Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Great To Be Indian (And Not...Pakistani)

As soon as I exit the taxi four small children carrying handfuls of India's national flag surround me. One of them, waving the saffron-green colors, yells, "Go, India, yeaaaa! Go! Go! Go!" I push off, following the large crowds past tea vendors and other makeshift refreshment stands. Everyone is walking very quickly because we are late for the performance. At the gate I am shocked when I see the grandstands. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people, murmuring excitedly, many of whom carrying those little flags sons and daughters whirl in the air, pockets of color flashing against the falling light.

Every evening, the sleepy border community of Wagha improvises quite a party. People from all over India drive some hundreds of miles just for the event, which in its pomp, spectacle, music, dance, and lowbrow entertainment is not much different from a circus though one could fairly call it a political rally with a not-to-be-taken-lightly subtext. What is happening is the daily closure of the border between Pakistan and India, a checkpoint between the electrical barbed-wire fences where visa papers are examined, passports are stamped, and bags occasionally searched, a process of dull but necessary bureaucracy. But life in India is hardly ever dull. So if life can be dressed up at all, then it may as well put on a great costume.

And certainly the border guards look great. India has a huge standing army, largely kept in place because of frequent diplomatic fallouts with Pakistan over the situation in Kashmir. Like the United States, the army in India represents an opportunity for social mobility and perhaps glory. So they have a large talent pool from which they can cast stars and the border guards are stars. Very tall, lean, and handsome, they sport handlebar mustaches of a quality I have only seen in photographs of French Foreign Legion officers. Their hats are indescribable: a dark cap with a striped, tasseled sash wrapped around, crowned by a Chinese fan in red and gold colors. To me they look like cockatiels rather than gladiators though I am not sure what the intended effect is. It becomes comic when you examine the whole uniform: the brown shirts look all right but the chinos finish halfway down the calves and white underpants with stirrups trail down to shiny, polished boots.

I am ushered into the stands. The seating capacity is huge, probably roomy enough for three thousand, yet it's such a large turnout there are hundreds sitting on the sidewalk. Literally, it's standing room only. On the other side of the international gates, the cheering potential for Pakistan looks dismal in comparison. Not only were the stands smaller, they were barely half filled, a last-place team kind of crowd. Just the day before, in India, an explosion had detonated an international train killing around 70, most of them Pakistanis, though Muslim extremist groups were suspected. I didn't know if the mood at the border ceremony would consequently be subdued or hot-blooded. Instead it turned out to be vaguely ridiculous.

I don't suppose the program varies too much regardless of current events. An emcee moderates, while guards march back and forth in exaggerated gaits. Then a male performer finds the spotlight, leaping and lunging and lip-syncing to some Bollywood hit with operatic intensity. He looks like a regular Joe, a little pot-bellied, but he has great hair and Elvis sunglasses. When his performance concludes, dozens of men rush the stage and start dancing. A few modern women form their own circle and the dancing goes on for about ten minutes with the stadium crowd clapping along. I can't believe how weird this all is.

After some time the emcee breaks up the party and we get back to marching, along with some call-and-response vis-a-vis the audience. Some of it was in English and some of it in discernable Hindi. The emcee would cry, "HINDUSTAN!" which the audience would repeat. This was followed by "ONE DAY!" which again the audience repeated. The context of the cheer was disturbing: India is ostensibly a pluralistic society. There are 130 million Muslims as well as substantial populations of Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians. The northeastern regions near the Burmese border are so "wild" and "tribal" that some practice animistic rituals,  living almost completely independently of the greater economy. It's commendable that India should have as its motto, "Unity in Diversity." But hearing such a chant now declared in such bald language causes me to wonder how genuine is the sentiment Indians regard their multiculturalism.

There's more marching. And then the guards line up and sound off a long cry into a microphone while their nemesis competes for the biggest lung pull on the other side. There's some more marching, more call-and-response. And then the flags are rolled down, carefully folded, and locked away. I feel something's missing like fireworks or a cannon boom. Everyone poses for pictures with the handlebar mustaches and attempt to stride past little kids aggressively hawking the show's DVDs.

When I return to the parking lot I find the taxi driver, who leads myself along with the other passengers up to the side of an embankment. He points to the electrical fence. Every now and then a crow is fried when alighting the wire. The taxi driver is a small man and excitable. In his wallet there's a 1973 military identification card where he looks handsome and slightly defiant. Proud of his service, he tells me, "India is great." This simple, declarative axiom is a bumper sticker you see on buses and taxis all over the country. When we climb down the hill there are a few kids waiting by our taxi, stragglers with flags bunched in their tiny hands.

Of all great human passions, the one I find least endearing and probably most dangerous is nationalism. This is a sad fact in America, of course, where people confuse patriotism for nationalism (which is perhaps an inevitable consequence when the military is wealthy and education underfunded). No one, and I mean no one, should love their country without reservations. Though they go out of their way to proclaim otherwise, governments (including the United States), do not have the interests of their people at stake. To put brutal policies into effect— war, counterterrorism, as well as the revocation of "certain, unalienable rights"—devastating measures are promoted, masked in Orwellian double-speak, dressed up as the devil or the debutante, depending on the expedience of the situation.

Samuel Johnson, a British lexicographer, famously said patriotism is the refuge of the scoundrel; perhaps you could say in my nation's case, so-called patriots draw the line between America and the un-American. But though I may loathe my congressmen and the former Bush administration, I feel very patriotic about my country. I'm not ashamed to be American and I have never lied about where I'm from and have defended it against those who blindly attack it baselessly. For me, patriotism is wanting what's best for the people of a country, not what's best for the state's power, which is nationalism, an unexamined allegiance to authority. This simple discrepancy in semantics is typical in the United States, where the educational system fails to inspire curiosity in the details of day-to-day governance. Politics: along with sex and religion one of the great dinner table taboos. Add a mainstream media complicit in simplifying the message with its narrative filters and sound byte propaganda, the citizen's misinformation opens them up for irrational military programs that they would otherwise protest.

And then there's the idea of a nation-state, a country that is supposed to represent our collective interests. Despite advances in technology, especially television, which have led to homogenization, I still feel the idea of a country is an abstraction, especially as a tool for defining personality or social characteristics. For example, in America, there are many cities where I'd feel out of place, philosophically as well as socially. I prefer the city to the suburbs, walking to driving. An empty street makes me nervous—it's not right, counter to millions of years of evolving social beings. Red State/ Blue State: in only the most general sense is there something so encompassing as 'American culture' (which if one is to believe the media has been at war with itself since the 1960s). I think of culture as a disposition, a perspective as well as a common knowledge, much more micro than macro, grass roots rather than 'sea to shining sea.' It can be aesthetic like an interest in the arts or it can be functional, related to sundry necessities like shortcuts to beat freeway congestion or the location of a town's most authentic tacos. I'm talking about intimacy in culture on an everyday footing.

India, as a country, is even a larger abstraction. The facts supporting this are indisputable. For one thing, what has come to define the modern state more than anything is a shared national language. India has eighteen of them. English is the language of politics and finance and the lingua franca of the rich. Most people in the north speak Hindi though it's very rare you will find a native Hindi speaker south of Bombay where most people speak Dravidian languages like Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada. Ironically, Urdu, the main language of Pakistan, India's arch-enemy, is an Indo-Aryan language: thus northern Indians would be able to converse with Pakistanis better than hundreds of millions of their own countrymen!

Beyond the difference in language are the details that make cultures so unique: religion, cuisine, music, dance, art, literature. Then there are different concepts of political thought, economics, and education. Boston and Miami may be pretty different in temperament but that is nothing compared to Madras and Kochi, which are roughly in the same region.

Because India is unnecessarily large it has always been in a sense, unmanageable, three regions, in particular: Kashmir, the Northeast territories, and Bihar in the Gangetic plain have been in open revolt or characterized by rampant lawlessness for years. Violent banditry in the historical holy land of the Buddha has devastated Bihar while secessionist movements in Kashmir and the Northeast have been exorbitant for the government to suppress. The conflict in Kashmir in particular has precipitated four wars costing tens of thousands of lives, years of civil unrest and has led India to the expensive and dangerous program of nuclear proliferation. When India detonated its first nuclear weapons in the Thar Desert in 1998, it was met with great jubilee. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the madness of irrational nationalism than the fact that the greatest exultations were among the poor, who have had basic services like education, health care, electricity, and basic plumbing denied them because of the disproportionate investment in war instead of infrastructure. Substituting basic human decency for a national identity has preserved a status quo of Dickensian disparity.

It doesn't make sense. Why should India fight four wars in addition to an ongoing civil insurrection to keep Kashmir? After all, more than seventy percent of the population there is Muslim. Just as important, the common language is Kashmiri, which though similar to Hindi (as a branch of Indo-Aryan), is nevertheless distinct. A region of tall mountain passes and rugged peaks, Kashmir for centuries has celebrated a unique and vibrant culture in arts, literature, and especially music. Yet I met only one Indian out of dozens who believed that Kashmir might be better off without India, seceding and becoming an autonomous state. Everyone else believed that it was to be subdued and preserved at any cost, even if were to bring the conflict with Pakistan to an irrevocable brinksmanship.

I tend to empathize with Indian (or should I say Keralan) author Arundhati Roy, who interpreted the explosions and resultant fervor as a "crisis of imagination." But that's where nationalism leads us, up in the smoke of a mushroom cloud.

The first thing Indians will want to know when I meet them is where I'm from. And I always want to know where they're from too. I'm always dumbfounded when they tell me, 'India.' That seems rather obvious. But of the hundreds of conversations, very rarely did anyone tell me first and foremost, they were from Delhi, Bombay, or regions like Gujarat or Tamil Nadu. India would always come first as a point of identification.

But what's interesting is how much people love India. Kids and people who don't speak English will shout out at me, "India #1," prompted simply by my foreignness. Sitting with businessmen or guesthouse owners I learned how optimistic Indians are for their economic future. I heard many businessmen speak of India's glorious future quoting fancy forecasted numbers for GDP and GNP growth. One businessman told me that within thirty years India would be wealthier than America. I thought of the rickety, overcrowded bus I had taken that day, bouncing against potholes, passing rural settlements made of mud and straw. He had decided to focus on numbers rather than what was happening right in front of him.

It's true India has enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the last two decades. This bull market began when the national government decided to privatize the economy. What did deregulation mean for India? Outside conglomerates trickling into the country buying up India's major industries. Control of the nation's resources moved from the state to private enterprise. Monopolization of industries as well as bribery have enabled special interests to run India as a corporate oligarchy. The rich getting... you know where this is going. Twenty-five percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold. Roughly estimated we're talking about 300 million people living on about one U.S. dollar a day. That is nothing to be proud of. It should bring great shame to the patriots. But the media, like its counterpart in America, crops the picture to fit the story. "India Shining," as the government's current promo-tag is called, beams its spotlight selectively.

As I'm in my thirties I find it amusing along with other Americans when we discuss how powerful the Pledge of Allegiance shadows our unconscious. I adore pop music but I cannot seem to remember the lyrics to any of my favorite songs. Yet, I can place my right hand over my heart and recite the Pledge verbatim. I can do it in my sleep. It scares me sometimes. And it should scare you.

I bring this up only because I found a clue to Indian nationalism while on a bicycle ride on country roads outside the fallen kingdom of Vijayanagar or its present offshoot, Hampi. This was in the morning and I stumbled upon a school assembly. I had been attracted by the drumming, which sounded martial in its cadence. I found a few hundred kids standing in locked formations while a principal yelled and the students called back, all the while the drumming never ceased. I imagined this went on every day of these school children's career until they entered the university.

What I think the kids were saying was something like, "I pledge allegiance…"

How do I stay optimistic then? For India's sake? I must admit there was a bit of flair in that border ceremony. The mustaches, the dancing, the music, and the crowds contained all the elements of the absurd. Rather than interpreting the show as a playful method of indoctrination, I want to believe that this was, if not an outlet, then another opportunity to indulge in a love of spectacle. I didn't think anyone there would feel comfortable annihilating Pakistan. Anyway that would not be good sportsmanship. As long as we could scream louder than the other side, maybe that would be enough.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2007

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your point below:
    "Of all great human passions, the one I find least endearing and probably most dangerous is nationalism."

    One reason India may be fighting for Kashmir is to sustain the idea of India. If India gives up Kashmir, there will soon be many states (some economically unviable) claiming separate identities. One way to avoid a human catastrophe like this over the whole sub-continent is to sustain the idea of India.