In the 1950s, inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru, some very brilliant young Indians went into the Foreign Service. Among them was the Rhodes scholar Peter Lynn Sinai. A former Ambassador to Austria and Iraq, Mr Sinai has now chosen to make his home in Bangalore. At a dinner recently, I got talking to him, to discover that to the brilliance of mind so characteristic of the diplomats of his generation, Mr Sinai had in addition a sparkling wit, as these two stories he told me shall demonstrate.

The first anecdote related to the college we had both studied in. Peter Sinai took his first degree in Bombay, but then his father, a native of Goa, instructed him to move to Delhi for further studies. The object was to make him learn Hindi, to better equip himself for a career in the newly independent (and presumably hyper-nationalist) India. By sending him to Delhi’s premier college, the father planned to make his son a proper desi. However, on his first day at St. Stephen’s, the young Sinai discovered that the conversation at the dining table was conducted in (as he put it) a ‘very haw-haw English’. The programme to indigenize the boy had in fact inadvertently prepared him for a lifelong engagement with the essential impurity of cultures.

Mr Sinai and I got talking of Y. D. Gundevia, whose book Outside the Archives I much admired. One of his first postings was as Second Secretary in Colombo, when Gundevia was India’s High Commissioner. The country was then known as Ceylon, and its President, S. W. R. D. Bandarnaike, was working hard to rid it of any lingering colonial influences. He had just imposed a language policy which made it mandatory for all citizens of the country to write their examinations in Sinhala. But Bandarnaike was not content with this; apart from the citizens of Ceylon, he wanted residents of other nationalities to learn the national language, too.

As Mr Sinai told the story, at a reception for the diplomatic corps the President of Ceylon got talking of the greatness of the Sinhala language. This was his first such address to that particular audience, but his two-hundred-and-fortieth speech all told on that particular subject. After he ended his talk, Mr Bandarnaike turned to the senior-most diplomat at the table. ‘Mr Gundevia’, he thundered, ‘you have been in our country for more than a year now. Have you made any attempt to learn our beautiful and ancient language?’. ‘As a matter of fact, I have, Sir’, the Indian answered, ‘and I do now know some words of Sinhala’. ‘And what might these be?’, asked the President. ‘Solomon, West, Ridgeway, Dias’, replied Gundevia, these being the four personal names of a man whose Sinhala chauvinism could not hide the fact that his family had once been associated with the Church and with Christian missionaries.

To this wonderful and revealing tale told me by a former diplomat let me append statements by two great modern writers. In 1907, James Joyce gave a lecture in Trieste, titled ‘Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages’. Dismissing the idea that Ireland belonged only to Irish Catholics, Joyce remarked: ‘Our civilization is an immense woven fabric in which very different elements are mixed… In such a fabric it is pointless searching for a thread that has remained pure, virgin and uninfluenced by other threads nearby.’ Some sixty years later, the Kannada polymath Kota Shivarama Karanth wrote that it was impossible to ‘to talk of ‘Indian culture’ as if it is a monolithic object’. Karanth had heard scholars and demagogues speak of something called ‘Aryan culture’. Did they realize, he asked, ‘what transformations this “Aryan culture” has undergone after reaching India?’.

In Karanth’s opinion, ‘Indian culture today is so varied as to be called “cultures”. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.’

The search for a pure, uncontaminated culture—be this ‘Sinhala’ or ‘Aryan’ or ‘Arabic’ or ‘Western’—runs against the grain of empirical evidence, the evidence of borrowings and reshapings of cultures that has been so ubiquitous in human history. But if it was only a question of historical truth perhaps one would not have to worry very much. The difficulty, or tragedy, is that the quest for cultural purity has had the most malign political consequences. Thus the Nazis have claimed that this practice or that was ‘unGermanic’; the mullahs that this or that was ‘unIslamic’, the Sangh Parivar that this or that was ‘unIndian’. Chauvinists have then acted on such claims by villifying individuals and groups deemed insufficiently loyal to a certain national, religious, or ethnic creed.

The chauvinist turns on the cosmopolitan, and ultimately even on his own ilk. For who is to say what, finally, constitutes 100% proof of loyalty to a particular form of bigotry? In the light of the story told me by Peter Sinai, let us recall that S. W. R. D. Bandarnaike was murdered by a fellow Sinhala for not being enough of a chauvinist for the chauvinist’s own tastes.