Anything you can rightly say about India…must be right?

“Anything you can rightly say about India, the opposite is equally true.”

It’s certainly a convenient phrase and one I’ve heard often this past year. It’s short, attention-grabbing and draws a smile if not a laugh.

After travelling to India for the first time on a CASI travel research grant, and having graduated from UPenn in May 2011, I’ve now worked the past year in New Delhi with IndoGenius, where one of my roles is managing short-term academic immersion to India programs for foreign university students.

Many of these bright students write blogs following their visit (most often their first), and this convenient quote finds its way into many entries. On one hand, it shows a degree of maturity that what they have experienced does not necessarily represent all of India (though we try to pack in as much of India as we can in 3 weeks!). With the security of some intellectual cover afforded by the phrase, the author now possesses the freedom to be bold. Inviting no argument, they readily acknowledge that no matter what they write, the opposite may also be true.

A quick search for the phrase’s origins weren’t conclusive– some point to a Cambridge economist; others suggest a travel writer, or “a teacher of Amartya Sen”. Nevertheless the phrase has certainly established itself in India’s lexicon, including the op-eds of Shashi Tharoor.

Cleverness aside, the phrase most often used to sum up India as a country of paradoxes—the sadhu on a cellphone, the slums with satellite TV—does trouble me.

Because it can’t be true!

Used in the right context, the phrase may indeed have some merit. But it’s not a big leap to a far worse expression—one of complete resignation. Having spent the past year in Delhi, I’ve had too many more seasoned veterans (and Indians themselves) try to warn me that it was impossible to “understand” India. Trying to understand India, to them, was a fool’s errand. Those with a sunnier disposition take this as an excuse to enjoy the amazing ride that India offers; while others toil away in frustration.

All of this underscores the fact that India is a complicated place. The quintessential Indian head shake embodies this complexity, and ambiguity. It can mean yes, no, both, neither, this and that—sometimes all at the same time. But complexity does not absolve one from critical reasoning. With some effort, you can start to figure out the head bobble (most of the time…). And the same can be said for India’s big questions.

In addition to all of the great research and data collection being done, we have amazing tools readily at our disposal to allow us to be more authoritative in answering our questions and helping us find things genuinely “rightly true”.

Of course there are few easy answers to any of India’s challenges—or opportunities for that matter. But searching for things that can be rightly said about India (without their opposite being true) is a noble goal. Intellectually challenging and endlessly satisfying.

Photo: Passport to India is committed to building the next generation of leaders with India expertise. IndoGenius recently gave The Buckeye Leadership Fellows Program an 'Accelerated Experience of India' to equip young leaders from OSU with the knowledge and skills necessary to further the US-India relationship! Like us to learn more as we share some of the highlights of the 8-day program!

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About Sean Angiolillo