Being Indian - The Truth About Why the 21st Century will be India's

Being Indian - The Truth About Why the 21st Century will be India's

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Author: Pavan K Varma
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2004
Language: English
Pages: 238
ISBN/UPC (if available): 0143033425


This book is a new and dramatically different inquiry into what India and being Indian mean in the new millennium. Such an inquiry is especially relevant today when the world’s largest democracy is also a nuclear power, a potentially major economic power poised to emerge as the second largest consumer market in the world, and a growing force in information technology. In the 21st century, when every sixth human being will be Indian, the world will have to interact with Indians in many more ways than before.

Yet misconceptions about India and Indians abound, fed by the stereotypes created by foreigners, and the myths about themselves projected by Indians. In Being Indian, Pavan K Varma demolishes these myths and generalizations as he turns his sharply observant gaze on his fellow countrymen to examine what really makes Indians tick and what they have to offer the world in the 21st Century.

Varma’s insightful analysis of the Indian personality and the culture that has created it reaches startling new conclusions on the paradoxes and contradictions that characterize Indian attitudes towards issues such as power, wealth and spirituality. How, for example, does the appalling indifference of most Indians to the suffering of the poor and the inequities of the caste system square with their enthusiastic championing of parliamentary democracy?

How can a people who so whole-heartedly supported Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence during the struggle for Independence burn young brides for more dowry, and beat domestic servants to near-death? And why do Indians have a reputation for being spiritual and other-worldly when their philosophy and tradition exalt the pursuit of material well-being-artha-as a principal goal of life? The book also examines India’s future prospects as an economic, military and technological power, providing valuable pointers to the likely destiny of a nation of one billion people.

Drawing on sources as diverse as ancient Sanskrit treatises and Bollywood lyrics, and illuminating his examples with a wealth of telling anecdotes, Pavan Varma creates a vivid and compelling portrait of Indians as he argues that they will survive and flourish in the new millennium precisely because of what they are, warts and all, and not because of what they think they are or would like to be. This book, which will stimulate reflection, discussion and controversy, is a must read for both foreigners who wish to understand Indians, and Indians who wish to understand themselves.


PAVAN K VARMA graduated with honours in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a degree in Law from Delhi University. A Member of the Indian Foreign Service, he has served in Moscow, in New York at the Indian Mission to the United Nations, and as India’s High Commissioner in Cyprus. He has been Press Secretary to the President of India, Official Spokesman for the Foreign Office, and is at present Director of the Nehru Centre in London.


A compelling thesis, Varma uses a clever mix of history, religion and personal examples to give this book depth and clarity.
-India Today

A masterful delineation of the urban Indian’s character or the lack of it-vivid, sure-footed and at times tongue-in-cheek.
-Natwar Singh in Frontline

Brilliant, contains striking insights on almost every page, essential reading for all Indophiles.
-William Dalrymple

GIVEN BELOW IS AN EXTRACT FROM Karan Thapar's "Sunday Sentiments" in The Hindustan Times

ON TUESDAY we start voting. As many as 650 million Indian will endeavour to cast their ballot, express their preference, chose their government and, in the process, determine their future. We’re inordinately proud of this celebration of democracy.It makes us the biggest in the world, a boast we do not make lightly. Yet the question we rarely, if ever, ask is what sort of democracy are we? Our enquiry never pierces the outer trappings. The inner core is untouched. It’s never questioned.
By coincidence, I’m reading a book that does just that. It looks at the most cherished myths we’ve created about ourselves and punctures them. Actually, that’s a euphemism. It explodes them. The bang is loud and shattering. But the truth is revealing.
The miracle of India,” writes Pavan Varma in Being Indian, “is that the practice of democracy has flourished within its boundaries for over five decades in the absence of a democratic temperament.” And, in case you’ve missed his point, he says of us, the Indian people, “they are not democratic by instinct or temperament.
We are, Pavan says, obsessed with status, infinitely conscious of power, determined to succeed at all costs and, for these reasons, willing to accept any means provided the end we seek it obtained. In other words, we are not naturally moral people. Nor really principled. We are rank opportunists who see nothing wrong in bending, or even crawling, if that’s the only way of getting ahead. Not forward in virtue but in material gain and worldly position.
So, how has the practice of democracy adapted itself to such people? “The truth is that democracy has survived in India not because Indians are democratic, but because democracy has proved to be the most effective instrument for the cherished pursuit of power.” Rather than make us equal, our democracy has legitimized hierarchy and dynasty, reinforced caste and class, and corroborated our preference for ends over means, for result over method, for outcome over morality.
Democracy did not adopt India. Pavan concludes. Indians usurped democracy because it could be moulded to fit earlier structures without threatening them.
In a nutshell, democracy suits our character like an accidentally correct set of clothes. But it hasn’t changed us. Instead, we’ve used it for our purposes and, in the process, distorted its spirit. For instance, our leaders may be popularly chosen but they’re considered elite. Since getting elected is what counts, the legitimacy of the voting is ignored. And because, above everything else, we want to move ahead in life corruption is seen simply as a means of doing so. It’s not immoral or sinful. Consequently, getting caught is mere carelessness.
To be honest, this is a moral point but Pavar Varma doesn’t duck it. The moral relativism of Indians allows them to practice and condone corruption on a scale that has few parallels in other societies with pretensions to be called modern. Perhaps this explains why we moralise so frequently and effortlessly and then shift position, often to the opposite, without compunction. The kindest way of putting it is that we are not simply two-faced but multi-faced – a face for each occasion, designed to match our interest but with a keen sense of how that might change and, correspondingly, how the fact would need to alter.
Three things follow. We respect power not principle. This is why so many regard Indira Gandhi with admiration and condone or even eulogies the Emergency. We readily flatter or dissemble. Like courtiers we praise and pay obeisance but rarely stand-up for the truth. Secondly, we want to be on the winning side. For us there’s no such thing as an honorable defeat.
So, when the tide of fortune turns we follow it. Hence in 1980 Bhajan Lal and his entire party switched over to the victorious Congress-I whilst in 2003 Gagong Apang and his followers jumped to the BJP. Finally, the mob rules and dissenting individuals are damned. We don’t like people who are different. We pick on them. Be it girls in jeans and teenagers sending Valentine cards or drinkers, homosexuals and widows, we demand conformity with the norm.
So on Tuesday, if you vote, think of the significance of what you are doing and ask if you’re really democratic. Or, are you only going through the motions and fooling yourself? But, if that’s difficult, buy Pavan Varma’s book and read it. Let him do your thinking for you. But I warn you, it will be uncomfortable



Image versus Reality

The Unexpected Triumph of Democracy

The Myth of Other-Worldliness

Success in the Shadows of the Past

Violence and the Power of Accommodation

A Critical Equilibrium for Take-Off