Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Review of BEING INDIAN -- a book by Pavan K. Verma

What does it mean to be an Indian? This question is bound to haunt and intrigue all thinking Indians at one point or the other. More so now when Indianness is no longer a matter of consensus and has become truly problematic. Crisis of the nation-state, endemic institutional collapse, growing corruption of money and power, economic and political dominance of the Hindu majority, fast changing caste and class equations, and the rise of coalition politics both at the Centre and the State have put a big question mark over the stable notion of Indian identity. It’s up against this background that Pavan K. Verma’s latest book Being Indian must be seen and read.
By engaging with this eternal question, Pavan Verma has stepped into the rare hall of fame presided over by such luminaries as Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru. While his predecessors sought answers within the philosophical, civilizational frame, Verma’s effort is guided by more contemporary trends in social sciences. Following the methodology of ‘thick description’ recommended by Clifford Geetz, a well-known anthropologist, Verma brings together a wealth of information through a strange amalgam of “inference with anecdote” and “deduction with personal experience”(p. 16).
Conscious of both history and his own position in contemporary history, he negotiates his way out, displaying tact and restraint of a typical career diplomat. Poring over the vast intellectual resources available to him, he often comes up with statements one can neither totally afford to agree, nor disagree with. For instance, the self-contradictory nature of the Indian reality or identity has never been in serious doubt. Historicizing this notion, Verma sees nothing contemporaneous in this ‘culture of ambivalence,’ for he traces it all to sources as diverse as Arthshastra, Mahabharata, Upanishads, and folk tales, et al. By the same logic, one wouldn’t really like to question his understanding of classic Indian obsession with class, hierarchy, trappings of power and wealth. It doesn’t take a specialist to proclaim that such an obsession is a spin-off of our caste system, a legacy of our feudal past that has pulverized our present as well.
Verma’s real contribution is that he has been able to find a new context, not new meanings, for some of the ideas we’ve almost grown up with. That we Indians are a power-worshipping nation of self-demeaning sycophants is borne out by our daily, work-a-day experiences. That we have always had an obsession with icons of power and wealth (technology being the latest fad) is also not drastically radical. But it does take Pavan Verma to ground all these ideas into social/political/cultural practices of our ‘functioning democracy,’ in our search for a new economic order and technological transformation.
The overall impression this book creates is that the more India changes, the more it is appears to be the same. Questioning the popular, rather mythical self-image of Indians as idealists, dharma-driven, non-violent, otherworldly people, he does manage to put in place a more realistic and less flattering image of Indians as pragmatic, corrupt, amoral and violent people, grounded in empirical facts. But the flatness of his conclusions rattles and jars as much as do the stereotypes he’s trying to escape.
Writing with a sense of inwardness, even passionate involvement, Pavan Verma often manages to sweep the reader off his feet by his awesome reading. It’s another matter that high seriousness of his self-posturing does unsettle the reader occasionally, especially when he assumes the tone of a professional sociologist, which he isn’t. On such occasions the book does begin to resemble a well-dressed, well-groomed gentleman who has nowhere to go. Otherwise, it makes for a demanding, even a compelling read.