Flagging a new self

The Nehruvian era is over. The ascent of Narendra Modi and the defeat of the Congress heralded the new BJP.

Recently, I spent time talking to a philosopher and a novelist. The novelist was talking about memory. He told me, “Memory to me was a number of small objects which triggered events. My oldest memory is a snuffbox, my grandmother’s snuffbox.” As a child, he talked of fetching it for his grandmother, telling me it opened an entire world of conversation. Snuff meant freedom and women’s time for him, a signal that women would talk freely about the world. He added snuff created the storyteller in him.

My philosopher friend was more critical of the way we talked of events. He complained we had no language to talk about by events like poverty, war, violence, suffering. Social science, he complained, was a form of impoverishment, a desiccation of vocabularies which destroyed feeling and experience, pointing merely to number.

Numbers speak, he said, but definitely not to the social scientist. He added we need the insights of sociology but sociology in turn needs the language of literature to articulate them. I was thinking of these conversations as I began writing this piece about Independence Day. We inevitably begin with the moment of eloquence, of Jawaharlal Nehru at Red Fort announcing a tryst with destiny. Succeeding prime ministers have failed to recreate the drama of the event. Yet today we face a paradox.


The Nehruvian era is over. The ascent of Narendra Modi and the defeat of the Congress heralded the new BJP. Yet despite the historic nature of the victory, one realises that Modi is not just an actor, but a symptom, representing deeper forces.

One of my friends put it facetiously but pithily. He said, “The Modi of the past, obsessed with history, can speak from Red Fort. But the Modi of the future should have spoken from Saket Mall.” The mall, he claimed, represented the historicity of the future. If the fifties represented Independence, nationalism and socialism, 2014 represents a new kind of autonomy, consumerism and desire. The collectivity called the nation has yielded to a new fortress called the self.

The years of socialism as years of waiting are over. The younger generation does not want to wait and the younger generation has few memories of the ration card. Elections became a reflection of this self. Modi had a self as a self-made man. Feasibility, practicality, speed, delivery, efficiency are the new virtues. Strangely what is disappearing with socialism, is the world of agriculture. Like MNREGA, agriculture sadly is not being seen as viable. Life in the cities is what allows for history. The city is the site for the new mobility, for the new aspirations.

Even small towns are now beehives of aspiration. In talking of the city, we must mention that the city as an imaginary has three variations. The first idea, of the city as a possibility, as an alternative reality, was constructed by the diaspora. In many a family imagination treats places like Ottawa, California, New Jersey as neighbourhoods for Indian domestication. The diaspora created the dream city, the double where every Indian succeeded.

The second city of the mind was the network. Without the virtual city of social media, new attitudes and new possibilities are not possible. The network city is the city of the new generation. It can be established faster than any shanty town.


Virtuality allows for conversations of desire and ambitions to move rhizomelike till they capture a new community. With the diaspora and the network, ideology succumbed to the world of the brand. The new generation was clear. Who needs genealogy when you have brands. Brands allow for a new presentation of the self, a new literacy. Saying Adidas or Nike is a statement not just of identity but of solidarity.

The new generation claims that brands exist, so they can be themselves. The third city is the new city that came into being after a majority of the population decided to be urban Tier-I and Tier-II cities no longer feel abandoned by history. Speed is the order of the day, especially when what you dream is a Flipkart or a mall away. The new self in the city seeks to create hybrid places like malls which serve as dating places and opportunities for kitty parties. The self is now an assembly line of preferred moments and the selfie helps you write history the way you want it. The new self is tripartite entity.

The Self

The core self centres around the body. The body is a site for desire, sexuality, fitness, ambition. Yet, the choices of this world are still confused. It wants to be autonomous but still belong. It sees itself as part of history of nationalism but derives its memories from a NCERT book. It is proud of its majoritarianism, desperate to articulate its sense of culture.

It wants religion as an idiom and consumerism as a dialect and wants to be unashamed in its consumption of both. A middle class majoritarianism, anchored in religiosity as identity is creating a new urban self. They seek an administration with speed, continuity and transparency and they hope Modi will provide for it.

Yet the uncertainties are there. A world of desire and aspiration is also a world of repressions. When repressions surface along with a majority, they simmer and spread creating ugly events. Majorities, long suppressed, hit back at what they call the custodians of oppression believing that only violence is a therapy. The world of Modi has unleashed many such angers. When they combine with other desires, they create an explosive city where riots, vigilantism and cultural policing can be the order of the day.

A truly free society must learn to exorcise its repressions. Our changing times need a supple democracy where the self has to be tolerant of intractable others. In fact, this is the drama that India is about to enact. One hopes by the time a prime minister climbs the ramparts of Red Fort next year, he has good news to report on the cultures of Indian democracy.



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