India is emerging as one of the powers of the 21st century. Yet Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra says it will progress on its own terms, reinventing the whole notion of modernity in the process.
Pankaj Mishra | May 2006 issue
In India late last year, a senior police officer appeared at a court hearing wearing anklets and a nose ring, claiming he was Radha, the romantic consort of the Hindu god Krishna. Accused of “breaching the police dress code and service rules,” he was forced to take early retirement.
In another incident, airport security prevented a spiritual guru from boarding a flight with his silver staff. His incensed supporters staged a protest, provoking a brutal police response.
Both events occasioned some scorn and breast-beating in the English-language Indian media. “What,” many people asked, “do we do with such irresponsible fools?” The larger theme of complaint seemed to be: Why do we remain so backward? Why can’t we behave like a modern, rational country?
This reaction was predictable. Much of the English-language media express the Indian middle-class dream of wealth and national strength. They uphold free-market capitalism, a secular state and a nuclear-equipped army. They see India as an emerging superpower of the 21st century; they tend to be embarrassed by anything that makes Indians seem a chaotic, superstitious people.
Many middle-class Indians are enamoured of authoritarian nation-states such as Singapore, Malaysia and China, which they believe have achieved a high degree of discipline and efficiency. These Indians, who tend to vote for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, believe democracy causes chaos, disunity and waste in India, and prevents the country from assuming its rightful place among modern, developed nations.
The historical lessons these Indians draw from Europe and east Asia are at least partly based on fact. Most countries have become modern nation-states by breaking with their ethnically and culturally diverse pasts and imposing, usually undemocratically, a certain sameness of behaviour and manner on their citizens. The fundamental idea that shapes modern bourgeois societies is that human beings are rational individuals, pursuing the dream of the good life made possible by ample possessions and leisure: an ambition that government and business should help fulfill.
Such an exclusively materialistic world view is the implicit ideology of the middle class in most Western countries: It underpins the political, economic and legal arrangements of modern societies in general. Supported by corporate capitalism, it also gives Western societies their relatively uniform character: a limited variety in modes of dress, food, entertainment and public roles people can adopt.
But the middle class in India is still small, outnumbered by peasants, the working class and the destitute. The middle class’s self-legitimizing ideology of modernization and secularization, though institutionalized by the state and upheld by major political parties, has to compete with older, apparently irrational, traditions: asceticism, hedonism and devout religiosity.
India is crucially different in this respect from China, where powerful modernizers, both communist and non-communist, have systematically destroyed older traditions in the past 100 years, and helped the country become a more eager imitator than India of Western patterns of work and consumption.
Many different worlds coexist in India, and together they keep homogenizing and centralizing influences in check. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Indian politics, an extremely crowded and changeable realm of many parties, groups and affiliations. In recent years, strong regional and caste-based parties managed to restrain the wilder ambitions of the Hindu nationalists. The Communist Parties, irrelevant elsewhere in the world, are a vital presence in India today. They work as an important pressure group within the Indian parliament, challenging, and often diluting, the pro-rich policies of the government.
This diversity extends to the economic realm. Much publicity has been given recently in both the domestic and international press to information technology and call centres in India, making them appear the engine of the new Indian economy. But such Western-oriented businesses comprise a very small fraction of the overall Indian GDP, produced largely by people engaged in meeting the demands of hundreds of millions of Indian consumers.
Foreign brand names count for relatively little here. Hollywood movies have never amounted to more than five percent of the Indian film business; jeans and skirts are far from replacing the sari or the shalwar kameez as the preferred garment of Indian women. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut may represent glamour to the Indian elite but have failed to supplant the fast food that has been available there for centuries—the samosa, or the southern Indian idle, and Indians prefer pancer over mozzarella on their pizzas.
Anyone, Indian or foreign, trying to run a successful business in India has to acknowledge the great diversity of Indian tastes in food, clothing and entertainment, rather than impose a standardized, international version of any product.
Much of the business news the Indian media provide is written for, and from the perspective of, big businessmen and shareholders. You wouldn’t learn much about the work of India’s numerous unions and small industries from them. But the power of corporate capitalism and brand advertising, so palpable in the rest of the world, is largely confined to India’s five biggest cities. The small entrepreneur, the locally made and ecologically sound product and traditional arts and crafts still flourish to a remarkable degree.
Almost every day, newspapers report further signs of individual resistance to the homogenizing influence of modernity. The police officer donning the robes of Radha is self-consciously harking back to Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of the principality of Awadh; who also dressed up as Radha and whom the British denounced as effeminate before deposing him in 1856. In his androgynous dress, the police officer is also rejecting the role required of him by a hard, hyper-rational world.
The spiritual guru refusing to part with his holy staff at the airport is claiming his right to individual dignity of a higher order than that provided by a national security state which spouts endless nonsense about “terrorism” and requires its citizens to live with constant paranoia and fear. India today is full of such “irresponsible fools.” They hint why the country will not be fully modern for a long time, and why this may be a very good thing.
Pankaj Mishra is an Indian author and literary critic. He is widely credited with discovering Arundhati Roy. His own international breakthrough novel The Romantics was published in 1999. Mishra’s most recent book is An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World (Picador, 2004). Tempatations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this spring.
Excerpted from The New Statesman (Jan. 30, 2006), a venerable British political and cultural weekly that has counted George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Gabriel García Márquez among its contributors.