Being Indian

or, The truth about why the 21st Century will be India’s. This book, published by Penguin, cost me just Rs 250 and the back cover says that it is for sale in the Indian Subcontinent and Singapore only. How odd. Btw, I have not finished this either – I’ve been distracted by The Argumentative Indian and my rediscovery of my 500+ book collection from which I’ve extracted a few old favourites. I’m also still digesting much of what it means to be Indian, something I rejected being, quite honestly, for most of my rebellious adolescence and early adulthood.

Beingindianbook
Being Indian – The truth about why the 21st Century will be India’s
by Pavan K. Varma – Varma is a diplomat, his biography seems to imply an erudite, well read and well travelled gentleman who evokes a subtle sense of Pico Iyer in his approach and writing. I’m not comparing the two, no one comes close to Iyer in his distinctly global style, but the faint whiff perhaps of mixing Indian with British with a touch of the world feels familiar. I’ve only completed the first chapter on the relationship that Indians have with power – political or fiscal – rather than charismatic or physical, and it’s been a learning exercise for me. I purchased this book for myself, to satisfy my desire to understand what it means to be Indian.

Before I go into book reviews and links like I did for my other book purchases, I’ll get this point off my chest. Being Indian – the title itself is so evocative of the complexity of any nationality, race and culture. I carry an Indian passport, of this I am sure, and my skin is brown, my hair black (let’s ignore that silver, shall we?) and my eyes brown. Yes, that means I’m Indian. Ethnically. But what about culturally? I’ll come back to this later, as a hidden immigrant who once felt "re-entry shock".

Back to the book, what little I know about my fellow citizens led me to dig a little more, and here is an interesting bit, with reference to Varma’s earlier book, The Great Indian Middle Class, from The Deccan Herald, Bangalore’s daily paper,

So what has changed in six years? Is it the author�s perception of things or is it a more fundamental change in ground realities? Or is Varma saying that the take-off stage has been achieved not because of the middle classes he censured earlier but in spite of them? Varma’s book makes for good reading.

But should it also make the Indian in you feel good?
It depends. Depends on whether you believe ends justify the means. Depends on whether you accept hypocrisy as a way of life. For Varma’s evaluation of the forces that fuel India�s launch into the new century makes it clear that there is a lot that is unscrupulous and hypocritical in the Indian’s way of life that has served him well. His analysis also poses certain uncomfortable questions about the way day to day Indian life is at odds with some notions that the West and in fact the Indians themselves have about being Indian.

But while Varma does draw our attention to the gross inequities and prejudices that are still prevalent in every walk of Indian life, the fire in the belly seems to have burnt out somewhere along the way, the
sense of outrage dimmed. The result: the Indian middle class that he urged to introspect or perish may actually feel great on reading his new book.

And for balance, from The Independent, a review by Salil Tripathi,

Clichés about India prevail: its people are spiritual and not materialistic; good at maths (and thus also at IT), thanks to an innate ability with numbers; uninterested in power. And, as Churchill said, India is a geographical expression, not a nation. Varma takes issue with each, dividing the book into four parts: power, wealth, technology and pan-Indianness. The picture of India that emerges is not necessarily flattering, but is more interesting.

[…]

For many Indians, Varma argues, spiritualism is meant to harness divine power for material prosperity. The pursuit of Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) is the Indian version of the pursuit of happiness. The
country’s software boom has as much to do with lucrative career moves as with innate talent. And greater travel and internal migration, along with cricket, Bollywood, satellite TV and radio, have unified this
"geographical expression".

[…]

As the book suggests, India is bigger than the sum of its parts. But the "big thing" that emerges is neither scary nor unstable.

And best of all, I found the book listed on this wonderful website online called Khazana (Treasure trove) – that calls itself a source for hard to get books from India and South East Asia. Just $27 – smiles – only a few dollars more than my Rs 250.

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5 Responses to Being Indian

  1. Binoy Dsouza says:

    A designer friend sent me the link to your blog. “Inspite” of being a Technical Writer myself, I love the way you write.
    – Binoy

  2. ajay naidu says:

    You blog came up on the Google search that I did for reviews on Chetan Bhagats new book. And well I am pleasantly surprised. You write so well. But one think rankles me is how you go on and on about the price of books in India. Well let me tell you that while it works out cheap in exchange in Pounds or Dollars, books especially those in English are not considered that cheap in India. Bhagat’s success lies in the clever pricing of the book – just under 100 Rs. And well for me and millions of others who have to slog to earn a living paying 650 for a Amartya Sen is not exactly cheap. We still are a poor country and perhaps on a tiny percentage of people still earn the kind of money that enable them to splurge. As for the rest of us, we would rather prowl the pavements of our cities looking of excellently brought out pirated editions of books for no other reason than that these books have be priced beyond our reach. Anything above 200 is exhorbitant. I picked up a pirated edition of Da Vinci Code for Rs 50 and the latest Potter for Rs. 200. So while you can afford to spend your Rupees converted plentifully from dollars we have to wait patiently for the pirates to bring us our books a little late. Sad but true. For a poor country books are not a priority. And any English title that sells, let’s say, a pathetic 5000 copies is called a best seller. Rupa has understood this very well and has priced it books realistically and has been selling hugely. Incidently a neat pirated edition of Bhagat’s latest book is available in the pavement for a measly Rs.50 as against the shop price of Rs.95.

  3. Niti Bhan says:

    Tell me, Ajay, what rankles your soul that you speak with such rancour to a perfect stranger in the public domain? I lived in Madras, sorry, Chennai, on a salary of Rs 2250 where Rs 1200 went for rent alone, supporting none but myself, true, but managed to find affordable books nonetheless. I don’t know which city you’re currently based in, but here are some suggestions to save more on that measly Rs 50 –
    In Delhi, in Janpath there’s a circular bookstore where one can get new copies of science fiction books – not much choice, true, and out of date, but what is one to do? – for Rs 10 each. In Nehru Place, Karim, with his distinctive green eyes can be prevailed upon to keep his science fiction aside, that he sources from various raddiwalas, for Rs 5 each.
    In Bangalore, at the beginning of Double Rd, not the Jayanagar end, there is a lending library who will not only sell used books but also rent them for a week. When he received the brand new full set of Asimov’s Foundation novels, he let me hire them all together and let me pay over time for their rent alone – mind you, these are 10 year old prices.
    In Singapore there are lending libraries where you can purchase the book and get two thirds of the purchase price back towards store credit.
    I seek similar trade/credit bookstores wherever I happen to be. My appetite is too voracious to be fed by purchase alone, but it’s also true that I spend upto 10% of my gross monthly income on books, regardless of continent or currency. If I’m gloating on the price of books it’s purely out of the feeling that India can afford to provide quality printed matter with choice and variety unavailable in the majority of the world at comparable prices. Barnes and Noble and other chains only stock what they choose, hence range and choice is limited to the lowest common denominator.
    I believe that that one of India’s major comparative advantages globally. Her populace likes to read, and her english language readers are well and variedly read. Her bookstores are still independently run, the majority by intelligent conversationalists who are erudite and well read, many of whom I am lucky to count as friends over the years. Addicts are always welcome to the den, they are helpless in the throes of their need.
    You’ll always find a Harold Robbins or Da Vinci code pirated and cheaply sold on the popular pavements – but where do you find Lester Del Rey, AE van Vogt’s Lensman series, Niven, Pournelle, Silverberg and have make do with missing bits of trilogies or as Mandar reviews one of my alltime favourite authors, Ursula K.LeGuin, http://inkscrawl.blogspot.com/2005/11/book-review-tales-from-earthsea-by.html
    scroll down to read his story of trying to find this book. I found the full trilogy after years and paid the full price of an astronomical Rs 225 for it too.

  4. ajay naidu says:

    Hi…
    Firstly you don’t have to say sorry for calling Madras, Madras. My childhood was spent in Madras and I have been visiting Madras as the family stays there. So for old Madrassis, Madras will always be Madras. Chennai was always there. But it is Madras. Anyway a rose is always a rose by any name.
    I didn’t expect a lengthy response. Well if there was rancour, that was because I am annoyed when people take success of a miniscule group and try to pass it off as that of the entire try. That when the success was despite the country and the system.
    And yeah, thanks for the tips on where to find books.
    I stay in Hyderabad now, and we have this Amazing Book Market that spreads itself on the pavements of Hyderabad’s Abid road. You can find gems at unbelievable prices. I found this rare first edition of The Female Eunuch there.
    And well let me add here that books especially in the South Indian languages, Bengali sell huge numbers. And yeah one should never forget the Hindi pulp fiction. The are obscenely huge.
    As for me opening my mind to a perfect stranger in the Public Domain. What is the blog for? I ask. And why is there a comments column.
    Anyway,
    Nice blog.

  5. Niti Bhan’s tour of Indian design and innovation, part I

    By now, everyone knows that India is an outsourcing giant with world-class organizations dedicated to business process outsourcing. But did you know that India also has a number of world-class design and innovation institutions? In this special post fo…

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