One of the hardest things for people in the non-West to come to terms with is the fact that a substantial part of their life and work will, inevitably, be second hand. There is, after all, a price to be paid for playing catch-up, for backwardness, and that price is imitation. Given the fact that modern science and technology, the templates of modern politics and the great academic disciplines were all given their present form in the West, to refuse to learn from the West in the name of originality or nativism would be perverse.
And by and large, India and Indians have not been perverse. Whether it’s democracy or nationalism or cinema or cricket, we have embraced the good things of the West and put them to work for us.
We took Westminster democracy as our model and set up a parliamentary system for ourselves after independence. We had the sense to use a system that worked without bothering our heads with silly ideas about creating something that embodied an unspecified Indian genius. But we married parliamentary democracy to an American-style constitutionalism, complete with a Supreme Court and a pseudo-federal structure that we thought addressed India’s diversity and yet guaranteed its integrity.
Before that, from the late 19th century onwards, Indian nationalists were fired by the example of Mazzini and Garibaldi and the great movements of Italian and German unification, but under the leadership of the Congress they didn’t make the mistake of aping their ideas. Congress nationalism is unimaginable without Western ideas and Western histories, but it’s historically interesting because it rejected the homogenizing premises of European nationalisms and replaced them with a celebration of diversity.
Similarly, Indians took the English language that Macaulay hoped would help create a class of docile compradores and used it in many ways: as a form of self-strengthening, as a means of social mobility, as a weapon to keep the lower orders in their place, as our window into the intellectual culture of the Anglosphere and, finally, as a way of stepping around the divisive question of a national language in independent India.
Perhaps India’s most interesting encounter with Western modernity was its affair with cinema. Unlike democracy or nationalism or English or cricket, cinema came with no cultural baggage because Indians got hold of the technology at around the same time as Frenchmen and Americans did: the last few years of the 19th century. There were no histories, no genres, no precedents to defer to. As a result, the movies that Indians made through the entire silent period, and even after, were wildly different in their nature and conventions from the films made in the West.
By and large, the ability of film to literally represent the world encouraged a naturalist cinema in the West. In India, in stark contrast, film’s ability to make the magical seem real encouraged the making of mythological epics, a genre that completely dominated Indian cinema for its first two decades, roughly the period of the silent film. This is not surprising. For a largely illiterate, hugely diverse audience, the silent mythological had the advantage of telling stories that most people knew. It offered film-makers a pan-Indian audience. And then with sound came India’s unique take on cinema: the ‘musical’ as the default genre of the feature film, not, as in the West, as the occasional novelty.
Cricket, Indians swallowed entire: its rules, its complications, its lore, even an unwarranted but unshakeable reverence for the superiority of English umpires. But even here, we found ways of domesticating the game. The wristiness of subcontinental players isn’t just an orientalist stereotype; there’s the leg-glance invented by Ranji and, more recently, Pakistani players have pioneered ‘reverse swing’ and the ‘doosra’.
The point of these examples is to draw a contrast between being receptive to the extraordinary inventiveness and dynamism of the modern West on the one hand and being dogmatically derivative. Slavishness in any form is depressing and, in contemporary India, you will find it everywhere.
You find it, for example, in the bullet-proof conviction that laissez-faire will, metaphorically, lift all our boats.
You find it in the equally ideological prescription that contemporary Indian fiction in English (being in its infancy) needs to rehearse the work of 19th-century French writers like Balzac and Flaubert, complete with their genres and themes (realism, the provincial’s progress, and so on) because that’s the way the novel was done Over There.
You find it in the cargo cult that developed around Greg Chappell’s tenure as coach, powered by the belief that this Truly Great Anglo- Bwana was going to remake Indian cricket in Australia’s image by replacing Oriental anarchy with Anglo process. Watching Chappell’s champions react to the absolute failure of his ‘process’ is instructive: they behave exactly like the neo-conservative intellectuals who backed the invasion of Iraq. Like the Iraqis, the Indian players didn’t understand what was good for them, like the Iraqis they were unwilling to take responsibility for their performance. Like Iraq, where once the project of the invasion began to fail, the reason mooted for the failure wasn’t the doctrine of intervention (which remained unsullied and virtuous) but the essential broken-ness of Iraq, India’s cricketing failure was ascribed to the long-standing dysfunctionality of its first-class cricket, not Chappell’s dismal skills as a coach. And the solution: a first class tournament contested by six or seven teams because that’s the way Australia did it. That they were trying to fit Indian cricket, which served a country of a billion people, into Cricket Australia’s mould, which catered to a country of thirty million, didn’t seem a problem to the coach’s chorus, so mesmerized were they by this amazing opportunity to be nearly Modern/Anglo/White.
You see the same simple-minded dedication to squeezing India into a uniform made for smaller, less-diverse countries in the BJP’s determination to boil Indian nationalism down to a Hindu essence. The irony about the BJP’s ideology is that a world view that ostensibly owes so much to the ancient Hindu past is crudely derived from authoritarian European nationalisms.
But it is unfair to single out the Hindu right when the communist left is derivative to the point of a farce. India’s communist parties seem determined to retrace every dead-end first explored by their defunct European counterparts. It is an iron law of the Indian Left that the lines its characters speak were written for English accents fifty years ago. Even India’s fellow travellers read from an ancient English script. Thus the Left-leaning intellectuals and artists, so recently appalled by the violence of Nandigram, utter mea culpas borrowed verbatim from Edward Thompson’s class of 1956. Half a century after the event, the intellectuals who prospered in the CPI(M)’s shade are having their Hungarian moment. At this rate of latency, these recruits to the Recently Disllusioned should enter their CND phase in a couple of years: the first Aldermaston march happened in 1958.