Tuesday, March 9, 2010

REVIEW: Becoming Indian

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity
Pavan K. Varma
Rs 499
Allen Lane
Pp 288
ISBN: 9780670083466

‘Those who have never been colonized can never really know what it does to the psyche of a people.  Those who have been are often not fully aware of—or are unwilling to accept—the degree to which they have been compromised.’

Till just a few decades ago, much of the world was carved into empires. By the mid twentieth century independent countries had emerged from these, but even after years of political liberation, cultural freedom has eluded formerly colonized nations like India. In this important book, Pavan Varma, best-selling author of the seminal works The Great Indian Middle Class and Being Indian, looks at the consequences of Empire on the Indian psyche.

Drawing upon modern Indian history, contemporary events and personal experience, he examines how and why the legacies of colonialism persist in our everyday life, affecting our language, politics, creative expression and self-image. Over six decades after Independence, English remains the most powerful language in India, and has become a means of social and economic exclusion. Our classical arts and literature continue to be neglected, and our popular culture is mindlessly imitative of western trends. Our cities are dotted with incongruous buildings that owe nothing to indigenous traditions of architecture. For all our bravado as an emerging superpower, we remain unnaturally sensitive to both criticism and praise from the Anglo-Saxon world and hunger for its approval. And outside North Block, the headquarters of free India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, a visitor can still read these lines inscribed by the colonial rulers: ‘Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing which must be earned before it can be enjoyed.’  

With passion, insight and impeccable logic, Pavan Varma shows why India, and other formerly subject nations, can never truly be free—and certainly not in any position to assume global leadership—unless they reclaim their cultural identity. It is a project, the book argues, that is more urgent than ever before, for in the age of globalization the pressures of homogenization and co-option by the dominant cultures of the west will only increase.

Reviews / Interviews
Words of a known Indian Hindu
He is unlikely to win very many points for charisma. His chances of being the next role model for most of our Bubblegum Brigade are as bright as Delhi before dawn. But give Pavan K. Varma his due – he can be witty and evocative. At times, pretty poetic too. Not an easy man to please but very pleasing to read, from a distance he might appear as a usual pen pusher: well trimmed hair peppered with salt in his sideburns. He combs it with sincerity every few minutes, smiling vacantly at the conclusion of every such exercise.

Making words count

But wait a little; let the veteran play to his strengths, varied and formidable as they are. When he speaks he is a man of measured words, almost like a river in the plains, quiet, gentle and profound. When he writes, he is more generous. Like a river in the mountains. The words are fresh and free flowing. Less sound, more meaning, he seldom uses words for effect. Indeed that has been the experience one has had with him, right from the time he went down memory lane and came up with translated nuggets of Ghalib. Later, he made Gulzar accessible to those handicapped due to knowledge of only English. Now this career diplomat who is making a nice career with his prolific writing, decides to expose the hypocrisy of our times: we Indians love India but are forgetting what Bharat stands for. We who love to be seen speaking English are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to our own languages. More than 60 years after Independence, cultural colonialism is still well entrenched.

Hindustan Times
Nehru's first words to the nation were in English: " Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time has come to redeem that that pledge." And this is what Pavan K. Varma is trying to say in Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity.

The author makes the very valid point all along of the need to be rooted in one's own culture. "My mother was the repository of traditional culture in our home. As a child she was escorted to the Girl's High School in Allahabad where the medium of education was English but she studied Indian classical music." The most interesting part of the book is the chapter, 'The Empire at Your Threshold'.

Gussa at Hinglish, in English Deccan Chronicle
Hinglish is the lingua franca of the advertising world, campuses round the country, and increasingly even Bollywood. It may well overtake standard English as the most common spoken form of the language globally, but “a nation that hopes to take its place on the high table of the most powerful nations of the world can hardly afford to hobble into the 21st century on the crutches of Hinglish”, argues author-diplomat-historian Pavan K. Varma in his new book, Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity.
Hinglish is one among the myriad examples cited by Varma in this scathing critique of the growing tribe of “linguistic half-castes” in present-day India who cannot speak English properly and are adrift from their mother tongue.

Varma’s latest piece of work is a sequel to his earlier bestseller Being Indian. Drawing upon his formidable knowledge of Indian history, contemporary events and personal experience, he examines the legacies of colonialism that persist in our everyday life, affecting our language, politics, creative expression and self-image.
The devaluation of Indian languages is a core concern of the book because language is a symbol of people’s identity and is the most vital part of their culture. The language issue also underscores a deeper malady. “We have internalised the criticism of our indigenous culture by our own colonial rulers which manifests itself in the shocking neglect of so many aspects of our heritage”, rues the author.

Are Indians in tune with their culture? khabarexpress
The time has come for Indians to introspect whether they are in tune with their culture or not, 'to pause and put a mirror before society to see why dilution, mutilation and modification of culture have taken place against the backdrop of such a distinguished civilisation heritage', says diplomat-writer Pavan Varma.

Varma, former director-general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), was in the capital to promote his new book, 'Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity' (Allen Lane/Penguin; Price Rs. 499), which was released in the capital.

'My book investigates how those who are culturally rootless and India's educated classes will be co-opted in a globalised world where the victims are usually the last to know,' Varma, who is currently India's ambassador to Bhutan, told IANS in an interview.

The photocopy generation Mid-day
You speak impeccable English, dress like your favourite Hollywood star, own a couple of Chinese gadgets and instinctively call for a pizza when hungry. Join the confused desi club. In his latest book, Becoming Indian, writer Pavan K Varma examines the legacy of colonialism that we just can't break free from. CS speaks to him about the consequences of this pseudo westernisation:

Culture calling
The impact of colonialism has never been analysed. It isn't just about physical subjugation, but is also the subjugation of the mind. When the Union Jack was replaced by the Tricolour, we felt smug in the confidence that we had entered a new phase of our journey. But that was just the beginning of cultural deterioration. We need to go back to our rich cultural roots if we want to sit on the high table with other nations, otherwise we'll only be their photocopy. We're in the middle of an unfinished revolution. It's time for a cultural audit. If antiquity, diversity and refinement are attributes of our culture, why are we now becoming so rootless and shallow? It is time to ask ourselves these questions.

Colonial hangover or hang-up? DNA

Varma, however, is too polished a polemicist to indulge in rabble-rousing. The book isn’t merely an airing of views; it’s studded with personal memories and anecdotes, starting with his father’s joining the ICS as well as his own visits to Bristol to see Raja Rammohun Roy’s grave, to the Tower of London to view the Kohinoor, to Southall to interact with the Indian community there and several other locations.

His cri de coeur is that “freedom is not only about having one’s own flag and Constitution and Parliament; freedom is as much about re-appropriating your cultural space, of reclaiming your identity, of belonging authentically to where you come from, because without these your articulation of freedom has a synthetic and imitative quality”. The key word here is “authentically”, and the question that remains unanswered is: because something belongs to the hoary past, can it be deemed authentic, or is it itself the result of intermingling of thought and expression?

Pawan Verma on his book “Becoming Indian” NDTV Profit

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