I is for Indias

Nope. The title’s not a typo. I is for Indias. Plural.

Traditionally, three names are used for India: Bharat (used in Hindi), Hindustan (used in English and Hindi; literally the state of Hindus), and India (used most often in English; the name the British used). Which name you use reflects your cultural and political orientation.

India is frequently spoken of in terms of the two Indias: one poor, one rich; one rural, one urban.  In the aftermath of the Delhi rape case, one politician claimed that rapes do not happen in rural Bharat; they happen only in urban India.

Just as India has two official languages (Hindi and English), so too does it have two Indias, opposing forces that are often at war with each other, at least metaphorically. But, while India has two official languages, it has almost two dozen “scheduled” languages that may be used for official business at the state level. To speak of two Indias is an oversimplification, as there are as many Indias as there are states or languages. “Many Indias” would be a more accurate description.

This fact was brought home to me during my recent viewing of Kick Like a Girl at an US Consulate sponsored event. The consulate had invited three Indian documentary filmmakers to a panel discussion about females in film.  One panelist, Nishtha Jain, is director of the documentary Gulabi Gang (not the Bollywood version).

She commented that her friends from the West say that they have far more freedom and less pressure in India to wear what they want, how they want. Dressing in India is so much easier, simpler. My mouth fell open as I heard this statement. I had just blogged about the pressures of dressing the right way in Mumbai, a place where I have felt that pressure boil over.

I was relieved when a smartly dressed Indian woman in the front row called Jain out by saying, “this statement is in direct opposition to reality.” She went on to explain that in all her global travels, she felt the pressure to dress to impress most acutely in Mumbai, India’s fashion capital.

Jain clarified that the place where the consulate hosted the event, The Tasting Room at Goodearth in Lower Parel, was  not somewhere she would normally go in Mumbai. To her, the place felt foreign, different somehow. Goodearth was not part of her Mumbai, not part of her India. For me, Goodearth is a frequent shopping and dining location. It’s one of the places in the city that feels most like the US to me.

That’s when it happened: the epiphany. I realized that even within Mumbai, many Indias exist. It’s not just that Mumbai differs from rural Maharashtra or that its rich and poor live side-by-side. Even Mumbai contains as many Indias as there are people within its environs. The life I lead is different from my driver,  just as his life is different from a dhobiwala (laundry person) living in Dhobi Ghat, just as his life is different from a dudhwala from Aarey milk colony.

To Americans, India is  call centers, slums, and ashrams. India’s given the West nonviolent protest, yoga, and outsourcing. Yes, those places and concepts exist; yes, they help define Indian culture. Nevertheless,  many Indians will go their entire lives never having experienced any of those things. For those Indians, what do their Indias look like? How would they describe the diversity and complexity of this culture?

2 thoughts on “I is for Indias

  1. This is so true, Jean. And this makes the country that much harder for people to understand – way too many contradictions.
    Having said that, I find that Mumbai is much more laid back about dressing to impress than some of the other cities I’ve lived in.

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  2. Thanks, Corrine for all your comments. Even after two years, it seems like there is so much I don’t know. I think I get a handle on something, then, boom! Nope. I think part of the clothing issue is perception. My circle seems far more interested in the latest look than other circles are.

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