Where the mirrors do not open out windows

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  • Published 20.04.07

The Indians: Portrait of a People By Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar Penguin, Rs 395

Sudhir Kakar has been, for a while, one of the most definitive voices in all matters Indian. His seminal studies on Indian sexuality were preceded by an insight into childhood and society in India. They were succeeded, among other works, by an investigation into communal violence in India. Together with Katharina Kakar’s foray into Indian womanhood, the two authors have with them a composite body of knowledge, contemporary and updated, of India, its ‘ways’ and its ‘mind’. Little wonder, then, that they keep repeating themselves, and referring back to themselves in their footnotes. Perhaps the retelling of the story of grand Indianness, like the great Indian epics, is supposed to establish its veracity, and provide it with simultaneity and continuity.

However, the Indianness that the Kakars try to set forth is discomfiting. They are themselves conscious of the possibility of arousing the “reflexive hostility” of those who profess the post-modernist credo. Yet they cannot resist speculating on the big picture without which, they say, the wood would be missed for the trees. But the mirror that they hold up to the Indian self allows for the reflection only of a particular image. There are no windows into the complex, concentric patterns that constitute Indian identities. The Kakars reveal the pan-Sanskritic culture of the Hindus, with which the upper and middle castes would identify. The “rest” — and that leaves out swathes of Indian society and culture (“dalits and tribals, or the Christians and Muslims”) — are expected to “spot only fleeting resemblances”.

The incompleteness of the picture does not bother the Kakars. In fact, in delineating the religious and spiritual life of the nation, they exclusively, and unabashedly, concern themselves only with the faith of the majority. This is because the alternative traditions (called “rituals” here) of bhakti, yoga, ascetism, tantrism and so on are practised simultaneously. The Kakars are convinced that religious post-modernism has been achieved in India. It is only in the context of the Hindus’ conflict with their Other that Muslims are discussed.

Even in this, Muslims turn out to be a homogeneous community through the ages, while the authors discover three different strands in the Hindu perception of change. There are the Hindu nationalists, typified by the VHP and the RSS, with their apprehensions about globalization, their undying faith in Hinduism’s universality, and their grudging tolerance of other faiths (which is supposed to save the day for India despite deteriorating communal relations). There are the Hindu traditionalists, with their rigid belief in the supremacy of their religion. And then there are the flexible Hindus, with their malleable political affiliations, susceptibility to Western mores and shifting loyalties to new-age gurus. Quite certainly, these describe the traits of middle-class India. But are they necessarily Hindu?

In tracing the cultural part of the Indian mind (a part that remains a fixed constant despite the march of history, one that Indians inherit but cannot discard of their own will) the authors discuss various interfaces between the individual and the society. The two things that determine individual action in Indian society are family and caste. It is not personal goals which drive Indians, but their loyalty towards their families (which are more joint than nuclear, the Kakars believe) and their caste fraternity.

The structured hierarchy within caste groups and, more importantly, within families, apparently determine the organization of institutions, businesses and politics in India. The breaking down of this hierarchy, particularly within the family between father and son, is expected to professionalize Indians. The gung-ho “familyism” in Indian politics — especially among its younger breed, who do not appear to have experienced any great distances with their fathers — does not encourage such hopes. The “context-sensitive” conception of rights and wrongs, of the ideals of honesty, equity and justice that Indians are supposed to hold, gives licence to opportunism of the worst kind, posing insurmountable problems in the working of India as an imagined political community that governs and is governed.

The Kakars’ analysis of Indian womanhood and sexuality are a rehash of most of what has been said before, be it on the Kamasutra’s liberating atmospherics or the victimhood of girls growing up in an unequal society. The use of illustrative texts in their interpretations is less liberal than in Sudhir Kakar’s previous work on sexuality. But the anecdotes, when they do appear (like Siddheswari Devi’s encounter with the West’s toilet habits) offer welcome breaks in the sweeping generalizations that the Kakars force upon the reader.