Are we obsessed with nominal identities?

In an interview to The Wire Science last month, Venki Ramakrishnan, the molecular biologist, acknowledged that Indians had a bizarre relationship with the fact that he was a Nobel laureate:

… the business from India was really strange because I’d left India when I was 19. I had almost nothing to do with Indian science except that I started coming to Bangalore and a few other places from about 2006. So the people who knew me in India were people in my field: molecular and structural biology. They knew my work. Nobody else cared about it. At all. (Emphasis added)

I gave a lecture in honour of G.N. Ramachandran in 2008 in Chennai. The hall was maybe half full. The next year a hall that was about three times as big was packed. What was the difference between 2008 and 2009? My work hadn’t changed. So I think it’s a very strange business.

The fact that he spent his whole scientific career outside India doesn’t seem to matter to many Indians, who simply gravitate towards his Indian origins and the nominal identity and think of him as Indian.

This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that his success is considered to be the success of an Indian scientist. It’s not.

The reason I bring this up now is this tweet, where you can see a similar problem at play:

Like Kaswan points out, Pritish Nandy’s and Tapan Chaki’s selection is flawed at the outset, and can’t be taken seriously for its complete lack of women. But beyond that, there’s also the identity problem. Manjul Bhargava neither studied nor worked in India, ever. Salman Rushdie studied abroad and has lived outside of India for most of his life. Siddhartha Mukherjee only did his schooling in India; he went abroad for his higher education and has been working there since. It’s a similar story with Zubin Mehta.

Many people have skewered Nandy and Chaki on Twitter for ‘packaging’ these people as Indians nonetheless, but to be fair, it is The Economic Times‘s doing, at least because the book’s page on the publisher website only says that these are “leaders who are constantly bringing change not just in India but across the world”.

This being the case, its lack of women – apart from Lata Mangeshkar – is the major problem (judging the book by its cover). In fact, it’s funny that it has been billed as a collector’s item and is set for “private circulation” in a market where the patriarchy that guided its creation is neither.

However, it also bothers me that the newspaper looks at these faces and sees all of them as Indians.

These people are, to me, Indians only in name, and for The Economic Times – or anyone else – to call them “India’s most famous” is offensive (although not for the anti-nationalist nonsense). First, it sets a bar for the sort of fame that begets recognition that’s unjust to the many people who have lived and worked here, who are most familiar with its conditions and, most importantly, whose success represents work that is more meaningful to the country’s status quo and aspirations.

For example, if a mathematician who studied in India and works in India solves a major problem, her life and her views will be of great interest to anyone interested in the conditions in which India excels irrespective of whether someone in the US or Europe thinks so.

Bhargava’s excellence, deserving though it is, is on the other hand purely academic. It contains no imprints of the experience of persevering in India except perhaps in a theoretical sense (caveat: I haven’t read the book, and likely won’t). But he is celebrated as a “famous Indian” anyway, just the way Ramakrishnan is.

Taking recourse through Western recognition also risks false positives: celebrating work that a White Man has expressed interest in, even when it is actually par for the course in its context. Here’s a good example.

Second: Nandy’s and Chaki’s choices have excluded not just these people but the real change-makers in India, the people working on the ground, with communities, and who often go unnamed (until they’re arrested on specious charges). It is not hard for me or any other English-speaking urbanite who reads The Economic Times to find out what Bhargava’s, Mukherjee’s or Rushdie’s views are. But it’s very hard to hear from the community workers, above and beyond the skewed incentives that keep the mainstream media’s gaze looking away from them – including perhaps The Economic Times‘s, given the glowing review.

I’m not sure if it’s the paucity of homegrown champions who have won international  – especially Western – recognition, but something about it, an Indian name and even the slightest hint of brown skin has people – at least the upper-caste middle and upper class readers of the English media – sitting upright, paying attention and clutching at the pride straws. But when the recognition has a more local and caste-just flavour, the interest vanishes.

At a time when pandering to the aspirations of just this group makes for good business, and when such business increasingly controls what we don’t see or read or hear, it’s important to define our heroes properly and make sure we keep them in our sights.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.