Alexander McCall Smith: There’s one ‘identity’ that really matters

An artist prepares for a performance of Kathakali, a classical dance created in Kerala's ancient kingdoms (Picture: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
An artist prepares for a performance of Kathakali, a classical dance created in Kerala's ancient kingdoms (Picture: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
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Identity politics is a divisive issue in India and Scotland alike, but we should remember that shared humanity is our most important identity, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

I am writing this in India, in Trivandrum, in the southern state of Kerala. Trivandrum may now officially be Thiruvanathapuram but older names sometimes stick. A few months ago I was in Mumbai, and noticed how many people there still call the city Bombay – a rather more beautiful name, in spite of the soft syllables of Mumbai. Mumbai sounds like mother; Bombay is evocative of style and glamour, and all the ebullience for which that city of 26 million people is renowned. And then there is Bollywood, a perfect name, that would lose all its appeal were it to become Mollywood.

Yesterday in Trivandrum I had two contrasting conversations. India is a country that loves conversations; we, by contrast, are tight-lipped in the public space, and apt to view conversational forays with indifference, sometimes even with suspicion.

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‘Everybody hates the British’

In India one engages, and at the literary festival I have been attending, there has been a dizzying amount of engagement. The first conversation was unusual, though, as it was an exception to the courtesy with which India treats visitors. The conversation, which took place over lunch with two women who were readers of my books, one of them a public intellectual here in India, started well enough, but was suddenly marred by the younger of the two announcing, “Everybody hates the British, you know.” She then added, for good measure, “The English are really dreadful people.”

This was over a plate of fish curry. Silence. She stared at me. A possible response might have been to point out that England and Scotland are different countries, but then her first comment had been about the British, a rather broader description. However one interpreted it, though, it was a breach of comity. You do not address a stranger in that way, and no entire people can be described as really dreadful, even if their ancestors did some dreadful things.

The conversation moved to historical apology, a familiar enough theme, with well-rehearsed arguments on the role of apology in committing the wrongs of the past to history. The Amritsar Massacre is still a sore topic here, and its centenary has revived the sense of hurt it engendered. This, I thought, was an echo of that hurt.

Long shadows

The second conversation was a complete contrast. That took place under a tree, with a retired lecturer in English language from a local college, a man who embodied all the charm and moral seriousness that one encounters in so many in this country. Life in India has a serious edge to it that is sometimes obscured in the affluent West: people here have often had to struggle for their education; they have to battle against a harsh climate, want, corruption, and the sheer weight of a massive population. How does one get ahead in life if one is rubbing shoulders with over a billion people?

Matters of the mind are very pressing here. We talked about the state of India today, about the long shadows of caste and, more broadly, the burdens of history. There are Scotsmen everywhere in Indian history, he said to me. “Look around this place – that observatory down there, for example – that was a Scotsman who set it up. And all the engineers on the railways and the teachers and the missionaries in this place – Kerala has a large Christian population – so many of those were Scotsmen. And you know something? They believed in education, when our local potentates only wanted their people educated.” They, at least, were not really dreadful.

There is, of course, real and understandable resentment over the depredations of the British Raj, and indeed over company rule. William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is much talked about in India at present: he shows the length and depth and breadth of the exploitation of India by a relatively small number of British functionaries. But it is not just British colonialism that comes into contemporary Indian political debate – there is a far more significant instance of history being used for contemporary political purposes in this country.

Europe’s identity politics

This occurs in the contemporary argument in India over identity politics. Here the time-scale is much longer, and stretches back thousands of years to the origins of contemporary Indian civilization. Is Indian civilization indigenous to India, or did it originate by way of Steppe migration? You might think this was ancient history – and it sounds rather like it – but it lies at the heart of the current political life of this country. Identity is tied up with citizenship, and the rights that citizenship confers. Is India a monocultural country or is it a pluralistic country composed of a patchwork of faiths and secular identities?

In Mumbai I had lunch with an old friend, an Indian writer, who was on the verge of tears as he spoke of these arguments. It is a very divisive issue, but then identity politics is a very divisive issue wherever it raises its head. It is their internal problem, of course, but we are peripherally caught up in India’s identity issues because Scots were part of the Raj, no matter how much we may pretend that it was an English enterprise. Remember all the railway engineers and administrators, all the district commissioners and so on in Africa.

And of course we have our own identity issues. They are simmering away in the background, and come to the fore whenever there is a debate about Gaelic road signs and Gaelic-speaking police cars. And then there is the small matter of European identity.

A sense of local identity is important, and gives meaning and texture to life, but it can be a potent agent of conflict. Perhaps we would all benefit if the emphasis were to shift from subsidiary identities, and to focus on the identity that really matters: our shared humanity, our planetary identity, so to speak.

An important aspect of our identity is that we are late Homo sapiens. The other varieties of Homo, we might remind ourselves, are no longer here.