TIM BLIGHT on India’s sometimes baffling contradictions and interesting quirks
It’s strange how important national identity is to us humans. Despite being an artificial construct, nationality holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Australian writers can criticize Australia as much as they like, but when a foreign journalist friend recently penned an article about Melbourne’s public transport system, the response was pure vitriol. The respondents, all Australian, appeared to have been personally offended by her rather honest and constructive thoughts. In his book The Clash of Civilisations, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington claimed that with the wars of tribes and ideologies over, cultural identity is the most natural and obvious point behind which people will rally. It is with moderate trepidation therefore that I begin this month’s piece, covering my observations of the Indian psyche.
The longer I spend in India, the more I begin to notice the subtle national quirks which make Indians who they are. While Indians may not realise it, these seem to have profound effects on the country and the way that it functions. My first observation is the very common juxtaposition of national pride and self-loathing. Nationalism has swelled in India in recent decades, and although the country has always been a very proud nation, the patriotism shown in the past ten years suggests this is on the increase. In fact, according to many people who I meet, India is the best country in the world. However, I’m often left wondering just how good it is when those same people ask me to help them migrate to Australia.
Which leads me to my second observation; that a majority of Indian people are in a sort of unequal relationship with foreign countries, particularly Britain, America and the Arab Gulf states. With all the issues that plague Indian society, life in the West can be particularly seductive, and as a result a large section of society seems to think that although Mother India is home, the West is somehow basically ‘better’. Bollywood must share much of the blame for this, for its productions nearly always present a sanitized version of life in the West, overlooking actual issues as social isolation, alcohol-fuelled street crime and the sexualizing of children. Equally, many Muslims on the subcontinent have an almost unfaltering admiration for Arabs as the gatekeepers of Islam. That respect isn’t returned in Gulf Arab states, where many locals treat Indians with contempt, and see South Asian Muslims as being ‘not proper Muslims’ – a sentiment which in fact violates the Qur’an’s egalitarian values. I wonder if this partial inferiority complex is the legacy of historic events. Is the special respect of Indians for Arabia and the West a hangover from the days of the Mughal and British administrations, when one was forced to respect Muslims or Britain?
What results is a reality gap which manifests itself in perceptions of India and foreign nations. At home, some Indians are inclined to believe things which might not be accurate, but which compensate for a perceived inferiority. “Buddha was born in India”, “India’s Kanchenjunga is the highest mountain in the world”, and “India has the strongest military in the world” are just a couple of examples. Meanwhile these same people set their sights on the ‘better’ abroad – and often still believe the filmi stereotypes about money, girls and success in the West. A strange contradiction emerges, where otherwise patriotic Indians dismiss attractions as being ‘too poor’ or ‘too lowly’, simply because they’re in India – when in actual fact, there’s nothing wrong with said attraction. At the extreme end of this spectrum, we see the contradiction in some NRIs who will scrub commodes in the West to make ends meet, but won’t drive through perfectly fine suburbs in India because “it’s dirty”. Apparently, Indian dirt is worse that Western dirt.
The positive side of India’s reality gap is that Indian society remains less cynical that Western society. The belief that a dream might come true still exists in many Indians, no matter how many beatings that dream may take. Lots of students graduating from school actually believe that they will one day be rich beyond their wildest dreams. If they graduated in the West, a large section of society would pull them aside and tell that that no matter how hard they work, some people just never make it. Lots of Indians seem to believe that love, in the end, will triumph – in the West, it is commonly held that only the lucky ones stick together. When the Delhi Metro opened a couple of years ago, hearts thumped with pride. The same project in Australia would have been torn apart by a society fed up with broken political promises. Despite the constantly broken promises of their government, and despite often complaining about what’s wrong with their country, for better or for worse, Indians are still a hopeful bunch. I sincerely hope my time in India has rubbed off on me, and made me more Indian in this respect.
So I hope that I haven’t offended anyone, or cut too close to the bone. Moreover, I hope that this is not interpreted as an attack on Indians or Indian values – it is simply a recount of my observations. India is a complex being, and as such psychoanalysing her is a hazardous task. And as for a psychoanalysis of Australian society? Don’t even get me started…