A History Of The Present
In a recent and fascinating book called The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle between Faith and Reason: 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue, there is an interesting counterfactual that is posed. Could the most advanced societies of the Islamic world in the early 19th century — the Ottoman empire — have understood Jane Eyre? Jane Eyre is a novel by Charlotte Brontë, published in 1847, about a young woman’s journey through life and love at the cusp of modernity. To “get” Jane Eyre, not just as a cultural product but also as a viable, believable story, the Ottomans would have had to “get” the social infrastructure in which the novel unfolds. This would mean recognising a post-feudal society, understanding institutions like the postal services or newspapers, and the idea that a “respectable” single woman could make life choices on her own. In essence, the embryo of the novel takes the womb of modernity for granted. The answer offered to that counterfactual is that unless certain material conditions are available, unless the soil of society is furrowed and tilled, certain ‘modern’ mentalities might not just germinate. In fact, the very conceit of such a possibility might seem absurd, if not inimical.
One peril of such a ‘materialist’ explanation about how society evolves is that it internalises the idea that ideas of modernity can only flow from capital-rich centres (historically, the Anglo-Saxon West) to capital-poor peripheries. When such a view of unidirectional flow of progress is repeated, legitimised as pedagogy and institutionalised as the sole historic reality, what is little noticed in these moments of triumphalist self-congratulation is that these narratives often rebel with the historic self-image of those at the receiving ends. Out of this melange of forces that denies many ‘peripheral’ enterprises their expected due, a backlash is born as a politics of envy, emulation, and exaggerated self-regard. Even within the democratic context of India, we find elaborately architected visions of linguistic chauvinism, imaginary sanctities, textual literalism, and genetic ‘purity’. These voices invert the ‘materialist’ logic of cultural dissemination: they adopt modern technologies while assiduously cultivating anti-modern mentalities.
Faced with the self-aggrandising claims from the metropole and rage-filled mythologies that emerge from the peripheries about our culture, what is the recourse for individuals who live between them? The answer is not clear. Nor is it evident that there is indeed one answer. At best, we can only point to a set of responses that shows how our present culture is born out of a complex set of exchanges and reactions. One can try to keep in mind that the ideas we hold to be self-evident and eternal were born out of contingent circumstances. From our personal habits of food and language to seemingly unchanging ideas such as God, tradition, and causality, every human thought has a past that percolated into the present through various means.
For example, ideas have often circulated freely across the globe often obscuring true origins. This we see vividly when, the psychologist Alison Gopnik, in a remarkable feat of historical research, showed that by 1727, Buddhism via a French Jesuit in Tibet had made its way to the British philosopher David Hume, who wrote that the human Self is an illusion. In contrast, cultural ideas that we think of as traditional have sometimes evolved out of appropriations or resistance. Whether it be the transformation of the ragam Kalyani from being described as a ‘Turuska ragam’ (Turkish raga) in the 15th century to the present-day staple magnificence it has become in Carnatic music. Or, as the scholar M.V. Narayanan argues, even the traditional prominence that Kathakali accords to anti-heroes was an aesthetic resistance to early colonialism’s purported orderliness. Elsewhere, attitudes that we associate with ‘European’ modernity had also emerged independently in medieval India. This, we learn from the works of Velcheru Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and David Shulman who show us that kaaranams (scribes) in the post-Vijayanagara period engaged with historical self-awareness, narrative pragmatism and critical thought prior to any interaction with colonialism. And even the very same historical event has led different Indians to interpret it differently. This we see in Pankaj Mishra’s stellar new book where both Gandhi and Savarkar are nourished differently by the very same events in the Italian Risorgimento of the 1850s.
Recognising the above methods of how cultures survive and evolve — via circulation, self-creation, appropriation, resistance, interpretation — tampers down an excessive zeal to think of cultures in isolation or as possessing immutable ‘essences’. This openness of critical thinking that accepts the influences of others conversely also gives us the freedom to claim influences of Indic thought elsewhere. To remember this axiomatic double-entry bookkeeping of culture — the giving and the receiving — is perhaps the challenge of our all too shrill times. 
A version of this column appeared in The Hindu on April 8' 2017 under the title "Every Culture Gives and Receives"