Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Becoming Indian by Pavan K Varma: A Review


By John Cheeran
Pavan K Varma’s Becoming Indian is an interesting read. Varma’s principal points are language, race and culture.
It is an effort largely meant for immigrant Indians who may have an identity crisis while living abroad although in the earlier part of the book he argues for bringing Indian languages out of the shadow of English.
Varma, an Indian bureaucrat, at times comes across as a man inspired by Hindu revivalism for Becoming Indian reminds readers how great a civilization India was five thousand years ago.
Becoming Indian has message with which I have no quarrel. One should not forget his or her cultural roots while getting swamped by globalization. It is a position no self-respecting individual can ignore. But to assume and argue that since your past is so glorious, you can be contemptuous towards modern trends and thoughts would be a suicidal jump.
Varma sounds like a right-winger when he worries about Indians in India, too, losing their culture and more. Echoing Ram Manohar Lohia, he is anxious about the spread and influence of English in contemporary India.
Varma writes: “The resolve to give our own languages the respect that is their due is part of the unfinished agenda of independence.”
Knowing English should not be in clash with Varma’s the earlier stated agenda. What India needs now is an improved level of literacy. Be it in English or any other language.
It is quite another matter that Varma’s career is based on his ability to handle a language which is, in his own words, alien to our ethos. He writes about a new casteism based on the proficiency of English. I wonder whether Varma knows that Dalits recently have built a temple for goddess English. Dalits have realized that the route to prosperity lies not in flogging a dead horse such as Sanskrit but taking the reins of English in their own hands. Varma would be cursing Lord Macaulay’s legacy. People can’t choose their mother tongue but let them choose their languages, let it be more than one.
Varma’s arguments about becoming Indian are both dangerous and flimsy when he writes about the need to speak and write in indigenous language and be seeped in desi culture. Varma, the north Indian babu that he is, easily forgets the fact that there are few things that tie together this vast, disparate nation together. Which culture has Varma in mind when he waxes eloquent about Indian culture? Tamilian’s? or Bengali’s? or Bihari’s?
It is tricky to assume that only what majority does is culture. English plays a critical role in ensuring India’s unity. India today talks to itself in English to understand itself better. You cannot wish away this reality.
And the wide and varied cultures of different regions and communities can be appreciated only with sub-titles and translations in India, mostly, again in English.
So if you are comfortable with such a situation in India, why should one worry about the deleterious effects of Western cultural homogenization? May be one should point out to Varma that MTV and channel V in India are hardly recognizable versions of their ‘degenerate’ western avatars. So are McDonald’s outlets which now cater to Indian vegetarian palate through its samosas and other Indian snacks.
And, finally, I want to ask Pavan Varma this question. Why didn’t he write Becoming Indian in Hindi or any other Indian language? In fact Penguin’s blurb informs me that Varma has written all his books in English. So much for his imperative of bringing Indian languages out of the shadow of English.

Title: Becoming Indian
Author: Pavan K Varma
Publisher: Allen Lane (Penguin)
Price: Rs499
Pages: 275

1 comment:

MKERALAM said...

Well written,

when people acquire knowledge in English to the level that writing a book in it becomes handy, then they become passionate about cultural and linguistic nationalism for the sake of others. Pity on them

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