OPINION: Independence And Identity

Professor Satendra Nandan’s latest publication is BRIEF ENCOUNTERS. He’s currently writing a contemplative travelogue of his first journey from Nadi to New Delhi titled Loving You Eternally.   For me
07 Oct 2015 10:50
OPINION: Independence And Identity
Indians learned to use English as a creative weapon a long time ago. The imperial language has become a tremendous asset to their increasing influence in the world of ideas, media and academia.

Professor Satendra Nandan’s latest publication is BRIEF ENCOUNTERS. He’s currently writing a contemplative travelogue of his first journey from Nadi to New Delhi titled Loving You Eternally.


For me one of the great delights of going to India is the world of books; they are cheap in comparison to Oz prices. Another joy is that every evening somewhere someone is giving a talk on literature or culture and cosmic kidding—spirituality is on sale everywhere—it is the eternal Speaking Tree; under its shade dwell many charlatans and saints.

On the parched pavements of Delhi one can purchase for a dollar literary of magazines full of news about books and writers—from New Delhi to New York, Mumbai to London. I’m, of course, talking about writing in English or books in English translations.

True, like one’s transit through immigration, so much is lost in translation; but a lot is also gained. Most of the most powerful narratives one reads are in translations—from the Bhagwad Gita to the Bible.

It was, therefore, a pleasure to see how much is being written in India by writers from every state. So much is being translated into English from regional languages. Conferences on translations are held virtually in every institution.

In Shimla I met several bleary-eyed translators from every Indian language recognised in the Indian constitution. The arguments continue incessantly: Are we Indians or Hindians? My Professor friend from Delhi University, a scholar of Hindi and English, was at a loss to convince the advocates of regional languages that there’s only one national language. And the arguments—sometimes passionate, at times facetious– were invariably in English. But, he knew, there’s only one global language.


Creative weapon

Indians learned to use English as a creative weapon a long time ago. The imperial language has become a tremendous asset to their increasing influence in the world of ideas, media and academia. Also in diplomacy, business and financial  dealings. It has opened many doors to the world for Indians today, when you consider even Gandhi was excommunicated from his caste when he left for England to study, aged 19. He defied his clan and went on to defy the greatest empire using English language and law.

Today many writers and scholars have attained considerable prestige through their writings in English. This is a long story. The first book in English by an Indian was published in 1794, Dean Mohamed’s Travels; the first novel in 1864 by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay.

The story of the Raj  and the Indo-Anglian fateful encounter has been told by Rudyard Kipling, E M Forster, Paul Scott among others. Their writings inspired writers like Mulk Raj Anand, R K Narayan, Anita Desai— the novel, hardly indigenous to India, took deep root in the subcontinent’s soil. Fiction is natural to a nation created by multiple narratives of myths and epics.


Indian autobiography

Even the autobiography became a mode of Indian self-expression. Nirad Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian made him one of the best known Indian Anglophile in English.

But Chaudhuri was quite quarrelsome—I met him in Leeds in the 1970s : One of my Indian fellow postgraduate students asked him what should the Indian students do in England? His short answer was: Pack up your bags and go home!

Chaudhuri was a small man in stature and irascible by nature. He himself remained in England for another four decades and died at the age of 101.

Then there are expatriate writers like V S Naipaul, William Dalrymple, Mark Tully, Amartya Sen who found in India a fertile field for their creative explorations. It was not only that they were discovering India; rather it was India that forced them to discover themselves. India questions your very notions of personal and national identities.

Years ago in Delhi I met a young poet by the name of Pritish Nandy. He’d written a volume of poems and we met in a publisher’s rather bare, impecunious office. Indian publishing then was beginning to find its niche with books printed and published in India. Fifty years later India is the third largest publisher of books in English, after the USA and the United Kingdom. Books are bought and read; writers revered.

Indians run several large literary festivals, the world largest being the Jaipur Literary Festival from January 21-25, held annually. And it’s free and full of controversies.

Pritish Nandy since has started his own film-making business, Pritish Nandy Communications—and a few films have been produced under its banner.


Old acquitantances’ piece

On the eve of independence day celebrations, therefore, I was delighted to read an old acquaintance’s piece in the Times of India under the title ‘An Indian by Accident’. Nandy writes–

Curious as it may sound, I have always felt I am an Indian by accident…I was born in Bhagalpur. This ought to make me a Bihari. But I am not because my mother was a Bengali whose family had settled in Bihar. Within weeks of being born I came to Calcutta, where I spent all my growing up years… my school was founded by a Frenchman, a soldier of fortune. And though I scored far better marks in Bengali and Hindi there, the only language I learnt was English.’

Nandy wrote his first book of poems in English and later changed Calcutta for Bombay via Delhi. He became a journalist.

‘So,’ asks my  poet pal of yester years, ‘am I Mumbaikar? A Bengali from Calcutta? A Bihari? Or a born again Anglophile like Nirad C Chaudhuri? I have no clue. Most Indians are like me, put together by accident. That is the magic of being a migrant in your own land, trying to discover yourself through your many identities.

‘My mother’s maiden name seemed to suggest that someone in her family had a Muslim connect…The only place of worship I ever saw her visit was St Paul’s Cathedral on New Year’s eve…’and how a Jesuit priest took my parents in when my grandfather chucked them out of his home once the old man remarried.

‘The freedom struggle brought my parents together. They married and we three brothers were born. Never did it once strike me what my religion was, which state I belong to, what my language, what my language ought to be, which culture I should fight for…

‘If you look around, you will find many like me who in the midst of many identities, accidently chanced upon their Indianness. Each of them will swear by their regional culture, the language they speak, the faith they follow or (like me) do not. And, as they wander through all these, and discover themselves, they also discover the magic of being an Indian.

‘No, it is not the other way round, as we are being persuaded to believe today. No one is born with a sense of being Indian. No one is born waving a tricolor and singing jana gana mana…

‘Being Indian is not about speaking a particular language even though some of us think so. It is not about the gods we worship or the traditions we have inherited…

‘I am an Indian when I translate the Isha Upanishad…I am an Indian when I whisper lines from Faiz to my wife. I’m an Indian when I quote Lorca on the lure of a faithless woman. I am an Indian in whatever I choose to be… that is the freedom being Indian gives me…it is this freedom we need to protect. The freedom to be an Indian the way each one of us wants to be…the only way we can learn to be an Indian is by learning to be free. Freedom is the flag under which we are all born and our utmost concern today should be to protect that freedom.

‘Yes , each of us is different. And it’s the difference that brings us together.’

I thought this was as good, if incomplete, notion of personal identity in a nation insisting on a moronic monolithic identity .It becomes relevant today because there’s an extremist ideology in India that is determined to be exclusive, religiously domineering and divisive. This may turn out to be the most profound challenge of Digital India or Made in India.


Largest democracy

India is the largest democracy—most of us know that and experience it in the arterially clogged streets of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai. Significantly Delhi hasn’t changed its name after a god, goddess or a legend. That is its great attraction—seven cities in the most palimpsest metropolis in the world.

Identity, individual or collective, is part of developing that process: fluid and ever in a flux. The 45th anniversary of Fijian independence is a good time to reflect on such quests and questions.A decolonized country, like a person, is at its most creative around this age.

The Fijian diaspora, ceaselessly informed and transformed by new places and peoples, landscapes and histories, ideas and ideals, adds many layers of relationships to our conception of a modern Fiji, whether one lives in the largest democracy or is part the largest ocean. We’re waves in the same sea, touched by the same sun, burnt and burnished.

One’s identity is forged by the kindness of friends; one’s freedom is often due to the courtesy and curiosity of strangers who become friends, even relatives.

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj


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