that India holds before any careful observer calls for what philosophers describe as “realism”. That this sociological, linguistic, and cultural phenomenon called India has been there, is there, and shall continue to be there, is realism. It is no country for egotists, no place for those who think they can clasp it and make it subservient to their view of life. India remains free, for it humbles every egotist. That is India, this side of its history.
Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.