Discovery of cultural India – really?

Sandhya Rao | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 21, 2015

Title: Intercultural Communication: The Indian Context, Authors: Ramesh N Rao and Avinash Thombre,Publisher: Sage India, Price: Rs1,095

A book on intercultural discourse falls short on content – with its biased view of history – as well as form

Why do you have castes in India? This question from children as young as 10 years in faraway Sweden some years ago, completely threw me.

How did they even know the word? Turns out it’s all spelled out in their social studies textbook. The chapter on India opens with the information that India is divided on the basis of caste, then comes the listing, and so it goes on.

Answering their questions fired fast and furious was a difficult and delicate operation.

It appears the authors of Intercultural Communication: The Indian Context decided to confront this question by simply not confronting it.

Or by making only passing references to it. This would be the single most glaring drawback in a work that should be of interest and great relevance to Indian readers, particularly students, whom the book purports to address.

To quote: “This book fulfils the need for instructional material, teaching, and the development and study of intercultural communication in India.

The book is planned as a primer for students at the undergraduate level irrespective of their area of emphasis, and as a supplement for graduate-level courses.”

Like it or not, many of the issues concerning and emanating from culture in Indian society, be it spiritual practice or culinary preference or social behaviour — they are all somehow connected to the caste question. Not actively engaging with it, therefore, is a major lacuna.

Teaching mode

The authors, Ramesh N Rao and Avinash Thombre, tread the academic path in their approach.

The book is clearly laid out in 10 chapters (and an introduction) that discuss, among other things: communication and culture; the beginnings of intercultural contact; orientation of culture; self, perception, and formation of intercultural identity; and so on.

It is only in chapters 8 and 9 — Cultures within Cultures; and Culture, Communication and Conflict — that the book comes to grips with the subject in real terms before it peters out rather perfunctorily in the chapter: Competence in and Knowledge of Intercultural Communication.

There is a set of discussion questions at the end of each chapter, a useful classroom tool. The questions actually often cover potentially greater ground than the text itself.

They range from the simple, such as “Which state are you from? What regional and sub-regional cultures can you identify about your state?” to the complex, such as “What is contentious about converting another person to your own religion? Do you oppose conversion or do you support conversion? Why?” or “Is there a single set of non-verbal cues that express love? What are the differences in how men and women interpret flirting? What are some of the implications of these differences?”

Following these discussion questions is an exhaustive list of references — a generous gift from the authors, that begs to be examined closely and the books/papers chased down and read.

The build-up to the ‘matter’, as they say in Tamil, is longwinded and wide-ranging.

Perspective, perception

The authors present a capsule of India’s history, with an inexplicably small mention of the effect of many external influences over the centuries.

They provide the backdrop for an understanding of the idea of communication, multilingualism, cosmology and religion, among others.

However, the perspective is that of the dominant religion, making the exercise not quite multicultural.

Especially since some sections of the population have been listed as Hindu in the absence of categories for them.

On a couple of occasions, the authors actually state they are deliberately omitting references to one or other denomination.

As mentioned earlier, the book really wakes up in chapters 8 and 9. There is a discussion of cultural groups in which attention is drawn to something that we tend to overlook: the efforts of the government, over the years, to recognise and nurture a sense of cultural integrity by setting up cultural zones (whose programmes are often telecast on Doordarshan).

Interestingly, in answer to the question “Who is an Indian?” the authors fall back on a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, quite possibly still the best definition because the answer continues baffle us to this day.

The authors’ explanation that the “expedient answer (is) that it is whatever within the boundaries of the modern Indian state, formed in August 1947” does not suffice.

However, the discussion of majority and minority groups, cultural hybridity, culture shock, third culture children, the effect of migrant groups on culture, and the effects of migrant-host relationships will resonate with readers.

The discussion around conflict, too, is engaging. As the authors observe: “It is important to understand some of the basic ideas about religion and religious freedom to understand the nature of the problem in India. What Indians believe is religion and faith differs between the Indic traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) and the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam).”

Insights and oversights

The authors offer some interesting insights. For instance, they write: “The “chalta hai” attitude that many Indians are said to adopt may be one way of understanding how Indians deal with change. Some decry such an attitude while others say that in a land of such diversity and difference that attitude best serves to reduce conflict.”

Unfortunately, these are few and often lost in the dry prose which reads like a research paper peppered with attributions such as (Clarehout and De Roover, 2008) and (Gonsalves, 2010) and (Parchelo, p. 5).

Surely, the editors could have found a way around this, just as surely they could have done a more efficient and aesthetic job of the editing, “is not that so?”, to quote.

The number of grammatical and syntactical errors and typos is unforgivable in any book, more so a textbook on communication; every word and meaning counts — and discounts.

The biggest disappointment, though, is the absence of examples. The authors offer illustrations from their personal experiences, and that’s good, it’s authentic.

But India is much larger than Karnataka and Maharashtra, and its multicultural character so complex that the authors needed to go beyond their comfort zones. Where examples have been provided, they work, but they’re just not enough or they are often simply clichés. That’s a shame. Because the subject is simply too important to be left to clichés.


Ramesh N Rao is professor and chair of the Degree-In-3 online programme at Columbus State University. He has been teaching for over 25 years in the US and is a commentator. Avinash Thombre is associate professor at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. Widely published, he also undertakes diffusion of positive communication and preventive health messages to marginalised groups.

Published on June 21, 2015
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