Not All Issues Together: One Monkey At A Time- Ramayana’s Lesson for Obama & Modi

Why do Indians still have a sense of awe in presence of a real or presumed authority? Why do they treat the powerful as representatives of omni-potent gods? Is it the heritage of being slave over centuries or is it a cultural hangover. Either way it does conjure up quite interesting scenarios.
In the days of the colonial mystique it was the snake charmers that conjured up visions of India. In the ensuing years, dogs, cows and elephants, garnered the necessary symbolism when India was mentioned, and now, the monkeys lend the required touch of the exotic. In a prelude to the Obama visit to India, the New York Times ran a piece titled, For Obama’s Visit, India Takes a Broom to Stray Monkeys and Cows.
The efforts at ‘sanitizing’ India, recalcitrant monkeys, et al, highlighted by the inherent humor in this somewhat tongue in cheek observation, “Men with slingshots have fanned out in the neighborhood around the Indian president’s sandstone palace, shrieking and barking in an effort to frighten away hundreds of rosy-bottomed monkeys.” The reporting is not inaccurate and the piece engaging enough.
However viewed without rose tinted glasses and rosy behinds, India’s mystique beyond the namastes – that were fervently exchanged between Modi and the Obamas – is somewhat idiosyncratic, and as far as world view is concerned, presumably anachronistic, even paradoxical, considering that India is projected to soon become the largest economy, overtaking even China. Living halfway across from India, how does one translate India beyond monkeys, cows and monkey journalism?
Obama’s warm embraces with Modi, his willingness to consider donning the Modi kurta, and a marathon guest appearance at the Republic day celebrations, makes this, his second trip, very rosy and cozy. Even so, his chemistry with Modi cannot deflect western unease with all things curious, unfamiliar and strange, even as bilateral treaties and nuclear agreements are furiously forged. India’s diversity, secularism and democracy, universal concepts as they are, are still uniquely, somewhat strangely, Indian. Homi Bhabha, the Indian nuclear physicist, and father of the Indian nuclear power program, ironically and with keen acuity observed the need for a culture to be understood by unarticulated “in-between” spaces.
He recognized that, “The theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. It is the in-between space that carries the burden of the meaning of culture, and by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves.”
Of course nothing bridges this polarity better than, comedy. Perhaps that is what will nudge the world to a more intuitive understanding of the intangible idea of India. An Indian-American comedian, Rajiv Satyal, nailed this je ne sais quoi factor in articulating what it is to be Indian, in an ode that went viral on social media: “We never invade anyone because we already have everything: chess, the ruler, the button, wireless communication, arranged marriage, flush toilets, steel, democracy … we practically invented religious tolerance and we gave you Mahatma Gandhi and pundits and gurus and karma and dharma and kismet and reincarnation. The motherland is magical and mystical. And no matter who you are, you can find yourself here in…Incredible India”.
Comedy and National Parks are monumental to the essence of America. America also has plea bargains and juries; filibustering and a lame duck president; door buster sales and Black Friday deals. We even have a turkey pardon and in the land of liberty, NSA surveillance. Above and beyond this, we have the NFL and NBA; and arguably the most international news in the US: The World Series (baseball). All this and more makes America as deliciously inexplicable, as India.
If our world view is one of sameness, of melting into the pot rather than creating a new space, a distinctive mosaic, we are, to put it dryly, cohabiting with the monkeys. As the French psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan, put it, “It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled – exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare.” In harmonizing there is an ode to ‘otherness’ and of a passage that is on a road less traveled.
Somewhere in the spaces between the nuclear and trade agreements, that are being hammered together by the two countries, exists the quizzical, amplified simplistically, and perhaps glibly, obviously incongruous, in the story about the brooming out of stray monkeys. Wedged in nooks and crannies and wary of world scrutiny, draped gracefully in layers, lays the India, the India that Obama must surely have felt and recognized in simple moments, like perhaps when Modi personally poured out a cup of tea for him. When the mythical monkeys in the Ramayana together built a bridge, it was a passage, a crossing over – one monkey at a time.

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