The discovery of Southasia

From Himal Southasian, Volume 24, Number 3 (MAR 2011)

It is an uphill battle, frankly, to create a Southasian sensibility in the modern era. And so it is important to relish small victories, and bring them to notice. Otherwise, the little tree will have fallen in the jungle and no one will have heard.

Aamir in search of Dakshin Asia, ‘Dhobi Ghat’

The latest modest victory in the search for the re-establishment of a Cultural Unity of Southasia is a fleeting moment in Aamir Khan’s latest production, Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries), which delves into lower-middle-class tenement life in Bombay. Khan is the caricature of the unsmiling artist (Arun), and a Parsi girl, Shai, played by Monica Dogra, who has moved back to Bombay from the US, pursues him. The film clearly had been shot in English, and what we heard was the Hindi dubbing. And so the girl explains to Arun in Hindi, ‘I have come to Dakshin Asia to work.’ That was my moment of epiphany.

Here was a mainstream Bollywood film, one that would obviously be appreciated by the Indian middle-class all over, making specific and deliberate mention of Southasia – and that too in the vernacular. It has long been a problem that: a) the Indian intelligentsia and societal gatekeepers have been latecomers to ‘Southasia’, for several obvious reasons; and b) the vernacular discourse is less likely to carry on discussions on Southasian regionalism, especially in the languages of India.

So there was nothing to do but be thrilled when the Anglicised Indian girl says, rolling her r’s furiously, ‘Mein kaam karne ayi hoon dakshin asia me.’ I grant you, it sounded odd and obviously translated, nevertheless this was a milestone. Thank you, Aamir sahab!

Another little hurdle was overcome in 2007, when then-Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee addressed a meeting of Southasian editors in New Delhi. That was when he referred to the ‘Southasian Subcontinent’ in his prepared speech. In itself, that was an obvious thing to do if you were sensitive to your neighbours, because the ‘Indian Subcontinent’ as a term grates the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, who are so obviously part of that subcontinent. Indians, on the other hand, have found it convenient to continue with the traditional usage of ‘Indian Subcontinent’.

Mukherjee’s reference to the Southasian Subcontinent indicated that the discourse of India vis-à-vis Southasia had moved far enough for the Indian minister to deliberately say ‘Southasian Subcontinent’. If he had specifically not wanted to say ‘Indian Subcontinent’ but also had not wanted to make a pointed Southasian reference, Mukherjee could have said simply ‘Subcontinent’, or found alternative expressions.

You might wonder why the semantics of ‘Southasia’ (I am of course using the Himal style of hitching the two words together) is so important. The answer is simply that the first hurdle is past with acceptance to the term itself, even as many more lie before us. Because the world knows us after 1947 increasingly as the region of Southasia, we had better adjust to the idea, even as we gain confidence as Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, etc.

If India’s discovery of Southasia is vital, so it is important to promote the concept of Southasia in the vernacular discourse, in each of our countries. Bangladesh and Nepal are the foremost to push the concept of regionalism, the first because it thought of the idea of SAARC and the second because Kathmandu hosts the SAARC Secretariat and more Southasia conferences (because of the easy visa regime) than the other countries.

The time will come when we will go beyond words, when the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline will work, when the Mongla port will be managing massive amounts of goods in and out of Nepal, when an airline called ‘Southasian’ will traverse the region, and when the barbed-wire fences will start crumbling for lack of upkeep. We are as yet far from all that, of course, but we could start by popularising ‘Southasia’, the term.

Or, if you will, Dakshin Asia. Or Junoobi Asia in Urdu, Thekke Asia in Malayalam, Dakunu Asiyawa in Sinhala, Thenna Aasia in Tamil, Shumale Asia in Kashmiri, Dokkhin Ashia in Bangla and Dakhin Asia in Sindhi (with accent on the ‘D’, says a Sindhi speaker). I also like Barsageer, the Urdu term for Subcontinent.

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