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.