Utpal Borpujari

April 3, 2009

Identity must in a globalised society: Amit Dasgupta

By Utpal Borpujari 


Amit Dasgupta, currently India’s Consul General in Sydney, Australia, has been posted across the world as a diplomat. Quite naturally, he has dealt with a diverse range of persons of Indian origin (PIO) in various countries. In the process, he has also witnessed the question of identity that constantly tickles the minds of many of such persons. The thought process generated as a result of all such interactions has given birth to Mandy, or Mandeep, a second generation Indian-American who is travelling for the first time to India. Mandy is the protagonist of Dasgupta’s graphic novel Indian By Choice (Wisdom Tree), illustrated by Neelabh. Dasgupta gives Utpal Borpujari of Deccan Herald his take on identity and what it means to be global Indian:


How and when did you conceive the idea for the book? And why in graphic novel format?


For quite some time, I had wanted to do a book on India that was refreshingly different and one that essentially reached out to a younger readership, both within India and abroad. Most non-fiction books on India tended to be either highly scholastic in content or richly touristy and targeted, by their very nature, a highly select clientele. The fiction titles tended to wallow in India’s poverty story and were, by and large, ‘Indian’ versions of the British Raj books, the ‘Heat and Dust’, ‘Jewel in the Crown’ variety. So, I asked myself how one might put together a book that was not ‘another one of those’. Reaching out to a young professional readership, both within India and abroad, meant presenting India’s story in a refreshingly new way. That is how I decided on combining graphics with text.


The book is about the notion of identity. What is identity to you – in the Indian context, within India and globally?


Identity is a complex issue, especially if we try to define or understand it beyond the narrow contours of, say, profession or nationality, etc., and go into the world of ideas and of values. My identity as a father is much easier to understand than, say, my identity as a liberal democrat. Similarly, at one very basic level, my identity as an Indian is with regard to citizenship but if I were to expand the definition of India beyond the physical and territorial boundaries into what India stands for, identity assumes an entirely different personality. For me, India stands for pluralism, for secularism and for democracy. When I say I am an Indian, it is because I identify fully with what India stands for.  


Is identity important at all in today’s globalised societies?


Most certainly. A good example is to the story of the European Union; you can be German or Dutch of French or Italian and at the same time, European. There is no contradiction. And it is extremely important that we recognise the importance of preserving and strengthening these individual identities while working on a collective identity. At the same time, let us not look at identity only from the point of view of citizenship or nationality. To identify with ideas and values also shapes and provides us with identity. What globalisation is trying to do is to universalise and harmonise these values.  


We often see the propensity to claim any successful PIO as an Indian as an ‘Indian’, for example Bobby Jindal, Slumdog the ‘Indian’ film and so on. How do you see this trait?


It’s human tendency to want to identify with success and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when you disassociate yourself from failures. You cannot take the position that you identify only with all that is good in India and not with all that is bad.  I think it is also fair to recall that several successful persons of Indian origin also openly acknowledge the Indian-ness in their identity: Kalpana Chawla and Suneeta Williams to name two persons.  


While globally Indian identity is being recognised more and more in recent years, going beyond the typical Punjabi-Gujarati image, within India there is more and more clashes arising out of identities. How do you analyse this?


Clashes, as you put it, occur when a person or a community feels that one of its identities is under threat. Let me put it another way, a working mother has two identities, that of a mother and that of a person who is working. If these two identities and the obligations that accrue as a result are in harmony, there’s no problem. But if there is a discomfiture that can no longer be managed, a ‘clash of identities’ occurs and the individual has to make a choice on which identity he or she would like to adhere to. Similarly, if in a country there are clashes as a result of identity, the person has to make a choice as to which identity the person is most comfortable with.  


Do you agree with theories like that of Sudhir Kakar that a singular Indian identity is possible despite India’s diverse identities?


Yes and no. I do believe that a singular Indian identity is possible but there is every danger of falling into the trap of over simplifications and of generalisation. Let us not forget the sheer diversity that characterizes India, North to South, East to West. This really means seeing a direction and a pattern where there is in fact a collage. At the same time, diversity while unique is not necessarily confusing. When attributes are not necessarily unique, there could be confusion. The trap we fall into is attributing uniqueness. We’ve heard it said so often that Indians are fierce proponents of family values, as if we have a sort of monopoly. Are the Italians or the Japanese or the Hispanics any less family oriented than Indians are?


(published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 29-03-2009)




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