On Being Indian is a revised version of a lecture delivered by Amit Chaudhuri in March 2020 at Jamia Millia Islamia University. This, as many Indians would remember, was a time fraught with turmoil. Covid had already appeared on the scene, but more than that, India was in the middle of stresses caused by various actions of the BJP-led government: the outlawing of triple talaq, the abrogation of Article 370, the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the subsequent creation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
From Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, public protests spread to other parts of the country, protests which were unusual in being led, not by political parties, but by the populace.
It was against this backdrop that Chaudhuri delivered the lecture, and the subsequent book took the form of a longish essay. He begins it with an interesting anecdote, about an irate (and bigoted) customer of food delivery service Zomato, and the aggregator’s response to the complaint. From this point, the author proceeds to discuss other “organic intellectuals” whose responses to similar instances have revealed a markedly different perspective and background from those of “traditional intellectuals”.
He ties this in with the symbols and ideas that came to dominate the anti-CAA protests and then goes on to show how India’s idea of rationalism has, historically, not been in opposition to the idea of religion. The West may think faith is the antithesis of rationalism; India does not. He uses examples ranging from the poetry of Kabir to that of Faiz and the Bengali Baul singer Lalon Fakir, to make his argument convincing.
By quoting instances, which are well-known and were at the time going viral on social media, Chaudhuri makes his point easier to understand and relatable. Yet, it’s not a dumbing down of content: he manages to link these examples to weighty issues, and deeply researched and well-thought-out ideas. He educates without talking down to his reader and is able to shine a light on things to which one might not have given even a passing thought.
There is also, at times, a tongue-in-cheek remark that, in its way, reinforces his implication—that a wry sense of humour may be a formidable weapon in the fight against irrationalism. Like RTI activist and spokesperson of TMC Saket Gokhale or Zomato’s Deepinder Goyal; like the protestor holding up a placard that read, Bure din waapas karo (Bring back the bad old days), Chaudhuri too comes across, even if unintentionally, as an organic intellectual.
Part of the ‘Literary Activism’ series, On Being Indian has a mouthful of a subtitle: The Organic Intellectual, Mystical Poetry and Lineages of Indian Rationalism. An ambitious endeavour, it would appear, for a book so slim. But Chaudhuri makes this an engrossing, enlightening little volume, neatly tying together what would seem three fairly disparate subjects.