Category Archives: British Raj

Colonialism and Self Respect in the 21st Century 

I’ve noticed a peculiar trend. Behind a screen of nationalism, there are two polarized views that the outside world holds about India – simultaneous idolization and distain of Indian culture. Where does this come from?

There is no question that India is a land which pulls the extreme emotions out of nationals and visitors alike, but is there something deeper which affects the perception of the outside world?

Who are the voices who have defined what “India” is? Who are the ones narrating India’s history?macaulay_Colonialist

Thomas Babington Macaulay was one of history’s more unsavory characters and is credited for “divid[ing] the world into civilised nations and barbarism, with Britain representing the high point of civilisation.”

If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, I don’t know what does.

Another blurb from Wikipedia states:

In his Minute on Indian Education of February 1835, he asserted, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.

Here is the thing, Macaulay never even learned Sanskrit, but relied on English translations of the works to for his analysis. In addition, the most influential colonial historian, James Mill never learned any Indian language and never visited India! He took Macaulay’s false ideas further by publicizing them across the Western world. He was motivated to provoke coercion and dominance so that the British could pillage and rule. These colonialists wanted the intellectual wealth of India for themselves. Macaulay and Mill were people who made conclusions based on assumptions rather than actual knowledge to protect their power.

There has been a false narrative spread, and it is high time to clear it up. Indian Flag Face

Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” goes into more detail on how the self-confidence of Indians has been tarnished by these false historical reports.  These views have deeply imbedded into the Western understanding of India, and Indians’ understanding of themselves. Brushing off India’s contributions to merely the spiritual realms is short sighted.

Let’s unravel it a bit.

Sanskritic writings have often been brushed off as simply useful for spiritual purposes.  The West has a perception that yoga and ayurveda are the only relevant contributions of ancient Indian sciences to the world, but this is also shortsighted.

What about India’s ancient contributions in math and science? Aryabhata‘s pioneering astronomical calculations, Pingala’s use of Binary Code and Zero and Chess are just a few. Anyone who has heard Indian classical music recognizes the music as a mathematical wonder to your ears. Architectural concepts pioneered in the Hindu temples of South India and Vedic city planning were foundations that have been used throughout history. The oldest discovered university in the world is in Bihar, India. Oh yeah, and ever heard of the Taj Mahal?

This historical fallacies have been imbedded deep into the Western view of India and certainly the Indian psyche as well. New voices need to rise up and share the beauty and deep history of the subcontinent. The history of India needs to be retold to the world.

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An Easier Route – Black Americans Paved the Way for South Asian Immigrants

Gandhiji, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. are the three most well known social reformers and freedom fighters of the last century. Each of these men represented an oppressed people whose land and/or livelihood was occupied or stolen by white people. Each of these leaders fought against the unjust nature of white dominance. During Black History month, I’ve been reflecting on the contributions of those such as Dr. King, and the ripple effects which the civil rights movement caused for other Americans of color.

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Even though the United States has had South Asian immigrants for at least 100 years, Indians in America today have a complex way  of fitting into the race and cultural wars in America. With so many Indians in the media who own their cultural heritage, including Preet BhararaNina Davuluri, Mindy Kaling, Indra Nooyi, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, Ravi Zacharias, and many more, there are still some who publicly chose to shy away from their Indian-American identity.

Governor Bobby Jindal is a prime example of a confused Indian-American.  In a recent statement, he encouraged NRIs (non-resident Indians) not distinguish themselves according to their ethnic background, but to call themselves “Americans” rather than Indian-Americans. He thinks somehow distinguishing and appreciating the cultures we came from will lead to discord among people groups, rather than fostering an appreciation.

The rhetoric of “America as a melting pot” is outdated and inaccurate. America should be described as a chunky stew where each bite gives you a variety of tastes, as individuals own their unique identities. Jindal’s one-size-fits-all philosophy is very 1970s where we were taught not to see color, but just hold hands and sing kumbaya while pretending we have all been given the same social power.  So called “colorblindness” as we attempt to form into one singular identity, has clearly not worked.

Instead of a adopting a one-size-fits-all identity, we should be inspired to own each of our ethnic identities and embrace the freedom to be who we are. This kind of freedom has only been made possible by respectable people like Dr. King, and all those who fought, and continue to fight for equality in our country.

The road of immigration to the US has been built on the civil rights movement. Not only the rights of black Americans were fought for, but an opening for many more people of color to gain access to the American dream was also created. 

What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

“We all have our parts to play in society, and we must all be allowed to play them.” -Lord Grantham

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Ideal, yet troubled families: the Granthams from Downton Abbey and the Raichand’s from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

There are striking similarities between the formal, high context cultures of the grand homes of early 20th century England and modern Indian society. Many of the quotable moments of the  much beloved English drama are almost exact translations of what you hear in Bollywood films or Indian TV serials (similar to soap operas).

From master/servant dramas to “inter-caste” marriage (Sybil & Tom), to dowry pressure (Mary’s inability to inherit the estate), you will find a wealth of similar problems in the Grantham family as you would a modern Delhi-dwelling family of Sharmas.

Hierarchy within the Family

The hierarchy of respect is still in place in most Indian families. The pressure to accommodate the wishes and traditions of the elderly over personal happiness are still as strong as ever. The matriarch of the family reserves the right to run the rest like puppets. The Dowager Countess of Grantham  is like a manipulative Bollywood Daadiji, going behind unsuspecting youngsters’ backs to arrange a match, managing the family estate without actually lifting a finger, or keeping unwanted guests away with a cold breeze of indirect disdain. If Daddiji/Granny wants something done, it best be done, or there is a fire of manipulation about to consume those in the way.

Servants/Master Dynamic

One of the thriving themes of Downton is the tension between the servants and masters. Jealousies run rampant and loyalties are tested. While there seems to be a much greater distance between servants and masters in Indian society, similar rules apply when it comes to unspoken rules of employment. It is never the servant’s  place to  personally advise ladies and lords, even more so in Indian society. As an employer, servants can never be your friends, and one must keep the professional and impersonal. Downton clearly indicates this distance whenever someone from upstairs enters the servant’s hall and the staff stand immediately. Servants in India still do this today and often greet their employers with a formal “Namaste” or “Pranaam.” Close servants who live with the master sometimes touch the feet of employers and employer’s relatives as a sign of outward respect, and establishment of position.

High Value of Virtue and Reputation

Reputation does not depend on what one says about oneself, but on what the larger community thinks. Especially for women, the values of cleanliness, external beauty, upright behavior, and purity are main criteria of which she is evaluated.  The Grantham family goes to great lengths to hide Mary’s one night stand with the Turkish diplomat. Mary’s line “Pappa will be ruined,” sounds like a line from a desi dulhan juggling the thought of running away with her lover the night before her arranged marriage. Other external factors such as a veering from adventure and danger are highly valued. For example: The modesty of women riding side saddle (horse in Downton, scooter in India) is an indication of femininity, modesty, and an avoidance of perceived speed and danger. High virtues of women are of imminent value.

Marriages of Status

Money is a major factor for marriage in Downton. Mary and Matthew are the ideal match as money, status, and love come in one package. In dramas like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the son of the wealthy, high-caste Raichand family (played by Shahrukh Khan) diverts from the norms by marrying simple townsperson (Kajol) and spends the rest of his life trying to resolve his broken relationship with his family. Similar rebels like Sybil and Tom Branson, who wed against all societal norms, have a serious price to pay for their love.  There is an “us VS. them” mentality” which binds the Granthams to the Raichands.  Mary sums it up by telling Sybil “He just isn’t our kind of people.” Arranged marriages in India certainly have flavors of status, money, and position of the family, much like the Granthams.

Bent on Tragedy

In Bollywood and Downton Abbey, there are no shortage of tragic moments. The fatalistic times of post war Europe set the stage for death and financial ruin. An upwardly mobile India still carries the memories of lack of healthcare, ethnic clashes, and financial struggle. Economic difficult times still cloud the majority of the population. In films, tragedy and pain are an expected part of the story and a way of adding extra drama which the masses can relate to.

Formalities of all kinds exist in Indian society, which are represented in parallel in Downton Abbey, set in the pre-departure time of the British Raj. While the West experienced modernity at the turn of the century, India has been experiencing a similar wave of societal change since 1991. The times may be different, the focus on formalities, family structure, and societal pressures are shockingly similar.