Sundar Pichai, who was relatively unknown until a few days ago, has shot to fame all in one blog post by Larry Page. Make no mistake, being named the next CEO of Google is no small feat and most certainly deserves most of the headlines it has gotten. But does it deserve all the India focus the media here has given it? Of that, I am unsure.
Small-town boy from Chennai, studied at IIT, makes it big at what is probably the Holy Grail for most computer engineers. It’s easy to see why his story is inspirational for many Indians, and perhaps I know some Sundar Pichais-in-the-making of my own, but the clamour around the announcement designating Pichai CEO goes beyond that. The newspapers never fail to highlight the fact that he is Indian, social media was exploding with congratulatory messages from Indians of all walks of life – from the common man to celebrities to the Prime Minister himself. It seems a fair share of Indians seem to take pride in the fact that one of their own has beaten others out to a globally acclaimed position. I don’t quite understand where this pride stems from, though.
As a 21st century Indian, I must confess I am unsure what being Indian means to me. I am not ashamed of my country. At the same time, I am not particularly proud of the city I live in, the national capital, either. When we stood in silence as the national anthem played at the end of every school day, I was thankful for the soldiers up at Siachen Glacier, braving inhuman conditions and defending the country’s borders (then again, was I just thankful for the material safety?). But I was also always aware of an overarching sense of emptiness – of not feeling something more. Where were all the emotions poets waxed lyrical about, and all the patriotic feelings in the deshbhakti essays we were made to write in our Hindi classes? Am I supposed to feel a surge of pride swell within me when I see the Indian flag fluttering unfettered at Connaught Place? Why? When a fellow Indian reaches pinnacles of corporate success hitherto unknown to us, shall I celebrate his victory as my own?
I’m anti-national, you say. I have no regard for the founding fathers of our country or the countless lives that were lost in our struggle for independence. Freedom was wasted on a generation that includes such ungrateful beings as myself. I have no understanding of the battles that were fought, and ended long before I was born. I am inexperienced, and perhaps I would speak differently if I had lived under the thumb of foreign rule.
Perhaps. But wait; before the calls of ‘deshdrohi’ are hurled at me again, let me just say that I do not have to be proud of being Indian. That I am Indian is a state of affairs beyond my control entirely. I was not consulted; there was no questionnaire survey with preferences or a merit system by virtue of which I found myself in this country. Why then, am I afraid to say I am not proud of being Indian, or that I do not associate with the “Indian identity” (if there is one at all) entirely? Do I owe allegiance to concepts that have been forced upon me? If the Indian freedom struggle is where these feelings of patriotism stem from, then forgive me, but I do think Indian independence was a historical inevitability.
Am I bound to be loyal to my nation? Is this article stirring anti-national feelings? What is so sacrosanct about the concept of nationality that we penalise even the slightest doubt about it? What are we so afraid of? A new generation of anti-nationals? Would it be so terrible to have a league of people who do not care as much about the idea of the nation and the government, as they do about the people? While I might not feel any obligations to the country, I might still feel obligated to the people of the country. I reject your idea of nationalism, of borders and artificially created identities.
Being brought up in the South (in one of the more cosmopolitan cities – Bangalore), in a North Indian home, has left me quite confused about my Indian identity. I don’t quite fit in with the North Indians (the accented Hindi gives me away in two seconds), and I am looked upon as a strange, alien creature in my South Indian friends’ households while they converse in Tamil, Telugu or Kannada – languages I haven’t the slightest clue about. Some might call it unfortunate, but English is the language I am most fluent and conversant in – a language not native to the country I pledge allegiance to (or do I?). I have been called firang jokingly numerous times by my friends, but the sad truth is that in a country where the background you come from and the languages you speak are ascribed so much importance – where we instinctively group people into categories – Punjabi, “Madrasi”, North Eastern – and these groups become fundamental parts of your identity – I am not entirely sure I always feel part of this entity we call Bharat.
A sense of ‘belongingness’ is often associated with patriotism – that India will always be more home than any other country ever could be. (Ironically enough, in a country where minority groups are systematically and regularly oppressed. But now you will accuse me of being pessimistic). But this sense of belongingness is a product of circumstances – a feeling that would arise no matter where we lived.
There is nothing inherent about nationalism – it is manufactured, fed into us through all the Independence Day celebrations at school where you were made to wear your white uniform and were handed a little tricolour flag that you had to wave, through the national anthem played at the beginning of every movie in cinemas, through the smiling face of Bapuji on your banknotes.
Sundar Pichai, congratulations to you – just not as one Indian to another.