10 Things That Make Me Proud To Be Indian, 10 That Make Me Sad
India, my wise friend wrote the other day, is a land of contrasts and contradictions. It is a land of peace and war, of love and hate and many other emotions. You can spend a lifetime and be none the wiser in trying to understand India’s vast complexities. This subject can therefore easily make a book. I will try and compress it into a few pages.
Love us or hate us, like us or leave us, the one thing anyone can ill-afford to do, is ignore us. Not when one in every six human beings is an Indian. Here are the ten things that make me proud to be Indian and ten that make me sad.
1. Living in a democratic country, chaotic though it may be
714 million Indians have just completed the process of electing a new government. That is the about same as if the entire populations of the US, Russia, Japan, Germany and the UK were to decide to go to the polls together. This will give some perspective to those readers who have never been to India and know little about this country.
It is a matter of great pride that no matter how chaotic this country, as Indians, we are free to kick our leaders out (or re-elect them) every five years, unlike authoritarian regimes which may show quicker progress but at much greater human cost. For me, the free tortoise wins over the dictatorial hare anytime and always.
Women at an election meeting
Connected to this is the fact that the other legs of a democracy – the judiciary, the media and the executive are relatively free and healthy. I use the word “relatively” seriously as there is no such thing as absolute freedom, even in the torchbearer of democracy, the US.
I think it is great to be part of the world’s largest democracy.
India has also survived a brief flirtation with dictatorship in the 1970’s when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. Mercifully, I might add.
2. An emerging global economic, scientific and technological superpower
It is evident to only a few just now. But make no mistake, India is headed towards superpower status. And it could happen sooner than most think. I would wager another 50 years at the most. It is already the fourth largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP takes into account the standard of living and the cost of living of different countries and is considered more relevant than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is just the sum of all goods and services produced in an economy.
India has a strong and growing middle class which is put variously at between 200 and 300 million. It also has a young population (median age 25 years) with needs to fill. Both factors point to good things to come. One must also keep in mind that the “middle class” as defined in India is qualitatively different from the “middle class” of the prosperous West.
In terms of scientific and technological achievement, India has contributed vastly to the growth of the Information Technology industry worldwide. From data processing, the Indian IT sector is moving up the value chain to software development and beyond. The distance between Silicon Valley and Bangalore is reducing.
India has one of the world’s largest pools of trained scientific manpower. It is also a significant player in the Pharmaceutical industry worldwide and ahead of many developed nations in space and missile technology. India is only the fifth nation behind Russia, the USA, Japan and China to launch a lunar mission.
3 A Diverse Environment
We are blessed with the best Nature has to offer. Mountains, beaches, deserts, forests, rivers, wildlife and birdlife, to name a few. You have to drive on the highest road in the world to realize the natural beauty and heart-in-your-mouth excitement that is on offer as you cross three mountain passes over 17,000 feet high. Or the joy of lazing in a houseboat in Srinagar or the backwaters of Kerala, while the aroma of fresh fried fish wafts over you and the beer sits nicely around your belly.
4. A culturally vibrant, diverse and hospitable people
To begin to understand India, one must understand its diversity. There are 22 official languages and over 1600 dialects spoken. Nearly 650 different recognised tribes reside across the country. Keeping this cultural diversity alive is part of the challenge ahead, especially given the ever-increasing lure of westernisation.
Travel around India and you will realize that language, dress, food, facial features – virtually everything, is excitingly different between regions. Most visitors to India would also agree that the people are hospitable and open their homes and hearts to foreigners quickly. Another great plus in my book.
Chicken Tikka Masala
5. Indian Cuisine
Ironically, most foreigners identify Indian cuisine with “curry”. Nothing could be more erroneous. With its original Aryan and Dravidian cultures, churned by the influence of visitors and invaders from Central Asia and Europe, food habits and cuisines have evolved over the centuries in India.
The end result is a variety of cuisines – some region-specific, others influenced by the availability of certain ingredients; and yet others evolving from religion-dictated Do’s and Don’ts. If you throw into the mix the exotic spices native to this land you get, arguably, the best food available in the world – tasty, inexpensive and (mostly!) healthy.
Tandoori meats and vegetables, Kashmiri wazwaan, Hyderabadi biryani, the delicate flavors of the Hilsa fish revered in Bengal, or the melt-in-your-mouth fish moilee (a favourite with natives of Kerala and the Konkan coast). All of these and more make for a Gourmand’s feast.
Food for the palate and the soul!!
And surely one must not forget that the British consider Chicken Tikka Masala to be their national dish!
6. The Indian Armed Forces
Among the finest institutions this country has produced are the Indian Armed Forces. When tinpot generals have anointed themselves as Presidents for life in various parts of the world, we can be proud of our Defence forces.
It is the world’s third largest standing army comprising over 1.1 million men in uniform. This institution is totally apolitical and professional in its approach. Its values are largely intact, though how long it can remain isolated from societal values in general, remains an open question. It is also a symbol of the secular nature of the country as people from all over come together to make this organization.
7. The Indian family unit still survives
Despite the many pressures of globalization and westernization, the Indian family unit still survives, especially in the rural areas. In the cities, families have become more nuclear with the younger ones moving out in search of a better life. It is not unusual for unmarried, earning young adults to stay with the parents. Conversely, parents are usually expected to stay with their children during their twilight years. Single parenting is still uncommon.
8. The intense desire for education
Everyone but everyone in India wants their progeny to have as good an education as they can afford. So whether it is a humble daily wage earner whose son is in a municipal school or a scion of the country’s rich and famous being educated at Harvard, the desire to provide the best education burns brightly. The fact that the value of education is recognised augurs well for India.
I am proud also of the education provided by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Managements (IIMs) which can boast of standards equal to the best in the world at far less cost. Products of these institutions now head global organizations and play a major role in organizations like NASA. Indians are familiar as doctors and scientists in many developed countries.
9. The ability to accept one’s reality
The Indian reality is one of stark contrasts. Mercedes cars jostle for space alongside rickshaws. World-class homes nestle cheek-by-jowl with shanty towns. And yet it seems unlikely that India will ever experience a bloody revolution as seen elsewhere in the world.
There is something in the Indian ethos that makes a person accept his lot. He finds it easy to come to terms with reality even while he dreams of a better life for himself and his children. In a way it implies a helplessness to change our fate - very different to Western thought.
10. The Indian woman
She is the loving wife,and doting mother, the well-groomed, highly articulate super-juggler, balancing her home and professional life.
What makes me proud of the Indian woman is her great dignity, and her commitment to the institution of marriage and family.
Her natural grace, softness, body structure and skin tone make her an epitome of beauty.
Madhubala - my choice for the most beautiful woman in history
Ten Things That Make Me Sad
1. An indisciplined nation
I am convinced that Indians are indisciplined by nature. There is something about the Indian psyche that dislikes authority. Our responses are therefore often like those of a rebellious child. Even when it is something in our own interest. Take the case of using helmets while driving two-wheelers or seat belts while driving cars. The huge resistance to both these life-saving measures is unbelievable.
Take our road traffic. Anyone who has seen or driven on our roads knows what little respect people have for road rules. As some wise man wrote. India must be the only country in the world where the use of a red light at a traffic signal is optional! Unlike other countries, the horn is used as a means of informing other traffic of our presence on the road. This is substantiated by the signs behind many trucks which say “Horn Please” – in other words, tell me you are behind me so I can make way for you to overtake. But then again, was the horn invented for use or was it meant to be for show?
2. An increasingly intolerant nation and a people with little concern for the “other”
It shows in so many ways. From the big issues like the growth of fundamentalism (more on that later) to the little, little ways in which we show our lack of concern for people who are not like “us”. It is “they” who are responsible for every ill-fortune that befalls “us”.
The concept of an “India” still has to take firm root. We are Indians second. First come religious, caste or regional considerations.
Small examples make big points.
Notice how two Indians will invariably choose the middle of a corridor to stand and talk, thereby blocking the path for others. When boarding a bus to reach an aircraft, you will invariably find an educated, well-dressed person plonking himself right in the centre of the passageway, a big bag resting on the floor, ensuring that no other passenger can reach the vacant space inside. Reason? Just that he wants to be the first off the bus. Likewise when deplaning, passengers are up and away even before the aircraft has come to a halt. It does’nt matter that you will still end up waiting at the baggage queue.
3. Care for the environment and awareness of climate change issues
We care little for the environment. Invariably developmental issues take precedence. Recently there was a case of thirty Neem trees being cut in a mofussil town to make space for a shopping mall. These trees have nests of the endangered vulture. Was it necessary to choose that particular location?
The air we breathe especially in our cities is highly polluted. It took a wise person to make me aware that while we can stay away from polluted waters or dirty streets, we have little choice but to breathe the air around us.
Our rivers carry all manner of industrial waste and filth. If, as someone wrote, the health of a nation is known by the state of its rivers, we must be terribly ill.
Climate change is not something that is discussed on the cocktail circuit. Most people are more knowledgeable about the game of cricket.
4. The issue of corruption
Time was when the corrupt did not dare look anyone in the eye. Now it is the honest who avert their eyes in the glare of the wealth exuded by the corrupt. Indians probably have the largest deposits in Swiss banks. Ill-begotten, under-utilised. Very little in the government machinery moves without money changing hands.
This has given rise to a booming “black money economy” which in itself could be as large as the official economy. Mercifully so far at least, corruption is confined largely to anything connected to government largesse - purchases, issues of permits and licenses and so forth. The trends however are encouraging as red-tapism is being cut.
It would not surprise me at all if someone were to do research and discover that the richest man in the world resides in India. The fact is that person would be unable to openly declare his ill-begotten wealth.
5. The eradication of poverty
Although some progress has taken place, much still remains to done to improve the lot of the less privileged. We still have millions who live miserable lives, who don’t even have access to clean drinking water or electricity or a roof over their heads or any of the benefits technology has brought.
Part of the reason could lie in the fact that it requires someone who has seen poverty first hand to empathise with the poor. Our leaders and decision-makers seldom qualify on this score. And those that do, grow rich so quickly, their past is soon forgotten. There is always a struggle for resource utilisation – whether a road in the city should be developed first or a water pipeline in a village.
6. The declining importance of educators
This point may seem at odds with the earlier one on education. But there is a fundamental difference between the two. One of the major drivers of economic prosperity has been the high quality of education imparted both at school and college level in the early years after independence.
It is sad that today neither the teachers nor the taught are given the importance they deserve by society. Teachers and professors in government-run institutions are poorly paid and not motivated. This needs to be reversed and teachers accorded their rightful importance in society.
7. Health of the people and value of human life
Perhaps it has something to do with the population. But if one were to believe the grapevine, human life in India can be worth as little as Rs 5000/- ($ 100). This is what you would have to pay for a “supari” – a contract to kill and snuff out the life of an ordinary citizen. I am sure the price goes up with the value of the target. So really, life in India is not worth much. Death is accepted as a part of life.
Access to quality health care is very poor in rural areas and pathetic in government-run hospitals. Big bucks will of course buy you world-class medical treatment. This is available only to a painfully few.
Sculpture at Khajuraho Temples
8. We are hypocritical
Sadly, we are a two-faced people. We rarely follow the values we profess. We preach one thing and practice the opposite. Starting with our political leaders. There are cases where a leader will condemn the use of the English language and yet send his children to the best English language schools in the country.
We curse the West for corrupting our culture and yet would do anything to be able to immigrate to the US by hook or by crook. We are known to beat up girls found in pubs on the grounds of immorality but how moral are we in reality?
We object if the subject of sex education in schools and colleges is discussed. We forget that some of the oldest and most erotic sculptures in the world are in India at the Khajuraho Temples, dating back to 950 to 1050 AD. The Kamasutra, the ancient Indian treatise on human sexual behavior was written sometime around the 2nd Century CE.
With that kind of a past, we should be teaching the world about sex and not appear like giggling schoolchildren whenever this topic comes up.
9. The growth and growth of religious fundamentalism
India is perpetually flirting with religious fundamentalism while other nations in our neighbourhood are busy embracing it. What frightens me is the number of “people like us” who think nothing of supporting fundamentalism. My neighbor, my colleagues, my relatives. All good, honest folk, misguided by the age-old fascist line of creating fear and hatred for the “other”. I hope and pray we are not going the way some countries went fascist before World War II. It will be a long, long time before we find our way back.
10. The growth and growth of the population
There are just too many of us. Plain and simple. But what can we do? We can’t dump our own people into the Indian Ocean. We can’t send a few hundred million to Australia. It may just be a sensible thing to do when you consider that Australia has an area more than twice India’s and only one-fiftieth the population. I mentioned this in jest to an Australian woman I met at a party recently. The look on her face was something – I think she was so horrified at the thought of so many Indians rushing around in Australia that she just couldn't see I was joking.
Contrary to the thinking some years ago, a huge population is now seen as a major plus. The reason? Simply that markets in the West are saturated so who is going to buy the cars and TVs and mobile phones? Them Indians of course. Not to mention the Chinese.
The result of this is no one in India dares even talk about population control, leave alone doing anything about it. Have European nations, with their low population growth or declining populations missed a trick? I suspect not.
11. The unbridled ride to consumerism
Globalisation is fine with me, provided it is tempered. Not everything about the West is great. Consumer overkill and being a wasteful society is hardly the way to go. Yes, there is a case to encourage competition and give consumers increased choice, but we must ensure balance. An extra shopping mall cannot be at the cost of other priorities. But lobbies are strong and the powerful are easily corrupted.
Look at the number of shopping malls that have sprung up in the cities like mushrooms after the rains. Surely there is no need for so many. Could these resources have been used more effectively?
Well, that makes 11. Just shows that the scales are tilted just a bit on the wrong side. To be honest, it took less time to think of the ten things which need improvement than the ones to be proud of. But when I think of it, a generation ago, it was probably worse although people talk about the good old days.
I cannot forget a German Director of our company on his farewell visit to India saying “50 years from now, remember to be nice to us”. I can't wait to see whether he was right.
Check Out Shashi Tharoor on TED TV for an Articulate View on India
- Shashi Tharoor: Why nations should pursue "soft" power | Video on TED.com
TED Talks India is fast becoming a superpower, says Shashi Tharoor -- not just through trade and politics, but through "soft" power, its ability to share its culture with the world through food, music, technology, Bollywood. He argues that in the lon