Being Indian, by Pavan K Varma

Inside the 21st century's next superpower
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The Independent Culture

"Real India is contained in its villages," Mahatma Gandhi once said. Activists opposed to India's reinvention as a market-friendly, urbanised, assertive and nuclear-armed nation often resurrect this Gandhian notion to question the country's current priorities. InBeing Indian, Pavan Varma, a diplomat who directs London's Nehru Centre (the cultural wing of the Indian High Commission), challenges this and other views of what Indian identity means. His India is complex, but certainly not inscrutable.

Clichés about India prevail: its people are spiritual and not materialistic; good at maths (and thus also at IT), thanks to an innate ability with numbers; uninterested in power. And, as Churchill said, India is a geographical expression, not a nation. Varma takes issue with each, dividing the book into four parts: power, wealth, technology and pan-Indianness. The picture of India that emerges is not necessarily flattering, but is more interesting.

For Varma, Indians may appear to shun power but they respect the powerful. Like Sonia Gandhi last year (who turned down the opportunity to become prime minister), Indians show their power by not using it. Indians believe violence is worthwhile only if victory is assured: hence the universal appeal of Gandhian non-violence.

For many Indians, Varma argues, spiritualism is meant to harness divine power for material prosperity. The pursuit of Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) is the Indian version of the pursuit of happiness. The country's software boom has as much to do with lucrative career moves as with innate talent. And greater travel and internal migration, along with cricket, Bollywood, satellite TV and radio, have unified this "geographical expression".

Varma has produced serious works on the Indian middle class, Hindu mythology and the poet Mirza Ghalib. He is not just concerned with the diplomatic imperative of projecting the country in a good light; he is as interested in the dialogue within India. He wants India to be understood properly - by foreigners and Indians - because he is convinced it will be a major power this century. Accepting that "India is too big and too diverse to allow for convenient cover-all labels", he uses sober language that does not gloss over glaring inequities.

He sees hope in the under-reported India: a place where there may be religious violence, as in Gujarat in 2002, but where Hindu merchants also finance Muslim weavers. In this Hindu-dominated society, the Indian president is a Muslim, the prime minister a Sikh, and the chair of the ruling coalition a woman born in Italy of Catholic parents.

In 194 pages, Varma cannot do justice to everything. He relies too heavily on columnists' comments. At times, anecdotes and statistics are piled on relentlessly, and some of them contradict points made elsewhere. As the book suggests, India is bigger than the sum of its parts. But the "big thing" that emerges is neither scary nor unstable.

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