Our Culture, Their Culture*

The works of Satyajit Ray (1921–92) present a perceptive understanding of the relation between different cultures, and his ideas remain pertinent to the major cultural debates in the contemporary world – not least in India. In Ray’s films and in his writings, we see explorations of at least three general themes on cultures and their interrelations: the importance of distinctions between different local cultures and their respective individualities, the necessity to understand the deeply heterogeneous character of each local culture (even that of a community, not to mention a region or a country), and the great need for inter-cultural communication while recognizing the difficulties of such intercourse.

A deep respect for distinctiveness is combined in Ray’s vision with an appreciation of the importance of inter-cultural communication and also the recognition of much internal diversity within each culture. In emphasizing the need to respect the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. Indeed, opening doors of communication was an important priority in Ray’s work. In this respect his attitude contrasts sharply with the increasing tendency to see Indian culture (or cultures) in highly conservative terms – wanting it to be preserved from the ‘pollution’ of Western ideas and thought. Ray was always willing to enjoy and learn from ideas, art forms and lifestyles from anywhere – within India or abroad.

Ray appreciated the importance of heterogeneity within local communities. This insight contrasts sharply with the tendency of many communitarians – religious and otherwise – who are willing to break up the nation into some communities and then stop dead exactly there: ‘thus far and no further’. The great film-maker’s eagerness to seek the larger unit (ultimately, his ability to talk to the whole world) combined well with his enthusiasm for understanding the smallest of the small: the individuality of each person.

Distinctions and Communications

There can be little doubt about the importance that Ray attached to the distinctiveness of different cultures. He also discussed the problems that these divisions create in the possibility of communication across cultural boundaries. In his book Our Films Their Films,he noted the important fact that films acquire ‘colour from all manner of indigenous factors such as habits of speech and behaviour, deep-seated social practices, past traditions, present influences and so on’. He went on to ask: ‘How much of this can a foreigner – with no more than a cursory knowledge of the factors involved – feel and respond to?’ He observed that ‘there are certain basic similarities in human behaviour all over the world’ (such as ‘expressions of joy and sorrow, love and hate, anger, surprise and fear’), but ‘even they can exhibit minute local variations which can only puzzle and perturb – and consequently warp the judgement of – the uninitiated foreigner’.1

The presence of such cultural divides raises many interesting problems. The possibility of communication is only one of them. There is the more basic issue of the individuality of each culture, and questions about whether and how this individuality can be respected and valued even though the world grows steadily smaller and more uniform. We live at a time when ideas and practices spread across boundaries of countries and regions with great rapidity, and the possibility that something extremely important is being lost in this process of integration has aroused understandable concern. And yet cultural interactions, even in a world of deep inequalities, can also create space for creative innovations, which combine construction with vulnerability.2

The individuality of cultures is a big subject nowadays, and the tendency towards homogenization of cultures, particularly in some uniform Western mode, or in the deceptive form of ‘modernity’, has been strongly challenged. Questions of this kind have been taken up in different forms in recent cultural studies, especially in high-profile intellectual circles influential in the West (from Paris to San Francisco). While these questions are being asked with increasing frequency in contemporary India as well, there is perhaps some irony in the fact that so much of the Third World critique of ‘Western modernity’ has been inspired and influenced by Western writings.

Engaging arguments on this subject have recently been presented by a number of Indian authors, including Partha Chatterjee.3 These arguments often display a well-articulated ‘anti-modernism’, rejecting what is seen as the tyranny of ‘modern’ society (particularly of ‘Western’ forms of modernization). Among the diverse Indian critiques, there are some arguments, amidst others, in which the defiance of Western cultural modes is combined with enunciations of the unique importance of Indian culture and of the traditions of its local communities.

At the broader level of ‘Asia’ rather than India, the separateness of ‘Asian values’ and their distinction from Western norms has often been asserted, particularly in east Asia – from Singapore and Malaysia to China and Japan. The invoking of Asian values has sometimes occurred in rather dubious political circumstances. For example, it has been used to justify authoritarianism (and harsh penalties for alleged transgressions) in some east Asian countries. In the Vienna conference on human rights in 1993, the Foreign Minister of Singapore, citing differences between Asian and European traditions, argued that ‘universal recognition of the ideal of human rights can be harmful if universalism is used to deny or mask the reality of diversity’.4 The championing of ‘Asian values’ has typically come from government spokesmen rather than from individuals at a distance from established regimes. Still, the general issue is important enough to deserve our attention and scrutiny.

Critical Openness

Even though he emphasized the difficulties of inter-cultural communication, Ray did not, in fact, take cross-cultural comprehension to be impossible. He saw the difficulties as challenges to be encountered, rather than as strict boundaries that could not be breached. His was not a thesis of basic ‘incommunicability’ across cultural boundaries, merely one of the need to recognize the difficulties that may arise. On the larger subject of preserving traditions against foreign influence, Ray was not a cultural conservative. He did not give systematic priority to conserving inherited practices.

Indeed, I find no evidence in his work and writings that the fear of being too influenced by outsiders disturbed his equilibrium as an ‘Indian’ artist. He wanted to take full note of the importance of one’s cultural background without denying what there is to learn from elsewhere. There is, I think, much wisdom in what we can call his ‘critical openness’, including the valuing of a dynamic, adaptable world, rather than one that is constantly ‘policing’ external influences and fearing ‘invasion’ of ideas from elsewhere.

The difficulties of understanding each other across the boundaries of culture are undoubtedly great. This applies to the cinema, but also to other art forms as well, including literature. For example, the inability of most foreigners – sometimes even other Indians – to see the astonishing beauty of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry (a failure that we Bengalis find so exasperating) is a good illustration of just such a problem. Indeed, the thought that these non-appreciating foreigners are being wilfully contrary and obdurate (rather than merely unable to appreciate across the barrier of languages and translations) is a frequently aired suspicion.

The problem is perhaps less extreme in films, in so far as the cinema is less dependent on language, since people can be informed even by gestures and actions. But our day-to-day experiences generate certain patterns of reaction and non-reaction that can be mystifying for foreign viewers who have not had those experiences. The gestures – and non-gestures – that are quite standard within the country (and understandable as ‘perfectly ordinary’) may appear altogether remarkable when seen by others.

Words, too, have a function that goes well beyond the information they directly convey; much is communicated by the sound of the language and special choice of words to convey a meaning, or to create a particular effect. As Ray has noted, ‘in a sound film, words are expected to perform not only a narrative but a plastic function’, and ‘much will be missed unless one knows the language, and knows it well’.

Indeed, even the narrative may be inescapably transformed because of language barriers, especially the difficulty of conveying nuance through translation. I was reminded of Ray’s remark the other day, when I saw Tin Kanya again, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a festival of Satyajit Ray’s films (based on the wonderful reissues produced by the Merchant–Ivory enterprises) was being held. When obdurate Paglee – in the sparkling form of Aparna Sen (then Dasgupta) – decides to write, at last, a letter to her spurned husband, she conveys her new sense of intimacy by addressing him in the familiar form ‘tumi’ (as he had requested), rather than the formal and overly respectful ‘apni’. This could not, of course, be caught in the English subtitle. So the translation had to show her as signing the letter as ‘your wife’ (to convey her new sense of intimacy). But the Bengali original in which she still signs as ‘Paglee’ but addresses him in the familiar form ‘tumi’ is infinitely more subtle.

The Audience and the Eavesdropper

Such difficulties and barriers cannot be avoided. Ray did not want to aim his movies at a foreign audience, and Ray fans abroad who rush to see his films know that they are, in a sense, eavesdropping. I believe this relationship of the creator and the eavesdropper is by now very well established among the millions of Ray fans across the world. There is no expectation that his films are anything other than the work of an Indian – and a Bengali – director made for a local audience, and the attempt to understand what is going on is a decision to engage in a self-consciously ‘receptive’ activity.

In this sense, Ray has triumphed – on his own terms – and this vindication, despite all the barriers, tells us something about possible communication and understanding across cultural boundaries. It may be hard, but it can be done, and the eagerness with which viewers with much experience of Western cinema flock to see Ray’s films (despite the occasional obscurities of a presentation originally tailored for an entirely different audience) indicates what is possible when there is a willingness to go beyond the bounds of one’s own culture.

Satyajit Ray makes an important distinction on what is or is not sensible in trying to speak across a cultural divide, especially between the West and India. In 1958 – two years after Pather Panchali won the Special Award in Cannes, and one year after the Grand Prix at Venice for Aparajito – he wrote the following in an essay called ‘Problems of a Bengali Film Maker’:

There is no reason why we should not cash in on the foreigners’ curiosity about the Orient. But this must not mean pandering to their love of the false-exotic. A great many notions about our country and our people have to be dispelled, even though it may be easier and – from a film point of view – more paying to sustain the existing myths than to demolish them.5

Ray was not, of course, unique in following this approach. A number of other great film directors from India have followed a similar route as Ray. As an old resident of Calcutta, I am proud of the fact that some of the particularly distinguished directors have come, like Ray, from this very city (I think of course of Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Aparna Sen and others). But what Ray calls pandering to the ‘love of the false-exotic’ has clearly tempted many other directors. Many Indian films that can fairly be called ‘entertainment movies’ have achieved great success abroad, including in the Middle East and Africa in addition to Europe and, increasingly, America, and Bombay has been a big influence on the cinematographic world in many countries.

It is not obvious whether the imaginary scenes of archaic splendour shown in such ‘entertainment movies’ should be seen as misdescriptions of the India in which they are allegedly set, or as excellent portrayals of some non-existent ‘never-never land’ (not to be confused with any real country). As Ray notes in another context, quite a few of these traditional Indian films, which attract large audiences, ‘do away wholly with [the] bothersome aspect of social identification’ and ‘present a synthetic, non-existent society, and one can speak of credibility only within the norms of this make-belief world’.6 Ray suggests that this feature ‘accounts for their country-wide acceptance’, in a country with such diversity. This is so, but this make-believe feature also contributes greatly to the appeal of these films to many foreign audiences, happy to see lavish entertainment in an imagined land. This is, of course, an understandable ‘success’ story, since acceptance abroad brings with it both reputation and revenue.

In fact, the exploitation of the biases and vulnerabilities of the foreign audience need not be concerned specifically with the ‘love of the false-exotic’. Exploitation can take other forms – not necessarily false, nor especially exotic. There is, for example, nothing false about Indian poverty, nor about the fact – remarkable to others – that Indians have learned to live normal lives while taking little notice of the surrounding misery.

The graphic portrayal of extreme wretchedness, and the heartlessness of others towards the downtrodden, can itself be skilfully exploited, especially when supplemented by a goodly supply of vicious villains. At a sophisticated and elegant level, such exploitative use can be seen even in that extremely successful film Salaam Bombay! by the wonderfully talented director Meera Nair. That film has received much acclaim, as it should, since it is very powerfully constructed, beautifully absorbing and deeply moving. And yet it mercilessly exploits not only the viewers’ raw sympathy, but also their interest in identifying ‘the villain of the piece’ who could be blamed for all this.*

Since Salaam Bombay! is full of villains and also of people totally lacking in sympathy and any sense of justice, the causes of the misery and suffering portrayed in the film begin to look easily understandable even to distant foreigners. I should add that this feature of reliance on villains is largely avoided in Meera Nair’s next film, Mississippi Masala – another great film – which raises some interesting and important issues about identity and intermixing, in this case, involving ex-Ugandans of Indian origin. The underlying philosophy in Salaam Bombay! takes the viewer straight to the comforting question: given the lack of humanity of people around the victims, what else could you expect? The exploitative form draws at once on the knowledge – common in the West – that India has much poverty and suffering, and also on the comfort – for which there is some demand – of seeing the faces of the ‘baddies’ who are causing all this trouble (as in, say, American gangster movies). At a more mundane level, Roland Joffé’s The City of Joy does the same with Calcutta, with clearly identified villains who have to be confronted.

By contrast, even when Ray’s films deal with problems that are just as intense (such as the coming of the Bengal famine of 1943 in Ashani Sanket), the comfort of the ready explanation through the prominent presence of menacing villains is altogether avoided. Indeed, villains are remarkably rare – almost completely absent – in Satyajit Ray’s films. When terrible things happen, there may be nobody clearly responsible for the evil. Even when someone is clearly responsible, as Dayamoyee’s father-in-law most definitely is for her predicament, and indirectly for her death, in the film Devi, he too is a victim – of his misguided beliefs – and by no means devoid of humane features. If Salaam Bombay! and The City of Joy are, ultimately, in the ‘cops and robbers’ tradition (except that there are no ‘good cops’ in Salaam Bombay!), the Ray films have neither cops nor robbers, well illustrated, for example, by Ray’s Mahanagar (The Great City), set in Calcutta, with many distressing events among joyous moments, leading to a deep tragedy, but with no villains on whom responsibility can be immediately pinned. One result of this absence is that Ray manages to convey something of the complexity of societal situations that lead to such tragedies, rather than seeking speedy explanations in the greed, cupidity and cruelty of some very bad people. In eschewing the easy communicability of films in which nasty people cause nasty events, Ray provides social visions that are both complex and illuminating.

Heterogeneity and External Contacts

While Satyajit Ray insists on retaining the real cultural features of the society that he portrays, his view of India – indeed, even of Bengal – recognizes a complex reality, with immense heterogeneity at every level. It is not the picture of a stylized East meeting a stereotypical West, the stock in trade of so many recent cultural writings critical of ‘Westernization’ and ‘modernity’. Ray points out that the people who ‘inhabit’ his films are both complicated and extremely diverse:

Take a single province: Bengal. Or, better still, take the city of Calcutta where I live and work. Accents here vary between one neighbourhood and another. Every educated Bengali peppers his native speech with a sprinkling of English words and phrases. Dress is not standardized. Although women generally prefer the sari, men wear clothes which reflect the style of the thirteenth century or conform to the directives of the latest Esquire. The contrast between the rich and the poor is proverbial. Teenagers do the twist and drink Coke, while the devout Brahmin takes a dip in the Ganges and chants his mantras to the rising sun.7

One important thing to note immediately here is that the native culture which Ray emphasizes is not some pure vision of a tradition-bound society, but the heterogeneous lives and commitments of contemporary India. The Indian who does the ‘twist’ is as much there as the one who chants his mantras by the Ganges.

The recognition of this heterogeneity makes it immediately clear why Satyajit Ray’s focus on local culture cannot be readily seen as an ‘anti-modern’ move. ‘Our culture’ can draw on ‘their culture’ as well, as ‘their culture’ can draw on ‘ours’. The acknowledgement and emphasis on the culture of the people who inhabit Ray’s films is in no way a denial of the legitimacy of seeking interest in ideas and practices originating elsewhere. Indeed, Ray recollects with evident joy the time when Calcutta was full of Western – including American – troops in the winter of 1942:

Calcutta now being a base of operations of the war, Chowringhee was chock-a-block with GIs. The pavement book stalls displayed wafer-thin editions of Life and Time, and the jam-packed cinema showed the very latest films from Hollywood. While I sat at my office desk … my mind buzzed with the thoughts of the films I had been seeing. I never ceased to regret that while I had stood in the scorching summer sun in the wilds of Santiniketan sketching simul and palash in full bloom, Citizen Kane had come and gone, playing for just three days in the newest and biggest cinema in Calcutta.8

Ray’s interest in things from elsewhere had begun a lot earlier. His engagement with Western classical music went back to his youth, but his fascination with films preceded his involvement with music. In his posthumously published book My Years with Apu: A Memoir, Ray recollects:

I became a film fan while still at school. I avidly read Picturegoer and Photoplay, neglected my studies and gorged myself on Hollywood gossip purveyed by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Deanna Durbin became a favourite not only because of her looks and her obvious gifts as an actress, but because of her lovely soprano voice. Also firm favourites were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, all of whose films I saw several times just to learn the Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern tunes by heart.9

Ray’s willingness to enjoy and learn from things happening elsewhere is plentifully clear in how he chose to live and what he chose to do.10 When Ray describes what he learned as a student at Santiniketan – the distinguished centre of education started by Rabindranath Tagore where Ray studied fine arts – the elements from home and abroad are well mixed together. He learned a great deal about India’s ‘artistic and musical heritage’ (he got involved in Indian classical music, apart from being trained to paint in traditional Indian ways), but also immersed himself in ‘far-eastern calligraphy’ (and particularly in the use of ‘minimum brush strokes applied with maximum discipline’). When his teacher, Professor Nandalal Bose, a great artist and the leading light of the ‘Bengal school’, taught Ray how to draw a tree (‘Not from the top downwards. A tree grows up, not down. The strokes must be from the base upwards…’), Bose was being at once critical of some Western conventions, while introducing Ray to the styles and traditions in two other countries, China and Japan (who did, among other things, get the tree right, Bose thought).

Ray did not hesitate to indicate how strongly his Pather Panchali – the profound movie that immediately made him a front-ranking film-maker in the world – was directly influenced by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. He notes that not only had he seenBicycle Thieves within three days of arriving in London, but also the following: ‘I knew immediately that if I ever made Pather Panchali – and the idea had been at the back of my mind for some time – I would make it in the same way, using natural locations and unknown actors.’11 Despite this influence, Pather Panchali is a quintessentially Indian film, both in subject matter and in the style of presentation, and yet a major inspiration for its exact organization came directly from an Italian film. The Italian influence did not make Pather Panchali anything other than an Indian film – it simply helped it to become a great Indian film.

External Sources and Modernity

The growing tendency in contemporary India to champion the need for an indigenous culture that has ‘resisted’ external influences lacks credibility as well as cogency. It has become quite common to cite the foreign origin of an idea or a tradition as an argument against its use, and this has been linked up with an anti-modernist priority. Even as acute and perceptive a social analyst as Partha Chatterjee finds it possible to dismiss Benedict Anderson’s thesis linking nationalism and ‘imagined communities’, by referring to the Western origin of that ‘modular’ form: ‘I have one central objection to Anderson’s argument. If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain “modular” forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?’12 The conceptual form of the nation as an ‘imagined community’ which Anderson pursues might or might not have much to commend it (I personally think that it does – but this is a different issue), but the fear that its Western origin would leave us without a model that is our ‘own’ is a peculiarly parochial anxiety.

Indian culture, as it has evolved, has always been prepared to absorb material and ideas from elsewhere. Satyajit Ray’s heterodoxy is not, in any sense, out of line with our tradition. Even in matters of day-to-day living, the fact that the chili, a basic ingredient of traditional Indian cooking, was brought to India by the Portuguese from the ‘new world’, does not make current Indian cooking any less Indian. Chili has now become an ‘Indian’ spice. Cultural influences are, of course, a two-way process, and India has borrowed from abroad, just as we have also given the world outside the benefits of our cooking traditions. For example, while tandoori came from the Middle East to India, it is from India that tandoori has become a staple British diet. Last summer I heard in London a quintessential Englishwoman being described as being ‘as English as daffodils or chicken tikka massala’.13

Given the cultural and intellectual interconnections, the question of what is ‘Western’ and what is ‘Eastern’ (or ‘Indian’) is often hard to decide, and the issue can be discussed only in more dialectical terms. The diagnosis of a thought as ‘purely Western’ or ‘purely Indian’ can be very illusory. The origin of ideas is not the kind of thing to which ‘purity’ happens easily.

Science, History and Modernity

This issue has some practical importance at the moment, given the political developments of the last decade, including the increase in the strength of political parties focusing on Indian – and particularly Hindu – heritage. There is an important aspect of anti-modernism which tends to question – explicitly or by implication – the emphasis to be placed on what is called ‘Western science’. If and when the challenges from traditional conservatism grow, this can become quite a threat to scientific education in India, affecting what young Indians are encouraged to learn.

The reasoning behind this anti-foreign attitude is flawed in several distinct ways. First, so-called ‘Western science’ is not the special possession of Europe and America. Certainly, since the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, most of the scientific progress has actually occurred in the West. But these scientific developments drew substantially on earlier work in mathematics and science done by the Arabs, the Chinese, the Indians and others. The term ‘Western science’ is misleading in this respect, and quite misguided in its tendency to establish a distance between non-Western peoples and the pursuit of mathematics and science.

Second, irrespective of where the discoveries and inventions took place, the methods of reasoning used in science and mathematics give them some independence of local geography and cultural history. There are, of course, important issues of local knowledge and of varying perspectives regarding what is or is not important, but much of substance is still shared in methods of argument, demonstration and the scrutiny of evidence. The term ‘Western science’ is misleading in this respect also.

Third, our decisions about the future need not be parasitic on the type of past we have experienced. Even if there were no Asian or Indian component in the evolution of contemporary mathematics and science (this is not the case, but even if it had been true), its importance in contemporary India need not be undermined for that reason.

There is a similar issue, to which I referred earlier, about the role of ‘modernity’ in contemporary India. Contemporary attacks on modernity (especially on a ‘modernity’ that is seen as coming to India from the West) draw greatly on the literature on ‘post-modernism’ and other related approaches, which have been quite influential in Western literary and cultural circles (and later on, somewhat derivatively, in India too). There is perhaps something of interest in this dual role of the West: the colonial metropolis supplying ideas and ammunition to post-colonial intellectuals to attack the influence of the colonial metropolis! But of course there is no contradiction there. What it does suggest, however, is that mere identification of Western connections of an idea could not be enough to damn it.

The critics of ‘modernism’ often share with the self-conscious advocates of ‘modernism’ the belief that being ‘modern’ is a well-defined concept – the only dividing point being whether you are ‘for’ modernity, or ‘against’ it. But the diagnosis of modernity is not particularly easy, given the historical roots – often very long roots – of recent – or ‘modern’ – thoughts and intellectual development, and given the mixture of origins in the genesis of ideas and techniques that are typically taken to characterize modernism.

The point is not at all that modern things must be somehow judged to be good, or that there are no reasons to doubt the wisdom of many developments which are justified in the name of a needed modernity. Rather, the point is that there is no escape from the necessity to scrutinize and assess ideas and proposals no matter whether they are seen as pro-modern or anti-modern. For example, if we have to decide what policies to support in education, health care or social security, the modernity or non-modernity of any proposal is neither here nor there. The relevant question is how these policies would affect the lives of people, and that enquiry is not the same as the investigation of the modernity or non-modernity of the policies in question. Similarly, if, faced with communal tensions in contemporary India, we suggest that there is much to be gained from reading the tolerant poems of Kabir (from the fifteenth century) or studying the political priorities of Akbar (dating from the sixteenth century), in contrast with, say, the intolerant approach of an Aurangzeb (in the seventeenth), that discrimination has to be done in terms of the worth of their respective positions, and not on the basis of some claim that Kabir or Akbar was ‘more modern’ or ‘less modern’ than Aurangzeb. Modernity is not only a befuddling notion, it is also basically irrelevant as a pointer of merit or demerit in assessing contemporary priorities.

The Elusive ‘Asian Values’

What about the specialness of ‘Asian values’ on which so much is now being said by the authorities in a number of East Asian countries? These arguments, developed particularly in Singapore, Malaysia and China, appeal to the differences between ‘Asian’ and ‘Western’ values to dispute the importance of civil rights, particularly freedom of expression (including press freedoms) in Asian countries. The resistance to Western hegemony – a perfectly respectable cause in itself – takes the form, under this interpretation, of justifying suppression of journalistic freedoms and the violations of elementary political and civil rights on grounds of the alleged unimportance of these freedoms in the hierarchy of what are claimed to be ‘Asian values’.

There are two basic problems with this mode of reasoning. First, even if it were shown that freedoms of this kind have been less important in Asian thoughts and traditions than in the West, that would still be an unconvincing way of justifying the violation of these freedoms in Asia. To see the conflict over human rights as a battle between Western liberalism on one side and Asian reluctance on the other is to cast the debate in a form that distracts attention from the central question: what would make sense in contemporary Asia? The history of ideas – in Asia and in the West – cannot settle this issue.

Second, it is by no means clear that, historically, greater importance has been systematically attached to freedom and tolerance in the West than in Asia. Certainly, individual liberty, in its contemporary form, is a relatively new notion both in Asia and in the West, and while the West did get to these ideas rather earlier (through developments such as the Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and so on), the divergence is relatively recent. In answer to the question, ‘at what date, in what circumstances, the notion of individual liberty … first became explicit in the West’, Isaiah Berlin has noted: ‘I have found no convincing evidence of any clear formulation of it in the ancient world.’14

This view has been disputed by Orlando Patterson.15 Patterson’s historical arguments are indeed interesting. But his thesis of a freedom-centred tradition in the West in contrast with what happened elsewhere seems to depend on attaching significance to particular components of Western thought without looking adequately for similar components in non-Western intellectual traditions; for example, in the fairly extensive literatures on politics and participatory governance in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Arabic and other languages.16

In the reading that sees the Western tradition as the natural habitat of individual freedom and political democracy, there is a substantial tendency to extrapolate backwards from the present. Values that the European Enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made common and widespread can scarcely be seen as part of the long-term Western heritage – experienced in the West over millennia. There has, of course, been championing of freedom and tolerance in specific contexts in the Western classical tradition, but much the same can be said of many parts of the Asian tradition as well – not least in India, with the articulations associated for example with Ashoka’s inscriptions, Śūdraka’s drama, Akbar’s pronouncements or Dadu’s poetry, to name just a few examples.

It is true that tolerance has not been advocated by all in the Asian traditions. Nor has that advocacy typically covered everyone (though some, such as Ashoka, in the third century BCE, did indeed insist on completely universal coverage, without any exception). But much the same can be said about Western traditions as well. There is little evidence that Plato or St Augustine were more tolerant and less authoritarian than Confucius. While Aristotle certainly did write on the importance of freedom, women and slaves were excluded from the domain of this concern (an exclusion that, as it happens, Ashoka did not make around roughly the same time). The claim that the basic ideas underlying freedom and tolerance have been central to Western culture over the millennia and are somehow alien to Asia is, I believe, entirely rejectable.

The allegedly sharp contrast between Western and Asian traditions on the subject of freedom and tolerance is based on very poor history. The authoritarian argument based on the special nature of Asian values is particularly dubious. This supplements the more basic argument, presented earlier, that even if it had been the case that the values championed in Asia’s past have been more authoritarian, this historical point would not be grounds enough to reject the importance of tolerance and liberties in contemporary Asia.

Over-aggregation and Heterogeneity

Discussion of Asian values draws attention to an important issue underlying attempts at generalizations about cultural contrasts between the West and the East, or between Europe and India, and so on. There are indeed many differences between Europe and India, but there are sharp differences also within India itself, or within Europe. And there are also great differences between different parts of the Indian intellectual and historical traditions. One of the things that goes deeply wrong with grand contrasts between ‘our culture’ and ‘their culture’ is the tremendous variety within each of these cultures. My old teacher Joan Robinson used to say: ‘Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.’ It is not that cultural differences are of no importance, but the contrasts do not come in the tailor-made form of some immense opposition between, say, the West and India, with relative homogeneity inside each.

The problem is, of course, even larger when there are attempts at generalization about ‘Asian’ values. Asia is where about 60 per cent of the world’s entire population live. There are no quintessential values that apply to this immensely large and heterogeneous population which separate them out as a group from people in the rest of the world. Those who have written on the importance of cultural divisions have been right to point to them, and yet the attempt to see these divisions in the over-aggregated form of East–West contrasts hides more than it reveals.

Indeed, generalizations even about an individual religious community within India (such as the Hindus or the Muslims) or about a language group (such as the Bengalis or Gujaratis or Tamils) can be very deeply misleading. Depending on the context, there may be more significant similarity between groups of people in different parts of the country who come from the same class, have the same political convictions, or pursue the same profession or work. Such similarity can hold across national boundaries as well. People can be classified in terms of many different criteria, and the recent tendency to emphasize some contrasts (such as religion or community), while overlooking others, has ignored important differences even as it has capitalized on others.

‘Ours’ and ‘Theirs’

The difficulties of communication across cultures are real, as are the judgemental issues raised by the importance of cultural differences. But these recognitions do not lead us to accept the standard distinctions between ‘our culture’ and ‘their culture’. Nor do they give us cause to overlook the demands of practical reason and of political and social relevance in contemporary India, in favour of faithfulness to some alleged historical contrasts. I have tried to show that the contrasts are often not quite as they are depicted, and the lessons to be drawn are hardly the ones that the vigorous champions of ‘our culture’ claim them to be.

There is much to be learned in all this from Satyajit Ray’s appreciation of cultural divides, along with his pursuit of communication across these divides. He never fashioned his creation to cater to what the West may expect from India, but nor did he refuse to enjoy and learn from what Western and other cultures offered. And when it came to the recognition of cultural diversity within India, Ray’s delicate portrayal of the varieties of people that make us what we are as a nation cannot be outmatched. While reflecting on what to focus on in his films, he put the problem beautifully:

What should you put in your films? What can you leave out? Would you leave the city behind and go to the village where cows graze in the endless fields and the shepherd plays the flute? You can make a film here that would be pure and fresh and have the delicate rhythm of a boatman’s song.

Or would you rather go back in time – way back to the Epics, where the gods and the demons took sides in the great battle where brother killed brother and Lord Krishna revivified a desolate prince with the words of the Gita? One could do exciting things here, using the great mimetic tradition of the Kathakali, as the Japanese use their Noh and Kabuki.

Or would you rather stay where you are, right in the present, in the heart of this monstrous, teeming, bewildering city, and try to orchestrate its dizzying contrasts of sight and sound and milieu?

The celebration of these differences – the ‘dizzying contrasts’ – is far from what can be found in the laboured generalizations about ‘our culture’, and the vigorous pleas, increasingly vocal, to keep ‘our culture’, ‘our modernity’ distinctly unique and immune from the influence of ‘their culture’, ‘their modernity’. In our heterogeneity and in our openness lies our pride, not our disgrace. Satyajit Ray taught us this, and that lesson is profoundly important for India. And for Asia, and for the world.

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