Just a thought………..
What does it mean to be an Indian? Our nation is such a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities that it is tempting to dismiss the question as unanswerable. How can one define a country that has 2,000 castes and sub-castes, 22,000 languages and dialects and 300 different ways of cooking the potato? Sixty years after Independence, however, it will no longer do to duck the question. For amidst our diversities we have all acquired a sense of what we have in common: the assumptions, the habits, the shared reference-points that constitute the cultural and intellectual baggage of every thinking Indian.
Ambassador: Ambassador cars are the classic symbol of India’s postindependence industrial development. Outdated even when new, inefficient and clumsy, wasteful of steel and petrol, overpriced and overweight, with a steering-mechanism like an ox-cart’s and a frame like a tank’s, the Ambassador dominated Indian routes for decades, protected and patronised in the name of self-reliance. Foreigners were constantly amazed that this graceless contraption of quite spectacular ugliness enjoyed two-year waitinglists at all the dealers right up to the 1990s. What they didn’t realise is that if they had to drive on Indian roads in Indian traffic-conditions, they’d have preferred Ambassadors too.
Amitabh: the star who refuses to fade away, the ‘Angry Young Man’ of yesteryear has epitomised the hopes and dreams of a nation for nearly three decades. Bachchan remains a superstar in an overladen firmament, a cinemahero of unprecedented popularity whose impact on the nation has been out of all proportion to his talent. To appreciate Amitabh Bachchan, you have to confuse action with acting and prefer height to depth, but there’s no denying the way in which the now Complacent Middle-Aged Man has hummed and hammed his way into the nation’s hearts. When he had a serious ailment, the nation prayed for his recovery; every vendor of garlands and coconuts stood poised for celebration or mourning. When the ruling party wanted to capture a difficult parliamentary seat and dispose of an inconveniently strong opponent, it turned to Amitabh Bachchan. When he realised politics couldn’t be enacted like the movies, he quit, went into business, flirted with bankruptcy and reinvented himself as a TV gameshow host, before returning to the big screen with a beard to complement his baritone. Through it all, Amitabh has remained the ‘Big B’, but in a glossary of India, he leads the ‘A’ list…
Amritsar: is engraved on every Indian heart; the city of the Pool of Nectar drips blood onto the pages of India’s history. The tragedy of the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1917 gave a focus and a cause to the incipient struggle for nationhood — a nationhood on which the deaths in the Golden Temple in 1984 did more than anything else to cast a shadow.
Ashoka: the great conquerorturned-pacifist is the one figure of history who has most inspired independent India’s schizoid governmental ethos. For decades, his tolerance and humanitarianism, his devotion to peace and justice, infused our declarations of policy; his military might, his imposition of a Pax Indica on his neighbours, informed our practice. Our national spokesmen inherited his missionary belief that what was good for Magadha was good for the world. And in choosing a national symbol our government preferred his powerful trinity of lions to the spinning-wheel advocated by Mahatma Gandhi. Typically, though, the only institution they saw fit to give his name to was a fivestar hotel.
Astrology: has not only survived, it has grown in importance, as more and more important decisions are made by those who believe in it. Marriages are not arranged, flights not planned, elections not called until astrological charts are drawn up and consulted. An Indian without a horoscope is like an American without a credit-card, and he is subject to many of the same disadvantages in life…
Next week, we’ll try the B’s!
“from sundaytimes ‘shashi on sunday’