Monday, August 11, 2008

Rediscovering Our Souls

'America discovers its soul again', said the headline. It was interesting. I saw the headline on Google news and I was skeptical, coming as it did from the website of Variety. I decided to check it out and sure enough, it disappointed. It was about Isaac Hayes, the controversial musician whose 'soul' hits in the seventies helped define the genre. Hayes passed away two days ago. Clearly the death of a well-known artist is something to write about, the fans and the curious rightly express their sorrow on the comment forms. But something about that title piqued my interest and let me down as well.

What is the soul of a nation and when does it discover it? In India I have sat through lectures in schools, speeches and meetings in public fora that talked about India's soul- invariably it was connected with the legacy of India's past, when great sages wrote glorious epics, ethical treatises; mathematicians, kings and warriors were also saints. During these discussions it was implied that in our struggle for independence from Britain this soul was rediscovered to an extend and through the sacrifices made by a few, it was bared to the public to view and wonder and admire. In the wars we fought against Pakistan and China too, some of this soul was rediscovered. It is true that adversity brings about heroism and we relate the heroism to our ideals, especially those found in our past.

How about the United States? Here is a nation that strives to preserve its short history as a nation in public memory. In incredible contrast to India which does not record its culture, accomplishments or history adequately, the Americans have built monuments and museums in every major city to document and present well their history-prehistoric, colonial, national, anthropological, social, technological, political, religious and other history. The US has the most widespread, biggest and well-maintained public library system I have seen. Everywhere you go you see reminders of how Americans defined the concept of America by sheer individual grit, enterprise, discipline and romance. The moon shot, the wars, the music, the sports...

China- a nation that drives the agenda of defining its soul from top down. In contradistinction to the US, this is a nation that does not necessarily have its people defining the concept of China for themselves; but the Chinese government actively promotes this- and from what we see it has achieved much more success than other such experiments elsewhere, like the erstwhile USSR or Eastern Europe. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Olympics. At the time of this writing, China leads the medals table with 9 golds versus 3 US golds and 4 South Korean ones. The documentaries aired about the 16-year old gymnasts who perform incredible feats on the uneven bars reveal China's astonishing desire to excel and outcompete other nations in sports. The athletes trained in human hothouses from kindergarten for the sole purpose of winning Olympic gold medals turn out to be world-beaters, even as 98 percent (as a recent Guardian report suggested) of the population remains indifferent to actually participating sports, compared to academic achievement.

Wherein lies the soul? What makes Americans and America? What makes me an Indian? Or the Chinese? We each struggle to define ourselves in the light of our circumstances and our dreams. Who can deny that it is our dreams that frame our lives? Human desire and passion are stronger than that of nations. The more we are true to ourselves and God the more we are free to be what He wants us to be. As Solzhenitsyn said, a single word of truth can outweigh the whole world.

Postscript on Aug 12: By now it is commonly known that the little girl who sang 'Ode to the Motherland' in the Olympic opening ceremony was lipsynching to another girl who remained in the background because she was considered 'not cute enough'. Another example of driving the agenda from top down. And sure enough, the Western press has pounced on it, and rightly so. So often I feel that China has enough power economically, culturally and politically to create a unique position for itself in the world. All too often it seems they are desperately trying to look good in Western eyes. They are playing the game the way of the West. China's own game should have been good enough. The arguments the Chinese leaders gave in defense of the Olympic lipsynching event are eye-opening, as found here in the New York Times

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