Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Mythical Thali

In my last post, I touched upon the subject of myths and how the media plays a role in preserving and perpetuating them. Of course, I was talking about it specifically in the Indian context, or rather, in the variety of impressions and perceptions that I am gathering as an expat Indian visitor making a trip to the country after a long time. I am classifying some of these impressions as part of a gigantic myth and, in the process, attempting to understand why various forces within the country find myths useful to perpetuate their pet ideas, and basically, to make sense of everything that was swirling around me during the trip.

So in that sense there is a very narrow perspective involved here even though the subject of myths itself requires a much broader discussion. And that’s where the crunch lies and the challenge for any writer, therefore, is quite simple: how to elevate this specific matter into something that’s wider and more general?

I'm trying to be cautious even though I needn’t be so because India’s economic resurgence is neither mythical nor unreal. I should know. Last month my investment manager at Zurich International told me that I lost nearly $ 20,000 for not transferring my funds to the more active Brazil-China-India funds when he had asked me to nearly two years ago. For some odd reason I remained faithful to the North American funds and, well, less said the better.

Before defining the term "mythology" one needs to define the meaning of the word "myth". The word itself comes from the Greek "mythos" which originally meant "speech" or "discourse" but which later came to mean "fable" or "legend"... For our purposes the word mythology has two related meanings. Firstly it refers to a collection of myths that together form a mythological system. Thus one can speak of "Egyptian Mythology", "Indian Mythology", "Maori Mythology" or "Greek Mythology". In this sense one is describing a system of myths, which were used by a particular society at some particular time in human history. It is also possible to group mythologies in other ways. For example one can group them geographically and then speak of "Oceanic Mythology", "Oriental Mythology" and "African Mythology"... Broadly speaking myths and mythologies seek to rationalize and explain the universe and all that is in it. Thus, they have a similar function to science, theology, religion and history in modern societies. Systems of myths have provided a cosmological and historical framework for societies that have lacked the more sophisticated knowledge provided by modern science and historical investigation.


I am using this definition as a kind of reference point for our discussion. There are many other definitions, too, but incorporating most of them here is beyond the scope of this essay. Maybe someday when and if I decide to expand this essay into something bigger I might do just that but not now. Myths, as this writer says, enable us to rationalise and explain the universe and all that is in it, and that the word is derived from the Greek "mythos" meaning "speech" or "discourse." Interesting points to consider when one realises that myths can work as effective templates in understanding reality and in providing some sort of context to what we see and experience all around us. In fact, they are regarded as necessary tools in influencing and manipulating public opinion in some way or the other.

Throughout history, words, images and sound (music, song or the ululating cries of tribal folks) have played a central role in the development of different myths. Some religions have used icons rather creatively to define their worldview (in the here and hereafter) whereas religions that are iconoclastic in nature have substituted images with words to do the very same thing.

Religion is not the only preserve of myths because, to cite one example, if one looks closely at the 'great American dream', it is a myth that has drawn thousands of immigrants to that great nation and still draws many to its shores. It would be interesting to examine the role of Hollywood, corporate America and that of different American authors in defining and adding colour to this myth. As a result, America is more than just a country with defined political and geographic borders, but an idea that attracts some and repulses others. People respond to that idea of what the nation represents and not necessarily to the reality of the country. This, in short, is the power of myths because it sets the agenda for our perceptions and decides how we are going to examine an entity.

The Great Indian Myth is not any different. However, there is not one all-encompassing myth that would define India but there are multitude of myths that jostle together for our attention in order to occupy our mental space. The amazing thing is that despite being so many they do not contradict themselves even though, at a certain level, they may appear as a bunch of paradoxes clubbed together. Perhaps it would be a mistake to assume that a single idea could easily explain a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-national country like India. Maybe it's not in the answer we get but in the question we ask that some sort of explanation might trickle in.

Let's look at the city of Bombay as an example. It has one of the world's most expensive real estate markets. It has some of the world's richest people living and working here. It has Bollywood, one of the world's most successful film industries. It is one of the most cosmopolitan Indian cities where you can find people from all over the country. It is the preferred city for multinationals and blue chip companies who enjoy the buzz the city gives. It has some of the swankiest malls, expensive restaurants, pricey five star hotels, and is a paradise for consumers from all income backgrounds. If there is any city that would define the new India, then, Bombay would be up there in that list.

Now going back to the subject of myths, Bombay provides the tools to define a more progressive, prosperous and successful India. In fact, for all of the reasons above, Bombay has been a magnet to people from all over the country because of the idea that one can become rich in this city if one simply works hard enough. In this sense, it closely parallels the 'great American dream' because it draws upon the same aspirational values that are constantly fed by the media and sustained by anecdotes shared by its residents.

While this myth of Bombay as some sort of an El Dorado might hold true because of the examples given above, the opposite scenario is true as well. Bombay has Asia's largest slum where people live in horrible conditions. It has some of the world's poorest people trying to eke out a living and finding it hard to do so. It is the headquarters of Shiv Sena, one of India's most regressive, xenophobic and fundamentalist political parties that does not recognise and appreciate Bombay's cosmopolitan nature. It is a city that has survived religious and communal riots that have, often, threatened to unravel its delicate social structure. It is, also, a city that has bred some of the most dangerous underworld goons whose reach extends beyond India.

This is the other Bombay that provides the template to view India as a third world nation infested with crime, disease, poverty and illiteracy. For those fed on the myth of a poor India, these images offer a necessary rationale for their perception, and the available evidence will only serve to make a compelling argument.

Now which perception is the true one? Bombay as a rich city with rich people that could pass off as a first world city, or the other Bombay that is poor, dirty, messy and full of illiterate people? Of course, both are true and yet either of the two can't be passed off as a definitive reality. This paradox is not a contradiction but expresses the complex nature of a city and a country that accommodates a billion people with that many preferences, predilections and perceptions.

This rich tapestry of contrasting images helps in constructing the Great Indian Myth: that of a nation of contradictions, diversity, want, despair and opportunities. But when it comes to actual definitions and depictions, this Myth is imagined according to individual preferences and through goals one has set for the future. Thus, those who have a stake in India as a future economic superpower will preserve and perpetuate the myth of a resurgent economy and focus only on its technological strengths, applaud all of its technocrats, salute unbridled consumerism and praise its business leaders. The media will, of course, lend a helping hand by tilting images in its news and entertainment programmes that suggest this perception to be the real one. The same will be done by those who see only the other India, and will use whatever myth making tools available at their disposal to project this myth.

Of course, in this competitive battleground the casualty is always the truth. No one wants to get hold of a well-rounded image that captures the essential reality because the stakes are very high to preserve the perceptions they hold dear. The challenge is to go beyond the myths and images and perceptions, and get a view-point that is not acquired from different sources but experienced first-hand. This would involve walking the streets, riding the trains, talking to real people and listening to their heart-beat. This is where the real India lies, and this India is hidden behind the myths propped up by different stake holders.

Question is, will we take the trouble to dirty the soles of our shoes and find out for ourselves, or will we just allow others to inform us what the country is all about?

Thali: The word essentially means a plate but in many Indian restaurants it is often understood to be a lunch or dinner platter. Vegetarian restaurants offer a variety of dishes in their thali or platter, and it's quite popular.