I am one of those Indians who loves India, cannot stay anywhere else, and yet will crib about it everyday.
"Indian" eludes me, though I watch it with ethnographic interest. I just cannot make sense of India, but I also know I do not want to make sense of any other country.
Sometimes when I sit in California or London, I try to imagine myself living there and I cannot, I miss India and I miss the smell of rain, the muck and the dirt, the incorrigible silliness of our VIPs, the taste of idlies, the sheer joy of sitting in a dhaba eating samosas with the gorgeous strains of chutney.
India seems incorrigibly poor and yet improbably generous.
I was wondering the other day after a trip to Calcutta: “In which other world can you order a half cup chai?”
Indians seem overwhelmingly silly and insanely wise in a way that is difficult to define. In fact that impossible sense of India came through in the recent Sonu Nigam incident.
Sonu Nigam sang a couple of his songs while on a flight from Mumbai to Jodhpur. The passengers on the plane belted out the numbers with him. The joyful group landed to discover that the civil aviation authorities had asked Jet to punish the entire crew and dispatch them for corrective training.
I was roaring with laughter at the incident and wondering what I found funnier - the grimness of the authorities or a crowd enacting songs on a plane.
I am sure Raja Krishna Menon, the director of Airlift, must be cursing himself for not including such a scene in his movie.
Airlift itself is a sign of the impossible Indian. Americans and the West, in particular, talk of the legendary Berlin airlift with awe, and yet the Indian airlift of our citizens was greater in scale and we seem indifferent to the heroism and organisation it involved.
I was thinking of other such events. The psychoanalyst Ashis Nandy, an acute watcher of people, told me two stories which fall in a similar league.
One is about the French movie-maker Louis Malle. Malle was filming Calcutta. His lenses were focused on one of its proverbial lathi charges.
In fact, the policeman had taken out his lathi and was charging Malle when he stopped in full flight, bowed with pleasure and said: "Ah Louis Malle."
"Only in India," was my murmur.
Nandy added another story of an English journalist who went to the police station to complain about being pick-pocketed. The policeman listened to him attentively and then decided to go with him to the location.
They reached the place, an old street with an impressive building in front of it. Suddenly the policeman rose imperiously and asked the journalist: "Do you know what building this is?"
The journalist pleaded innocence and the policeman told: "that is where William Makepeace Thackeray was born. Be proud you got pick-pocketed here!" - and he then dismissed the complaint.
I am not saying that India is a collection of Ripley’s Believe it or not, or a seedbed for the Guinness Book of records, but it seems one place where the sublime and the ridiculous combine together.
We are a nation that produces solutions that appear like oxymorons. Think of it, the goal of the Indian National Movement was to rescue the British from modernity.
We seem a collection of improbables.
We can run an organisation as huge as the Kumbh Mela, but we do not know how to handle a traffic jam.
We are often cruel to animals, yet our Jain Pinjrapoles are full of stories of farmers who loved their cattle so much that they committed suicide with them rather than abandon them during times of famine.
Our faith can drive us to extremes. We see Marwani women who will climb all the steps to Badrinath, but will not climb the stairs at home. We seem to love the ridiculous and the contrary.
In a way, we are walking myths perpetually resolving the contradictions within ourselves. Bollywood has the sensitivity to recognise this, and sense that the Indian personality is a collection of contradictions which we are in the process of resolving.
In fact if one looks at the newspapers, one sees them today as a landscape of such contradictions. We are communal at one level, but one hears hundreds of stories of how Muslims have acted as custodians of Hindu temples.
We can be utterly provincial, but ordinary citizens will drive thousands of miles to provide food for a disaster-stricken people who are complete strangers.
One sees this in politics, where Indians will vote for someone as authoritarian as Modi and elect someone as anarchic as Kejriwal. It is like we are a nation of side-bets. As someone once said, we believe in the citizenship of the lottery and argue that everyone needs a second chance.
We are a hierarchical society, absolutely sycophantic in our attitude to authority, and yet we see a fundamental equality of occupations.
I remember the film star Rajinikanth who began life as a bus conductor was once asked what would you have become if you had not become a star? Pat came the answer: "Oh a smuggler, or a bootlegger."
Indians seem to belong simultaneously to the caste system and be votaries of the Bhakti Movement. We articulate a Cartesian being, which says: "I contradict myself therefore I am."
I am not reeling off these stories as anecdotes to laugh at ourselves. What I am suggesting more and more is a sense of doubt about our formal, official categories of understanding ourselves.
We are caught in the boring dichotomous drama of the opposition between town and country, tradition and modernity, the secular and the communal, the traditional and the rational.
I wonder whether we are a society that has a tacit grammar going beyond contradictions. Maybe our models of governance are wrong. Maybe what we need is a different definition of ourselves.
We have become boring by following the West.
Something more indigenous, more native would have suited our personalities better. It is worth thinking about such possibilities.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)