How do you define what is “Indian”?

In his wonderful new book, The Sceptical Patriot, Sidin Vadukut, a journalist with LiveMint, tries to assess the haughty claims Indians make. Was the zero really invented in India? What about plastic surgery? Did India never invade another nation? And was it the richest country in the world at some point?

As a trained scientist, I’ve learned to be sceptical about everything. So it is no wonder I enjoyed the book. But, for me, the best part of the book was the last few pages. In them, Vadukut tries to explain the value of knowing history. One of his epiphanies from the exercise of writing the book is that “there is no such thing, ethnically speaking, as an Indian.”

There is a genetic basis to this argument, because for thousands of years the native south Asian population has mixed with Mongols, Greeks, Persians, British, Mughals, French, Portuguese and Arabs, and those populations have previously mingled with others around the world. Indeed, centuries of casteism has left its mark on Indians today, but it would be near impossible to find a citizen today who is “purely Indian”.

But some people will easily dismiss this biological mixing, and point out to our distinct Indian cultural heritage. Surely that is different and unique from the rest of the world?

Columbus, Columbus

Well, not really. Vadukut argues that “an entire planet’s worth of history courses through our veins”, and there is no better way to look at that than to look at our everyday meals. Consider the ingredients of just two such quintessentially Indian dishes: rajma and aloo gobi.

Kidney beans, tomato, green chilli, potatoes and cauliflower are all foreign imports. Apart from gobi, which came from Turkey, all the ingredients were given to the world by the Spanish and the Portuguese, after Christopher Columbus’s famous 1492 voyage to the Americas (or as he assumed, then, to India). The contribution is known as the Columbian Exchange, and marks the time when a whole bunch of other foods started being used in cuisines around the world. These also include maize, cocoa, vanilla, oranges, bananas and pineapples.

Many of the spices that make up garam masala are not of Indian origin. But, without potatoes and tomatoes, we wouldn’t have delicacies such as pav bhajidum aloo or masala dosa. 

I pick out these two ingredients because their arrival in India is a lot more recent. According to British records, potatoes became a mainstay in Indian diets only in the 1700s. And, according to the great food historian KT Achaya, Indian cooking adopted tomatoes as late as the 1880s.

“In less than a century, an entire country, with about 18% of the world population and impossibly diverse culinary cultures and preferences, went from looking at the tomato with suspicion to consuming it with absolutely everything,” writes Vadukut. How, then, do you define what is “Indian”?

First published in Lokmat Times. Image from Wikipedia.

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