This is my India, now tell me yours

Gurdeep Singh returns to his grocery store from lunch. He is a strong, tall, turbaned, bearded Sikh. A Canadian Punjabi. He has been in Vancouver for the past 32 years. He set up his store in Vancouver’s Punjabi market, catering to the South Asian community. He has brought up his son and daughter lovingly, giving them the education he could.

To Gurdeep, India is Punjab. The wheat fields, the strong youth, the gurudwaras, the five rivers, the multitude of Sikh gurus. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the enduring symbol of his culture. One of his proudest moments was showing the great Sikh monument to both his Canadian-born children when they went back to Amritsar a few years ago. This is his India.

A thousand kilometres south in Sunnyvale, Krishnan is finishing his dosa at Saravana Bhavan, before driving off to catch the latest Tamil movie which has been released at the Indian Movie Center in a nearby suburb. Krishnan is the typical Bay Area Tamilian. He graduated from Anna University in Madras and joined a leading Silicon Valley firm. He started off as an R&D engineer and worked his way to a team lead position, where he drives a team of 8 R&D engineers.

To Krishnan, India is Tamil Nadu. His idea of going back to India is to fly to Madras, visit his parents in T Nagar, Ranganathan uncle in Mylapore, and his in-laws in Kanchipuram. He’s a Kamal Hassan fan, so he’ll have the usual banter with his cousin who’s a Rajnikanth fan. He also loves talking about the other great duality of Tamil Nadu: DMK and ADMK. He will argue about the relative merits of Vivek and Vadivelu, and the reasons surrounding Subramanian Badrinath’s omission from the Indian cricket team. This is his India.

Halfway across the globe in Hong Kong, Manish Wadhwani is in heated discussions with his associate regarding his firm’s latest line of clothing. It is late at night, so he will soon drive off home for his daily dose of chapati. He is the archetypal Sindhi businessman. He came to Hong Kong 18 years ago, set up a business in the textile industry, and made his fortune.

To Manish, India is Bombay and Baroda. His idea of a trip to India is to fly to Bombay, take a train to Baroda and meet his clan there. His family had migrated to Baroda from Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan, during the partition, but to all intents and purposes, their native place was Baroda. His choice of topics include a comparison of Hong Kong with Bombay, the religious riots in Gujarat a few years earlier, Narendra Modi’s politics, and the relative merits of Sindhis vis-a-vis Gujjus and Parsis, their fellow inhabitants of Gujarat. This is his India.

There are a million more Indias living in the minds of the Bengali in Kolkata, the Malayalee in Muscat, the Tamilian in Singapore, the Gujarati in Kenya, the Kannadiga in Mysore and the UP-ite in Kanpur. It could be Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindranath Tagore for the Bengali, it could be Mohanlal’s next show in Muscat for the Malayalee, it could be Mayawati’s latest insult to her political rival for the UP-ite. One way or another, regional identities are dominant in India. Indians from different parts of India invariably view the country through different glasses. They might as well ask one another, “This is my India, now tell me yours”.

Why are regional identities so important to Indians? The answer is that India is a country of many nations. Each linguistic community in India is an ethnic group with its own history and culture. Gujaratis, Punjabis, Hindi-speakers, Tamilians, Kannadigas and Marathis are ethnic groups as real as the French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Danes in Europe. Ignoring this and expecting all these communities to weld into one homogeneous identity is simply unrealistic. Indeed, attempts to homogenize Pakistan (a multi-ethnic country just like India) led to the loss of East Bengal, the 1972 riots between Urdu-speakers and Sindhis, and the continued separatism in Baluchistan. Even in India, an attempt to homogenize the country with one language invited a fierce backlash from the state of Tamil Nadu, which nearly seceded on the issue.

The best way to manage India’s diversity is to accept that the Indian national identity will always be the sum total of all its individual national identities. Unity is not about brushing differences under the carpet and pretending they don’t exist. Unity is about celebrating diversity, not ironing it out. It is about many colours in one rainbow. Regional identity does not conflict with Indian identity. In fact, it embellishes and adds vibrancy to it. Rabindranath Tagore, great son of Bengal and India, wrote Amar Shonar Bangla for Bengal and Jana Gana Mana for India. He was completely Bengali, completely Indian.

I’m writing this as a member of the Indian diaspora. As someone who has traveled to the northern, southern, eastern and western parts of India. As someone who knows Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil (in alphabetical order). As someone who watches movies in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu (again in alphabetical order). My India is an India of 22 languages, 6 religions and a kaleidoscope of diversity. Now tell me yours.


The man who saw forever


Arthur C Clarke
Sir Arthur C. Clarke

On March 19th 2008, Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away in his adopted home of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The nonagenarian left behind a stupendous legacy. He was at once an author, inventor, futurist, visionary, mathematician, pilot, radar specialist, nature lover, scuba diver and underwater explorer. To categorize him as any single one of these would be an injustice to his myriad talents.

As a science fiction writer, he was par excellence. He made his name dealing with space adventures and alien civilisations. His fertile imagination, grounded in an unshakeable knowledge of astrophysics, put him in a league of his own. With a penchant for the cosmic, a vast repertoire of knowledge, and an ability to see things before they became visible, Clarke was quite simply a visionary. He was the man who saw forever.

Arthur Charles Clarke was born in Somerset, England, in 1917. He had the same humble beginning of any astrophysicist: stargazing. The young Clarke showed an avid interest in American science fiction magazines, which whetted his appetite.

Unable to afford a university education, Clarke joined the Royal Air Force after his secondary education. He served in several capacities, such as Radar Specialist, Pilot Officer, Flying Officer and Flight Lieutenant. After the Second World War, he earned a first class degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College, London. He served in the British Interplanetary Society.

Clarke started writing to scientific magazines such as Wireless World. In 1948, he wrote a short story called “The Sentinel” for a BBC competition. The story was rejected, but went on to be a turning point in Clarke’s career. It introduced a mystic and cosmic element to Clarke’s work, an element which would define him forever. He wrote his first novel, Prelude To Space, in 1951, and there was no turning back. He later wrote over 30 novels and 20 non-fiction books.

He wrote The Fountains of Paradise, portraying a space elevator leading from earth to a space station. Rendezvous With Rama depicted an alien spaceship mistaken for an asteroid and named after the Hindu god Rama. The Sands of Mars described a human colony on Mars, where colonists adopt numerous scientifically believable techniques to make the planet inhabitable. Dolphin Island was inspired by his adventures as an underwater explorer. The Hammer of God depicted a religious sect attempting to convert humans into terabytes of computer information.

He is most famous for his 1968 novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, about an ancient and unseen alien race performing evolutionary experiments with humanity. The aliens use devices with the appearance of large crystal monoliths to investigate faraway worlds, and if possible, encourage intelligent life there. It revolves around Captain Bowman, who is drawn into one of those monoliths and turned into an immortal “star child”, charged with the task of coming back to earth and catalysing evolution. The novel was simultaneously made into a movie by director Stanley Kubrick. Clarke followed 2001: A Space Odyssey with three sequels.

His contributions were more than just literary. His vision proved to be the catalyst for two important technological breakthroughs of the 20th century. He was the first to suggest that geostationary satellites could be ideal telecommunications relays facilitating near-instantaneous transmissions. He conceived this in 1945, and saw his dream bear fruit barely 20 years later. His prediction that man would set foot on the moon by 2000 was a driving force motivating NASA to realize the vision as early as 1969.

He was human though, and some of his predictions went off the mark. He cheekily predicted that humans would use apes as household servants by the end of the 20th century. He also warned us that the apes will form unions and create a ruckus!

Compared to Clarke’s other achievements, his formulation of the Three Laws of Prediction may seem a little trivial. But they are noteworthy for their sheer wit.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

He later formulated a fourth one:

4. For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.

In 2007, Clarke completed 90 orbits around the sun. He was now in a wheelchair, but his mind continued to reach the farthest outposts of the universe. He marked his 90th birthday by speaking to his followers through a Youtube video. He expressed three birthday wishes: For ET to call, for mankind to quit his addiction to oil, and for lasting peace in Sri Lanka. He could not resist making more predictions. He declared this the beginning of the golden age of space travel. He predicted that thousands of space tourists will travel to the moon and beyond within the next 30 years.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Captain Bowman attains the status of an immortal star child, and is sent back to earth to inspire evolutionary leaps. That may well describe Arthur C. Clarke himself. Evolutionary catalyst, immortal star child.

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Trans-national minorities

If you are French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai or Turkish, you belong to a nation-state. You belong to a country which has been united for its entire history. You share the same language and culture as your countrymen.

But not all nationalities are like yours. In a world where new nationalities are carved up and old nationalities evolve, a common phenomenon is the trans-national minority. A community with a shared culture, a separate language, an independent history and a collective consciousness, but without a country to show for it. Sometimes, these trans-national minorities peacefully remain part of a larger country, and sometimes, they instigate bloody wars of separatism.

The Basques are a case in point. They are Europeans alright, but their language is unrelated to other European languages, much to the surprise of sociolinguists. Their territory spans southwestern France and northeastern Spain. They are a peaceful part of France, but in Spain, it’s a different story altogether.

The Spaniards under the “leadership” of General Franco waged a bloody war to annex the Basque country into Spain. He imported the latest German fighter planes and bombed the Basque country. This was depicted by Pablo Picasso in his famous painting Guernica. The Basque country fell to Franco, but they have never been happy since. Even today, the Basque separatists are fighting for an independent homeland in the north of Spain.

Picasso’s Guernica depicted the violent annexation of the Basque country

The Basques are not the only trans-national minority in Spain. The Catalans are similar. Their native region is Catalonia in eastern Spain, and they speak Catalan. They know Spanish due to its administrative and business importance, but they have a strong identity as a Catalan nation. Catalonia is disproportionately successful economically. Therefore, they tolerate the linguistic and cultural domination of the Spaniards, and do not aspire for secession.

The Galicians of northern Spain are another trans-national minority. They are known to favour secession, but they don’t get the publicity the Basque separatists get, probably because fewer instances of violence are associated with them.

Over to the Middle East, the Kurds are a prominent trans-national minority, with territories in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. They have received publicity as one of the communities persecuted by Saddam Hussein. They have always been looking to separate from Iraq, and recently, there are nascent murmurs of separatism in Turkey too. There is a significant Kurdish diaspora in Europe and North America. Google’s Director of Sales, Omid Kordestani, is a Kurd as his name suggests.

The Kurdish region, with territories in Turkey, Iraq and Iran

The Pashtuns (also known as Pathans) are a trans-national minority whose native region lies in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. They have a significant presence in the cities of Peshawar and Karachi. There is a Pashtun diaspora all over the world, particularly India and the USA. There is a subculture of Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan, but this does not have popular support, as Pashtuns have integrated well into Pakistani society and have high representation in the government, military and business.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed of trans-national minorities. The Punjabis of India and Pakistan have a shared culture and history, and were divided only by religion during the time of the partition. Ditto for the Bengalis of eastern India who share their roots with the neighbouring Bangladeshis.

The Tamils are a trans-national minority of southern India and northern Sri Lanka. There are 65 million Tamils native to Tamil Nadu province in India, 3 million Tamils native to northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and a significant diaspora all over the world.

tamil flag
Unofficial flag of Tamils, with the words, “All towns are our own, all people are our kin”

At the time of India’s independence, there were murmurs of separatism in Tamil Nadu, especially when Hindi was imposed as the sole official language of India. Riots erupted in Tamil Nadu opposing the imposition of Hindi. This caused an amendment to the Indian Constitution, giving official language status to 22 languages. This also caused the reorganization of Indian states along linguistic lines, to give each linguistic community a state with some degree of autonomy. This appeased the separatist sentiments of Tamils.

Indian Tamils today are contented due to the industrialization and urbanization of Tamil Nadu, and the success of the province in many industries like textiles, automobiles and healthcare. Tamils still complain about the cultural domination of the Hindi-speaking North, but this has not manifested itself into separatist tendencies, simply because Tamils don’t face economic problems. There is little support for separatism in Tamil Nadu today.

It was an entirely different story for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. At the time of independence, there were only 2 million Tamils in Sri Lanka, among whom 1 million were Indian Tamils who were denied Sri Lankan citizenship. The 1 million Sri Lankan Tamils had neither numerical strength nor a large geographical area. So when Sinhalese, the language of the majority Sinhalese community, was made the sole official language of the country, the Tamils could not prevent it through their protests.

Sinhalese became the language of education and business. The English-educated Tamils were disenfranchised. The better-educated Tamils with skillsets left the country, and contributed to the success of countries like Singapore. The remaining Tamils protested peacefully for decades, such as tarring the Sinhalese signboards (an echo of their brethren in India who tarred Hindi signboards). But over the decades, hostility slowly escalated, gradually adopting the form of violence. Four Tamil militant groups emerged, and fought with each other for the right to represent Tamils. After a Darwinian struggle, the LTTE emerged as the last group standing.

Some well-publicised instances of violence brewed hatred between the two communities, escalating the conflict. The ambush and killing of 12 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the LTTE was a watershed event. It heralded the infamous events of July 1983 (known as Black July). Furious Sinhalese civilians killed Tamil civilians (hundreds of them if you believe the Sinhalese, thousands of them if you believe the Tamils). Tamil localities in several Sri Lankan cities were burnt. Tamil-owned businesses and factories were destroyed. The economic loss to Sri Lanka was estimated at US$ 300 million.

black july
Destruction of Tamil-owned homes and businesses during Black July

Black July was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The direct outcome was a bloody civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives in the past 25 years. Sri Lanka was arguably the most promising country in South Asia in the middle of the 20th century, with the right size and natural resources. But today it’s surviving on the aid of numerous countries, and grappling with a terrible human rights record. Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew has remarked, “It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word ‘serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness”.

Trans-national minorities need to be handled with sensitivity. An important first step is to acknowledge their right to be different. Attempts at assimilating them into a supposed “national” culture have always resulted in communal tensions. Trans-national minorities need to retain their identity, and at the same time become part of a beautiful whole. Countries with trans-national minorities should preserve the culture of those trans-national minorities, adding to the richness of a pluralistic national culture. The mosaic is always more attractive than the melting pot.

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