28 September 2007

The Way We Are

The Indians: Portrait of a People
By Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar
Penguin India
Pages 226
Rs 395

In the introduction to The Indians, the Kakars posit that “Identity is not a role, or a succession of roles [...] it is not 'fluid'”, and that beyond the age of twenty, ‘the possibilities of [...] changing identities [...] are rather limited and, moreover, rarely touch the deeper layers of the psyche.’

Many commentators have been put off by this rather cut-and-dried definition of identity, on which the celebrated psychoanalyst Sudhir and his German wife Katharina, who has written socio-anthropological works on religiosity, erect the grand edifice of Indian identity.

The Kakars must be feeling content and vindicated considering this almost universal criticism actually proves their general thesis that the Indian identity is loathe to be pinned down easily. The Indian identity, it emerges, is Hindu and fundamentally soft: The individual is subsumed in the group; the body is undifferentiated from Nature; between male and female there are fewer distinctions in the Indian mind than in its Western counterpart.

In fact, in the chapter on religious and spiritual life, the Kakars have a category called the ‘flexible Hindu’, who grabs the temporal and spiritual with each hand -- basically a person who has Moby and Mahamrtyunjaya Mantra cheek by jowl in his or her CD rack.

This cut-and-dried approach is actually what makes The Indian a definitive work. The Kakars view Indian-ness with admirable detachment and the compassion of Brahma. Our inherent sense of pecking order; our internalised caste experience; the surprisingly increasing emphasis on virginity; our visceral aversion to dirt, our Ayurveda-influenced view of our bodies that results in a transactional relationship with the environment, wherein all ailments arise from disharmony between the two -- are all admirably, comprehensively and precisely documented because the authors insist that all elements that go into the “making of the Indian mind are not abstractions to be more or less hazily comprehended during the adult years.” Rather they are “absorbed by the child” early in life.

Naturally, dealing with Indian-ness would require traversing through plenty of clichés about Indians -- the arranged marriages, hyper-religiosity, communal violence, our suspicion of allopathy etc -- and inevitably the dullness and familiarity of the clichés rubs off on the text. So much so that an average Indian reading the book would find most of the stuff so commonplace that its import fails to register on him or her.

Perhaps the book is redundant as far as Indian readers go. But it is very much a part of our constant stream of self-analysis that has resulted in an unrelenting civilisational chatter coming from everywhere, be it chat shows, early morning FM radio, or the Saturday supplements of white and pink broadsheets, where Indians explain themselves to themselves and the outside world -- especially to the West, our abiding frame of reference and our ubiquitous yet absent interlocutor.

Ironic that a definitive book on Indians will be best appreciated by Westerners. For Indians to know what Indian-ness is all about, all they need to do is watch the VCDs of their son’s marriage to his girlfriend, which they had ‘arranged.’

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