Celebrating Diversity is Unity


However even while this angst for the new Indian identity continues in some quarters, everything else is going in the reversing direction. Television is getting more and more determinedly regional, as are the movies. In fact a look at all the serials and soaps on TV show that having distinctive sub communities in which the story is set works - some watch it because they identify with it and others like me because we are curious about how they live. Mata ki Chowki has a cast of a different kind of Indians than Baa Bahu Aur Baby.

And it isn't about religion either. Obama said that his was a country of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Moslems and non believers. Ours is an infinitely more complex fabric - the Tamilian Muslims and Tamilian Hindus have more in common than the Tamil Muslim and the Bihari Muslim. And it isn't about community of origin alone. The Delhi Tamilian who is referred to as the "malai (sic) mandir" lot are different from the Chembur Tamilians and also different from the Tamilains in TN.

There is a growing regionalism in brands and in certain core categories, there is no explanation for why local brands are so hard to dislodge. The rise of organized retail plays up these preferences far more easily and sharply, and gets rewarded for it. Kolam rice goes with Sambhar, Basmati doesn't. Even the simple packaged Curd has to have different variants for it to click in different parts of the country. Packaged food brands who try pan Indian or Punjabi-isation of cuisine into one Dal makhani and one Rumali roti realize that this isn't the road to success.

Take a look at weddings across culture clusters or communities. If there are four states represented in a wedding, there is no pan Indian ritual emerging. There is a khichdi of four different kinds of ceremonies. Even Arya samaj weddings follow the local customs. And matrimonial ads, even now, have clear community specs.

Our regional accents won't drop easily, even with global education. A journalist friend of mine tells a story which ends with a bewildered American saying "gee, you folks speak many different dialects of English". So the story goes of the lady whose son's Hindi tutor told him that "mooli was carrot". Isn't it radish? She asked. Yes, he agreed, sometimes it is radish and sometimes whitish. And the other old joke of the Indian who went abroad and asked for 'shaarts'. The shop lady asked if he was Punjabi or Bengali so that she could accordingly show him shirts or shorts!

Indians are a many splendoured lot, like the peacock's feather; the idea of India that we all know and believe exists, and would like to celebrate, is actually the crucible called India, that holds all of us. It is an amazing crucible, because it provides space for every one of us to be ourselves and yet provides enough 'rub shoulders' proximity for us to get to know each other and borrow from each other. The crucible holds so many communities, culture clusters, ethnicities etc., each with its own myriad idiosyncrasies including ways of draping the saree! it is so mind boggling, and like no where else in the world.

The aggressive regionalization of our politics says it all. All other things being equal match the candidate to the culture / community cluster that the electorate has. As we evolve as a democracy, there is no increase in "Indian" candidates that are fungible across parts of the country. You have to be "people like us".

Is this all reason to despair? A sign of our backwardness?, On the contrary. The only way unity can be had - and harmony - is for us to revel in and celebrate our myriad different identities, and not try and force an amalgam. The theme is validation, not invalidation of each. Suppression of identity doesn't work for us. The UPite in Maharashtra is like the NRI. He embraces local culture on some counts, does not on others; bonds strongly with other UP expats - and what's wrong with that? Where an Indian to live in one European country, he may get by with English, but in another he would be forced to learn the local language in order to get by. So it is with Mumbai versus a village near Satara.

Celebrating differences and diversity will create a vibrant domestic tourist market - going from kumbakonam to Kashmir is like visiting a foreign country; and just as the Dosa and the Paratha has traveled north and south respectively, there's lots more that can travel - therein lies the key to the packaged food market. It isn't about convenience it is about discovery. It also is about a taste of home for the poor young man who works in strange Mangalore with an IT company, having trekked all the way there form Orissa or Bengal.

And celebrating our zillion communities and culture clusters will lead to less territorial conflict and hopefully lessen intolerance. Because he is as much of an Indian as I am, though we are totally different from each other - and guess what? Its ok.

When gen next decides to marry across culture clusters, it will be a new amalgam of this as well as that, rather than a whole new "pan India", culturally sterile, modern Indian archetype. Devdutt Patnaik, cultural analyst and mythologist says that as long as he spent his time looking for the similarities between different Gods in the mythological pantheon, he didn't learn very much. But when he started looking at differences and marveling at them, whole new understanding emerged. That makes sense. And maybe that's the approach for us to adopt as we mark yet another Republic Day. Think of the different floats that pass us by on the parade - and which we look at with curiosity and never for a moment even doubt if they are really Indian or not!

Rama Bijapurkar (www.bijapurkar.com)
1220 Maker Chamber 5, Nariman Point,
Mumbai - 400021 (91-22-22823833 / 22811957)

Rama's new book:
"We are like that only - Understanding the Logic of Consumer India" (Penguin, Indian edition, available only in India) International Edition titled "Winning in the Indian Market - Understanding the Transformation of Consumer India" (John Wiley & Sons, for sale outside India, and on Amazon.com)