Monday, July 16, 2007

Indian Christian Identity

I've had this thought for about a week now. I speak English about 90 percent of the time, and 9 percent Malayalam. Hindi speaking is very less but it's there, especially as my coworkers speak mostly Hindi, regardless of which part of India they are from. But the more I think of my Southern Indian friends who do speak Hindi the more they seem Northern Indian than Southern. You know, they are more comfortable eating bhel puri than a vada, more comfortable wearing a kurta than a mundu, and often more comfortable speaking Hindi than Tamil or any other Southern language. I guess Northerners may consider this to be progress, and certainly it is progress to have a common language to speak across India. It binds the nation together and helps us bridge our differences. The brouhaha in 60s' Tamil Nadu against Hindi teaching in schools was very sad and pitiable.

That said, I have not seen a Southerner who is comfortable enough with his/her regional tongue while being fluent at Hindi. I don't think it's because of limited linguistic ability. So many Southerners are excellent speakers of English and their regional language. The larger question is, why is it that our national identity has to necessary erase some of our smaller identity as people of a region or small community?

I grew up in Cochin where we have the Southern Naval Command. The Navy officers that I have spoken to hardly interact with the locals, the involvement of the Navy in the community is minimal. Some can't stand the typically rural, unsophisticated attitude of the Keralite. The locals always refer to the officers as 'those Navy guys' and not with any real identification with them as our armed forces. The Keralites in the Navy or other branches of the armed forces usually adopt a more Northern attitude in terms of food, language, habits (movies, clothes..) and so on. Their involvement with Kerala is quite less, perhaps limited to their immediate family. A Keralite Naval officer in Cochin stepping into a grocery store would stand out like a sore thumb by his very presence.

This is true of Keralites raised outside Kerala and some Keralites raised within Kerala in a more sophisticated manner- in elite schools and colleges. Many of the schools (one of which I attended) restrict students from speaking in Malayalam and encourage them to speak English. When I went to Madras to attend college, our interaction with locals was considerable but we did it on our own terms, mostly by speaking English and occasionally Tamil. We didn't make much effort to learn the language well- we just learned a few necessary words and sentences without really understanding the grammar or syntax. Elite residential schools let kids have a well rounded education, teaching them academics with sports, swimming, school pride and so on. Even so I haven't see or heard of s school in India that teaches kids allegiance to a local community. Their world revolves around the culture that the school has built up. Put them outside that circle or likeminded other circles, and you will notice either disinterest or discomfort. Either way you disctinctly see a lack of courtesy. I can say this without getting on a moral high horse because I too have similar problems.

When I became a born-again Christian in the final year of college, I learned to pray in English, but even today I have not tried praying in Malayalam much- the words do not come naturally and appear contrived. I've often wondered if our Gospel has been compromised culturally. I don't mean that we need to incorporate bhajans in our worship or consider Hindu deities as objects of our worship, I just feel that there is a large divide between myself and so many Indians who are culturally a world away.

CS Lewis who fought in the British army during WWII mentions in his writings that patriotism is felt when one fights for one's people. For Lewis that may have been Belfast, Northern Ireland or places like Hertfordshire and Worcestershire where grew up. The idea of 'Great Britain' or the 'British Empire' are ideas of lawmakers. Similarly the idea of America is strong in the minds of most Americans but they see no dichotomy between their idea of America as a little Iowa town they were raised in and that of the United States. The transition is seamless. For me, the idea of India is filled with the familiar and beloved places I've experienced in India- Kerala, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi. For the armed forces, it is the idea of 'Bharatmata', something which I simply cannot conceive. I suspect Lewis would call this concept a politician's term. When the army fights it fights for Bharatmata, but many of the officers do not identify with the neighbourhoods of their state, but rather they identify with the military culture to which they now belong. It probably does not matter to Bharatmata, because they fight either way. But I think it matters to the Bharat that they grew up in, to their city or village, or their school. Their kids are usually not comfortable speaking a regional language but they are quite good Hindi speakers. The exceptions I have seen to this are the Sikhs. They seem to have bridged the gap between the identity of Punjab and that of India, or more preceisely that of their India, the military or corporate or elite India, whichever. But it beats me how they manage this. An army officer from rural Punjab can still be one of the boys back home while effortlessly being an army officer with all the ramifications the post brings, the etiquette, the lifestyle, and so on. I'd be very interested in understanding how a Sikh who became a Christian would view his Indian-ness. (Sadhu Sundar Singh, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you!)

Perhaps this is a good reason they are good soldiers- their patriotism is very sincere, not a nebulous concept, but it can be pointed to. They can trace it back to the wheatfields they were raised in. They don't lose it when they are in Delhi at a parade or in Bombay in a mall. Sometime back Praful Bidwai the journalist wrote of Sania Mirza that she is Indian first and Muslim second. Margaret Alva once responded to a heckling critic that she is Indian first and Christian second. Both Bidwai and Alva are clearly wrong and misguided. That level of discomfort with faith and conviction is sad. Perhaps it shows that their conviction is pretty shallow (I hope I'm not being judgmental). Perhaps it also goes to prove how divided we are as a people. We are unable to embrace the tension between exclusivistic convictions and retain our identity. If ever we can achieve 'national integration', that elusive red herring the Government chases after, it's when we can learn to embrace this tension and rejoice in it.

My Dad told me this story about a former president of the Madras Stock Exchange (we'll leave him unnamed). He was a Tamil Brahmin and an alumnus of Loyola College. He narrated humourously to my Dad the story of how he and his pals as backbenchers made light of the Lord's Prayer recited daily at Loyola. The Tamil version begins 'Paramandalangalil irukkira engal pithave' ('Our Father who dwelleth in Heaven') which, to anyone who understand both languages, is a far more grand, majestic and intimate way to address Father God. Our friends the backbenchers used to quietly mutter 'Panaimarangalil irukkira Engal Pirave' ('My Dove which sits on palm trees'). He laughed heartily when he said this to Dad who he knew came from a Christian background. Much as I think this playful utterance was just childhood's naughty foible, I also think that this narration to my Dad while an adult lacked decency. If a Christian had similarly remarked about the 'Asathoma Jyotir Gamaya' he or she would be looked on as un-Indian. It is this difference that is difficult for a Christian, especially a conservative, exclusivist, born-again one such as myself, to understand. A Hindu or Sikh serving in the military is generally accepted as doing his duty and doesn't need to prove himself to be a true Indian. A Christian or Muslim serving in the armed forces is often in the position of proving his or her patriotism by his her valour or sincerity.

In that sense, the Sangh Parivar is right. India, while politically, legally and consitutionally secular, is essentially Hindu in character. While Hinduism too is exclusivist and has non-negotiable tenets, it also holds that the practitioners of other faiths should not evangelized as it is their dharma to believe what they do. But they are firm in their belief that they will be rebirthed again and again until they come to the stage where there is self-realization with the Brahman. Any opposing view is not met with approval. This is why many Indians can let us Christians be, and let us practise our faith, but when we evangelize our faith they feel some order is violated.

To me that is strange. If my dharma involves the witness of the Gospel, what is that to the others? But then to them, a piece of our Indian-ness is lost. That's the tension we feel when we attempt to combine these two facets of our identity. Islam loses it when it attempts to enculturate its faith with the customs and language of the Middle East. Its attempts to have a unique Indian identity is severely compromised, only because it attempts to supplant Indian-ness with Arab-ness. In contrast, Christianity lends itself to every tongue and tribe and nation, and still remains uncompromising in its convictions. A new believer in Christ may not feel any tension when she gives her life to Jesus. But eventually the tension surfaces, of remaining a part of our own people and living our life by the Spirit. This tension then is not something within Christianity but within India. Indians are so divided that we often strive to disinguish ourselves from other Indians. We have a Christian subculture, a Brahmin subculture, a Hindi heartland subculture, a 'Metro' subculture and so on, which are so different from one another.

Indians get mad when an evangelist talks about the evils of the caste system. They feel wronged because they think the caste system is not rightly presented or they think it's none of the evangelist's business to dissect their faith when he or she should be worrying about the problems in his or her own country or community of faith. I don't know how we got to this ├╝ber sensitive state. But isn't it magnificent to know that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour when he or she is unlovely? That's why I'm convinced that our divisions are not possible to conquer without His saving grace. It is He who has broken the ground of division between the Jew and the Gentile. As the hymn says, "Who will not fear, O Lord, And glorify Thy name? For Thou alone art holy, And all the nations will come before Thee." India needs Christ and anything less is a compromise.


masil said...

"India needs Christ and anything less is a compromise."

- to strong. It is not supported by any objective data but by only your faith and your inclination. A continents needs cannot be assessed by your personnal inclinations.

India has and is doing without Chirst ( or very little of him, 2 % to be accurate) for more than a thousand or more years. I am unable to grasp this immediate subcontinental need for him..

Wayfaring Stranger said...

Good to have your comments here. You're right, it's based on my faith and personal inclination. I don't mean that India wants Christ- but that India needs Him (which assumes that India has always needed him.

hello said...

bhajans have spiritual teachings in them. if we understood them, perhaps we could learn from them. thought yuo might enjoy reading this site about mirbai's bhajans/poetry at