Published on Online Journal, by Iftekhar Sayeed, April 6, 2010.
A friend of ours was looking for a bride for her brother. She is Hindu, and my wife and I knew another Hindu lady who was looking for a groom for her sister. They were from similar educational and occupational backgrounds, so my wife suggested to her friend that there could be a union here.
We were taken aback when she said that their castes were different: marriage was not possible. We just hadn’t thought of that! Although nonplussed, we passed no judgment on their religion or culture: it simply was none of our business. This is how most of us are brought up in South Asia. We regard another person’s worldview as irrelevant, that is, we don’t regard it at all.
Muslim rule in South Asia lasted centuries, and yet there were no attempts on either side to change the other’s culture. Anthropologists claim that the militarily dominant culture tends to assimilate (‘acculturate’) the local culture if its adherents believe it to be inferior, or the former assimilates itself to the latter if its adherents feel that way. The obvious examples are Europeans in North America, and the Mongols in China, respectively. But I don’t know how they would account for Muslim rule in the subcontinent: neither side felt itself to be inferior, or (same thing) superior, they were just – different.
When Buddhism passed away from the rest of India for reasons that have as much to do with lack of trade and decentralization as with Hinduism’s ability to assimilate, a last outpost under the Pala dynasty continued in Bengal during the 8th to 12th centuries. However, they were overthrown by the Vishnu-worshippers, the Senas. Thus, the Buddhist populace had to live under a Hindu monarchy and Hindu elite. (The ruins of a great Buddhist monastery and its adjoining city can still be seen in Bogra, and tourists from Bangladesh and abroad are regular visitors.) Then, in about a.d. 1200, Muslim invaders from the northwest overthrew the Senas, and Islam found a mass following among the people. In the eastern part of the country – Noakhali, Chittagong, and Sylhet – Arab traders also spread Islamic teaching (‘Bangladesh, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition). Muslim holy men helped to spread the new religion. Sufis arrived in India and preached Islam, and their tombs today are visited not only by Muslims but people of other religions, especially Hindus … //
… The South Asian elite are in a parlous state. Spare a thought for Martin Kampchen, who wrote from Santiniketan: “Several daily newspapers of Calcutta flashed the news of Jhumpa Lahiri’s wedding in Calcutta as their first-page leader, complete with a colourful photo of the happy couple. First I thought: O happy Bengal! You still honour your poets as the ancient civilisations used to do. And for a moment I remained in this innocent bliss of satisfaction. Then it dawned on me that not any writer’s marriage is accorded such flattering coverage. Only expatriates who have ‘made it good’ abroad, who have ‘done the country proud,’ are subjected to such exaggerated honours (The Daily Star, 27th January, 2001).” Jhumpa Lahiri had just won the Pulitzer for her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies.
The Iranian middle-class, despite a civilization that is highly respected and a literature that is universally admired, find in Western civilization an object of adoration. When McDonald’s emigrated to Beijing and Moscow, it was regarded as the arrival of a superior lifestyle, not the mass consumer commodity it, in fact, was back home.
Certain historians, like Niall Ferguson, consider British colonialism a force for good. An experience that robs people of all self-respect must be a curios source of benefit.
I conclude this essay with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, made while discussing the plight of Negroes and Indians, from the first book of his Democracy in America: “If we reasoned from what passes in the world, we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind, what man is to the lower animals – he makes them subservient to his use; and when he cannot subdue, he destroys them.” (full text).
(Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh).