THE very title of Indian Essentials suggests that the essays contained in it, which come without any editorial mediation, are about the most known aspects of the lives of Indians, their traditions, institutions, passions, and dreams. Written by competent writers-Geeta Doctor, Bachi Karkaria, Namita Gokhale, Arvind Krishan Mehrotra, Indrajit Hazra, Jerry Pinto, Pratik Kanjilal, and many others-the essays are comprehensive and well thought out; most of them are also backed by a good deal of research.
The essay on “Great Indian Family” traces the ancient roots of the family tradition of communal living in India, in which women and their honour are of key importance. The family tradition is strong even today because it is strengthened periodically by functions related to births, weddings, etc. Chalta hai is the defining attitude of Indians, which explains the viability of the “mad, exasperating, irrational India.” Though it helps Indians to put up with anything, it breeds irresponsibility and blunts competitiveness. Only recently, the Right to Information Act and the rise of Consumer Forums have made some changes in this. Chalta hai has allowed the growth of chai pani, that is, money that people pay to get things done, what we now call corruption. The essay on this has interesting details related to it, and also an ingenious and colourful classification of bureaucrats, who make “the great train of being” that runs on chai pani: “the peninsular bureaucrat,” “koi-hai bureaucrat,” “the UP Kayastha Biradari, “the Safari Babu,” “Bungalow Bill,” and many others. Sex in India, we learn from another essay, is only a means of procreation. Though we can boast of the highly regarded sex manual of Vatsayana, sex education in India is still a taboo. A whole army of hakims, vaids, and sex specialists, found in almost all parts of the country, is meant only to help people in their procreative effort. Because of this, “a woman is like a meter to guage the potency of a man.” Marriages too turn into weddings: large family and social affairs. That is why the tradition of middlemen and busybodies who arrange marriages for high and low. The internet has led to the creation of a globalised marriage marketplace, and wedding planners have taken over the task of setting up marriage arrangements.
The essay on saris shows that “the story of India is the story of sari itself,” for it is worn in almost all parts of the country, in different ways and styles; it is truly sensuous and allows women to show as much or as little as they want. Indians also suffer from gold fever; nearly one fifth of the supply of gold in the world flows into the country.
Some essays are about favourite Indian passions: pilgrimages, street food, cinema, godmen, and cricket. Though the practice of going on pilgrimages can be traced to Vedas, it is common to all religions, and the country is studded with shrines that are visited by millions of people throughout the year. Street food is quite popular in all parts of the country. We get interesting details on the history of such foods, which include Bhelpuri, Tibb’s Frankie, Vada Pav, etc. Although films are made in different languages of the country, the impact of Bollywood on Indian lives is the most pervasive. The essay on this provides details on the changing pattern of films right from the 1950s to the present and disproves the notion that these are based on formulas.
The essay on godmen makes a fine distinction between the savants of yore, who were interested in the health of our souls, and their present-day incarnations, who offer services for money. Their help is sought by overworked Indians who have to cope with pressures created by materialistic life-style. We get very interesting details on Baba Ram Dev, Sai Baba, Ravi Shankar, and the hugging Mother. Indian’s passion for cricket raises it to the level of religion, which helps in fostering a strong national identity. It is also a money spinner, for India controls 70 per cent of global revenue from the sport. Players like Tendulkar bridge generations and create global brands. Cricket is truly seen “as a participatory mass spectacle, as street theatre, as national discourse, as catharsis.”
Though Indians, as individuals, are hygiene obsessed, they hardly care for public hygiene. 80 per cent of them defecate in open and piss in public. They are also prone to superstition, which explains their love for astrology, fortune telling, numerology, gemology, vatsu, feng shui, jadu tona, and their belief in miracles like bleeding Jesus and milk drinking gods. Indians also love to talk highly about family greatness, which has given rise to the cult of dynasties. The essay on this provides interesting accounts of political, industrial, and filmy dynasties of India. The volume has many more learned essays-on our use of English or what is called “Inglish,” on travelling in trains, and about local colour.
Indian Essentials is a rich, varied, and highly informative collection of essays, which provide a fairly realistic assessment of our positive strengths as well as our foibles and failures in a lively manner. It should be of interest to all those who consider themselves Indians.
(Pengiun Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017)