Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Some thoughts on multiculturalism

As a nation, largely and collectively, we take personal pride in calling ourselves a multicultural or a pluralist society. Of course, why shouldn’t we—many rightly point out. We are a very large nation, with the states having their unique, distinct, yet collective heritage. The official state-sponsored secularism makes matters like religious orientation a question of choice and is thus, protected by law against discrimination. True, xenophobia is a reality in today’s society, but often so when it confronts states as politico-economic entities, rather than cultural ones; even the right-wing organisations are not strictly anti-other cultures per se—at least not now; the BJP would require Muslims and Christians be more Hindu, or Raj Thackeray would want migrants to be fluent in Marathi culture (as if that’d stop him and his north Indian bashing agenda). However, apart from such instances of ethnocentric discourses, our notion of multiculturalism, even within such complex structures and realities, is rather dogmatic and one-dimensional.

True, we may profess our multi-ethnic, pluralistic nature by saying that festivals or religious celebrations are more widely celebrated, and all; we may enjoy the cuisine of another state, or perhaps even dress traditionally for any such occasion. But, these attributes are external, as opposed to an internalised one, like say, language. People often remark that Marathi speaking skills are rather efficient, for a Bengali, that is. And I get even stranger looks when I say that I enjoy Tamil music.
“How can you?” they ask, wide-eyed.
“Because I like it, and I enjoy the music,” is my usually awkward reply.
“But you don’t understand the language...”
“Do I need to?”
Well, need I elaborate anymore?

We are programmed—as citizens, or Indians, or plainly as individuals in a multicultural society—to think that each culture, so to say, is endemic. In the real world, this would translate as one of those shows on SAB TV, where you have practically every linguistic state group residing in a cooperative housing society. And quite often, we are fooled to believe that such realities actually exist. If we are indeed so multicultural, why then, for example, are people from the north-eastern states conspicuously absent in Tarak Mehta’s cooperative society? More so, not only are we led to believe that each culture is endemic, but also that in being endemic, they are something external to us. We may enjoy Gujrati theplas being a Maharashtrian, or appams if we’re Bengali. We might even dress, in rare occasions, in the “garb” of another state. But internalised knowledge, say language, or music, is something unknown to our schema of understanding.
Maybe that’s why a certain professor of mine expressed her surprise when she met a student, who happens to be Catholic, and would sing Hindi songs—not the larger ‘Bollywood’, mind you—with ease, as opposed to, perhaps Christmas carols or Billy Joel.

In a broader international context, we may take insult when we are lumped as south Asians; because “we’re Indian, and we are a multicultural society.” But even within the multicultural framework of our own society, we respond only and largely to the state-sponsored idea of pluralism. More pressing issues, such as tribal identities were left unresolved during the period of state formation. And now that we are a properly functioning politico-economic union, with demarcated cultural hubs, and indeed the idea of what exactly may constitute culture, such questions would remain unanswered or unresolved.

A celebration of multiculturalism, thus, seems to require the marginalisation or negation even, of certain cultures. And I shall not expect a relaxation of those curious looks when I profess my likeness for Tamil music.  So much for unity in diversity, I suppose.

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