While many in the West are still influenced by romantic, colonial-era preconceptions of a nation built upon a fundamentally spiritual culture, today’s up-and-coming, burgeoning, eclectic India is a society in transformation that is constantly challenging the perceptions of outsiders—as well as its own population. An excerpt from diplomat and author Pavan K. Varma’s Being Indian: The Truth About Why The 21st Century Will Be India’s offers us some insight into a few of the nation’s contemporary realities.

The great Lingaraja temple in the east coast city of Bhubaneswar was built in the 11th century and is among the most striking temples of Orissa. Its pinnacle soars to a height of 55 meters and can be seen for miles around, a reminder of the past that can never be erased from the Indian landscape. Pious worshippers throng the temple, which is enclosed by gates on three sides; and closed to non-Hindus. But just outside, across the road, and part of a definitely less imposing structure, is something new—one among many new symbols of a new India—that seems to have emerged almost unnoticed from the crevices of the old. It is uncaring of its lack of pedigree, confident of its right to be, and open to anyone who has the ability to pay: The Nikhar Ladies Beauty Parlour.

On the other side of the country close to Aurangabad, is the small town of Khuldabad. Here lies the tomb of Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, who died in the 18th century, and ruled an empire stretching over most of India. Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim. In keeping with Islamic injunctions he lived a simple life, and had decreed that the expense on his tomb should not exceed 14 rupees and 12 annas, the amount earned from the sale of caps he sewed and the calligraphy he wrote. His Mazar [mausoleum] is within a mosque, a place of pilgrimage for believers. But almost overshadowing its entrance is a bit of an incongruity: An ISD (International Subscriber Dialling) and STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) booth, screaming its services in eye-catching black and yellow. Notwithstanding its cheap prefab looks, the booth has the swagger of the present; assured of its functional need, it seems to be indifferent to the concerns of the past. As if in applause, a stone’s throw away a huge billboard for a popular drink shouts: “I WANT MY THUNDER!”

"A people who have evolved in the same crucible for thousands of years are bound to develop certain unifying traits, a tapestry of common beliefs, cultural similarities, shared outlooks, and an overlapping of identities."

A new India has emerged in the last 50 years. It does not deny the past, nor is it immune to its influence. But it is more a product of the challenges of the present, and the opportunities of the future. When Winston Churchill said that India is merely a “geographical expression...no more a single country than the equator,” he was being both simplistic and arrogant. But to give him the benefit of the doubt, he was probably reacting, like so many of his compatriots, to the bewildering diversity of India, a nation of many languages and ethnicities, deeply divided by insular fealties. It is possible that Churchill was not interested in looking beyond the surface, for it is always useful for a colonizing power to project that the colonized never had an identity to begin with. But the civilizational unity of India cannot be disputed and many British scholars could have told Churchill that. A people who have evolved in the same crucible for thousands of years are bound to develop certain unifying traits, a tapestry of common beliefs, cultural similarities, shared outlooks, and an overlapping of identities. Centuries before Christ, the epic Mahabharata mentioned as many as 363 communities spread all over India. Scholars say that Indians have a vast number of genes in common; they share a very high percentage of traits and their perceived diversity is often deceptive. For instance, although Indians speak hundreds of dialects, and have as many as 17 recognized languages, their entire vocabulary has its source in four major language families.


India: An Extraordinary Mosaic
Photo by Elliott Gresswell

Yet under this awning of unity—more bequest of history than will—the country was, until recently, a cluster of particularities. An Indian in the North and an Indian in the South could worship the same god, or celebrate the same festivals, but knew very little about each other. Their loyalty to India was not in doubt, but their knowledge of each other was. For the greater part, their identity was specific to their caste, kith, kin, and region. There were few symbols other than these to reach out to each other. The notion of unity conjured from the past did not as yet have an easily identifiable pan-Indian personality. The British created all-India institutions as part of their colonizing machinery. A common system of administration and the sinews of a fledgling railway network broadened horizons, at least for some Indians. The struggle against a common subjugating power created a kind of common identity for the subjugated, but it was specific to the freedom movement and the political goal of independence. When Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the flag of independent India at the Red Fort in Delhi on August 15, 1947, Indians were united in their hopes for the future, but were still defined by the memories of the past. They had yet to evolve a culture of the present, distinct from but not severed from the past, and pan-Indian in its scope. The creation of such a culture, accessible to the common man and responsive to his tastes and aspirations, is a development of very great importance in the years after 1947, and of defining value in the study of the modern Indian persona.

The new supranational Indian culture is influenced by elite aspirations but no longer controlled by them. It cuts across class barriers and is nonchalantly lowbrow. It does not aspire to be classical, and has evolved in response to needs, not structured concepts. To the despair of purists it has had no qualms in borrowing from the West, nor for that matter from anywhere else. It has displayed an extraordinary ability to be hybrid, often at the lowest common denominator of conventional cultural aesthetics, while continuing to be unmistakably Indian. Its evolution has been haphazard but spontaneous, showing an exhilarating lack of inhibition and an enviable capacity for improvisation. It has given common symbols and icons to Indians even in the remotest parts of the country. Riding on a media and communications revolution, it has spread faster than any cultural development before. It permeates all aspects of everyday life: dress, food, art, language, employment, and entertainment. It has the arrogance of the upstart, and the self-absorption of the new. Irreverent in expression, it is dismissive of critics, and has no time for apologists. What it lacks in pedigree it makes up for in confidence, for it can count on the support of the people. Its greatest strength is that—excluding perhaps the absolutely marginalized—it includes more people across India in a common language of communication in more areas of everyday life than ever before.

"The great salad bowl of India is gradually emptying into a melting pot."

The new culture is still evolving. It is difficult to define exactly, but impossible to ignore in the nationwide appeal of masala dosa and tandoori chicken, the rhythms of Daler Mehndi and A. R. Rahman, the evolution of “Hinglish,” the ubiquity of salwar kameez, the popularity of Hindi films, the audience for cable TV, the mania for cricket, and the competition for IIT-JEE [an annual engineering college entrance examination]—to name just a few. What has facilitated the growth of this pan-Indian culture? Certain answers are obvious, such as the reach of Indian films and the exponential growth in the popularity of television. The revolution in communications has helped, as has the huge increase in mobility. Common aspirations, and the solidarity imparted by similar constraints, have played a significant role. The gradual but definitive democratization of the social order, and the unprecedented expansion of the economy, have contributed too. Countrywide opportunities, and standard institutions and curricula, have been an important factor. The presence of the Indian state, pervasive in its rituals of power and patronage, and all embracing in its shabbiness, cannot be ignored. Nor can the uniformity imparted by a certain culture of democratic politics, in which the smiling face of the rustic Laloo Yadav merges quite easily with the patrician portrait of Nehru.

The great salad bowl of India is gradually emptying into a melting pot. Youngsters, whose grandparents had rarely traveled beyond the provincial town near their village home, don’t think twice about studying and working in places that even their parents have only heard about. A new cosmopolitanism has become a feature of the Indian landscape, dissolving differences and changing the way Indians define themselves.

Pavan K. Varma is a writer and diplomat whose books also include Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity. He retired from foreign service in 2012, and served as a member of the Rajiya Sabha until July 2016. Being Indian: The Truth About Why The 21st Century Will Be India’s is published by Penguin Books India.