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Sunday, March 28, 2010

A book worth reading (I think)

Pawan Varma, IFS, a most erudite man and a felicitous writer, has become one of my favourite commentators on the way the Indian cultural scenario has been evolving. I thoroughly enjoyed his sympathetic yet scathing analysis of the ways and mores of The Great Indian Middle Class, and his second book, Being Indian (published in 2004) was just as interesting to read, and thought-provoking. So much so that these days, when anybody wants to discuss matters cultural in the Indian context, I ask her whether she has read Nirad Chaudhuri, Khushwant Singh, V. S. Naipaul, Mark Tully and Varma, at least; otherwise it's likely to be an idle and pointless conversation.

Varma has now authored yet another book, Becoming Indian: the unfinished revolution of culture and identity. I have just read Kanchan Gupta’s interview with Varma about this book, and I am looking forward to reading it myself.

To my mind, Pawan Varma belongs to that old tradition which has been coming down from the likes of Rammohun Roy: close observers, vigorous thinkers, who want India to become a truly great country, who can see her great potential, who are also aware that a lot of cultural baggage is holding her back, and who can criticize all our faults (not even sparing icons like Rammohun himself!) unsparingly though not cruelly, and always with constructive ends in view. In short, a man after my own heart. Do read his books, all, and get back to me about them. I like to think that I too am an argumentative Indian in the sense conveyed by Amartya Sen, and that there are still some such people around…


Rajdeep said...

Thank you for this post. I read Being Indian after you introduced me. Other than Naipaul, it is the only worthwhile book translated into Japanese. I am looking forward to reading this book too and hope you write a review of it on your blog soon.

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for this post, I haven't really read any books like this particular one and I think it's high time I did! Will buy or borrow this at the earliest opportunity, read it and get back to you!


Booklover said...

Hadn't heard of Pavan Verma till i read this. Sounds interesting.

Also, inviting feedback on this site please. Website Book Reviews and our
Facebook page

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hello 'Booklover',

Thanks for writing. Anybody who reads and writes about books is someone I can find interesting. But if you want comments from me, do please give me a name and an email i.d.: I cannot talk to anonymous people!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Three months later, I can reiterate that among the huge number of educated people I know, pitifully few are either capable of or interested in joining any discussion about serious books...

Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

Recently, I finished reading Pavan K. Varma's "The Great Indian Middle Class" - something which I had been wanting to do since sometime, especially after your recommendation. I remember reading this old post of yours. So, today I thought of coming back here and posting my comments.

This is not meant to be a review of the book and I will not elaborate on the points on which I am in complete concurrence with Mr. Varma like the fact that today's Indian middle class is an insular entity who can't think beyond their narrow self-interests. So, let me move on the two minor grouches I have with his writing.

Firstly, I think that Mr. Varma treats the Indian middle class as a monolithic whole. While he himself, creditably, gives a very generic definition of middle class, most of his analyses is centered around the middle class from the typical North Indian milieu. While he does quote examples from all over India to buttress his points, some of his generalizations about middle class may not be applicable to good many sections of it. For example, members of South Indian middle class are probably not as materialistic as their North Indian counterparts. Similarly, in context of cultural rootlessness of Indian middle class, South Indians are more rooted in their traditions in various aspects of their daily lives like dress, cuisine, mannerisms. Up to a certain extent same can be said for Gujratis as well. Of course, the things are changing and my intention is not here to get into the historical reasons of why North India is more susceptible to aping outsiders than South India.

Secondly - and this is related to the cultural rootlessness which he touches upon in 'The Great Indian Middle Class' and elaborates in 'Being Indian' (I haven't read it but I went through his interview with Kanchan Gupta and read some excerpts on Google books) - the fact that he himself belongs to that Indian elite makes it easier for him to lament on the wont of the middle class to ape anything Western. A bit of googling told me that his father was an ICS officer and his maternal grandfather was judicial magistrate in Allahabad in 1930s. He didn't have to 'aspire' to reach 'there'. He was born 'there' - the charmed circle of India's post-independence elite. What I am trying to say here is that he got his Shakespeare and Milton in inheritance, grew up with English as his first language and explored the richness of Kalidasa & Bharata's Natyashastra much later in life - at a time when he was already secure in a cultural matrix perceived superior in this country. From such a vantage point, it becomes much easier to blame fellow Indians for neglecting their heritage and celebrating anything Western though he rightly blames colonialism for this cultural neurosis. I could have been less cynical in my evaluation if Mr. Varma's arguments had come from someone belonging to the 'aspirational' class who broke into that bastion of exclusivity and then emphasized the need to be rooted in one's own heritage and condemn the poor caricatures resulting from the present system. His grandfather and father probably belonged to this category and, in 'Becoming Indian’ , he very commendably brings out the fact that they were never comfortable in their acquired Englishness. He also narrates many colourful anecdotes about Mr. Nirad Chaudhuri in this context. But to me, Varma himself never had to 'acquire' Englishness, he was born into it.

(Contd. in next comment)

Rajarshi said...

Without just condemning, one should also look at the reasons why the middle class is happy to speak pidgin English outside their homes while consigning their inadequate vernaculars within four walls of their homes. I didn't go to a school run by Jesuits. My classmates never read Enid Blyton or Archie’s or Asterix. We used to read Hindi comics like Chacha Chaudhury and such stuff. In my college, when I came across classmates from 'good' English Medium public schools, convents who had read Archie’s and Nancy Drew, I did suffer from a certain complex. This arose from a fact that I naturally thought that what they had read was superior to what I had. Undoubtedly, this was due to my insecurity in my own heritage/culture/language but is colonialism the only reason for this rootlessness. What about the fact that we live and work in a system which rewards and favours anything which is 'foreign' from accents to degrees to awards. So, can the middle class, the wannabe elites be blamed for being aspirational? I am sorry if I come across as an apologist of middle class behaviour. That is not my intention and that is last thing I shall do. Finally, what is the way out from where we are today? I need to read ‘Becoming India’ to know whether Mr. Varma gives any convincing answers here either.

As an aside, he has recently quit the IFS (he is presently India’s Ambassador to Bhutan) and plans to join politics – JD (U), in particular. More power to people like him. But looking at the likes of Amit Mitra, I have become cynical (again!) at the idea of public service rendered by well-intentioned, highly competent men through the means of mainstream political parties. In any case, with my immense admiration for Mr. Varma, I must again say that lighting the candle is much better than cursing the darkness.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

First off, Rajarshi: I am delighted that you have commented on a post which had been neglected for more than two years, and one about a book, too. A gesture like that always biases me in the comment-writer's favour, no matter what s/he has to say.

Secondly, I must confess that I haven't gotten around to reading 'Becoming Indian' yet. I have read lots of stuff in the interim, but this book somehow slipped my mind. I'll have to remedy this: thanks for reminding me.

Thirdly, I have personally found Varma's attitude sympathetic yet scathing, as I have said in the post itself, but I can see where your complaints come from, and to a large extent they are valid enough: especially that he has taken most of his samples from a relatively narrow cultural canvas (but do you really think that they are all that unrepresentative of contemporary middle-class Indians as a whole: remembering how very conformist if not homogeneous this class has become lately?)

As for Varma having been born privileged, there's no denying the fact, of course, but surely that should not automatically disqualify him from critically surveying his own class, should it? The only relevant question should be how fairly, knowledgeably and constructively he has done it. But as you say, it would be nice to read him in juxtaposition with someone equally bright and informed who has had to claw his way up the ladder (I think the memoirs of Ambedkar and ex-President K. R. Narayanan might be good).

The rest of my reply I am keeping for my next comment. Meanwhile, one request: do please sign off with your full name. I know a lot of Rajarshi-s, including unpleasant types too, and I'd rather not be forced to read what someone like that has written, for reasons well explained on this blog oftentimes.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

As for the contents of your second comment, Rajarshi, I have three things to say:

1) I happen to know how bad that sort of thing can feel - not only being 'left out' but being made to think that you are somehow inferior because you have read Chacha Chaudhury rather than Enid Blyton in childhood.

2) The only way to deal with such snobbish scum is to tell them where they get off, and that I have read both and I am not stupid enough to think, like them, that one kind of reading material in a certain language rather than another makes one necessarily a better person in any sense.

3) I cannot take on the whole burden of guilt for the way that this kind of pseudo-elite trash has made you feel, but let me tell you this much: my daughter was taught Bengali first, I scold my wife for speaking faulty Bangla, not faulty English, and I take pride in never speaking anything but chaste Bangla except for professional purposes (that is, when I am being paid to teach English). My much greater shame arises from the fact that most of today's 'educated' Bengalis can neither speak good English nor faultless Bengali.

4) A lot of people in this country have managed to do very well in life indeed, in every sphere, be it business, science, teaching, literature or politics, without ever taking time out to learn good English or acquiring 'western' habits. Our present President is just one of them. Do please keep that in mind: it will help you feel better!

Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

First off, my apologies for this delayed response.

I am the Rajarshi who had problems in commenting on your blog some months back.

I agree to your point on why Mr. Varma's critique is a valid generalization which can be extrapolated to most of today's middle class. I was also probably missing the core issue by focussing too much on Mr. Varma's lineage.

Finally, with regards to your second comment, thanks a lot for your kind and encouraging words. It was not the case that people around me made me feel that I was lacking in something. It probably had a lot to do with my own conditioning and worldview. In any case, I did enjoy Enid Blyton when I discovered her, even though it was a little later than most of her readers. :)

With Best Wishes,
Rajarshi Roy