Our Neighborhood

A friend introduced me to the notion of a ‘chewing-gum’ concept – one that has the flexibility to be stretched or shrunk as needed to suit the context. This immediately solved a problem that had been vexing me for months.

The problem was the following: I had been toying with launching local language versions of this blog but had found myself stymied by the challenge of translating meaningfully its name – The South Asian Idea. What had come so naturally in English turned into an impossible task in, say, Hindi or Urdu. There were two questions here: why was the task proving to be difficult and what was to do be done about it?

This was the first time it occurred to me, without ever becoming completely clear, that perhaps language and our experiences shape the way we think and determine what we take for granted. The abstract notion of an ‘idea’ used in the context of The South Asian Idea or in Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India seems to be eminently comprehensible but dakshini Asia ka khyal or junuubi Asia ka tasawwur seem quite forced by comparison. Neither khyal nor tasawwur quite captures the sense of ‘idea’ in the context under consideration.

I don’t know why this might be so. It could reflect my ignorance – I may be missing some very obvious equivalent – or it might be that we form abstractions differently in different languages. This remains a task to be explored in the future.

At another level, the idea of South Asia comes naturally to one who has become part of a bigger world and can look back at home from a global vantage point. Perhaps the notion is much less real to someone whose transition has progressed from a village to a small town in Bihar. The idea of South Asia is not as universal as it seemed without adequate reflection.

And it is here that the notion of a ‘chewing-gum’ concept comes into play. What we are talking about, at bottom, is the idea of a neighborhood – and a neighborhood can be as small or as large as needed depending upon where we are and what we are talking about.

Take a person whose neighborhood is Dharavi; in another context his neighborhood could be Mumbai; in yet another, Maharashtra; and in yet another, India. One can scale up or down without any mental discomfort or dislocation.

What I find fascinating about the concept of a neighborhood is the fact that there are quite intangible things that separate one neighborhood from another and yet are absolutely clear to their residents. Reading the letters of Ghalib, one gets a picture of the neighborhoods (mohallas, katras, kuuchas) in Old Delhi that were abutting and yet distinct from each other. When it is just a narrow lane that separates one house from another, what is that locates them in different neighborhoods?

I believe in the equality of all human beings and therefore think of myself as a citizen of the world. At the same time, like most human beings, I crave a sense of community. How do I reconcile these seemingly contradictory desires? Thinking of myself as a world citizen does not give me that sense of community that I want. Dropping down to the continent of Asia still does not yield what I am looking for. I have spent much time in East Asia but I do not find the overlap that gives me the communal feeling I seek.

If I go all the way down to hiing ki mandi in Agra, or Agra itself, or even UP, I feel too confined. I am leaving out many others who are just like me or share most of my traits, passions and interests. I find that for me personally, when I go all the way up to the global level and start coming down again, the most natural stopping point is South Asia. And perhaps that is why The South Asian Idea seemed so natural to me as a title and I adopted it without any deeper thought.

So what is it that we share in South Asia that makes it our neighborhood? Well, a majority of us swoon at the names of Sachin Tendulkar and Muralidharan, laugh about Bollywood and Tollywood, remember Vyjayanthimala and Nurjehan, know of the tigers of the Sunderbans and the diamonds of Golconda, can get by with daal bhaat, aspire to learn English, find dynastic rule quite acceptable, exhibit mutual passions of hatred that only come from close associations, and get into heated arguments with those of us who refuse to share these passions.

Now consider what demarcates South Asia and separates it from other neighborhoods. Venture to the west and the neighborhood begins to fade away in Afghanistan and Iran – no cricket, no English, no daal, and what would one fight with an Irani about? Venture east and the transition begins in Burma; once one gets to Thailand, it is clearly another neighborhood. To the north, there is a land of transition in Tibet and then yet another very different world where they eat very different things. And there is the sea to the south.

South Asia constitutes a distinct and well-defined neighborhood for me and, therefore, when The South Asian Idea does get its Hindi and Urdu versions, they will have a simple and stretchable name, Hamara Mohalla, with which many more would be comfortable.

I find I can bond very easily with other South Asians because we can very quickly find something to talk or quarrel about and some utopian plans to dream of. I like every body else too, but in a politer, more formal manner and they don’t move me in the same way. A song from many years ago comes to mind. I haven’t done any of the things it speaks of (much to my regret) but it captures the spirit of what I have been trying to argue in this essay:

I’ve kissed the girls in Naples, they’re pretty as can be,
I’ve also kissed some French girls, who came from Paree.
The Spanish girls are lovely, oh yes, indeed they are,
But the ladies of Calcutta are sweeter by far.

The ladies of Calcutta will steal your heart away,
And after it is stolen, you’ll say.
I’ve kissed the girls of Naples, I’ve kissed them in Paree,
But the ladies of Calcutta do something to me.


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37 Responses to “Our Neighborhood”

  1. Sakuntala Says:

    True, translating from one language into another often leaves one stymied, I have found. (Giving a talk on Hindustani music in Tamil, for a south Indian audience, for instance) Concepts certainly differ from language to language, and perhaps thought processes too….
    No, not Hamara mohalla. What about hamari aabaadi — does that convey a sense of community (my Urdu is of course very scanty….)

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Sakuntala: Mohalla has a distinct sense of character and identity that distinguishes it from other mohallas – residents identify with their mohallas much as they identify with their local sports teams. Aabaadi is a more generic term for a settlement and one settlement can be very much like the other. It is a term that an outsider would use for a place; residents would not call their neighborhood an aabaadi. However, the major strike against the term is that it has a dual connotation – aabaadi is also used for population. So, ‘hamaari aabaadi’ could convey the sense of ‘our population’ which would no do. Thanks for the input though and I will be monitoring it with interest to see if I need to reconsider the choice.

  2. Anil Kala Says:

    Hamara Mohalla! you kidding? It’s so juvenile, has no seriousness. If the blog was about South Asian recipes, perhaps ……

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: Thanks for the frank feedback. I will keep my mind open on this and see what the general sense of the readers is like. I am intrigued though how the connection of a mohalla with cooking occurred to you?

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Although I have little knowledge of branding but the blokes who do, do come up with substantive meaning in branding things. Bombay and Mumbai do not connote the same thing to me one is about vibrant, cosmopolitan and liberal melting pot of culture the other staid, backward and stiflingly claustrophobic experience. Mohalla to me is about gossip. I may be wrong.

  3. Vinod Says:

    I find that urban metro progressive career-oriented women in India tend to be deferring to men even now, atleast in the initial stages of familiarization. This perplexes me, not to mention also messing with my mind. I think they are flirting by fanning the male ego. This is quite distinctly noticeable compared to western women who seem more clear thinking and assertive. It seems easier to discuss difficult matters with western women than Indian women, who for unknown reasons, still see the man as the one with the pants.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: This is a tricky area and one where generalizations can be treacherous but let me offer some thoughts to encourage a discussion that might help clear some misunderstandings. Quite some time back, there was an article on this blog (How Far Behind is South Asia?) that argued that in terms of standard indicators of human development, South Asia was about a 100 years behind Europe. I think that in terms of gender relations in the urban metro the lag is at least about 50 years.

      There was a revolution in the West in about the 1960s after which, over time, people have begun to interact with each other as persons who are equal. They only adopt gender-specific roles when they want to. Urban metro South Asia is still in the middle of a transition where gender roles and expectations have not reached any steady state. People interact in gender-specific terms all the time. And given that expectations are a confused mix of the new and old, there is a lot of frustration on both sides. Women have as many grievances about men as men have about women.

      These are very broad generalizations. There is so much diversity and spread around the mean that one runs into exceptions all the time.

  4. Gohar Azhar Says:

    I am not sure we can claim even South Asia as our neighbourhood. Our “abadi” of like minded souls exists within a well defined peninsula within South Asia. Is there an Urdu or Hindi word for peninsula?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Gohar: I don’t know a local equivalent for peninsula. But this does allow for a digression. Think of the many terms associated with sailing and navigation – peninsula, island, archipelago, cape, bay, promontory, port, harbor, delta, cove, coast, etc. Clearly, these would be part of the vocabulary of maritime cultures. The English and Portuguese were great maritime powers at one time and also there surely must have been loan words from Greek and Latin because the Greeks and the Italians were also seafaring people.

      By contrast, Urdu/Hindi speaking people were never seafarers so one would expect only very basic terms to exist in these languages. The Persians/Turks were not seafarers either, so there are unlikely to be loan words from there. If there are to be equally detailed descriptions one might have to look to Gujrati or some of the languages along the South Indian coast. I am being very speculative here but I would expect the terminology to be richer on the west coast (say in Konkani) than on the east because one would expect loan words from Arabic. The Arabs were also seafaring at one time and there was regular trade to the west coast of India – it is said that the English term admiral comes from the Arabic Amir ul Bahr.

      I always find it amazing that in Hindi/Urdu we don’t even distinguish between snow and ice getting by on the generic ‘barf’. The Eskimoes are supposed to have about a dozen terms to distinguish between the various types of snow and ice simply because the differences must be crucial to their lives – skating on thin ice would be fatal. Even English has slush and freezing rain as additional descriptors.

      I hope there is a linguist in the crowd who can shed a more learned light on this speculative foray.

  5. Gohar Azhar Says:

    If Urdu is truly the “language of the tents” and grew out of intermxing/mingling of many cultures, maybe we need to continue to promote its growth. I see no harm in incorporating the word peninsula and using it in Urdu.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Gohar: Using ‘peninsula’ will cause a lot of confusion (e.g., is it a blog about geography?) quite apart from the fact that employing it as an Urdu/Hindi term gives a vague medical sense – like a mix of penicillin, insulin and spatula. Also, I feel there is a South Asian identity that goes beyond the peninsula you have in mind. Think of the use of ABCDs in the US – who all are included in the desis?

      Just by way of interest, nouns ending with ‘a’ in Hindustani are very peculiar. For example, you will say ham Dilli ja rahe hain but not ham Agra ja rahe hain. It will be ham Agrey ja rahe hain. The first time I realized this was listening to a cricket commentary in Hindi and hearing gaind Ranatunge ki tarf ja rahi hai as a translation for the ball is going towards Ranatunga. So, it would be quite likely to hear someone say, main ne Peninsulay par parha tha.

      • Usama Khawar Says:

        then what about a name that has word “daees” or “desi” in it e.g. “daees ki batain” or “desi tasawaar” or “desi log” or “desi gup shup.” I think “tasawaar” is nice word too!

  6. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    My two cents on your proposed name: to me “mohalla” connotes only “small neighborhood” not “flexible-sized neighborhood.” While “neighborhood” may be an adequate translation of “mohalla” in some contexts, I don’t think it works for the kind of large context of South Asia that you have in mind. It doesn’t seem to scale up and down.

    Also, your site is about a critical and reflective discussion of ideas concerning South Asia. That doesn’t seem to come across with “mohalla.” You mentioned the word “khayal” above. To me, that is a nice word with a nice resonant sound. Isn’t it possible to use it somehow?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: The sentiment is running against mohalla so I will reconsider it. Quite apart from the sentiment, I feel the term has some merits. It connotes a small neighborhood if taken literally but I am using it as a metaphor. Backyard is similarly used in the small but then in a geopolitical context there is often reference to America’s backyard.

      A global ‘village’ (if it becomes a reality) will have a dozen or so ‘neighborhoods’ of which South Asia will be one – so it makes sense to speak of South Asia as a neighborhood. On the English language blog most readers are comfortable with the idea of South Asia as a unit. With the local language blogs I wish to reach out to those for whom it is more of an abstraction. It is an effective pedagogical technique to get to something abstract via something that is much more familiar. The concept of a mohalla serves that purpose and one can work up to talking about South Asia in those familiar terms.

      Khayal is elegant but it is not anchored in anything and my principal objective is to concretize the idea of South Asia. Within that we can talk of issues that are small as well as large.

  7. Vinod Says:

    One of my close pakistani friends, who has Bihari origins, commented in exasperation on the Pathans in Karachi that they don’t even “look like “us”. I don’t know why they are part of Pakistan!!

    What I got from this was that despite the shared religion and its emphasis on brotherhood among believers, he instinctively felt more connected with a regular north indian hindu than a Pathan. Religion could not penetrate his heart, which has long been won over by the shared subcontinental culture.

  8. SouthAsian Says:

    Vinod: Most of the time the concrete leaves a deeper imprint than the abstract and this notion of the ‘ummah’ is the quintessential abstraction.

    As was mentioned in the post, the transition from South Asia to West Asia begins in Afghanistan. This does not mean that within a neighborhood, Muhajir-Pathan type quarrels cannot occur. There is no relationship between the two. One just needs to refer to the Mahabharata to understand that.

  9. Arun Pillai Says:

    I agree, as a metaphor it could work. But then the reader has to do that much more work. Regarding “khayal” I meant using the word in conjunction with other suitable words not by itself.

    Of course, once readers get used to whatever name you choose, it will function as a name more than as a description, just as something like “the morning star” initially described Venus but later just became a name for Venus. When that happens, its connotation will not matter much except to newcomers.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I understood your intention re “khayal”. As I mentioned in the post I could not find a natural embedding with other suitable words – dakshini/junuubi Asia ka khayal/vichaar did not convey what I wanted to. There could be a better combination that did not occur to me.

      There would be an introductory post that would convey the objectives and concepts to new readers. It is the new reader that is important. Once the notion becomes familiar, the name would be just another name as you mention.

  10. SouthAsian Says:

    Here is an op-ed on “The Inevitability of South Asia” and thereby of the South Asian identity. It is tune with the spirit of The South Asian Idea – from idea to reality:


    • Vikram Says:

      SA, what is this South Asian identity ? I can find the idea of India in the Constitution, the national anthem and the events of the freedom struggle, where do I find this idea of South Asia ?

      How do we reconcile the words of the op-ed and this blog with Amebdkar’s opinion,
      “Indeed, there is more spiritual unity between Hindustan and Burma than there is between Pakistan and Hindustan.”

      I think that the idea of South Asia as any kind of spiritual community and consciousness was lost with the general Muslim rejection of Gandhi and Badshah Khan.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: I took the op-ed to refer to the problem of nomenclature. There existed an India that was much larger than the present-nation state that appropriated the name in 1947. this causes a problem – how does one refer to the old India without confusion? Therefore, the idea of South Asia has to be invented for those discussions in which we want to talk about the old India. If the name Bharat or Hindustan had been chosen, this confusion would not have arisen.

        Ambedkar was a great individual but we should not turn him into a prophet. He was right on a lot of things but not necessarily on everything. We can accept without apology that he could have been wrong on some things if the evidence suggests that. It can be argued, he was not quite right with this statement.

        Spiritual community and consciousness should not be dependent on agreement with any one person. The RSS assassinated Gandhi, Nehru and Patel rejected his vision for development, Bose rejected his strategy for resistance against colonialism, Ambedkar rejected his position on caste – none of these mean that spiritual unity and consciousness within India was lost. Disagreements are part of the political process as also within families.

        • Vikram Says:

          SA, the classic consciousness problem in India was, ‘what can Punjabis and Tamils possible have in common’ ? Today this question is rarely raised, and I believe the independence movement and its leaders gave the initial parts of the answer. But once the borders are crossed, it becomes difficult to see what the linkages are, apart from the ethnic ones which are restricted to relatively small populations, especially on the Indian side. So in short, my question is what links a Pakistani Punjabi to a Malayali or even a Maharashtrian ?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: “The classic consciousness problem in India was, ‘what can Punjabis and Tamils possible have in common’? Today this question is rarely raised.”

            Your question today is “what links a Pakistani Punjabi to a Malayali or even a Maharashtrian ?” Is it possible that 60 years later this question may rarely be raised?

            And there is a question that is still being raised in India today: What does a Brahmin have in common with a Dalit? See Arundhati Roy asking that question in the most recent issue of Caravan: http://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/doctor-and-saint

            The finding of similarities and differences is a very political issue and the answers change as needed over time. The history of Europe in instructive.

            Also, there is a 10-part series (Are we similar or are we different?) on this blog: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Identity

  11. Vikram Says:

    Your question today is “what links a Pakistani Punjabi to a Malayali or even a Maharashtrian ?” Is it possible that 60 years later this question may rarely be raised?

    It is indeed possible, but very unlikely. The fundamental reason is that while religion plays a role in both Pakistani and Indian politics, the nature of its role is very different in the two countries.

    In Indian politics, religion is an identifier or a label, even an atheist like Javed Akhtar is identified as a Muslim in the political sphere. Religion, whether Hindu or Muslim or Sikh is not the basis of public morality. When it comes to morality or acceptable behavior in the public sphere, the reference point is either ‘Indian culture’ or the Constitution (for a small but influential section of the population) or in case of political mobilizations, events from the independence movement.

    In Pakistan, Islam forms the very basis of publicly accepted behavior. Even demands for equal treatment of minorities by Pakistani liberals are justified by the actions of the prophet in this regard. This is a new development in South Asia. Even at the height of Islamic political power in India, the daily lives of the common people, Hindu or Muslim, were mostly dictated by the secular/tribal laws of society, histories were extremely localized and Muslim rulers did not resort to Islamic history for appeals of tolerance. The state was simply not as influential in daily life as it is today.

    Therefore, while Pakistan and India may both settle down, and cooperate on important matters like trade and the environment, their publics will operate in an increasingly different set of social norms and a very different demographic setting. This is why a South Asian spiritual unity is unlikely, the situation is more likely to be something like the EU and Turkey.

    Depending on one’s point of view, this is the price of partition or its ultimate goal.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: You are assigning too much importance to acceptable behavior in the public sphere even if your generalization is correct and means something. One can just as easily point to the problems of inter-caste marriages in India and attribute the acceptability of behavior to religion as much as to culture. How different were the directions in West and East Germany and yet see where they are today. So at the very least, the Punjabs and the Bengals can converge after 50 years. And if they do, the rest would follow just as it has within India.

      In any case, it is a moot point whether spiritual unity has to do anything with religion or public behavior. I am sure public behavior varies across India but that does not come in the way of spiritual unity.

  12. Vikram Says:

    Regarding the question of Brahmins and Dalits, notwithstanding Roy’s justifiable concern against the Brahmin-Bania domination of the economic and intellectual space in India, both these communities are pretty much irrelevant in Indian politics today. Banias make up 3 percent and Brahmins 5 percent of the population, and their share of members in Parliament is even less than that. Apart from Jayalalitha and Gogoi, there is not a single Chief Minister in India from the upper castes.

    In fact, five years ago Brahmins and Dalits in UP voted together to bring Mayawati to power. It is possible that Brahmins, Dalits and Banias will come together to defeat Jats in the upcoming Haryana assembly polls. There is ample data regarding increased inter caste mobility in jobs (which was the main oppression of the varna system promoted by Brahmins) and marriage.

    The main axis of caste oppression in India today is not the Brahminical varna, but the more clan and blood based jati. The atrocities against Dalits are committed overwhelmingly by castes like Jats, Yadavs, Patels and Vanniyars which are placed below the Bania and Brahmin varna in the Hindu order from a varna perspective, but who now claim a higher status than both Brahmins and Banias based on their jati.

    Note the difference in the class distribution of Dalits in Jat dominated Haryana/Punjab and bania dominated Gujarat (rural areas).

    So Roy’s polemics notwithstanding, the situation on the ground is very different, and damning the Vedas/destroying Hinduism/smashing idols/blaming the Constitution (what does she propose we replace it by ?), have all been tried before and are not going to get us anywhere.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: The point of the example was that spiritual unity does not require the elimination of all disagreements or conflicts.

  13. Stalin D Says:

    It is in the interest of both India and Pakistan to work together to strengthen ties be it in the form of trade and issues of common concern. India with its vast amalgamation of languages and cultures has in it to include the tern South Asian identity to be forged as a reality. The sufferings of the economically backward sections of the society have one thing in common “suffering”.Much of this suffering can be attributed to environment degradation and denial of access to natural resources. Which clearly implies that issues of Environment degradation and poverty are very much common to both countries. All of us need to realise one simple truth, that the poor are amongst us to remind us of our short comings . To work towards a situation where nature can provide for every human in a manner that sustains life is what we need to work to achieve. Let not the political , religious and military agendas ruin chances of peaceful and harmonious co existence between the cultures and people of south Asia who have a history of over 5000 years . That itself is a rarity to be cherished and nurtured. Dissociation of spirituality from religion is a journey every soul must undertake to really understand the universe and its complexities. I can say this with emphatic optimism coming from a multi religious family and having visited Pakistan . Hate has never got anyone to any place or point worth mentioning , Time to move forward and towards prosperity for both countries.

  14. kabir Says:

    “What links a Pakistani Punjabi to a Maharashtrian?” There is a general idea of being “desi”–which subsumes being Indian or Pakistani. “Desis” share a common culture, enjoy Bollywood, “Indian” food, speak similar languages, etc. In many cases, religion doesn’t play a large role. After all, there are many Muslims in India who are not generally considered to be less Indian because they are not of the majority religion. This “desiness” could be referred to as constituting a “South Asian” identity.

    Also, I don’t think that those who advocate a regional identity are necessarily in opposition to national identities. In Europe, individuals may identity as French or German, but at the same time, they may also see themselves as European. Why can’t Indians and Pakistanis also see themselves as being South Asian?

    • Vikram Says:

      Kabir, ‘Desi’ is a decidedly North-Indian term, sharing a common culture, enjoying Bollywood and “Indian” food are again Indo-Aryan attributes. Such a South Asianness cannot include Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman cultures, not to mention the emergent Ambedkarian-Buddhist identity among India’s Dalits. I will argue that even Bengalis and certainly Marathis will resist this definition of South Asianness. In other words, such a South Asianness just becomes Indo-Aryan hegemony.

      The comparison to French and German is not applicable. Indian nationalism differs hugely from French and German nationalism. Indian nationalism has commonalities with Chinese nationalism (civilization state) and American nationalism (constitutional civic), and those are the comparisons that need to be made. Neither the Chinese, nor the Americans identify as East Asian or North Americans.

      The more viable idea in my opinion is that of the bloc of ‘Western nations’. A similar idea in case of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka might work. Here the eventual commonality would be a shared defense agreement, trading regime and political structures.

      • kabir Says:


        In my opinion, one key aspect of the “South Asian” or “desi” identity is that it is chosen. No one is going to be forced to identify themselves with the region. If some Indians (and for that matter, many Pakistanis) don’t feel connected to that identity, then that is their right. Personally, I know people from all over the subcontinent who are quite happy calling themselves “desi”. Again, this is in particular contexts and in other contexts, these people are proud of being Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi. But at least in the US, there are certain issues on which all these communities come together.

        Also, I think there are some major differences between Indian nationalism and American nationalism. The US is a nation of immigrants and anyone can become an American if they are willing to live by the values of the US Constitution. In the case of India, as far as I am aware you can’t become an Indian citizen if you swear to live by India’s constitution, you have to be of Indian origin. So “Indian” is a much more exclusive category than “American”.

        Regardless, my point in bringing up the French and the Germans was that national and regional identities overlap and don’t need to replace each other. One can be proud of belonging to a particular country and of one’s culture and still feel some broader linkages with others. It is meaningful to speak of “European culture”. Similarly, I think it is meaningful to speak of “South Asian culture” (for example when we speak of the joint family traditions, son preference etc). Maybe some would call this “Indian culture”, but it is really the culture of the whole region, rather than just of a particular country. If you use the term “Indian” it is unclear whether you are referring to the nation-state or to the subcontinent as a whole.

        The idea of “Western nations” is more of a political idea, similar to that of NATO. I feel “South Asian” is more of a cultural identity, similar to that of “European” or “Hispanic”.

        • Vikram Says:

          “In the case of India, as far as I am aware you can’t become an Indian citizen if you swear to live by India’s constitution, you have to be of Indian origin.”

          Kabir, citizenship in India can be acquired through naturalisation (http://indiancitizenshiponline.nic.in/acquisition1.htm), and the oath of citizenship specifically proclaims allegiance to the Constitution. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_citizenship#India

          Of course, far more people get naturalized as US citizens than Indian ones, but the reasons there are mostly economic.

          I actually agree that a desi or South Asian idea can exist in the diaspora, especially in the US and Canada where ethnic identification is based predominantly on skin colour. In fact, I think that in the near future future generations will increasingly identify themselves as South Asian (‘brown’) and American. The ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistani’ aspect will slowly dissipate in the second and third generations.

          One issue here is that India is already (or sees itself as) the equivalent of the EU. Ram Guha has pointed out that India actually preempts the EU. The equivalent term for “European culture” is “Indian culture”. Even Jinnah referred to 400 million Indians in his speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.

          There might be a case for a cultural South Asia, but the idea of South Asia as a trading and political bloc will find more acceptance than a cultural identity.

          • kabir Says:

            Vikram, I don’t agree that the equivalent term for “European culture” is “Indian culture”. Like I pointed out earlier, it is unclear whether the term “Indian” refers to the modern nation-state or the whole subcontinent. I think that many Pakistanis as well as people from other countries in the region would be more comfortable referring to their culture as “South Asian” than as “Indian”. The use of “Indian” culture to cover the entire territory of undivided India would perhaps appear hegemonic to the citizens of the smaller countries on the subcontinent. Jinnah’s use of “400 million Indians” was most probably before the creation of Pakistan. Today, there are a lot of Pakistanis who would not take kindly to being referred to as “Indian”. Therefore, if we keep people’s sensitivities in mind, an alternate term like “South Asian” may be preferable.

            Thanks for clarifying that one can become an Indian citizen through naturalization. However, I believe that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for someone of Pakistani origin to become an Indian citizen, regardless of how much he/she believes in the idea of India and repudiates the ideology of the “Two nation theory”. So in this sense, Indian nationalism is more exclusive than US nationalism. In theory, the US government doesn’t care what your family background is, if you agree to abide by American values, you are welcome to immigrate to the country. Of course, I recognize that countries are free to set their own immigration policies and that they have many different reasons for deciding on the policy that they implement. Israel, for example, sees itself as the “homeland of the Jews” and makes it very easy for Jews from any country to become Israeli citizens. Conversely, individuals whose families lived in what is now Israel just a few generations ago are not allowed to “return” to their homes. This may seem unjust to a lot of people, but it makes sense from the Israeli government’s perspective. Similarly, I can see why the Indian government would not want to make it easy for people of Pak. origin to become Indian nationals. But it does raise the question of how the “Indian” identity is defined.

            Finally, I don’t feel that South Asia as a trading/political bloc and South Asia as a cultural identity are necessarily mutually exclusive. The EU is a trading/political bloc and “European” is also a cultural identity. There is no inherent reason why South Asia cannot include both elements as well.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: This conversation began precisely with the issue of nomenclature with reference to an op-ed that had appeared in The Hindu:


            It is correct that India was the equivalent of the EU. If, after 1947, the country that is now called India had taken any other name, say Bharat, there would have been no confusion. Once it chose India, the question that arose naturally was how does one refer to the old continental India without confusion? South Asia is a second-best compromise but we can’t do without some alternative. Imagine if one of the countries that had emerged after the dissolution of Yugoslavia had taken Europe as the name for itself. It wouldn’t have been allowed to but such protocols didn’t exist in 1947.

            If one agrees that the old India is a cultural entity then, by definition, South Asia is too because they refer to the same geographic land mass.

  15. Vikram Says:

    Do we really want to call this beautiful land something as bland as ‘South Asia’ ?

    Can we not at least have a endonym inspired by something in our 4000 year tradition of poetry ? Might be nice if we could derive something from Iqbal’s lines from the Tarana-e-Hind,

    “Godī meṉ kheltī haiṉ us kī hazāroṉ nadiyāṉ
    Guls̱ẖan hai jin ke dam se ras̱ẖk-i janāṉ hamārā”

    I think as a people, we are most defined by our rivers. I see few other cultures displaying the kind of attachment that we have to them.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I agree on the blandness and this is not a name we have chosen – it is just a regional classification used by international organizations. The only realistic alternative that existed for this civilizational space was India/Hind/Hindostan/Bharat but that is taken.

  16. SouthAsian Says:

    Today I came across the following lines in an article about Joyce. They are from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I felt they captured very well what we are striving for on The South Asian Idea and the shackles we are trying to escape:

    “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

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