This is the most unflattering portrayal of a people ever written by one of its own image management specialists, and its author has been promoted for itby Cheryll Barron / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Being Indian by Pavan Varma (Heinemann, £17.99)
Pavan Varma announces at the start of Being Indian that his book is intended as a “new and dramatically different inquiry” into Indian identity. That is a claim he does not quite live up to. But his book is, for other reasons, vital reading for followers of south Asian geopolitics. It updates earlier warts-and-all portraits of subcontinental society—notably the Indian travelogues of VS Naipaul and several works by Nirad Chaudhuri. Unlike those two, Varma is neither a literary stylist nor in any sense an outsider. Chaudhuri wrote as a wind-up artist, infuriating his fellow countrymen by dedicating his first book to the British empire. Naipaul wrote as the descendant of Brahmins who migrated to Trinidad, and did not visit India until he was nearly 30.
Varma is a high-ranking member of the Indian foreign service who, along with Christopher Meyer, is a member of the anti-diplomat club. His book is possibly the most unflattering portrayal of a people by one of its own image management specialists—ever. And his frankness has done him no harm. In August he was promoted to the position of India’s loftiest cultural missionary, the director-general of the subcontinent’s equivalent of the British Council. That appointment is further evidence of the remarkable new self-confidence in an India that, even 15 years ago, was among the world’s prickliest nations.
Naipaul’s first and most incisive Indian study, An Area of Darkness (1964), was greeted with spitting outrage by even the most sophisticated Indians. Who, they fumed, but someone with a sick mind could have focused so relentlessly on filth, poverty and excretion? The thin-skinned Indian government did not ban his books. But for decades, foreign filmmakers, who have to submit scripts for approval, were routinely denied permission to shoot if their narratives even touched on Indian squalor or corruption. Varma shirks none of these subjects. With over a quarter of a century’s experience in the foreign service, he knows exactly what questions foreigners want answered about the country.
Those questions are more baffling than ever. Why are Indians so indifferent to the sufferings of their weak and poor in spite of their vaunted spirituality? Why are bribery and corruption endemic and largely unresisted? Why was the land whose freedom was won by Gandhi left “awed, but unconverted” by his ideals? Being Indian ties some of its answers into a blunt, pragmatic…