A specific shade of nationalism is being shoved down our throats these days. It wants us to subscribe to the idea that India is one particular – and no other – kind of nation. But India’s “manyness” is not easily hidden. As wondrous as it can be wretched, India is a land of paradoxes. Terrible crimes against women juxtaposed with mother goddess worship, sexual taboos juxtaposed with the legacies of the Kama Sutra and the erotic art of Khajuraho, an emerging economic superpower with crippling poverty and discrimination in the background.

The list is exhaustive. There are many faces of India, each as legitimate a claimant of the truth as the others. What makes us us is a complicated question. In her first book, Indian Instinct, Miniya Chatterji tries to tackle such existential questions that increasingly poke our Indian selves.

The story of many paradoxes

The title of the book, Indian Instincts, is a seeming paradox too. At first it seems like a simple enough name for a volume of essays in which Chatterji tries to analyse the overarching motivations behind typically Indian phenomena. But when she starts the book by refuting the popular notion of “instinct”, the paradox becomes apparent.

“Indianism”s, if one can use that word, are not inherent in anyone, Chatterji argues in the introduction. Behaviours that are considered “instinctual” to our castes, communities, regions and nation are, she contends, more nurture than nature. Again and again in the book, she reminds readers that they cannot hide behind the excuse of “we are like that only”. That the word “indian” is written is lowercase on the cover cannot be a design coincidence either.

This book of “essays on freedom and equality in India”, by a “prominent intellectual and speaker, writer and businesswoman”, ranges over topics like survival, evolution, exploration, procreation, love, parenting, values, nationalism, democracy, religion, corporations, money, decibels, aesthetics and freedom. These are clubbed under four different sections: “Instincts”, “Anchors”, “Trapped In Our Own Making”, and “Chaos and Conclusion”. Chatterji brings to the table this curious mix in an attempt to represent contemporary Indian culture.

Decoding the Indian way

In the first essay, “Survival”, in the first section, “Instincts”, the author starts by presenting findings from the field of genetic research to remind her readers that the sense of geographical identity (and pride) is pointless because we all share a common African ancestor. She offers a case study of an Indian man in Tamil Nadu with the NRY HG C-M130 gene – from the same pool as the oldest African inhabitants of the world – to establish her point. Chatterji also writes about the notions of race, caste and community – concepts that should be redundant in the 21st century but continue to be deeply entrenched in our collective Indian consciousness. These caste boundaries, asserted by micro-societies, often compel even the most educated amongst to uphold the most deplorable traditions.

The author moves on from community to nationhood as the basis for identity in the second chapter, “Evolution”. Taking a leap from pre- to modern history, she starts at the point where the Indian nation state was born. Chatterji posits that the Indian political entity rests on a volatile matrix of modernity and tradition, and that is the source of the many problems that plague us. The model of a developed society is often at odds with indigenous social structures that are rigidly hierarchical. We are all born, she argues, with a burden of religious and caste identities that no amount of money can shake off. In such a scenario, democratic promises of equal rights are mere words for countless Indian citizens, with the minority and the marginalised communities getting the shortest end of the stick. She adds the story of her personal challenges dating a Muslim man as a young Hindu Brahmin girl for a more layered perspective.

Many such problems of Indians are of their own making, argues Chatterji. As with identities, so with beliefs – we are an uptight lot. It starts with our national objection to something as primal as sex. In the essay “Procreation”, she critiques our inherent hypocrisies, evident in the fact that the land of the Kama Sutra is also the land of numerous sexual taboos as well as the land of exploding population. She examines the sources of our bias, including some of our ancient texts like the Manusmriti and the Victorian British attitude.

How we live

In section two, “Anchors”, Chatterji starts out with the subject of “Love”, which suffers from the derision in our culture as sex, especially if it is romantic. Only divine or filial love laced with great sacrifices find our sanction. Everything else is deemed a cause of attachment and, hence, ruin. Our love passes through the sieve of many discriminations and filters down only to those we consider equals. How the legacy of our prejudices and pursuits is handed down to our children is discussed in the sixth essay, “Parenting”. There is an alarming ring of truth when Chatterji suggests that parenting in India “holds a mirror to the dark, dubious side of a fast and unequally developing world.”

The problems of caste – as indeed there are many – is revisited in the chapter “Values”. Chatterji proposes that our individual and social value systems are derived from our erstwhile caste system and continue to suffer from that basic assumption of hierarchy. We are still inadvertent pawns to the ideas of pollution and purity, drilled in deeply by our religious framework.

It is hard to deny it when she says, “…the list of people we Indians consider dirty is stupefying: menstruating women, sick persons, widows, sweepers, people who have been assigned a lower caste at birth and so on.” Further, she says that the rich and powerful in India have every reason to let these inequalities thrive because their wealth and power comes from being able to exploit those at the bottom of the pecking order. Inequality, then, is our most dominant value.

In the essay on nationalism, Chatterji reflects on abstractions like “nation” and “nationalism”, which are not only not native to India but also fairly new. She reminds us that before Independence and the unification of states, most Indians thought of themselves as only citizens of the princely states they belonged to, and that the idea of nationalism is a European import. Further, she criticises this generation for leaving it to our politicians to decide for us how to love our nation and what is seditious.

This idea of being chained to our own notions is explored fully in the subsequent section titled “Trapped in our own making”. The chapter on “Democracy” warns the reader about the shades of populism and fascism our democracy seems to be acquiring. It leaves no room for dissent and that is a frightening thought. Chatterjee then dissects the construct of “Religion”, the double-edged sword that’s constantly in our hands. A very brief history of Hinduism is followed by an account of the riches of this “industry”, which are not entirely spiritual. Likewise, in “Corporations”, she brings to attention similar points of zeal, dangerously disproportionate distribution of assets, and those who stand to gain from this asymmetry.

In the fourth section of the book, “Chaos”, Chatterji takes on “Money” first. Through her lens of personal experience in the national capital, she takes a look at the problems of corruption, the glaring economic divide, the no-holds-barred approach to profit, and the little worth of human labour and life in this bargain. She makes no bones about the politics-business nexus and the crony capitalism that have become our everyday truths. The essays that follow, on “Decibels” and “Aesthetics” seem a little anti climatic, speaking as they do of relatively lighter subjects such as the sounds and sights that make up the India of today.

The concluding section, comprising the last chapter, “Freedom”, returns to theory and asks the reader to contemplate if we truly are free in this “free nation” of ours. In a country plagued by inequity, poverty, corruption, exploitation and restricted speech, how free can one be? But then, we have only ourselves to blame. “In India, politics, society, corporations and religions have become contraptions of our own making that restrict our absolute freedom,” she writes. The solution, Chatterji believes, is rational education which will finally help us break free from the shackles we inadvertently wear.

Soul(less) searching

This set of commentaries is significant at a time we are being overfed with writing on India’s “glorious past”. It is refreshing to find a voice that focuses on the present and makes a clear-eyed effort to find out why we do what we do. It is a noble attempt at trying to hold a mirror to society. But despite her best intents, the book reads like a weak attempt at reductionism, and seems to lack…soul. Chatterji is decidedly robust with her research and references, but any theory she suggests or challenges, or any conclusion she draws, appear all too simplistic. It does not help that she arbitrarily throws in personal narratives, often at the cost of flow.

Indeed, perhaps the most disappointing things about this book are the conclusions. Whatever steam it gathers fizzles out completely by the time one reaches the end of an essay. It becomes an unfortunate waste of the entire effort, because in almost every case, the end has no impact. In chapter after chapter, and finally the book, the author fails to even sum things up cogently. One is left with a sense of incompleteness and that is most exasperating.

So when the end is tepid, one circles back to the beginning. On the very striking cover of Chatterji’s book is a peacock perched on the back of a chair. It is hard not to take notice of this majestic national bird of India, for not only it is beautiful, but it is also rife with symbolism. In Indian mythology, the peacock appears repeatedly, signifying both prosperity and vanity/ego. Chairs are, of course, universal symbols of social status and intellectual activity. The scene could be symbolic of the Indian people in contemplation, or reflect the ruminations of someone sitting pretty in a position of privilege. The cover lends itself to many interpretations, and is eventually the only memorable thing about this book.

Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India, Miniya Chatterji, Penguin Random House India.