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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brand India

Not long ago, I was on the back of a motorbike, motoring from Bungoma Town to Kabula in Southwest Kenya (itself a bumpy nine hour bus trip from Nairobi). After taking in the headwind rush and scenic refreshment, I opened up talk with the driver (more like yelling over a helmet and exhaust). While I tried to pry his local interests, hot spots, upbringing in Kitale, and beer preferences, he was bent on talking about Shahrukh Khan. At this point I was ready to jump off, I had heard enough girls in New England wax on about Shahrukh. I think I may have swallowed a bug.

Shortly after I learned that a local Bungoma Town theater headlined Bollywood blockbusters on top of its reels from Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria. In Mombasa on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, I woke to the spirited and beautiful Muslim adhan (call to prayer) playing through loudspeakers across the dusty cityscape, only to pray at a Hindu Shiva temple. Later, I snaked through back alleys, past hijab‑fashioned women and pan shops serving a strong Indian snack/digestive to buy fruit wine and soap at Nakumatt, the Indian‑run Walmart of Kenya.

More recently, I tried to see the film My Name is Khan (starring his high honor), but couldn't because it was oversold. In the lobby, I saw native Cambridge Irishmen and their Bengali girlfriends pull chairs in just to sneak a peek at the film's opening. At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, many of us saw a first— Bollywood songs infused with figure skating.

What's new with all of this? Nothing. We've already experienced this on a constant stream. Just last year I wrote about Slumdog Millionaire and the changing face of the pop Indo Western world. But, what is useful now is thinking of this evolution in a set framework: "Brand India."

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian Minister of State, novelist, Keralan, and Tufts University alum, says that how a country and its culture are perceived is far more effective than forceful economic diplomatic action. It's what a country is all about. It's the country with a better story that wins, according to Joseph Nye. For America, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Google, Apple's iPod, Dunkin' Donuts (sorry Starbucks), white picket fences, Obama, MTV, and a notion that anyone can be anything has done far more than preemptive strikes, dedicated Middle East peace envoys, and sweeping trade agreements. Today, you can listen to Jordanian Muslims voice their belief that in America they can be viewed as more than just a Muslim, but something broader. Even if you take the extreme example of Iran, you will see that Iranians love America, Americans, Beyonce, and dubbed Matt Damon action flicks, but they often disapprove of America's government. We Americans are finally beginning (hopefully) to make this same distinction in our measure of the Middle East. India's story (unlike China's) does not come from a top down edict or a single writer, it is narrated by a billion rickshaw drivers, social entrepreneurs, destitute poor, filmmakers, forgotten voices, moral heroes, novelists, ancient kings, billionaire coal and IT tycoons, mystics, and engineers, along with a gleam eyed, bald man.

In this sense, India is already a cultural superpower. As Tharoor states, "The associations and attitudes conjured up in the global imagination by the mere mention of a country's name is often a more accurate gauge of its soft power than a dispassionate analysis of its foreign policies. In my view, hard power is exercised; soft power is evoked." Indian culture has been on the move and moving hearts for 5,000 years, long before Oscar buzz, the partition of Pakistan, and St. Thomas the Apostle's arrival in 52 A.D. Just walk through London and you will see the number of Indian restaurants rival that of pubs. Moreover, while India's brand is pervasive in East and West Africa, Afghanistan, Russia, and Japan, it holds a unique cultural and political standing with America, much the way that the U.K. and Israel do. India is "the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus." Tharoor underscores that an 80% Hindu India has as its emblem the Taj Mahal, commissioned by a Muslim king, as well as Manmohan Singh, a Sikh prime minister, sworn in by Abdul Kalam, a Muslim president. A Dalit ("untouchable") woman oversees Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state. The common thread with India, a country that has 27 cable news networks and critics that despise the sacred cow, is that in such a society "you do not need to agree— except on the ground rules of how to disagree." Like America, it's messy, loud, rambunctious, and vibrant.

In fact, long term strength is less about hard‑line numbers and crude, outward measurements than things visceral, emotive, and slippery to measure. While we hone in on GDP figures, we easily miss vast and obvious decay and unrest. Bill Drayton, who popularized the term "social entrepreneur" says it perfectly, "Numbers have an unfortunate tendency to supersede other kinds of knowing. Numbers give illusion of providing more truth than they actually do. They also favor what is easiest to measure not what is important." Here, the China-India comparison is apt. While China's GDP steams ahead at 9% to 10%, so does its political unraveling and unrest. We hear less of the "great Chinese dream" than of Asia's suspicion of China's unwieldy elbows. On the other hand, watch out for India's brand growing at 15% (although India has gotten increasingly cynical and short‑sighted in international talks). One analogy that comes to mind— India merges on a two lane pot-holed road while China coasts on a six lane thoroughfare with an unseen cliff ahead. While the American dream is exported and oft admired, India's dreams, it's brand, are equally transplantable and stirring. So what does India need to do to hasten the spread of its brand?— take care of its 260 million citizens that today live on less than 30 rupees per day (less than the global extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day).

Interesting is how India's cultural and religious dimensions affect us Indians. Many of us end up acting as arbiters of "Indianness." Muddying the waters are proclamations of who is more Hindu. It has little to do with how frequently you drive to the temple or some repertoire of the Bhagavad Gita or ritualistic prowess. I know few songs and understand little of what priests are uttering at the temple. I draw what I can from patchy familiarity with stories of Krishna, Hanuman, and Rama. While I try to remember stories from Ramayana, I already can't deny the tremendous energy I feel within and the positivity I feel coming out of a temple. Growing up Hindu, I could walk from a Ganesha pooja in our pooja room down the hall to my parent's room to find King James Bible climbing over Kabbalah texts, Buddhist scriptures, and the Qur'an on the bookshelf. In fact, Hinduism has no basic set of commandments, Pope, hierarchy, central book (there are many books), central tenets. It is predicated on the notion that we must accept all views of divinity, which is written to be unknowable. That's the beauty of it— Hinduism encourages and dares you to make it your own.

Today, I see "Indianness" couched in countless external measurements— the number of Hindustani songs or Bollywood classics one craves, the cliques one interacts with. The only solid truth is that what we understand of each other depends on the assumptions we have. While my home is New England, where my childhood, adolescence, norms, structures, memories, frameworks, and world views have been shaped, my embrace of India and Brand India is a strange mix of feeling at home and a distant fascination. I live in a world where I can easily attend a concert by a world renowned Chennai based violinist and drive home listening to comedian Aziz Ansari talk about growing up in South Carolina as "a really tan white kid."

In fact, "Indianness" has less to do with external calibrations of religiosity or cultural fidelity than with less measurable internal movements— articulations of how we fold in India into our lives, what it means to us (if anything), what ambition does it stir, and how we are humbled and emboldened by it all. It is a sort of "social alchemy" in how we wrestle and play with culture, fold it in new ways. As Brand India gains in diversity, complexity, and vitality, it is high time for the diaspora to work constructively and collaboratively to bring clarity and sharpen edges. Brand India is strong and carries its momentum. Now let's excavate Brand Indian America.