The Sounds of India, The Conceit of Hapa

A visit to India (for the uninitiated especially) is an assault on the senses. This is painfully cliché. But cliché or not it is true.

The sounds: horns blaring, traffic whistles whirring, the droning hums of all manner of combustion, the deafening sounds of indifference in India--unheeded fire alarms and of beggars pawing and streaking on taxi windowpanes, the top-down pitch of authority ("Baljinder! get over here!), reflexively matched by the sounds of seemingly plodding deference to authority where non-violence and non-action are ingrained-- these are some Indian sounds. "oh, that's Ambassador so-and-so's residence and he just shooed me away, well, I've got to piss and his is a wall just too convenient: zip. splash. cascade. zip." 

Its colorful. Its busy. Its tasty. Its overwhelming. The scale of India is just hard to comprehend. 

No matter where you are from in the world, to be educated today you need to know something about India. It is not a peer to China (as many in India are very upfront in insisting). But India will beat China this year in % GDP growth; it is making a number of bolder moves in international affairs, for example cooperating with Vietnam to build a satellite tracking system (clearly designed to keep tabs on China in the South China Sea); it will soon overtake China in population, and for economic and political and cultural reasons it is a country (some say a continent masquerading as a country) that matters and will inexorably matter more and more.

India is also diverse. Very diverse. It has a half-dozen of the world's 100 wealthiest people on its roster. It has a European Union-sized population (400m-ish) living at or below the poverty line. There are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, etc. and so forth.

The point of my preamble is on the face of it India looks like a patchwork of people following no rules. India appears to have no visible, tangible order to it whatsoever. It looks as if India is an animated democracy yes, but one also beset by both religious and secular notions of non-interference, where effectively everyone acts as they please and if that means traffic is a mess or some dirt and grime and soot has to be dealt with, so be it.

This brings to mind a very Hapa notion. Here is Kip Fulbeck, the founder of the Hapa Project:

“identity is a personal process and i’m adamant that it should be a personal decision, not one made by a community, a government or others.”  

It is quintessentially Hapa to believe identity is a personal decision.

This is an idea I don't believe in. And after 5 days in India, in fact, I don't believe in it with even greater conviction. Indeed, India teaches us identity is way more than a "personal decision."

If we take one example, let's look at the Sikhs.

I grew up neighbors with a Sikh family.

 A never before seen photo of my neighbor Pavin circa 1997

A never before seen photo of my neighbor Pavin circa 1997

After 9/11 in New York City I will never forget how I got into a cab driven by a Sikh man, who was so relieved, so thrilled I knew his faith as distinct from Islam. I have a distinct fondness for my Sikh friends and I am aware how Sikhs have historically created their space in India. In the beginning (i.e. the 15th century) the founding father of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, proclaimed "there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim."

There could be no better example of "standing on the shoulders of giants." There could be no greater example of a seemingly independent act veritably shrouded in interdependence. 

As unique as the Sikh religion is, without Hinduism, without Islam, there would be nothing for it to react against; as singular a founding act as Guru Nanak's was, without Hindu and Muslim foils to stand up to there mightn't be a reason for being. 

There is nothing personal, nothing that happens in a black box separate from time and place and community in Guru Nanak's founding story.  Sikhs, furthermore, have dealt with a number of shocks, namely partition, where their homeland of Punjab was cleaved in two.

And also the deadly political fallout from the calls of Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale for a separate state of Khalistan in the 80's. 

 There was a massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was a terrible insult to deadly injury for military action upon the holiest place for Sikhs was tantamount to desecration

There was a massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was a terrible insult to deadly injury for military action upon the holiest place for Sikhs was tantamount to desecration

 Indira Gandhi, the acting PM who ordered Operation Blue Star to storm Golden Temple was later assasinated

Indira Gandhi, the acting PM who ordered Operation Blue Star to storm Golden Temple was later assasinated

 It was Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards who carried out the assassination, in retaliation for her fateful actions in Amritsar 

It was Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards who carried out the assassination, in retaliation for her fateful actions in Amritsar 

Sikhs can have their identities in India--and I'm sure there are many sub-identities within the Sikh world, guessing by how many young Sikhs tend to elect not to wear turbans, but the success of the ability for Sikhs to have a strong and distinct identity, i.e. space for Sikh identities and sub-identities (separate from the idea of the success of the overall Sikh identity) rests on the fact that these are never "personal decisions." 

The conceit of Hapa is that it professes you can be anything.

But that is just not true.

The Sikhs have a reach and influence that punches well above its approximately 2% minority weight. They have struggled for that though. Sikhs are always very proactive (maybe hypersensitive at times, and for good reason) to maintain good relations with both Hindus and Muslims. More importantly, there is a delicate give and take that is relentlessly calibrated. Maybe that would prefer to be more dismissive of the Hindu gods, the lesser ones at least, or maybe they would like to ensure their holy manuscripts are held in equal stead as the Koran, or the ancient Jain works? To entertain the idea you can be anything supposes identity is a one-way declaration. Certainly you can bend and reach and often grasp much more than others say they are prepared for you to have, but you can't pull an identity strictly from thin air. Identity involves personal reflection, but it is never a personal decision, i.e. one decidable aloof to the fetters one's contemporaries might like to place on "your" identity. For better or worse, identity is negotiated.

The world will look more and more like India. More bottom up. More multipolar. More urban (and less suburban i.e. Hapa's homebase). More frenetic. More friction and conflict with neighbors. More spoilers. More traffic jams. What will matter is your ability to act interdependently, your ability to accommodate others, your ability to manage tension.

For many reasons I really like India.

I wish I could love Hapa, but Hapa is directionally wrong- and by a wide margin.