Madhu Menon (aka Madman)’s blog, The meaning of being an Indian, raises an interesting point:
And what if you don’t find too much in common with many people in your country? I ask because for many years, I have felt a “cultural mismatch” between me and the country I live in. I could not identify with many things that form our “culture”
But isn’t it true about any culture? What use is a culture without misfits? If everybody fits in, we have a giant monolith — something that even the self-declared guardians of culture wouldn’t have bargained for.
To a large extent, I share Madhu’s sense of being a misfit myself, and I’m sure many do. However, Madhu goes ahead and asks :
How, then, can I strongly identify with this country? Is there any “Indian” left in me?
That got me thinking. For all my disconnect with the mass culture of India, it never occurred to me to ask this question of myself. That’s not same as being able to answer the question at all. What identity do misfits have anyway — with respect to a culture? I think the answer lies in the way one looks at the very idea of culture.
What, then, is a culture? Is it just a sum of static beliefs and practices that a community (country is just a geo-political community) shares? If culture were just that, then ironically, there would be no culture! For every belief, every ritual that we identify with culture today was a break-away phenomenon yesterday. In Lila, Robert Pirsig talks about static and dynamic patterns of values. What Madhu seems to be concentrating on, as culture, is the static patterns of values — something which is pretty integral to a culture, as that is how it sustains itself. But more vital, are the dynamic patterns of values, that at the point of their arrival would always be contrary to the static patterns, and yet in a generations or two would be subsumed into the collection of static patterns — something we identify with as culture.
Besides, with culture as diverse as Indian (or for that matter European) culture, the mainstream or mass culture is just one (even if significant by definition) stream. The custodians of the mainstream culture might want to (and indeed do) insist that that is the Indian culture, but it doesn’t at all change the reality of the complex interplay of streams. So, Atheism is one such stream that has both a long history and a strong presence in the Indian culture. Likewise, many great saints of this land have been individualistic in a certain sense. Many reformists have either rejected or reinvented rituals. And so on.
Of course, I’m avoiding the question — who then is an Indian? Well, my answer, however circular it might sound, is anyone who identifies with Indian culture. Mainstream or fringe don’t really matter. For those are very temporal tags. And there are just innumerable choices to pick from for identifying with — the pop-culture of Bollywood or the Ekta Kapoors, or the eternal spirituality or the plethora of rituals, or the thousand ideas of India. Besides, it’s not even mandatory to be exclusively Indian.