Indian culture as any other is a malleable commodity, which makes it happily difficult to define as yours and mine. In essential ways, it is the opposite of what today’s rigid advocates of nationalism want to pass off as Indian or Pakistani, Muslim or Hindu cultures.
Muslim women don’t wear saris, ran the myth in Pakistan. We didn’t need Bangladesh to prove it wrong. What we, including Prime Minister Modi, claim to be Indian culture may more often than not have roots in a faraway land and its people, which holds true also for others.
Who doesn’t in India and Pakistan as elsewhere fuss over tea, how it should be brewed or boiled, if or how much milk should go into a cup, how much sugar, at what temperature, and, of course, which pedigree of leaf? It’s conveniently forgotten here that the habit is a recent colonial legacy brought to the subcontinent by the British from China but only after forcing the Chinese to buy and consume opium they took from India.
Tea, like gunpowder, is a Chinese innovation of patently Chinese origin. And since in Chinese culture using milk beyond infancy was alien, the original notion of tea was clearly bereft of it. (It was India, under a Li Peng-Narasimha Rao pact, that gave China its buffaloes in 1993 to usher a dairy culture years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.)
Industrial sugar too came to India from England and not before the Muslim and Hindu clergy issued countless edicts against its use since animal bones were involved in its production. Previously, people exchanged fruit, a tradition Ghalib rejoiced in, not sweets that came to be made by the halwais, an Arabic word.
Yet, we have recently witnessed the amazing phenomenon of a self-proclaimed chaiwala flaunting his vocation as a symbol of Indian nationhood. Mr Modi’s periodic monologue on the radio too is called ‘chai pe charcha’, which translates as a discussion or a debate, of which it is neither, over a cup of tea. Similarly, people and the Supreme Court intervene off and on to discourage the use of polluting firecrackers to celebrate Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya on Diwali.
What is missed in this grand advice is the fact that gunpowder came to India via China and was first used in a major conflict in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 by Mughal adventurer Babar against a defenceless sultan of Delhi.
The other day, friend and historian Sohail Hashmi sent me four episodes of short films — Hindostan ki Kahani (Story of India) — which he has made in a reasoned effort to disabuse Indians and others of their vague sense of national pride. What we take for granted as the core of India’s culture in food and clothes and architecture are put on display in an audio-visual framework with each element assigned a foreign shore. Cauliflower came to India from France and cabbage was a British import.
Commenting on the myth of mouth-burning ‘Mughlai cuisine’ laced with chillies, Hashmi says there was no such possibility during the Mughal period. That’s because chillies came to India from Latin America with the Portuguese.
Lalu Yadav had a slogan: ‘Jab tak samosa mein aaloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Lalu rahega’. (As long as there is potato in the samosa, Lalu will rule the hearts of Bihar.) Even the nationwide cultural icon called potato was ushered in as batata with the arrival of Europeans 400 years ago. As for the samosa, it travelled to India from Uzbekistan where it is called samsa. Before sugar, India had khandsari, powdered gur, which travelled to the Middle East as qand and transformed into candy in Europe.
The pyjama and kurta that Mr Modi wears, as well as the famous coat he flaunted during the Obama visit, are all foreign in origin. In architecture, the advent of pillar-less halls contributed greatly to the rise of democracy. Roman senators sat as equals inside the chamber though they played Caesar and other roles outside.
India’s parliament house was made with the same technological facility.
Hashmi says the minar was never an integral part of a mosque. To test that he asked his friends from the National School of Drama to climb onto a minaret in Delhi’s mediaeval Jama Masjid. They went hoarse with shouting but could not be heard by anyone on the mosque floor. The loudspeaker started a different ballgame in the realm of religion for as many sides as there are.
Prime Minister Modi has been visiting Kerala to get some mileage from the Sabarimala fracas, foisted on the southern state’s communist government by a controversial decision of the Supreme Court. It accords women equal rights to visit the temple located in a dense forest and which is popular with Hindu and Muslim men alike.
The communist government is projecting the decision as a progressive move that gives women equal rights as men. Modi insists women should respect tradition and not force their entry. However, Dalit leader Bhim Rao Ambedkar would have scoffed at both suggestions. When Gandhi asked him to join the temple entry movement for the erstwhile Untouchables, Ambedkar said excluding his people from the precincts of temples was the prerogative of upper caste Hindus and it showed them up for what they were. He was not going to cringe or petition for his community to enter a temple when the more important business at hand was to get them jobs and education.
In brief, Ambedkar couldn’t care less for Gandhi’s idea of allowing Dalits into temples from where they were barred by tradition, the legacy of pristinely ancient Indian culture.
As we relish Hashmi’s films on YouTube, his ideas are shored up by the undiscussed fact that Ambedkar and Gandhi though powerful nationalists in their owns ways were so completely culturally apart as Indians.