Ideas of India

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Asiya Zahoor, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Meena Kandasamy, Meghnad Desai, Mihir S. Sharma, Namita Gokhale and Prajwal Parajuly introduced by Sanjoy K. Roy

Ideas about any huge, shifting, complex subcontinent are bound to be hard to pin down, but the elite panel of creatives and thinkers still shared some of their own, varied responses to India.

Poet and writer Arundhati Subhramaniam revealed that she has had a fraught relationship with India, but is grateful for its cultural and spiritual inheritance. She defined her idea of India and being Indian as the right to have an identity that doesn’t derive from a single tradition; the right to see the ultimate destination not as God but as freedom; the ability to have multiple gods and love them all, like a ‘divine ‘a la carte”; and finally, the license to see the sacred and the secular as complementary, rather than at war with each other.

Writer Prajwal Parajuly talked about his North-East Indian identity, as a Nepali speaking Indian. He noted that the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty, which allows free movement and the right to settle between Nepal and India, made the situation very confusing, since Nepali-Indians and Nepalis could not be easily distinguished and this led to stereotypical depictions that he has had to fight against.

Writer and actor Meera Kandasamy said for her, the idea of India was the idea of resisting this idea of India. She says that as a Tamil, the idea of being Indian was embroiled in issues of language and caste. Tamil Nadu has been resisting Hindi for years, and their identity is questioned at every step. Caste too, she says, has led to a geographical separation: “There are two Indias in every village, touchable India and untouchable India.”

Journalist Mihir S. Sharma articulated that the real India is to be found in the people who don’t believe that borders and interstices exist. He said that India has traditionally been a country that welcomed different groups of people, from Parsis, to Jews, to Tibetans. The idea of India is in itself one of disunity: “Diversity exists but we haven’t gotten very good at the unity part of it.”

Writer and festival director Namita Gokhale emphasized that India lives in her languages: 122 spoken languages, 1600 classified mothertongues, and magazines and newspapers that are published in 141 languages. She noted that most Indians are bilingual, many trilingual. “There can never be one India, or one idea of India.”

Politician Meghnad Desai questioned why we need to have an idea of India at all. He suggested that a single idea of India was invented by Nehru in a prison cell, in response to the British. The British said, “You don’t have a country, so the nationalists were sprung into action.” Once India became a country, there was a big fear of the Balkanization of India. It has endured as a whole for the last seventy years, albeit in a chaotic way, because of universal franchise democracy, which it had somehow managed to sustain.

– By Srishti Chaudhary

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