India and Modernity: The Bad Socks of History

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 8 2017)

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At a recent academic conclave in Ettumanoor, not too far from the stunning frescoes in the local temple, the Kerala-based thinker M.N. Karassery delivered a brilliant oration on modernity and its peculiarities in our time. Though his wider argument has been well studied, the story he told to illustrate his point was an interesting one, featuring that bane of the right wing in India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The prime minister, this apocryphal yarn goes, had a colleague who worked very closely with him in his office. But every time he came into the room, he brought along a most obnoxious odour, till Nehru was compelled to ask what the source of this nasty smell was. Socks, came the resigned answer: The errant colleague was a miser who didn’t mind leaving a stink if it saved him a few coins.

The next morning, on his way to work, Nehru picked up new socks for the man, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. And yet somehow, when the colleague moved around, that unbearable smell continued to waft down the corridors, sparing not even the prime minister’s esteemed nose. No longer intending to be delicate about the matter, Nehru demanded an explanation from his malodorous subordinate. “Are you not wearing the new pair I bought you?” he asked. Yes, of course, came the wounded reply. Frowning, Nehru wondered what had happened to the old, threadbare pair. “Oh those,” replied the eccentric, brightening up, his hands going to his pockets. “Those are right here with me!”

As Karassery pointed out, India’s negotiation of modernity, much like the man with the smelly socks, has largely been a case of embracing wonderful new ideas while retaining many bad ones for sentimental reasons or possible future use. There is history to the tradition. Lord Macaulay, for instance, famously pictured that class “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” He succeeded as far as taste was concerned, but for large numbers of this class, it was a simple matter of acting English (and speaking it) in the public sphere, while sustaining old ways in the private domain. Exposure to modernity’s rationalism did not, for instance, provoke a divorce from religiosity. On the contrary, religion was refashioned to rise to modernity’s challenge, with characteristic Indian lack of irony.

The railways, an exploitative cash cow for the British, were presented as a manifestation of the iron progress of science and reason in India. And indeed a number of orthodox parties viewed it with trepidation. In the 1880s, Brahmins in Thiruvananthapuram persuaded the local maharaja to prevent the fire carriage from defiling their temple town, but Brahmins in Puri were canny: The journey from Kolkata to their shrine was reduced overnight from 26 days to 12 hours, bringing far more pilgrims, more money, and amplified devotion atop screaming engines. Sweep across a century and a half, and savvy stargazers transmit their latest astrological recommendations to globe-trotting believers over WhatsApp, while havans and pujas are performed via Skype, their blessings touching the devout through a medium as invisible as the hand of god itself: the internet.

More significantly, it was modern methods such as the census that created in India new identities that could masquerade convincingly as ancient. Numbers determined who constituted the “majority” and who were in the “minority”, enabling also the aggregation of diverse practices into what historian Romila Thapar calls “syndicated Hinduism”. Political consciousness followed, a product of modern impulses in a cloak of timeless tradition. Studies on the emergence of cow protection have shown how censuses opened up new battlefields to wage wars in the names of history, masses rallying around sensational calls that used instruments of modernity to service un-modern propensities. Violence, of course, followed everywhere.

By no means was this a predilection that afflicted the “majority” only. One “minority” now called “the Muslims”, despite massive internal diversities of their own, witnessed attempts to recreate a puritanism that never actually existed in this land—in the south where Asia’s oldest mosque stands, minarets and domes replaced gabled roofs and woodwork. The burqa, never before known here, suddenly won appeal, with the prosperous leading the way. Prosperity, in fact, spawned innovative, unexpected expressions of religion—an affluent, post-liberalization middle class today fuels demand for the dozens of rock-star swamis and gurus hovering about, who promise spiritual salvation even as they transform into corporate enterprises chasing solidly material rewards. Faith always featured such calculations, of course: Modernity merely raised the stakes and gave it spectacular scale.

Some years ago, the scholar Meera Nanda noted that India had 2.5 million places of worship but only 1.5 million schools, and that governments across the political divide were increasingly sponsoring religious causes. For her it was globalization and the paradoxical hyper-religiosity of its beneficiaries that had led to this state of affairs—to the forming of a state-temple-corporate complex. Others, like Vinay Lal and Amrita Basu, have argued that in attempting to divorce religious feeling from our constitutional self-image and aspirations, our founding fathers ignored ground realities. The result was that these realities took an aggressive, unexpected turn, now visible in your nearest city in its current manifestation of cow-raksha (protection).

The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle—that religion in India may never be fully divorced from public life and what we can aim to do is limit the degree to which it can pervert everyday business. But perhaps this was a debate that should have begun long ago, not now when the stench of the bad socks of history is overwhelming, no longer down the corridor as with Nehru, but very much closer, right under our collective noses.

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