Thursday, June 01, 2006

Thalassamikrus Indicus

Let's start by recounting the anecdote that set off my rumination.

Place: Beautiful beach in Santa Barbara

Time: Sunset

Protagonists: Me, E-M (our Greek actress friend), Em (my dearest friend), and BO (Em's childhood friend, a student of music).

Conversation: About places and their beauty. BO was telling us how visitors to his university were brought to this beach and the restaurant there, because it was a beautiful place worth showcasing.

E-M: Huh - you think this is beautiful? You should travel to Greece to know what a really beautiful place looks like!

Me: (exasperated by this display of uber-nationalism): What makes you think the country he comes from is not beautiful? (for the record the country is Iran).

Em: (addressing E-M): Your friend MH is from the most beautiful part of Iran. You should ask him to show you some pictures sometime to see how beautiful it is.

E-M: Well, if it is so beautiful, how come MH never praises his country like I praise Greece?

At this point Em, BO and I look at each other, roll our eyes and leave it at that.

I should provide some background to this exchange. E-M came to Los Angeles with the sole ambition of becoming a Hollywood star. However, not only was this the first time she was living apart from her family, but she had lived a very privileged and pampered existence in Greece. She hates being a struggling actress, and her disappointments and rejections in Hollywood have turned into intense loathing for America.

On top of this, she's also internalized the extreme nationalistic rhetoric that is quite prevelant in Greek popular culture, and hence simply cannot recognize the merits of any country other than her own. At some level, this parochialness is a product of her naivete, hence we do not argue her assertions.

However, this conversation had me contemplating how the way I conceive of my love for my country is so different from the terms in which E-M formulates hers.

Yes, I'm guilty as charged. I rarely if ever tell anyone how beautiful India is. When I see a beautiful place in another country, I do not throw back my head arrogantly to say how much more beautiful my country is compared to this. I can appreciate how gorgeous parts of the California coastline are without needing to recount their similarities with places in India. I do not need places to give me a sense of deja vu and familiarity to feel comfortable and at home in them.

Then is it that I don't appreciate India enough, that I feel ashamed of being Indian? No, it is because my love for India is so deeply etched in some corner of my mind, that I don't feel the need to keep chipping away at it (see, even as I wrote love, I thought how much more appropriate anurag, or maya in the Bengali sense of the word would be).

Which is why I can read the poetry of Yeats and Elytis and in the complex layers of meaning that they imbue their land with, I can recognize the layers of endearment that bind me to my own land. Flag waving leaves me cold, and the only reason why I care about the national anthem is because it is a marvellous poem (especially the last 4 stanzas that are not sung).

But I often think about being able to walk down the sloping avenues of Shimla, where many, many years ago an Indian Army jawan had clambered a wall and showered me and my cousin with tea roses, because we were too tiny to fetch them ourselves. I contemplate myself within the iconic Bengali image of a traveller on his/her way on a red-earth road (Ranga maatir rasta beye), which indeed I have been on many times on my way to my ancestral village.

There is longing, and often I'm at a loss to explain what this longing is all about. It is not the longing of unhappiness, for I'm very happy and indeed endlessly fascinated with Los Angeles and California. Perhaps it is for a certain colour of the earth, a certain way the sun rises, a certain way the clouds amass, a certain way evening descends. Perhaps it is everything that California possesses and yet, I long for that which it does not possess. Who knows why the heart desires what it desires!

There is much that infuriates me about India as well. The cynical disregard of civic duty, the contempt for the poor, lack of public accountability, petty moral policing, etc. And yet my anger and frustration at India reassures me at some level. Because I can be angry, hate certain aspects of the place and yet feel accountable and responsible for it and be optimistic about its existence and future. There is no need for denial under a veil of jingoistic rhetoric, no need to see ugliness in the rest of the world to see beauty within.

Such love for the country is very liberating. For it is not contingent on place or passport. One can be a global gypsy a la Amartya Sen with a very Indian intellectual core. Although I know that there is a corner of my heart that is inordinately fond of that little blue booklet, with the four lions from the Ashokan pillar stamped on it. Through all the tedious bureaucratic hassles that I have endured in my travels to different nations, not once have I wished to swear allegiance to another country. Maybe secretly I am as nationalistic as E-M is, though not the flag waving kind, but the passport hoarding kind!


Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Wonderful. At an objective level I believe nationalism is negative, but I daresay you have encapsulated my emotions.

(Been silent for some time. All of it on Santa Barbara beach?)


2:22 PM  
Blogger Cheery Cynic said...

*sniff* *sniff*. This makes me so home sick. I was discussing with Tao (If you dont know who that havent been reading the blog woman!! :p) and for now we have come to the conclusion that India drawns us to it for the same reason NYC seems attractive. For some reason, for all their filth, dirt, lack of regard and respect for others, both the places seem so alive and vibrant.

9:07 AM  
Blogger sd said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:15 PM  
Blogger sd said...

See I always talk about one world and how that would be a great place to live in. But deep down India is ingrained in me...may be it has something to do with the place one has lived through childhood.... some how they are the best places in the world ( There I said it!)

2:17 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

a lot of it is about how secure one is in one's identity, isn't it? there's no shortage of indians in the us who're only too eager to trade in their passports, and throw parties with fake accents once it's done.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Bidi-K said...

such a beautifully written post. identified with it completely, though by now i am a little tired of bureaucratic hurdles :)

3:35 PM  
Blogger Azahar Machwe said...

I think it is crazy when people get nationalistic about natural beauty (w.r.t. natural beauty). That is so because they did not do anything to make that place beautiful. Nature made it beautiful. It was given to all of humanity to treasure and enjoy!

Just because that piece of natural beauty happened to fall in your country doesn't mean your country or its people did something special to deserve it.

Yes you should be proud of maintaining natures treasures and providing easy access to them but not for possessing them.

I am from India as well and India has its places of great natural beauty (like all countries big or small I guess) but what I am nationalistic about is not the fact that we have these treasures.. but more because we have an equally (if not more) diverse culture.

So many cultures living within India is what makes me proud to be an Indian not the fact that the beaches of Goa or the Great Indo-Gangetic plain happen to fall within the boundaries of India.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Naveen Mandava said...

Great post! Cliched it may seem, but one may need to go beyond to see what was left behind. Parts of me hate it, but undeniably I will turn gooey when I set foot back there. What is interesting is that even In India certain parts are more homely than others for me like KOlkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi. Beauty may be compared, but identification with it is a lot personal. Home, sweet home!

10:32 AM  
Blogger Rimi said...

Definitely worth the wait. I haven't the faintest, Swati, how you manage to combine the lyrical so well to the erudite and practical.

The one thing that immediately rings within is the equation between naivete and parochialism. It's quite terrifying, really, and there isn't enough space here to let myself go. Someday, sometime. Over at my blog, maybe.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Grey Shades said...

Awesome! Never heard such rational description abt my country! and that line, "Who knows why the heart desires what it desires!"... that is so true!

9:43 PM  
Blogger Anti-establishment Inc said...

Very nice post. The end result of a very good combination of what the heart desires and what the intellect reasons.

Very, very well written!

2:46 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Hi JAPda, thank you! Yes, at a rational level I do agree with you, but then emotions intervene. Santa Barbara was but one reason, but primarily laziness :).

Awwwww, but you are travelling to the motherland sometime this year, right? Of course I know who Tao is. You know what, I need to take you to the garment district in LA downtown.

SD, yes nostalgia is important, but to reach out to the world also grows us up.

Tabula Rasa, absolutely! And the fake accents are grating.

Bidi, yes the airport hassles can be a bit much. But look at the bright side, sometimes the immigration officers are cute, and in LA, they are super friendly.

Azahar, that is very correct. Natural beauty exists to an extent in every country, even deserts have their appeal. And our diversity is something that is to be cherished, it gives us a breadth of vision that monocultural nations seem to lack.

12:14 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Naveen, thanks! Yes for me too, certain parts are dearer than others, and indeed it is hard to pare out memories from places.

Rimi, thanks much, I blush :). Yes naivete and parochialism often go together, as I get painfully aware in a lot of the civic discourse in this country.

Grey Shades, thanks!

Anti-establishment, thank you.

12:17 PM  
Blogger that girl in pink said...

nicely written TM. :)

5:39 AM  
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6:36 AM  

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