Thursday, August 12, 2010

The sum of the parts - Pt 3

It takes more than a journey to comprehend this country. The British had this tradition at the turn of the last century, the Grand Tour. The closest Indian equivalent may be in the civil services, where officers in training are sent around the country on “Bharat Darshan”. In our year, possibly like every other year, everybody wanted to go to Goa. Our group went instead to Jammu and Gujarat, to Bombay and to Bangalore. We watched sunset over the Arabian Sea from the deck of a frigate, tiptoed down border trails in Akhnoor in the dark before the dawn, ate Vadilal ice-creams and thalis beside the highway near Ahmedabad. For thirty days the sights of India washed over us in waves. At the end of it all we listed all the places we hadn’t visited, the sights we hadn’t seen even in the States we passed through – the step wells of Gujarat, the mustard fields of Punjab, the brooding citadels of Mandu and Orchha, the ruins of Hampi. Thirty days was never enough to see a tenth of this bewildering variety.

We did, however, get a feel of the people. Because we rode the rails. Through long nights and longer days, lulled by the rattle of the wheels, we spoke to people. To Indians. A studious Sikh accountant from Ludhiana, so different from the stereotype of the bluff Sardar. A group of feisty old ladies from Surat, travelling down to Bombay to run a sale. The homesick young sailor going up from Vishakhapatnam to Kanpur, looking forward to his mother’s cooking. In hindsight, that young man personified two of the strands that bind together this crazy sprawl. First, the armed forces, where discipline and uniformity blur the differences between regions and races. Second, the railways, that uniquely Indian melting pot where the diverse ingredients are tossed together.

The iron horse had more than an economic impact on the process of “nation-building”. Besides opening up the Indian hinterlands to trade, the railways broke down the divisions in society and opened up their minds. An aphorism from 19th century Bengal has survived – Jaat bhanglo teen Sen – Keshob Sen, Wil-sen aar ishtisen. Loosely translated, three Sens demolished the barriers of caste – Keshob Sen (the Brahmo reformer), Wilson’s Hotel in Calcutta where people of all castes ate together and the ishtisen or station, where people were thrown together in the adventure of travel. Travellers from Theroux to Iyer have vouched that a second-class railway carriage on a long journey is the best way to understand the soul of India. Also to share biographies and genealogies, prepare strategies for the sowing season and the stock market, plan a holiday with (recent) strangers who are suddenly good friends and find a suitable boy for the neighbours’ distressingly modern daughter.


A railway carriage would also be the best place to face the stereotyping that moulds regional identities. The burly Sikh, bearded and turbanned, ever-ready to break into an energetic bhangra after a meal of tnn-ddoori chik-ken, good-humoured and good-hearted but typecast as the simpleton - India’s version of the Irishman or the Polack. An image that needs re-thinking after the Khalistan movement in the ’80s, or in the light of the achievements of Hargobind Singh Khurana, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Paramjit Singh Dhaliwal. The fish-eating, emotional, argumentative Bengali, wordy and quick-tempered but a physical coward. The Gujarati money-bags who would sell his family for a profit. The “North-Eastern” student, a catch-all categorisation that ignores the distinctions between the Manipuri Bishnupriya (Vaishnavs) and the Baptist from Mizoram, let alone the differences between the 16 major tribes and 64 sub-tribes of Nagaland. Is this merely an attempt to fit people into categories, or is it symptomatic of the emphasis on sub-regional identities? Shall we see in India a replay of what is happening in Georgia and in Moldova, a continuous process of differentiation and division?

My generation was fed the line of “unity in diversity” long before “India shining” became a catch-phrase. I have problems with both. The diversity is self-evident, but the unity seems more tenuous with each passing year. Some years ago I was in Manipur on government work and became used to the term "you Indians". Even "going to India". It stirred déjà vu. Then I remembered Kashmir in 1990. These words, the attitude, were chilling echoes of a chilling fortnight in Srinagar all those years ago. That's some unity. Consider the Jarawa tribesman in the Andaman Islands. He may not even KNOW about India. His home is closer to Thailand than to the Indian mainland. In case I've failed to get the point across, the idea of "India united" seems to fall well short of a consensus.

Three major wars, a few dozen separatist movements, schisms along the lines of religion and of culture, huge differences between town and country. More importantly, separate Indias for the haves and the have-nots, a situation that has led to insurgencies that run from the Nepal border to the fringes of Tamil Nadu. Make no mistake, the Maoist movements are insurgencies, and the future of the Indian polity will depend upon whether these are addressed as a disease or as symptoms of a more fundamental illness. A secular federation where the greatest visible divide is between two of the world’s major religions. A union where the northern half of the country still lumps together four distinct cultures, languages, traditions as “South Indian (or as “Madrasi”, from the time of the Madras Presidency under the British). Where is the unity?

It’s some kind of miracle that this country still holds together after 60 years.

It’s time we realised that there is no such thing as an average Indian.

Because it’s time we stopped dealing in stereotypes.


Anonymous said...

Most very nice. But why you are not posting your Bengal Post columns?

Anon E. Mouse

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Ms. Mous(s)e, I hear and obey.

Damn, that reminds me - I just missed the deadline for the next column!


Anonymous said...

well said. The only reason India holds together is democracy. And to put it bluntly, it may really not be too bad if it split up

maxratul said...

A very lyrical description of a late 19th/early 20th century train journey from Mumbai to Umballa can be found in the book The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes. Jaat Bhanglo Teen Sen... reminded me of that.

Lalit said...

Sorry for my ignorance, but which name among the many authors of the books is you? Also, what is the theme of the book. And all the best for your book.

sandeip said...


first of all, sorry i am commenting so late on a wonderful post which i received in google reader more than a month ago. and you write wonderfully well. (i am sure this is not the first time you have been told this, but, i guess some things cannot be told enough times).

re. the unity in diversity point you made, and about how long it can last...i was student in the state of assam for 5 and a half years, and the period i am referring to is the Assamese-Bihari spats of 2003. I remember living in a hostel where nearly 6-7% of all students were hindi-speakers (and hence, biharis)- and Tensions used to run high, and sometimes even in college tempers would flare as news channels enjoyed the highest TRP ever recorded in our college hostels.

I was Mess Secretary during the time. And I had to go shop for food at least twice every week. And hindi speakers had been advised (forbidden) to move out of campus during those spats, but since I used to be fluent with assamese, I insisted on going out. A part of it was pure pig-headedness too, but still. and i remember people forcing their company on me, so that I would not have to go out alone. I remember being a pretty unknown and geeky face in the college, and still contesting and winning in student executive body elections (apolitical, i must say). i still have some of my closest friends from a state where people, I must admit, are somewhat xenophobic.

but i have visited my friends homes in the villages of mangaldoi or nalbari and been made to feel as welcome by their families as the son who brought me home. the point about hospitality that you mentioned in another recent post, i guess.

i am not rose-tinted about it, and to be frank, i don't really believe that the kids who are taught 'unity in diversity' believe in it anymore than i believe santa claus will gift me a beemer this christmas, but there is still hope. a lot of hope.

and in the long run, isn't this 'quintessential human delusion' what keeps us going?

(sorry for such a long, rambling comment)