Ask Sudhir Kakar how he feels about having been named “one of the 25 major thinkers of the world” by French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur and the psychoanalyst-writer waves his hands in a self-deprecating gesture, looks mildly embarrassed. “Oh well,” he says when pressed further, “it was nice to be one of two Indians on the list.”
This is an apposite reaction, given that one of the aspects of “Indian-ness” Kakar examines in his new book The Indians: Portrait of a People is the subsuming of individual identity to group interests. “A Westerner,” he says, “is more likely to say ‘I want to achieve this’ – whereas in India individual achievement gets tied up with family pride or, at a wider level, with community.”
A casual glance at The Indians, co-written with his wife Katarina Kakar, might suggest a collection of generalisations about a country that’s too vast to be defined in easy terms. But the painting of all Indians with one brush-stroke is not the book's intention. What Kakar is trying to do here – and he shows his hand in a lucid Introduction – is provide “a necessary and legitimate short cut to a more complex reality”. His thesis is that without the big picture – whatever its flaws of inexactness – the smaller, local pictures, however accurate, will be myopic, “a mystifying jumble of trees without the pattern of the forest”.
So what are the vital characteristics of Indian-ness, as he defines it? "A key aspect,” he says, “is how connected we are to each other as a people. Compared to Westerners, Indians are generally more ready to embrace the pain that accompanies too much closeness - one reason why the family structure is still very strong compared to many other cultures.”
But surely individualism is on the rise, I ask. “Yes, and it started in the 1960s and 1970s – in fact I would argue it was more pronounced in India back then – but either way it’s a restricted sort of individualism: the sort that is practiced in negotiation with the family structure, rather than by rebelling against it.”
Another important quality is that this is a profoundly hierarchical society. “Indians are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the largest democracy,” he writes at one point. “What I mean by this,” he explains, “is that one Indian typically looks at another through a variety of filters – including gender, caste, religion, class – all aimed at answering the question, ‘Is this person superior or inferior to me?’ The difference in status between a chief executive and an office peon is the highest in our country.”
And yet, there is also what he calls a “connected hierarchy, based on a humane orientation” – which means that our leaders tend to be authoritative but not autocratic, and usually benevolent. “Once a leader has been accepted, he is looked upon as a father figure and his subordinates tend to be very loyal to him. We have this culture of people willing to work regularly even on weekends. The flip-side is that this can result in sycophancy and a lack of critical feedback.”
The Indians is a very cerebral analysis of a very emotional people; one often gets a sense of the authors taking a microscope to the Indian character the way scientists in a laboratory might do with a culture sample, and this can be discomfiting. But the approach follows naturally from Kakar’s profession, and its advantage is that his book never adopts a sanctimonious tone. The idea isn’t to pass judgement but to understand the long and complex process of societal and genetic conditioning that makes one people different from another.
Aren’t some of the qualities he mentions – especially the ones relating to family closeness – getting diluted in the urban parts of the country? “Yes, that process is underway,” he says. “But also, very often, what we have is the illusion of modernity. Centuries of conditioning and generational ‘wisdom’ still underlie most of our attitudes.” He points out, for instance, that the average college girl in Delhi, even one who dresses in jeans or skirts, will hesitate to break into loud laughter at the antics of a boy who’s trying to attract her attention. At some level, despite the surface liberalness, she is still aware of traditional folk-wisdom pertaining to male-female interactions, which she has absorbed from her community – in this case, the saying, “jo hansi, woh phansi” (“if a girl laughs, she is already in the net”). It's something most of us who have grown up in India can relate to; we've all had epiphanic moments which reveal that we're not quite free of tradition's shackles.
Even the idea of the ever-increasing generation gap, Kakar says, is part of a canon of Western psychology that we – especially those of us who have grown up reading English – too easily accept. “But in India, even in the less conservative families, the generational bond tends to be stronger than the generational conflict.”
Kakar admits to speaking of Indian-ness in terms of a pre-eminently Hindu civilisation that has contributed the major share to what he calls the “cultural gene pool” of India’s peoples. What about the contribution of other cultures like the Mughals and the British? “There have been many positive and negative contributions,” he says, “but they have been gradually assimilated over centuries – it isn’t a clear-cut process. Thinking of examples offhand, I believe the Indian character has benefited greatly from the Brotherhood Ideal that is prevalent in Islam."
This brings us to a nuanced chapter on Hindu-Muslim conflict, where Kakar says we will have to give up Gandhi’s dream of “lasting heart unity” between the two communities. “The differences won't go away,” he says, “and even if it were possible, there will always be someone ready to exploit communal tensions.” What then is his best-case scenario for the future? “An achievable ideal is increased tolerance for the Other, even if one disagrees with their beliefs and lifestyles. We might have to content ourselves with the creation of a common public realm while regarding the other community with benign indifference in private.”
[Did this for Business Standard]