Dear Minister: Your Attempts To Define Indian Culture Are Clumsy

14/09/2015 9:40 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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India, Uttar Pradesh, Agra, Agra Fort, Hall of Public Audience

Dear Culture Minister:

Many years ago when I was an undergraduate student at Stanford, studying Indian and non-Indian writers, we had a discussion in my 20 person class about cultures. We were two Indian students in the class and we were the only ones who said the phrase: "that's perceived as something against Indian culture", or "that's not what Indians think".

I learned an important lesson that day, when I was 19. I decided I would never use that phrase again because I couldn't presume to speak for 20 percent of the world's population. Also, I realized how daft that made me sound. Nothing is against our culture; it was just merely against a particular mindset. A mindset that ought to be less rigid towards people who hold shared values under its umbrella, irrespective of their identity. A mindset that is set in stone belongs in the stone ages.

Your statement recently sir, where you laid down the seven points that define Indian culture, took me back to my classroom and that early lesson. In that spirit of learning and questioning received wisdom, some thoughts on your five points:

"It's lovely when families come together and break bread, but isn't it better if they were to do this out of love, than because it's our culture?"

Three generations cooking in the same kitchen and eating on the same table.

This sounds like the perfect recipe for any of those generations to go out and start looking for flats to rent within their budgets. When people share kitchens it is usually out of compulsion, not choice. If a daughter, mother, and grandmother don't cook in the same kitchen or eat on the same table on a regular basis, I'm saddened that they are beyond India's culture, as per your formulation. It's lovely when families come together and break bread, but isn't it better if they were to do this out of love, than because it's our culture?

The emotions Indians have for each other and the relationships they respect.

It is always easier to respect what is similar than what is different. If you don't believe me, please read Edward Said (but you probably won't because of point four, which we will get to soon enough). It is a tad simplistic to assume all 1.2 billion of us have the same sort of emotional responses, and respect the same sort of relationships. It is more important how we make space in our hearts and minds for ideas that we may not understand or agree with, and indeed respect those that run counter to yours. Acceptance, to me, is key to Indian culture.

The relationship between parents and children and the respect they have for each other.

Similar to point three, it is easier to respect our parents and our children because they are our own. Wouldn't it be better if we could respect other people's parents and children the same way we respect ours, irrespective of their identity and choices?

"It is learning that is important here, and the wider the variety of sources, the more we can get to know India."

Reading Indian books before reading novels and understanding Indian values.

Firstly, what is an Indian value? Your exposure to the world has to be really limited for someone to argue that values Indian parents and schools drill into our children are regarded virtues only in India. And when it comes to books, I found a lot of value in reading Ramachandra Guha alongside Lawrence James. Reading Nisid Hajari's wonderful historical account of the partition or reading Salman Rushdie's defining work of fiction in conjunction with letters Nehru and Gandhi wrote are all key to learning. It is learning that is important here, and the wider the variety of sources, the more we can get to know India. Isn't it better to be informed, than limit our learning to materials created by authors of Indian origin?

Gaining wisdom from Indian museums and historical monuments before trying to learn and visit foreign countries.

I agree with you, seeing our historical monuments is important. Wanting to see the wonders of Machu Pichu (which I hope to visit someday) is not exclusive to wanting to see the Taj Mahal. The more we want a seat at the global power table, the more we need to get with the program: understand different countries, expose ourselves to different ideas. Are we so insecure about our heritage, that we would forget Dr. Ambedkar just because we visit a Martin Luther King Memorial? And in Bombay, where I live, apart from the NGMA and The Bhau Daji Lad Museum (which was banned from showing a fashion show by one of India's premier designers earlier this year) pray, which museums should we visit? Where is our contemporary art museum? Where is our folk museum? Where are our archives? Why not adopt Atul Dodiya's idea and actually set up 7,000 museums across the country? The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had a show recently titled "Sultans of Deccan", curated by Navina Najat Haidar. Almost none of the exhibition pieces were on loan from the Government of India. Why don't we preserve our rich heritage more, rather than define geographical boundaries for our aspirations and thoughts?

I look forward to the balance two points that you didn't mention.



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