Globalisation: Indian “Ishtyle” !

An interesting article in the IHT

There is a bakery on the busy Museum Road in this bustling city where you can have imported Italian pasta, Thai sauces and jelly-based Japanese soft drinks, while the patisserie displays trays of tiramisu, black forest and chocolate truffle cakes. In the corner where freshly baked bread is kept, I find some intriguing loaves. It looks like
bread, feels like bread and is packed like bread. But it does not taste like bread, for it is spiced with fenugreek, turmeric and carom seed, as if it were a paratha, the buttery flatbread popular in northern India.

Western-style bread is hardly the first product that Indians have absorbed and transformed into something uniquely Indian. It joins a long list of items of food, music, art and culture that have come to India from other lands, and instead of resisting change, or rejecting it, this country has accepted it and made it into something quite different, tasty and interesting.

Menus of Chinese restaurants in India offer an American chop suey that’s neither American, nor Chinese; Italian restaurants offer Jain pizzas, without onions, garlic or potatoes (because the Jain faith prohibits eating of vegetables grown underground); and when McDonald’s opened its restaurants in India, not only did it not serve burgers
made of beef, but it soon found that among its more popular burgers was one made of alu tikki, which uses as its pattie a potato-based spicy dumpling.

Erudite scholars of Indian civilization have pointed out that India thrives on synthesis, and often they look for examples and evidence in sociological practices and religious exchanges. That is all very well, but a society is best understood when you observe how people live and how they integrate influences that appear alien. In that respect, India has been unique in soaking up what others have to offer, and adapting it for Indian use.

This is not restricted to the culinary crafts. Ever since the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar experimented with orchestras in London and New York, with conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta, and later with composers like Philip Glass, the idea of fusing Indian and Western music has gained momentum. Not all experiments have worked, but some
have been memorable, like those of Shankar, the Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the tabla wizard Zakir Hussain’s splendid improvisations with the British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin.

This ability to synthesize is one of India’s great strengths. The presence in India of often contradictory views, expressed vigorously, has confused the smartest: Winston Churchill called India not a country, but a geographical expression, and John Kenneth Galbraith was intrigued by what he called India’s functional anarchy. But the operative words are “expression” and “functional.” For India not only offers the space for its internal critics to express themselves fully, it also manages to function.

Consider the widely emotive topic of globalization, without which probably you wouldn’t have seen that interesting loaf of bread in the Bangalore bakery. The urban middle class, which throngs the malls, can’t wait for change. Activists claiming to represent the rural countryside say that India’s essence is in danger, if it does not resist alien influences.

But just as India’s wanna-be globalizers miss the point when they equate anything that’s minimalist and Western as modern, superior and worth imitating, so are the resisters, who seem to fear the end of civilization as we know it, should an American franchise open hundreds of shops selling donuts in India. Burgers could not dislodge samosas; donuts won’t dethrone malai kulfi.

Mahatma Gandhi, who trained as a barrister in London and used the legal skills he acquired with his own genius to shame the British into leaving India, understood this well. He said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

That may seem too profound a thought while contemplating a loaf of bread, but it shows why India’s integration in the globalized world should evoke less anxiety than what photographs of antiglobalization protests suggest.

This appears in the International Herald Tribune.