Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What does being an Indian mean?

A friend of mine sent this message through mail. Reading it, I could easily identify myself and my family with that of the author. I'm sure every Indian can relate to parts of this speech. Read on...

A friend remarked to me that what defines America is its veneration of entrepreneurship. The French, he added, most admired style and elegance. What defines India? That was the challenge my American friend posed.
Before I could speak a word, he admonished me, “Don’t give me the clichéd answer that anything one says about India is true and the opposite is equally true, that India is too complex and heterogeneous for a simple answer.”

It was obvious to me that like any self respecting American, and a Harvard MBA to boot, he wanted a concrete answer. I told him that like any self respecting Indian I needed time to formulate my concrete views — a few weeks I told him. Unusual for an American, he agreed to meet me later on this point. As luck would have it I received an invitation to speak to a diverse audience in Washington DC, as part of the many farewell parties in my honour as I was packing my bags to return to India for good. I spoke on the topic: What Does It Mean To Be An Indian?

Here’s the gist of my speech.
It is always a difficult task to distil from the collective experience of a humungous civilization that single defining aspect of life that constitutes the character of India. I can only try ever so humbly. In trying to piece together my several thoughts on this subject, I was helped by a few incidents of a more recent vintage. These incidents perhaps highlight what it means to be an Indian.

When I saw Ms Susan Boyle winning the hearts of the world with her talent and simple upbringing in the show Britain’s Got Talent, I asked myself whether a similar show in the Indian context might reveal to me what was perhaps hidden in the multiple images that India conjures in any mind. Sure enough I happened to receive an email forward by someone named Mary that stunned me. Here was a group of labourers performing a sensational dance relating to Lord Krishna in the wildly popular show India’s Got Talent. They called themselves The Prince Dance Group and had a physically challenged guy too. The amazing choreography, the use of traditional mythology, the perfect sense of timing and above all, the self confidence to perform before an urban audience — it was truly breathtaking.

The judges were among the best known talents in India: film director Shekhar Kapoor, actress Kiron Kher, and actress Sonali Bendre. As the act came to a close I could see tears in the eyes of the judges. Though there were not many close-ups of the audience I suspect there was hardly a dry eye in the crowd. Even as the dance came to a close I could hear shouts of “BHARATR MATA KI JAI!”

As the dance came to an end Kapoor actually wept and declared, “I have seen performers in the US,UK and Russia but believe me I have never seen anything like this . I am really proud to be an Indian.”The other judges just about managed to control their tears. Kher was ecstatic –“Fantastic, Fantastic!” she shouted .

I really cried for more than one reason.. Not only did I find the talent stunning, I had found the answer to the question I had been asked to answer — What Does It Mean To Be An Indian?

Here was a bunch of Oriya labourers — I have spent a decade in Orissa and am more than familiar with the extensive and degrading poverty there. These labourers live under inhuman conditions and as far as we urbanites can see they may have no hope of ever living a civilized life, even generations from now. Yet these guys had shown that one defining Indian characteristic ….Endurance… a quality that makes us not just put up with great odds but strive with the confidence that one day we will win — that every night is followed by the dawn, that all is never lost, that no matter how the international community jeers at our corruption, our idiotic politicians, our inept bureaucracy, our moribund education system, our abysmal health system, our crumbling infrastructure, our humungous population, we will come up triumphant.

Of course we realize that these are lofty sentiments and unless they are translated into concrete action we will remain as a nation thriving on pious platitudes. Believe me, young India has clearly told the older, fading generation, “We have seen and tasted progress. We will go ahead no matter what. Not all our vile politicians or bumbling bureaucrats or corrupt policeman or judges can hold us down. We will rise despite you guys.” Indians have endured much over thousands of years but have now decided that if you can’t beat them just dexterously move around them.

The evidence of a young India on the move is now seen in the far corners of the country as youngsters from small towns and remote villages display uncanny talent and ambition. I recall seeing a TV journalist asking a young boy in a remote village in Bihar about his role model. “Bill Gates” was the answer coming from a smiling cherubic face, even though it seemed to me that he had not eaten a fulsome meal all his life! He had endured hunger for years and his family had endured hunger for maybe generations but that did not prevent this youngster from aspiring to be the world’s richest man sometime in the future. The extraordinary confidence in that boy’s body language told me that he was aiming for the stars and at worst he may make it to the moon.

My own family is a saga in the endurance that characterizes India. My grandfather was a laborer in a harbor in a small town in south India. He and his large family of 5 sons and a daughter endured a marginal existence. My father joined a private sector company during British rule in India. When the world went to war in 1939 my father lost his job. He told me much later that my mother had, at one stage, only one saree, the traditional Indian women’s wear. She would wash this lone saree at night and cover herself with a towel and quickly wear the saree at break of dawn. The family endured near poverty and yet I am an MBA from an ivy league Indian business school, and a modestly successful guy. My niece was ranked among the highest in GMAT scores in the world. She is a Harvard alumnus and works for the most admired consulting firm in the world at Wall Street. Her siblings are all highly qualified professionals, who in their early years endured a humble middle class existence but are now in the topmost income brackets in the USA — a far cry from their laborer great grand father.

At this point of time I look at India as a genie that has come out of the bottle. The British denuded India over 200 years. Thereafter a rapacious polity and a repressive bureaucracy kept the lid tightly closed. But now a long suppressed people have decided to endure such atrocities no more. India’s time has come.


As I took my seat there were not a few wet eyes in the room. My eyes were wet too. If you believe in what I have said please forward this to your friends.

PS: What does being an Indian mean to you?


R Srikkant said...

Good one! I hope only one line in this whole text was different 'we will move forward DESPITE blah blah'. We are doing that already. I wish these 'blah blah' will be removed from the society and we ll no longer have to workaround these!

We cant work around for long. we need to remove these things whatever comes after 'DESPITE'! Just a humble opinion!

Fantasies of a Lifetime said...

awesome post , really liked it. . . .

Lava (Sanskrit: लव) said...

I have never been asked this question but if asked my one word answer will be PROUD. Even with the "chaltha hai" attitude, India is India...

I think each one will have a story like this to share...

As they say, "No country is perfect"

Good Post


alpine path said...

@Srikkant, true. But that takes time. Once people get to understand the good that is waiting for them beyond these blah blah blahs, they'll soon remove them. Right now, not everyone knows how exactly removing corruption or drug trafficking can make a change in their daily lives.

@Fantasies of a Lifetime, thanks! The author has chosen the right words :)

@Lava, I'm proud of India as well. But I feel that we are more resilient in spirit and have a never-say-die attitude. That, for me, sums up India, of past present and future. :)

Bharath said...

I think being Indian means a basic acceptance of diversity, an appreciation that diversity can thrive, and an experience of having already done that.

Indians probably are the most aware that different points of view exist. Whether it is religion, culture, politics, weather, clothing, philosophies, Indians have witnessed diversity. Most already know what most religions tell, how customs can change in different places. Indians are never surprised by change.