Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Khattar's Gurugram is in Haryana, not in California

By Swapan Dasgupta


To many of the cosmopolitans resident (or working) in Gurgaon, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is a figure of ridicule. This is not on account of his party affiliation or because he was an unexpected choice for the top job after the BJP won power in Haryana. To those educated in the older English-medium schools, Khattar often appears the stereotype of the Sanskrit teacher, the proverbial Pandey-ji who was the resident oddity. His stern and somewhat archaic demeanour has conflicted sharply with the ethos of the gated, high-rise buildings. Khattar epitomised an aspect of the old Punjabi Haryana while the beautiful people working in glass-fronted offices imagined they were in California. 


In view of this cultural schism, it is understandable that the reaction of social media to the abrupt renaming of Gurgaon to Gurugram was accompanied by a blend of mirth and outrage. Gurugram, it was proclaimed, was the newest addition to the long list of name changes that the ‘dhotiwalas’ (an archaic term that conveys the sense) and cultural xenophobes had forced on Global India. There was, of course, a small difference. The junking of Gurgaon wasn’t exactly an act of armchair anti-colonialism; it was more a linguistic purification and a turn away from the colloquial. No doubt it also assaulted the rustic ‘Gurgawan’, preferred by those the beautiful people see as today’s ‘criminal tribes’, but it also deflated the handful that preferred calling Delhi’s extension as ‘Gerzhen.’


Name changes, however innocuous, are often a source of momentary inconvenience. Moreover, among a particular class, the persistence with the old name, even the archaic, is often a political statement—a proclamation of detachment from the vernacular. Yet, it is interesting to juxtapose the curious love of Gurgaon as both a city and brand name with the names of the upscale residential complexes that define this corner of Haryana. A glance at a property portal for Gurgaon revealed some names of the high-rise residential buildings: Casa Bella, Tulip Violet, Palm Drive, The Verandas, Merlin, Victory Valley, Palm Springs, The Primus, La Lagune, The Belaire, et al. The nearest to an Indian name was Vaatika. 


The mismatch between the professed elite fascination for the Haryanvi colloquial and their preferred building names couldn’t be starker. Maybe the contrived outrage would have been less voluble had the State Government opted for a name that would have fitted easily into a more ‘international’ (euphemism for American) environment. As it is, the only Indian feature of the Gurgaon architecture is the people who live or work in the buildings. And many of them try to pretend otherwise, except during cricket matches.


As controversies go, the storm over Gurugram is likely to blow over quickly. However, the mere fact that it agitates a section of the chattering classes is revealing. The real problem, it seems to me, is not that a variant of the ‘little tradition’ is being subsumed by a Sanskrit-centric ‘high culture’ but that the inspiration for resurrecting an old name has come from Indian mythology. 


A local belief that Dronacharya’s gurukul where both the Pandavas and Kauravas were instructed in the martial arts was located in Gurgaon is the basis of the new name. This in itself is not a new phenomenon as many Indian places are named around local beliefs centred on the Epics. Indeed, the historical lineage of Gurgaon and Gurugram are exactly the same, except that some find gram easier to pronounce than gaon.


The protests over commemorating Dronacharya, a guru who was guilty of favouritism and social prejudice, are also contrived. The Mahabharata, unlike the Ramayana, is not about the ideal man. It focuses on ethical and moral conflicts faced in the pursuit of dharma. Dronacharya was an accomplished guru but he was not an individual who is a public role model. Gurugram merely links a place to India’s own tradition of ithihasa. It is a facet of what is called “sacred geography.”


Gurgaon-Gurugram is a needless controversy that, however, has a way out. The Constitution also provides for two place names to exist simultaneously and without attaching value judgments. If India can also be Bharat, Gurgaon and Gurugram can coexist without inviting anguish or turbulence. The country has bigger battles to fight, even in Gurugram. 

Sunday Times of India, April 17, 2016


Monday, April 4, 2016

If we won't save Sanskrit, why stop foreigners?

By Swapan Dasgupta

India often gives the impression of being excessively fractious and not at peace with itself. Controversies, a few meaningful and others less so, hog the public space and encourage hyperbole and shrillness. Indeed, the nature of the controversies that gain traction are a commentary on the society we live in. And the results aren’t flattering. 

Last month, witnessed a mini-controversy with a difference. Some 130 academics wrote to Infosys Co-founder Narayana Murthy and his son Rohan questioning the choice of Sheldon Pollock, a renowned Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, as Chief Editor of the Murty Classical Library—a well-funded project to translate 500 volumes of classical Indian texts into English. The doubts over Pollock centred on two broad themes.  

First, it was suggested that Pollock had insufficient “respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation.” Pollock, who was honoured with a Padma award in 2010, was seen to be too partisan both in his disavowal of the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” and his public stands on contemporary politics. The appeal expressed fears that Pollock would attach needless hidden meanings to classical texts with a view to demonise India’s inheritance. This apprehension was further fuelled by the hissy-fit of a Pollock bhakt: “Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in Brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the Right…”

Secondly, in a separate intervention, Professor Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University and a signatory to the appeal, argued against the logic of outsourcing such an ambitious project to foreign “neo-Orientalists.” He felt that by missing out on an opportunity to develop India’s own intellectual capacities, the Murthys had tacitly acknowledged the West’s leading role in interpreting India for Indians. The battle, he wrote, “to regain India’s civilisational poise, equilibrium, and self-confidence is far from over. In matters of culture, education, and thought, we are still largely colonised and subservient.”

Although the move to remove Pollock from the project has been a non-starter, the effect of this controversy has been positive. No doubt it has exposed the schisms in a rarefied discipline and pointed to an excess of political agendas.  At the same time, it has forced India’s intellectual community to at least begin debating the decline of serious Sanskrit studies in the land of its origin. Coinciding with this controversy and associated disputes over interpreting texts, the apparent loss and misappropriation of India’s inheritance have also become issues of concern. 

There is, of course, a possible danger of the debate turning xenophobic. However, before ridiculous questions are raised over the right of non-Indians to delve into India’s antiquity, it is relevant to note that the sorry state of Sanskrit studies is entirely a post-Independence phenomenon. In its haste to acquire the trappings of modernity and even the stipulated ‘scientific temper’, India turned its back on its classics, viewing it as a dead and even retrograde inheritance. In our universities, the few that opted to pursue Sanskrit (or even Persian) became objects of social and intellectual derision. The esteem with which classicists are viewed in Western universities has not been replicated in India.

Indeed, had it not been for the Western universities and a handful of traditional institutions in India, the rigorous pursuit of both Sanskrit and Hindu theology would have died altogether. The insistence on cultural empathy and the acquisition of adhikara to delve into Sanskrit-based knowledge systems should not blind us to the virtues of transnational engagements, not to speak of untapped soft power.  

Sanskrit in India has been a casualty of an unresolved tussle in higher education between knowledge and skills. True, a monastic tradition of pursuing knowledge for its own sake doesn’t correspond with economic imperatives. However, as India progresses in a global ecosystem, society can afford to create enclaves of pure knowledge, insulated from the ‘relevance’ debates, that don’t suffer from condescension and neglect. If, in the process, Sanskrit philology also generates better computer programmers, it is an unintended bonus. 

Pollock’s biases may be socially unsettling but they have acquired a larger intellectual legitimacy (including within India) by sheer default. Challenging cultural misappropriation implicitly demands the recreation of lost intellectual traditions at home. If Murthy’s priorities are a little different, there are others who can step in. 

Sunday Times of India, April 3, 2016

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