Elevate Difference

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity

Pavan K. Varma’s most recent book, Becoming Indian, argues that cultural freedom has eluded formerly colonized nations, specifically India. He sees a need for a cultural revolution in India. Although it reads at times like an extended opinion piece, Varma makes convincing arguments highlighting the importance of reclaiming language, architecture, and art in a way that empowers indigenous knowledge rather than oppressing it. He examines concepts and examples related to language, architecture, and art with regard to modern Indian history, contemporary events, and personal experiences.

Varma believes that the real strength of empires lay in the colonization of minds, and he views modern history as one that has resulted in cultural and ideological consequences. He explores how English has become a tool for upward mobility and questions the cost, as the loss of one’s own language is seen as a gain in India. He uses the example of young people performing Shakespeare in English with no knowledge of theatre in their own languages to illustrate this pervasive ignorance. He also compares the success of writing in English to the sure failure of writing in Indian mother tongues to illustrate a flaw in today’s Indian value systems. Convincingly, he critiques the concept of providing important information, such as health and traffic signs on the highways, in English.

Although India has been independent since 1947, Varma argues that colonialism persists in the realms of language, politics, and self-image. Varma believes that globalization is leading to the desire for a homogeneous identity. To counteract this, he believes it is important to know one’s cultural roots in order to move forward into the future.

From a feminist perspective, it is interesting to note the ways in which the British have historically seen Indians as effeminate, and thus treated them with less respect. The power dynamics within post-colonial societies are especially tricky as colonization has already permeated people’s minds. According to Varma’s arguments, what may be necessary is not only a contemporary Indian cultural revolution but also one that involves all sectors of society, from the lowest to the highest castes and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Written by: Lakshmi Saracino, May 22nd 2010