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The inscrutable Indians
Being Indian by Pavan K Varma

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

The greatest asset of any country is its people. This aphorism holds especially for India, whose pool of human resources and talent makes the best in the world envious. Diplomat Pavan Varma's new rendering is a discourse on what it means to be Indian in the 21st century, and what characteristics make Indians tick with resilience and elan in varied fields of excellence.

Generalizations on national psyche are amenable to be challenged via exceptions or counter-examples. Ergo, Varma disclaims in the preface: "India is too big and too diverse to allow for convenient cover-all labels." Yet personality traits and behavioral patterns that are distinctly Indian do exist, accumulated over centuries of conditioning. Varma's quest is to dig into the core of this Indian-ness using history as the teacher.

The stereotypes in which foreigners see Indians and the self-image that Indians project about themselves are both inaccurate. Indians are considered democratic, spiritual, tolerant, peaceful etc. But Varma's value-neutral reappraisal throws up surprising conclusions that can be embarrassing. Indians respect the powerful and will collude with them for personal gain. They are extremely hierarchical, bending before superiors and subjugating inferiors. They have never been "other-worldly" and hanker for material prosperity. Spiritualism is "mostly a means to harness divine support for power and pelf". (p 7) Morality is a theoretical construct abjured as impractical in real life. Indians also sanction violence when convinced of numerical strength and surety of victory. Varma's thesis is that some uncomplimentary facets of Indians are actually assets that make them resilient, tough and successful.

The kowtowers
Indians are congenitally sensitive to the power calculus. From the Maharajas and the British to modern politicians, the powerful are not expected to be reticent or modest in the Indian tradition. Power is a legitimate pursuit and the winners are expected to flaunt it. Caste rigidities may be blurring today but the preoccupation with everyone's place in a hierarchy persists, akin to Confucian value systems. Indians are obsessed with status. They discount the morality and means of securing status as long as one becomes mighty. Hinduism's flexibility "always allowed a conveniently fractured response to the moral imperative". (p 29) Beliefs never come in the way of personal gain.

Pragmatic Indians have always collaborated with a stronger power, especially foreign conquerors (poignantly essayed in Amitav Ghosh's novel The Glass Palace). They are willing to acquiesce in the abuse of power when it seems undefeatable. If power is ascendant, Indians opportunistically defer. When it is declining, they turn hostile. Personal rivalries, factions, jealousies and intrigue are stock-in-trade of the Indian mind. Yet Indians collude without being subsumed by masters, a detachment which has preserved the Hindu way of life despite being overrun by Muslim and Christian invaders.

Absence of ideals in the functioning of Indian democracy is the result of a "societal consensus" where power is the end and all the rest are instrumentalities in reaching that end. Indira Gandhi was the leader Indians trusted the most as she played the power game with dexterity and ruthlessness. Democracy survives in India as the most effective instrument for the pursuit of power and upward mobility. It "provides legitimacy to hierarchies". (p 54) Indians have a special genius for political accommodation and compromise since the pursuit of power would close if the institution of democracy collapsed.

The materialists
A universal Indian feature is "to single-mindedly pursue material benefit in the most adverse and improbable situations". (p 61) The most important deities in the Hindu pantheon are Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and Ganesh (remover of obstacles to commerce). Artha, procurement of wealth, is among the four fundamental goals of Hindu life. Only a person with material means could properly tread the path to moksha (salvation). Hindus show little compassion for the indigent and the downtrodden. The Ramayana epic says, "There is no difference between a poor man and a dead one."

Entrepreneurship is in Indian blood. In a scarcity economy, only the fittest are able to survive. With instincts for improvisation, initiative, quick thinking and cunning, Indians are "street-smart about making money". (p 74) Most Indians privately agree that money may not be god, but no less than god. Nothing distracts them from the opportunity to make a fast buck. Indians are willing to live easily with an "ethical deficit" (former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee), a dual chalice containing corruption as well as robust commercial acumen. The ideologies of socialism or Gandhian austerity are "clearly not in sync with the Indian psyche". (p 86) The protuberance of consumerism since 1991 is entirely in keeping with Indian inclinations. Economic reforms unleashed India's mammoth entrepreneurial energy and adaptability but also deepened its neglect of the poor.

Metaphysical concepts like maya (illusion that the world is real) are lip-serviced when the going is good, but dusted out in times of adversity to "give failure the cushioning of philosophical acceptance". (p 99) Indians are better able to survive distress and mishaps owing to certain unique concepts in their religious beliefs.

The technocrats
What is the role of culture in nurturing Indians as the czars of the information technology revolution? Mathematics is the single greatest contribution of India to the world of science. In Vedic times, Indians mastered numeration as part of religious ritual. More than 3,000 years ago, Indians built the world's most extensive database, the Bhrigu Samhita, predating modern information management. A bias in favor of competence in math goes back to millennia. Indians have an innate receptivity to the interconnectedness of things. They are able to structure a link between a sum and its parts, and see patterns of networks invisible to most others. "A German or a Japanese will work meticulously within the system. An Indian is taught to take failure of the system in his stride and find a solution anyhow." (p 145)

Indian culture forever looks down on manual labor as degrading and higher studies as the ladder to climb the hierarchical totem pole. Hence, institutes of higher learning and technical education proliferated after independence at the cost of primary education. The largest number of unschooled children and the largest reservoir of trained geeks coexist in India. Social callousness for the uplift of the marginalized has ironically made India an IT superpower.

Relentless greed for money has motivated Indian IT entrepreneurs, who head the list of the country's billionaires. The salary of an IT professional is much higher than the amount spent to acquire his or her skills. Working knowledge of English, a major asset of Indians in the IT market, is a product of the Indian eagerness for Lord Macaulay's project of creating "a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, opinions, morals and intellect". English is an instrument of social exclusion in India, but paradoxically for the IT industry, "a bane has become a boon". (p 127)

Many Indian techies are at the low end of the value chain, mocked as "cyber coolies". Varma links it to "centuries of hierarchic regimentation that conditioned them to obey rather than to innovate to embellish the groove rather than to explore new avenues." (p 130) All Indians harbor a deep inferiority complex toward the West and are stuck in a "vast imitativeness trying to be like someone else". (p 134) The flag bearers of the new economy are ironically socially backward and trapped in old conservatism. Many have no objections to extorting fat dowries and humiliating women.

The unifiers
India's perceived diversity is often deceptive. Indians have a vast number of genes in common. Their polyglot vocabulary has its roots in only four major language families. Varma sees "a new supranational Indian culture that cuts across class barriers and permeates all aspects of daily life: dress, food, art, language, employment and entertainment". (p 149) Indians are far more homogenized than they can admit. The salad bowl is emptying into a melting pot, dissolving differences.

Radio, television, Bollywood, cricket, popular music etc are mediums fast integrating India's 1 billion plus denizens. So many more Indians speak Hindi today that it would surprise the language's staunchest opponents. The anti-Hindi bastion of Chennai has more private tuitions for learning Hindi than any other city. Markets have homogenized a pan-Indian class of consumers. There is an identifiable similarity across the country in product tastes and preferences. Increasing middle class domestic tourism means Indians are no longer strangers in their own land.

Though violence is a staple in society, Indians have displayed unwarranted pacifism in dealing with external threats. In the 1999 Kargil war, the option of destroying staging posts and supply lines of invaders across the border was rejected. After the Pakistan retreat began, Indian forces were ordered not to shoot in the back. During the 1999 IC-814 plane hijacking, the overriding concern of the state and relatives of victims was the lives of hostages, not the national interest of confronting terror. In dealing with internal threats, Indians do not think that to concede is to lose. Concessions co-opt extremists and sanctify the mainstream. Historically, all separatist movements have been eventually contained, assimilated and diluted by this ploy.

Varma opines that the vision of India engulfed in perpetual religious strife is vastly exaggerated (see Khushwant Singh's The End of India). Remarkably self-assured Hindus have never been insecure about their religion. They accepted Muslim and Christian rulers but not their faith. No practical alternative to religious coexistence is comprehensible to the average Indian. For workers as well as businesspersons, there is no choice but communal harmony. In politics, Muslims form political alliances with Hindu parties. Condemnable riots are actually outnumbered by "countless incidents of religious harmony in the daily ebb and flow of life". (p 181) Indians are hard-nosed realists wanting to get on with their daily work rather than be mired in self-defeating identity quagmires.

Varma concludes with the thesis that public policy in India has mostly been insertion of square pegs in round holes. It should be congruent with the behavioral patterns of Indians as they are, not as they ought to be. India will not fall apart, but for it to attain critical mass for take-off as a major world power, Indian policymakers should know the nature and proclivities of their people and design policy interventions buttressing them.

This book is controversial for its candid debunking of myths about Indians. Psychoanalysis has been brilliantly used to bare the average Indian sans affectations. Those who felt understanding inscrutable polymorphic Indians was impossible now have a master guide.

Being Indian by Pavan K Varma, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004. ISBN: 0-67-005780-0. Price: US$ 7.50, 238 pages.

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Jun 12, 2004

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