Review Parsing the Indian ‘identity’ By : Aditya Adhikari
The Indians: Portrait of a people
by Sudhir and Katharina Kakar
Penguin Books, 2007
In current academic and intellectual circles, this is a time of widespread suspicion of what has been called the ‘grand narrative’ – those accounts of countries and cultures that claim to be comprehensive. Such narratives, warn critics, not only ignore heterogeneity, but also uphold dominant power structures. This is also a time when the dominant intellectual mood celebrates the mixing of cultures, and perceives identity to be multiple – like masks that can be worn and taken off as the situation demands. To claim that a people have a particular identity is to invite charges that one views culture as fixed and inalterable, and does not allow for the possibility of social change.
In such an intellectual climate, Sudhir and Katharina Kakar have written an unapologetically unfashionable book, attempting to reveal the common cultural characteristics that make up Indian culture and society. Their focus is squarely on middle-class, savarna Hindus, who, they claim, occupy the dominant place in Indian culture. Those “at the margins of Hindu society (such as the Dalits and tribals, or the Christians and Muslims),” they write, “will spot only fleeting resemblances to themselves” in the pages of The Indians. The scope of the Kakars’ work is highly ambitious, covering everything from the sexual life of Indians to the nature of conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The Goa-based husband-and-wife team contend that there are more similarities than differences among the various people of the Subcontinent, and verge perilously close to the view (appropriately qualified, of course) that there is an underlying core at the heart of Indian civilisation, one which remained intact through the Mughal invasions, British colonialism and other vicissitudes of Indian history.
“Identity is not a role, or a succession of roles, with which it is often confused,” write the authors, in a passage that is sure to annoy postmodernists and other likeminded readers. “It is not a garment that can be put on or taken off according to the weather outside; it is not ‘fluid’, but marked by a sense of continuity and sameness irrespective of where the person finds himself during the course of his life.”
The Kakars have a talent for explicating, in a thoroughly contemporary idiom, the ‘laws’ that govern the Indian social universe. Oftentimes the average Indian reader will be only vaguely aware of social mores that the authors claim to be widely and deeply held. Prior to reading the Kakars (including Sudhir Kakar’s past works), the reader would likely have considered his actions to have been governed by an ethical system rooted in the various injunctions of older family members, and in well-worn statements from India’s classical and folk literature. The Indians, however, opens up a new door, enabling the reader to perceive how the system has shaped and defined his culture and personality.
The Kakars convincingly connect Indian business culture to the Indian child’s experience of family. From an early age, they write, the Indian child is made aware of the importance of the integrity of the family, and of the hierarchy within it. Indian children receive much nurturing from their elders, but are also expected to follow their elders’ injunctions – to the extent that they are made to believe that what their elders dictate is what is best for them. This has ramifications far into the child’s future, particularly when he has to join the workforce. Drawing from a report on various global corporate cultures, the Kakars show how the Indian organisation is characterised by four elements: a high degree of idealisation by subordinates of their superiors; a significant separation between members of the organisation by power, authority and prestige; a widespread culture of caring, altruism and kindness; and a fierce loyalty by workers towards the organisation.
At first glance, some of what the Kakars reveal is startlingly counter-intuitive. Take, for instance, the relationship between the daughter-in-law and her cruel mother-in-law, which is an inexhaustible theme of Indian folktales and TV soap operas. When such a plot is used, every Indian (indeed, nearly every Southasian) knows to sympathise with the victimised daughter-in-law, and to revile the villainous mother-in-law. But the Kakars demonstrate that such animosity towards the mother-in-law is in fact unwarranted, as she is merely “an agent of the Indian family”, whose role is simply to preserve the traditional form of the family from outside intrusion. “Given the organizing principle of the traditional Indian family,” the Kakars continue, in which the parent-son and filial bonds are more central than the husband-wife tie (that is considered the fulcrum of the modern Western family), the new bride constitutes a very real threat to the unity of the larger family. Abundantly aware of the power of sex to overthrow religiously sanctioned family values and long- established social norms, the family is concerned that the young wife may cause her husband to neglect his duties as a son, as a brother, a nephew, an uncle; that he will transfer his loyalty and affection to her rather than remaining truly a son of the house.
Perhaps because The Indians is largely a synthesis of Sudhir Kakar’s previous books, the quality of the chapters here is somewhat uneven. Two of the most problematic deal with the various shapes of modern Hinduism, and with communal antagonism and violence. These read like mere amalgamations of the works of many other social scientists, and include little unique insight.
But outstanding chapters, such as the one on Indian sexuality, make up for those weaker parts. The study of sexuality has been a major facet of Sudhir Kakar’s career. In addition to his studies on sexual mores in contemporary India, he has co-authored a translation of the Kama Sutra, and written a novel based on the life of Vatsyayana. In The Indians, the Kakars draw from these works, to create a celebratory and lyrical account of sexuality during the era in which the Kama Sutra was written.
While admiring sexuality as practiced in ancient India, the Kakars are pained by the conservative and puritanical sexual mores of contemporary India. Indian society today, they say, is in “the dark ages of sexuality”, characterised by a lack of “erotic grace which frees sexual activity from the imperatives of biology, uniting the partners in sensual delight and metaphysical openness.” The Kama Sutra, then, remains particularly relevant in contemporary India. Juxtaposed against the discussion of contemporary sexual mores, the celebration of the Kama Sutra appears as an effort to critique modern Indian sexuality through the presentation of an example of a superior alternative from the Subcontinent’s own history:
The erotic love of the Kama Sutra is a precarious balancing act between the possessiveness of sexual desire and the tenderness of romantic longing, between the disorder of instinctuality and the moral forces of order, between the imperatives of nature and the civilizing attempts of culture. It is a search for harmony in all the opposing forces that constitute human sexuality.
Similar implicit critiques run throughout The Indians. The Kakars approve of societal characteristics that promote harmony, health and the refined enjoyment of the daily pleasures that life offers. They disapprove of those characteristics that cause discord, and inhibit expression and enjoyment. Indeed, Sudhir Kakar was a practicing psychoanalyst for many years, seeking to liberate his patients from psychological barriers that prevented them from living full and healthy lives. In The Indians, the authors come through as pragmatic, wise and gentle guides. They criticise, but their criticism is understated, appearing on the surface as simple description of Indian society. Even when they describe ugly traits, they do so with warmth and fondness towards the people they are describing. Ultimately, it is the gentle, implicit critique and the warmth of the Kakars’ personalities that hold the disparate strands of this book together.