'Indian Instincts' book review: India, up close and partial

A common fault that plagues writing about India is the distance between the writer and the land, a distance that is not necessarily measurable in miles but mind space. Too often, we hear accounts of India, this ever-changing, ever-same land, from people whose privilege, while giving them the knowledge and the influence to share their ideas, may not make them the best analysts of where the country has been and where it is headed.

On the face of it, Miniya Chatterji, who has degrees from Harvard and Columbia, belongs to this group. She worked abroad in investment banking and at the World Economic Forum for close to 14 years, at which point she decided to return home and do something more impactful. She started with a stint at the Jindal Group but soon moved to entrepreneurship by launching a sustainability incubator.

In other words, Ms Chatterji, the writer of the book under review, is earnest about her mission. At several places, she recounts how the move to India was occasioned not just by her desire to make a change but also to use her skills for the greater good. Towards this goal, apart from her corporate endeavours, she presents here what she calls the “instincts” that uniquely drive Indians.

It is a well-considered book, with separate sections devoted to age-old concerns like religious divisions and democratic fault lines as well as less gravid, more modern themes like love and parenting. Each essay is short, running to a little over 30 pages, in which Ms Chatterji distils her ideas of her country through a mix of personal observation and field reports.

This yields some successes, as when she tries locating what “Indian” means by making use of genetics. She cites the work of Professor Pitchappan of Madurai Kamaraj University who has single-handedly researched more than 12,000 blood samples from 91 tribes and 129 castes to figure out the genetic basis of Indian identity and race. His work led Ms Chatterji to the Piramalai Kallar tribe, made up of no more than 50 families, all of whom trace a genetic link to the first man from Africa.
The resulting essay, called “Survival”, showcases her methodology. She meets with Virumandi, a member of the tribe, and together they attend the wedding of Professor Pitchappan’s granddaughter. This personal connection allows her to learn more about the tribe, including its marriage customs and the low value placed on the girl child.

While such collation of the professional and the personal makes for interesting reading, it seldom goes beyond that. One reason for this is the length of the essays. For example, Ms Chatterji presents an account of why she was forced to leave India due to the pressure from her parents to end her relationship with a Muslim and instead marry a non-Muslim Bengali boy. She dovetails this into the causes of migration in general, a topic so vast as to require a book all its own.

Then there are aspects of the book that rehash received wisdom. In the essay called “Procreation”, Ms Chatterji makes an oft-repeated comparison between Indians’ aversion to discussing sex in public and their growing numbers, calling the gap between these two a “list of ironies” and “baffling”. For good measure, she also references the shiva lingam, at which point I began wondering who her target audience might be. One assumes that even Westerners would be accustomed to these bromides about India by now.

While that is pardonable, what is not is Ms Chatterji’s unwillingness to go deeper into the reasons for Indians’ apparently problematic attitude to a number of items she lists. There is no discussion on, say, whether the Indian preference for chastity before marriage may have some relation to the strong bonds of family that, while they can be stifling, also provide a sound basis for a number of social goods, such as the care of parents when they are old, a stable domestic environment, and so on.
On the other hand, the book may have benefitted from a discussion of more “positive” Indian instincts, such as the ubiquitous passion for cricket and how the game has defined, and continues to define, a modern Indian consciousness around capability, ambition and outsize success.

Meanwhile, the reliance on the personal can detract from the import of what Ms Chatterji is raising. In the essay called “Corporation”, for instance, she recounts the time when she sent out a company-wide email at the Jindal Group, asking that the birthday cake for employees be cut by whoever was closest to the cake, and not necessarily the woman in the room. While the sentiment is admirable, it can also seem rich in a book about Indian attitudes. Surely, sustainability officers have far more pressing matters, even in the domain of gender empowerment, to attend to?

Ms Chatterji’s credentials and her work on the ground make her the ideal candidate to write a book of this nature, but her work would be more satisfactory if she expanded these essays beyond the personal and into book-length features.
Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India
By Miniya Chatterji
Pages 332,
Rs 599