Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, October 31, 2010

I recently made a short trip to Canada. What struck me was the homogeneity of Ottawa, the capital city, I visited. Everything was organized and structured and clean. It made me extra-sensitive to the heterogeneity of Mumbai: on one side tall fully air-conditioned high rise buildings and on the other side slums and garbage piles. No wonder, in Hindu mythology, we have the idea of many Lokas, or realms, some occupied by various children of  Prajapati-Devas, Asuras, Rakshasas, Yakshas, Apsaras- all existing simultaneously and (almost) harmoniously.

There are many Indias that exist simultaneously. There is rich India and poor India. There is Hindu India and Muslim India. There is English India and Hindi India. There is Bengali India and there is Tamil India. The Canadians found it amusing that every Indian needs to know at least two or three languages in order to survive, and not the same two or three languages (Canada has two languages – English and French). In fact, just to help foreigners understand the complexity of India, I tell them to count the many scripts in an Indian hundred Rupee note. That one exercise silences all arguments on diversity. They realize how difficult it is to come up with a single blue print for India.

Diversity of India is most evident in Bollywood films. The world of Karan Johar (KJ) is so different from the world of Ram Gopal Verma (RGV) which in turn is so different from the world of Vishal Bhardwaj (VB). Their stories reveal their respective subjective truth. In the KJ mythosphere, there is no poverty and everything is spotlessly clean, designer labeled and delightfully shallow. In the RGV mythosphere, there are only angry gangsters, and corrupt politicians and policemen. VB’s mythosphere is gritty and dirty and feudal.  Which is the real India, I wonder?

During the festival of Navaratri, in many parts of South India, there is a ritual when clay and wooden dolls of various gods and goddesses are placed on a many tiered platform. I wonder if the ritual was aimed to sensitize children to the idea of diversity. Gods come in all shapes and sizes – fat, thin, blue, green, male, female, tree or monkey. Were these rituals designed to make Indians more tolerant? It is something to wonder about.

While linguistic, economic and religious diversity is seen in every part of the world, and is rising in first world countries with increasing immigration, what makes Indian diversity unique is the idea of caste. And members of different castes differ remarkably in social habits. Members of one caste may have more in common with members of the same caste in another part of the country than with their neighbors in the same village.

Until the British, no one bothered to unite India. It was not required. Diversity was allowed so long as the taxes were paid. The British needed to unite India and they worked very hard to create this one India – railways, law, police, postal services. We have inherited the British burden to unite India but we also want to be democratic. Democracy necessarily allows diversity. Different people therefore align themselves not to one national party but to regional parties that create vote banks using religion and caste as the lever.

This heterogeneous nature of India, I believe has its roots in the belief in rebirth. When one does not live only one life, there is no right way to live life. Everyone can live different kinds of lives in different lifetimes. So why bother trying to homogenize society? Let diversity prevail. Only the modern mind, conditioned by ideas that have their roots in America and Europe, carries the burden of homogeneity, hence unity.