Friday, October 28, 2011

Dim Outlook

Outlook magazine has just celebrated its 16th anniversary with an issue devoted to “Generation Awesome;” it tells how “India’s young are driving the change in politics, business, sport, music, news – and beyond.”

I hate to rain on a birthday party, but the issue seems a last-minute effort, with a disparate guest-list babbling rather incoherently about their presumed areas of expertise.

The piece that caught my eye as particularly requiring comment was “Past Forward” by novelist Amish Tripathi (The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas). Headlined “Mom, Give Me Shakti!”(an Indianization, he tells us, of "the Force be with You"), it was written in response to a request from Outlook for a “message to youth."

Tripathi's “message” is a dump on older Indians who complain that youngsters are losing touch with the country’s ancient culture. He sees the complainers as the real problem. They fall into two categories, he says, “India-glorifiers” and the “India-rejecters,” both equally close-minded, and thus fundamentally unlike Indians in their days of ancient greatness. The greatness of ancient India was, “at the core, all about confident open-mindedness.”

As evidence of such open-mindedness, he points to all kinds of things, ranging from Vedic Sanskrit (very different from the classical language we know today), to the “art of making idli ... probably learnt from Indonesia.” The point is a bit fuzzy, but in the interests of moving on, let us pretend it makes sense.

As evidence that the young today have regained “the syncretic strength” of their ancient forbears Tripathi makes another set of confused observations. He includes feedback from readers of his novels: “a Muslim youth conveyed to me he is a proud Muslim but he is inspired by the concept of Har Har Mahadev; a Hindu youngster wrote in to appreciate the fact that I keep saying inshah’Allah despite being a devout Hindu.”

In the past, India’s “open-minded and accepting society” enjoyed “mind-numbing” success. One sign of that success: “Despite not having massive gold mines, India has amongst the largest gold hordes (sic) in the world. Some historians believe this is the legacy of centuries of surpluses from gold-bullion-driven trade.” Tripathi thinks it is only in the last 300 years that Indians forgot “the true essence” of their ancient culture, and as a consequence, “lost their mojo.”

That was not because of British rule but “because we forgot who we were. We forgot our core culture. We forgot our confident open-mindedness. … The self-assured mixture of religions for centuries gave way to insecure exclusivist thoughts. Scientific temper declined … Unlike Japan, we did not capitalize on the great industrial advancements of the Western world. And then began our decline.” Mercifully, the analysis of that failure is not extensive, but it is enough to make clear Tripathi is almost wholly ignorant about the Indian past.

In that, of course, he is not alone. In my experience, most Indians have only the foggiest notion of history. (As a test, ask the next few people you meet when Indian nationalists first declared the aim of "purna swaraj.") As this state of postcolonial confusion has been off the radar of our politicians and intelligentsia, I will devote the next few posts to perceptions of history, Western and Indian.

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