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Be Indian, buy Indian


Modernity and the processes of globalisation have had an impact on urban lives. Yet the paranoid warning that the core of the country's value system will be distorted by 'corrupt Western influences' is unsubstantiated, says YVETTE CLAIRE ROSSER.

CENTURIES back into themselves, fusing together as they recede from our collective memories, our multiple pasts turn, and return. Historical moments are opaque silhouettes cast on the slippery, indistinct face of time-trajectories of ideas and experiences stretching out, oblong, overlapping, reaching backwards, forwards, sideways. Brass and clay, seeds and blood, that which can respond and accumulate - ideas and experiences leave hazy images on the undifferentiated edges of our disappearing records. Throughout the millennia, inventions, languages, commodities and movements of people have combined and recombined crisscrossing across continents.

Ideas such as nationalism and globalisation are not simply newly coined, neatly defined categories that can be classified as the products of a specific time. Nationalism is not only a post- Enlightenment construct based on the premise of the modern nation-state as a unifying political institution. It is far more complex and yes, even ancient. Who can say what social and political infrastructures maintained the longevity, architectural consistency, and economic viability of the Indus Valley Civilisation (Indus/Saraswati Civilisation)? Were not the concepts of Jambudvipa or Bharatvarsh part of the world-view of the Mauryas, the Guptas, or other historic rajas of the Rastra? Scholars in this post-postmodern world can scarce agree what constitutes a state or a nation, nor, in fact, what salient characteristics should be employed in the construction of terms such as nationalism, nationalist, nationhood, nation-state and sub-nationals. The phrase "nationalism problem" means something quite opposite in India than it does in neighbouring Pakistan, where it refers to the disintegration of the state by sub- national ethnic secessionists in Sindh, the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), or Balouchistan. In India, leftist intellectuals complain about the "nationalism problem" in reference to the rise of what they consider to be too much patriotic and nationalistic fervour in contemporary Indian society.

Globalisation, as well, did not emerge suddenly at the end of the 20th Century as a threat to cultural diversity imposed by the market-driven forces of hegemonic modernity. Globalising pressures have always been with us. It comes as no surprise that there is nothing new under the sun.

Globalisation has come around before. The Indian subcontinent has been the recipient and dispenser of international influences long before the Internet and stock exchanges tied us all together in an intellectual, perhaps pseudo-intellectual, economic, often ruthlessly greedy, net or mesh, otherwise known in Sanskrit as a jaal. The idea of a World Wide Web is a modern metaphor for the inherent interconnectedness of all sentient beings, the wheels of Samsara continue to turn. It is no wonder that India is in step with info-technology; the symbols are not alien.

I often hear the fear expressed that Coca-Cola, blue jeans and other American imports will destroy Indian culture. (As if Indian culture were that fragile!) Four hundred years ago, the first flood of products from the Americas did not dramatically alter the nature of Indic Civilisation. Did tomatoes, potatoes or red and green chillies herald the end of Indian cuisine? Obviously not, since they are essential ingredients in numerous delicious and very Hindustani dishes - yet Indian food remains distinctly Indian. Bougainvilleas that drape drab walls of urban edifices, dahlias that brighten flowerbeds in ashram gardens, stitched choli blouses that ladies wear under their saris - all these and more are Western imports to the subcontinent. Even the most ardent swadeshi supporter would never think of boycotting alu chop with tamatar-mirch chutney or criticising ladies' silk blouses as "corrupt alien influences". Certainly, late 20th Century American pop culture and mindless consumerism are more insidious than a few vegetables. However, just as chillies and cholis were not a threat in earlier centuries, so too will colas and jeans eventually become quasi-invisible parts of the colourful and diverse Indian landscape.

That, in fact, is what bothers some people. They do not like to see those bright red Coca-Cola signs hanging from every other chai stall up and down the gullies of Mother India. Perhaps they preferred to see Thumbs Up or Limca logos representing indigenous Indian industries instead of the ubiquitous symbol of a multi- national corporation. This attitude is certainly economically and politically correct - the implementation of liberalisation must be careful and conscious. Coca-Cola, with its massive advertising campaign and its penchant for buying up the bottling plants of competitive soft drink companies and putting them out of business, may be selling better in India these days, but ideologically, the chai walas and dukandars could care less what that red and white sign says.

A few years ago, I was at a old friend's tea stall in Kumaon. During the previous season he had installed a large wooden board above the entrance to his restaurant with the white Coca-Cola logo painted on a glossy red enamel background. I asked him why he had hung the sign and he told me that the Coca-Cola man had come by and given him the shiny wooden sign, complete with hinges, and Rs. 100 and besides, the board made good shade for the shop. The following year the slick red board had migrated to the back of the shop where it was being used as a counter top to dry dishes. Obviously, the idea of India will withstand Coca-Cola and there is every reason to believe that even local industry in India will prove to be more resistant and resilient against the onslaught of globalised competition than are the economies of other developing countries - the economic model of the Indian elephant will one day lumber past the Asian tigers.

Just as chillies and cholis changed India in subtle ways, so too India has impacted and interacted with the West (and the rest) for millenia. Two thousand years ago, the Senate in Rome passed an ordinance forbidding senators from wearing togas made from Indian cloth - a legal effort to slow the flow of gold coins pouring out of Roman coffers into India. A whole New World was discovered because of the European desire for Indian products, particularly spices scents and fabrics. One of India's lasting contributions to Western life was the export of a thick cotton cloth known as "Dungaree" which, in the 16th Century, was sold near the Dongarii Fort in Bombay. Portuguese and Genoan sailors used this durable blue broad cloth, dyed with indigo, for their bellbottom sailing pants.

Though not as profound as the impact of the concept of zero, blue jeans, originating in India, were widely adopted by farmers, cowboys, working-class men, teenagers, suburban moms; almost everyone in the West has at least one pair of blue jeans. They are the hallmark of American fashion and in vogue across the world. Should Indians fear the hegemonic westernised fashion imperalists who have added some extra brass buttons and zippers and are bringing jeans back to the Motherland a few hundred years later? I doubt if dungarees are going to damage cultural mores as they continue to find their way back to Indian shores. Male college students in India have been wearing blue jeans for over 30 years without any dramatic destruction of their value system. I seriously doubt if the female college students, who have recently taken to wearing jeans in places such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kanpur, will lose touch with their cultural heritage by continued contact with this blue broadcloth.

The interactions of human cilivisations over time appear like linear progressions than oil designs on water-amebic opalescent ovals. So too languages reach into one another and exchange words and concepts. Hindi uses the Nahuatl word "tomatl" borrowed from the Aztecs by the Spanish, just as dozens of words commonly used in English come from Hindi. The word shampoo is borrowed directly from Hindi into English, taken from Chhaapnaa, to press, or massage ... "Chhaapuu? (Shall I rub?") When the British first came to India in the 16th Century, they were not accustomed to the daily rituals of personal hygiene. Europeans during that period rarely took baths, hence their need for perfumes from India. Current European belief held that bathing weakened the body, inviting bad "humors". However, in India a morning bath is an integral part of Hindu ritual. The British brought this cleanliness habit, which was initially called a craze, to the West as well as the word shampoo meaning something you rub or press into your hair. The idea that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness", which inspired a Christian revivalist movement in early 19th Century United States, grew out of the revolution in bathing rituals that the Europeans learned from their contact with Hindus.

There are numerous words so common in English that no one remembers they actually came from Hindi. In the following etymology tale there are 13 Hindi words: "Wearing a khaki hat, his face half covered by a red bandana, the thug took the loot to his cushy bungalow in the jungle. After drinking rum punch he put on silk pajamas and fell asleep on a cot. He thought he was the big cheese, until the juggernaut of the law caught up with that social pariah." Three of these borrowed words are particularly interesting: "bandana", a red or blue head scarf with small white patterns modelled after "bandhana kapra" or tie-dyed cloth; "cushy", as in cushy job, taken from "khushii" meaning pleasure or happiness; and, "cheese", as in the big cheese, a slang expression used sarcastically to refer to an important person, from the common Hindi word, chiiz, meaning "thing". If your boss thinks he or she is the big cheese, (barii chiiz), it has nothing to do with panir or any other milk product, in Hindi or English. There are, of course, many words that have been borrowed from English into Hindi such as "bus", "tank", "torch", "taxi", "bomb", "pencil" and "cyber cafe".

Interacting with problems of modernity and globalisation has certainly changed the lives of crores of urban Indian during the last few decades. Yet the paranoid danger-cry warning that the core of India's value system will be distorted by "corrupt Western influences" is unsubstantiated in everyday life. A few months ago in New Delhi, I witnessed a succinct example testifying to the pervasiveness and continuity of that certain primordial Indian ethos that sustains society. I was standing near a big tree at an auto-rickshaw stand in Vikas Puri negotiating with several drivers about my fare.

One driver jumped into his rickshaw and sped off on a run. Unbeknown to him there was a puppy sleeping under his vehicle. Over the roar of the motor, the driver never knew he had run over the dog that yelped loudly and began to twist and writhe on the roadside before our eyes. Four rickshaw walas and I stood there, helpless, watching this poor mangy puppy thrash and flail from his injuries. The rickshaw walas and I looked at each other, shaking our heads sadly, tsk tsk. We looked at the puppy. Those few agonising seconds passed painfully slowly. We watched, powerless to save this injured dog, which, with a final contortion of its body, lay still on the asphalt, its glazed eyes blinking once or twice. At that moment, as the last breath of spirit was leaving the body of this dying creature, one of the drivers reached into his rickshaw and brought out a bottle of Bisleri. Holding the bottle shoulder height, he very slowly poured a thin stream of water directly into the mouth of the puppy, which gratefully gulping a few sips, closed its eyes and died. As suddenly as it had disappeared into the focus of that traumatic moment, the New Delhi street scene reappeared. The drama was over. I departed in one of the rickshaws.

Who knows how long the dog's corpse lay on the roadside, it may have been hours, perhaps days, before someone came to haul it away. The issue is not that the driver had a great affection for this animal. Obviously, the puppy did not belong to the rickshaw wala. It was a mange-covered street dog. The man had no real love for that dog and perhaps had even kicked it aside on a previous day, or perhaps tossed it an old roti. This was not man's best friend. But at the moment of death, as the soul of this wretched creature was leaving its body, a simple rickshaw wala, living in what many would consider a dehumanised, corrupted environment, had a presence of mind and a certain honour and respect for life, to offer a spontaneous ritual for the passing of that puppy's soul. Where else but in India? In what other country would an auto-rickshaw driver have such an innately spiritual response to an otherwise dreadfully ordinary situation? Dogs are killed on roads everyday all over the world. This may not seem like a wonderful example of the continuity of Indian civilisation - a mangy dog crushed by an auto-rickshaw on the side of a busy street. But I think it speaks volumes.

Many people in India really are worried that their society is in danger of being swallowed by multinational corporations and Western values. Western values are often cited as an amorphous looming threat to Indian civilisation, but it is ill-defined as to what Western values actually are and how they are undermining South Asian values, whatever those are - considering the tremendous differences among the vast numbers of ethnic-groups and peoples that populate the subcontinent. When pressed to explain which Western values are to be avoided, many people I have asked automatically tell me that Americans do not love their children as much as Indians do and that they do not respect or care for their elders. I take exception to this charge since I know very well how passionately I love my children and how much I respect my mother and how dedicated she is to me. My family is not an anomaly, most Americans live their lives deeply dedicated to their parents and their children. There is not a marked absence of love and commitment in American families, a hallmark of selfishness that can be dramatically contrasted as the opposite of family values in the India. Though most Americans do not live in extended households, the love of a mother for her child or a son for his father is not culturally specific.

In the same way that many Americans have negative stereotypes of India typified by images of child-marriage, bride-burning and dowry deaths, so too many Indians simply assume that most Americans abandon their children the moment they graduate from high school, whereas in reality these are the exceptions in both countries. Of more concern than these uninformed assumptions about family relations is the gratuitous violence and indecency that have become the hallmarks of the media industry, whether abusing and enslaving women in Bollywood films or blood splattering from Hollywood celluloid, the images are destructive. Ironically, regardless of the stated condemnation of American culture or lack thereof, American products enjoy a prestige in India.

American name-brands, such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola, exported to foreign countries, have lost their fast-food identity and have become icons, signifiers of all sorts of non-commercial messages. Strangely enough, American soft drinks have recently been codified in a most peculiarly Indian way. Gossip in Delhi last summer was that the choice between Pepsi and Coke has developed a communal slant, with Hindus drinking Coke and Muslims drinking Pepsi - based on which Bollywood stars had been promoting what brand.

When I was in Pakistan last year, a controversy arose in the Urdu press concerning Coca-Cola. It was reported that some Mullahs claimed that the curling cursive letters of the Coca-Cola logo, if turned a certain way, spelled the words, "La Illaha", Arabic for "There is no God" - the first phrase in the Islamic prayer, "La ilaha illallah, Muhammad-ur-rasoolullah (There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet"). The clerics claimed that Coke had manipulated the Arabic script and appropriated the first few sounds of this most sacred Muslim prayer in order to spread atheism and Western secular values.

Hence, the words "There is no God", were incorporated into the soft drink's logo. The Mullahs warned that this was an American conspiracy, a plot to turn the youth of Pakistan into atheists and apostates. They cautioned Pakistanis that drinking Coca-Cola would cause them to lose their faith in Allah and they issued a fatwa for Muslims to boycott this particular brand of carbonated beverage and save their souls.

Coke is certainly not a health food product but whether it can dim the divine light within is questionable. Historically speaking, Coca-Cola, is yet another flagship that will one day too sink in the Ganga where the pasts and futures have always merged and flowed back to us from the seas as ideas and experiences. Blue jeans, tomatoes, and nation-states, like Indra's ants, are but passing specks in the recurring flows of time.

The writer is pursuing her doctorate at the University of Texas, Austin, U.S..

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