India’s Search for Pride

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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In the pursuit of national prestige, India does things far more absurd than hosting the Commonwealth Games.

The villas of the Half Moon resort in Jamaica stand facing the Caribbean Sea, their walls blinding white and tiled roofs the colour of ash. Seven years ago, one of the villas was taken over by several Indians who had arrived to convince people in other villas that New Delhi should be granted the right to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and not the Canadian town of Hamilton. It soon bore the look of a little India with pretty women in costumes they usually don’t wear, and there was classical music in the air that most Indians do not listen to, though there were Hindi film songs too, and in the nights the Indians laid out on the beach foods that they usually don’t cook at home. In another villa, the Canadians did not know what they must do to attract equal attention, what costumes their women must wear, what music they must play. And what was Canadian food, by the way? All they could say was that they were a developed nation with good airports, roads and stadiums. They did show photographs of the Niagara Falls, though. 

In the conference rooms, Indians showed slides of their Photoshopped modernity—malls with smartly dressed women holding bags made out of recyclable paper, and grey flyovers, and straight black roads that had white lines in the middle. They argued that India was a resurgent, unstoppable economic force. In the end they bribed all the Commonwealth nations with $100,000 each. India won the bid. The nation was not ecstatic but there was rejoicing. Even the endearingly unflappable The Hindu newspaper (which once covered the annual hysteria of the Union Budget with the headline, ‘FM Presents Budget’), carried a jubilant agency report from Montego Bay, Jamaica: ‘India’s growing sporting clout was in full flow here as New Delhi won the right to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games.’ 

The Delhi Games assumed its own motto, ‘Come Out And Play’, which is a perplexing choice because isn’t that the whole point of athletes travelling thousands of miles with their heavy bags? But there was a time between August and September when it appeared that the motto was a prescient begging—please do not ditch us. In those two months, the Commonwealth Games received more media attention than ever in its history. Even American papers wrote about the disaster that was unfolding. Sports officials were accused of embezzling crores, the venues were not ready, the debris outside the stadiums was yet to be removed, the chief executive of the Games federation, Mike Hooper, said the Games Village was filthy and unfit for humans. An Indian official expressed surprise. He said, correctly, that Indians and White people had different hygiene standards. Hooper insisted that hygiene “has no nationality”. Meanwhile, dengue fever was spreading in Delhi (it still is). There were stray dogs in the Village and animal stains on the mattresses. Britain had to send its own staff to clean the toilets. Also, a foot bridge that led to the main venue collapsed. The ceiling of the weightlifting stadium gave way. 

India spent between two and seven billion dollars on the Games, depending on which report one believes. It was money spent largely on national pride. But in return, the Indian response to hosting the Commonwealth Games showed a bumbling republic. It exposed a country that was at its heart inefficient, callous and corrupt. No other country has spent so much money to expose its true character to the world.

In the Half Moon resort, there were Indian sports officials whose interest in the Games was not honourable. But most of the people who were part of the delegation were honest men and women who were there in the national interest. They really wanted their country to host the Commonwealth Games, even if it was a second-rate sporting brand. They imagined that the Games would raise huge stadiums and road systems. Not surprisingly, one of the delegates was Sunil Gavaskar, a patriot. A year before he went to Half Moon to sell India as a modern superpower, he was in London for the Wisden Cricket Awards. A young Indian journalist, having been wrongly briefed about the dress code of the sophisticated Long Room at the Lord’s cricket ground, arrived in a room full of tuxedoes wearing a silver matrimonial sherwani that probably emitted its own light. Even the English gawked, some looked at the floor and laughed, his own acquaintances ensured that they were not seen with him. Mike Gatting said “interesting”. But redemption came next morning at the hotel buffet, when Sunil Gavaskar walked up to the young insignificant journalist and said, “I liked what you were wearing last evening.” The journalist said that it was a huge mistake. Gavaskar scolded him. “You wore an Indian dress. You should be proud. I was proud.”

Gavaskar is a bit extreme. (An email asking him if he regrets being part of the team that brought the Games to India went unanswered). But his view that an Indian should be proud of being an Indian at all times is shared by a majority of his people. In Bombay’s theatres, there is the obtuse practice of playing the national anthem before every show. Even in the most expensive multiplexes, if one is not standing in attention, there are enough righteous people who will whisper insults, even poke the offender with their fingers, though probably none of them knows in what language Tagore had written the anthem. (I have asked.) Despite the nationalism of Indians, the question ‘what should an Indian be proud of?’ is one that would elicit spurious answers. Even Bill Clinton could not be briefed properly on the subject when he visited Bombay in 2000. He said, in a complimentary way, that the city has more television channels than America. Usually the foreign compliments are cultural in nature. Indians, too, congratulate themselves about their past. When Indians speak of culture it is as if no other nation has culture.

The Indian nuclear programme is one of the very few things about modern India that has convinced Indians that they are good at something. In May 1998, after India tested five nuclear devices in Pokhran in absolute secrecy, the news passed through the country as a bolt of triumph. The Americans were stunned, apparently. Their spy satellites had been hoodwinked. India had exhibited not only its nuclear science but also its cunning (which is rare). Expatriate Indians were ecstatic. In the days following Pokhran II, it was extraordinary how many times you might have heard an NRI, even the peaceful eco-friendly type, say she “was so proud of India”. The pride was shortlived, as just over a fortnight after India tested its nuclear weapons, Pakistan did so too. There was a joke that the Pakistanis took so long to test because the instruction manual was in Mandarin. There is some truth in the joke, however. It was the Chinese who enabled Pakistan to follow up the Indian tests so fast. The Indian nuclear programme, too, is heavily borrowed. And there is no truth in the perception that the country’s nuclear programme is a scientific achievement.

As Thomas C Reed and Danny B Stillman point out in their book, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, the atom bomb was invented only once. In the United States. The authors say, ‘Since the birth of the nuclear age, no nation has developed a nuclear weapon on its own, although many claim otherwise.’ Nuclear technology first left the United States through a network of Russian spies. India, like a few other nuclear nations, eventually became a beneficiary of the Soviet Union’s great game.

Despite all its penile glory, Indian nuclear science hangs on the brilliance of very few men. The best engineering graduates in the country are not interested in joining the nuclear programme. Those who are interested are usually eager boys and girls from small towns and villages. Drafting the young into the nuclear programme is a mission that is at once poignant and comical. In fact, most of the over 10,000 who apply every year to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay do so just to get a free sightseeing trip to the city, as BARC does provide free train tickets and an allowance. They even confess to that during the interview when tough questions daunt them and they just want to be left alone. Veteran professors of BARC once told me stories from interview sessions that were baffling (they were mentioned in an earlier piece in Open magazine: Who Is An Indian Nuclear Scientist). When an applicant was asked to describe the photoelectric effect, the boy said, “You know photo. You know electric. Combine them.” Another, when asked why Kolkata trams run on direct current and not alternating current, said, “If it uses alternating current, the tram would go forward and back.” Another applicant, when asked to explain the Uncertainty Principle, said, “Sir, it means everything in life is uncertain.”

The Indian space programme is another investment in national pride, though increasingly the Government is suggesting that there are clear commercial benefits in the future when India would become a cheap transporter of foreign satellites to space. Also, India plans to mine the moon. After a lunar orbiter the country sent to study the moon died in the middle of its mission, there was much jubilation in the Chinese press. The Chinese news agencies quoted Indian scientists as saying that the mission was a failure. Mysteriously, nobody had heard of the scientists who were quoted, and when I tried to find them, it became apparent that those scientists did not exist.

The Indian Space Research Organisation is preparing to send a man (or a woman) to moon, and in defence of such an expensive project the organisation says there will be future benefits. India, apparently, is in a scientific pursuit. That is hard to believe. The intention of the Indian space mission is very evidently national pride. For, if India truly had a scientific temperament, it would have spent its limited resources on finding life-saving drugs or revolutionary gadgets for its people. It is tempting to imagine what would have happened if, for the past 50 years, India had invested in medicine instead of the space mission. But then, space is sexy. 

It is not just the seeming national achievements that Indians are proud of. There is a deeply rooted pride even in the chaotic nature of the nation—the imagination that the informality of India has its own charm, a cultural honesty. Lane discipline is after all the invention of the Protestant White male. Order is a Western idea. In India, they say, we do it our way. Despite all the Indian jokes around the Commonwealth Games, despite the joyous self-flagellation, there is also a popular view, which is often accompanied with an emphatic shake of the head, that “in the end”, India will pull it off. That is how India is, they say, clownish but functional. In the end, everything works out. Even those who speak fondly about professionalism do not like it when they actually encounter clinical professional behaviour in their own offices. System constricts the Indian, and he is proud that he is that way. 

But at the same time he wants the world to think highly of him. Like the glimpse of a beautiful woman fills a man’s heart with fleeting happiness, the sight of a foreign compliment in the media brings to him a passing joy. That is why the media provides it. Like the insufferable stories about the dabbawalas of Bombay whose precise coordination apparently is a case study in top management schools. And the news of Indian kids in America winning the top Spelling Bee contests. And the photographs of Indian tattoos on the skin of foreign celebrities. And the fact that James Cameron’s film is called Avatar. And that Rajinikanth is famous in Japan (That is a myth. I have been to Japan twice in the past ten years and have searched very hard to find his fame).

The most persistent agent of national pride is the dislocated Indian living abroad. He is of a type. Respect was something he used to get so easily in India. He had to just emerge from a certain home, a certain car, and the whole nation would fall in place. But in the First World, he is like anybody else. People with menial jobs have arrogant pride. They don’t behave like vanquished animals at all. (I remember a wealthy Indian’s face in London after a bus driver asked him to shut up because his chatter was distracting him. The bus was standing in a parking lot when this happened). Humiliated by the equality of all and the swagger of Whites, diminished NRIs reach for the comfort of home. India is magnified in their eyes. Every writer who has written anything against the nation or even an actor is familiar with the obtuse abusive comments of NRIs. And when they finally choose to come back for good, they would like to say, with a lot of air in their chest, that there is no place like home. In reality, they have come for the driver, for the maid, for the easy respect they can find only in a poor country.