Passages to and from my Country
“India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters.
I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage.
I shall always strive to be worthy of it.
I shall give respect to my parents, teachers and elders and treat everyone with courtesy.
To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion.
In their well being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.”
I don’t know if this pledge is still spoken in English language schools throughout India, but when I was attending school in the mid seventies we had to recite the above sentences every morning at school assembly. We gabbled off the words without pausing, barely conscious and indeed uninterested in their meaning; they were only a tedious ritual that had to be got through, the kind of meaningless burblings that grown-ups set such store by and that baffle and bore the children who are required to pronounce them. I recall a slight internal discomfiture at the idea that my happiness was to be left to “lie” all “alone” in the midst of the “well-being and prosperity” of my compatriots, but that was the only flicker of interest that I can recall.
To mock the pledge would not require too much effort. Our young voices reciting those ponderous adult phrases, the gap we already knew existed between pious hope and profane reality - such sharp contrasts invite the deflation of irony. But one must be fair. I cannot say that the words were completely false or even unnecessary; they contained the kind of bland positives that can graft later on to more complex definitions of nationhood and collective identity. There is nothing wrong, after all, with teaching a child to love her country and to be conscious that she is heir to a rich heritage. The disconnect only arises when that child sees little around her that easily inspires the love or pride that she is told she already should have.
Even then I realized that not all Indians were my brothers and sisters. In fact, even brothers and sisters had a built-in inequity: the former were very much more equal than the latter.
I have a cousin. A male cousin. We were born less than two months apart. But he exemplified for me the inequality of sisters and brothers, made it real and living and present and enfeebled and invalidated by comparison any prepackaged assurances of equality.
“Why can he ride the bus/train/auto alone and I can’t?”
“He’s a boy.”
“Why does he get the attention/love/praise/acceptance and not me?”
“He’s a boy.”
“Why can’t you learn to bicycle/swim/roller-skate as quickly as Rahul did? Well – what can we expect; after all, you’re a girl.”
He’s a boy.
What a complete identity that seemed, how self-fulfilling, fated to accomplished, born to be adored, accepted, obeyed. To be a girl was to be a kind of penis-less, clitoris-ridden cripple. You were to reflect the crippled values of your society, its warped and brutal vision that somehow ended up becoming your own identity. You were limited and consumed; named and labeled and spoken for in terms of that all-embracing, stifling phallic sheath – the only legitimate identity recognized by your society.
He’s a boy.
But as he was above me, so was I above some others. I was, I knew, definitely above those raggedy children with dusty hair in which red ribbons straggled, outraging my sense of dignity and beauty. These were the children who worked in our homes, swept our streets, begged at the windows of passing cars, and licked out with relish the insides of the ice-cream cups that we tossed after we had finished with them. They could not be my brothers and sisters, these lesser-looking beings with torn clothes and snotty noses. They were a race apart – and anyway, they did not even attend school like we did.
Though they probably did, on paper.
On paper, as I am fond of telling my non-Indian friends, India is a wonderful country. In fact, it has recently been promoted to “incredible” status, as in “Incredible India” – I for Incredible India – like a page out of a child’s alphabet book. Lest this be dismissed as mere touristy hyperbole (which it is), we are told that this country is also “diverse and complex,” which means that the richest man in India has a house that could pussy-whip Bill Gates’ Seattle digs and that the poorest survive on less than a dollar a day – when they survive at all.
So on paper we are a sovereign, secular, socialist republic where discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, and religion is strictly prohibited (we are getting around to the sexual orientation thing; give us time.) We are also a developing nation on the fast track to the 21st century.
Growing up I knew that between paper and practice yawned the shadow, but as children we had hope – at least some of us did – that things would get better. The papers and magazines and radio – TV had yet to come into its own then – reported the famines that ravaged the hinterland, the droughts that ruined the hopes of farmers, the travails of the bonded labourers who toiled endlessly for a pittance, the frustration of educated urban youth at the prospect of long-term unemployment.
Even Indian politicians, who can plumb effortlessly depths of depravity and corruption that would win cries of admiration from the more brutal class of African dictator, felt obliged to keep up a pretence of caring about the sons of the soil who formed the larger part of their electorate. Their pseudo-sympathy expressed itself in the workaday character of the symbols most political parties used to gain instant recognition in a land where the voters were mostly illiterate – the protective hand, raised in benediction, the farmer with his plough hoisted over his shoulder, the cow with her little calf by her side, the wheel, the bicycle.
It seems strange, now, that thirty-five years after independence there lingered within us children such a sense of possibility. Those who came of age in those heady days of 1947, felt, perhaps, the bliss of being alive in that dawn more keenly then we who came after, but nevertheless the fainter whiffs of that first wine of freedom and its promises still reached us down the decades. Crucial to this sense was the understanding, even present, that we were an extremely poor nation, that we were beset with numerous problems, some of which were our legacy from the colonial years, and some that had come before, and that we had suffered through two wrenching partitions whose horror and bloodletting still echoed in the minds of those of us who were the descendants of our indigenous holocaust.
Even though we knew being poor was no cause for pride, the very knowledge that such poverty existed was somehow important. Even in a film industry that produced rubbish that was as outrageously unrealistic as it was irresistibly enjoyable, real social issues still wove in and out of the absurd problems of the protagonists and their equally fantastic resolutions. “Mainstream” films like Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan (Bread, Clothes, Shelter) and Mother India reminded us of the immediate challenges facing the nation and presented working class and farmer heroes battling poverty and discrimination. So we knew we had problems before us; we were not allowed to forget them, or pretend they were the victims’ fault, or to pretend, worst of all, that they did not exist at all. In that knowledge of the reality of despair lay the possibility of change and action – a kind of nucleus of hope.
Until, at one time, the problems disappeared.
Yes, disappeared, vamoosed, choo-mantar, vanished, like a magic trick. They had gone. We were now a new and improved nation, a “vast consumer market,” “an economic powerhouse,” “an emerging superpower” with newly flex-able muscle on the international stage. We had joined the twenty-first century, where a rising tide of deregulation was lifting all boats. And if many boats, unable to keep up, sank quietly to the bottom, our new media did a superb job of insulating us from the cries of those who drowned. It was the media – is it not always the media? - that midwived our glorious, if rather fictitious, new birth. It sang to us of the virtues of multinationals and the economic imperatives of privatization and free-market liberalization. MBAs became the new hot trend, replacing the engineers of an earlier era and the barristers of the early days of the twentieth century. Consumerism had arrived in our homes with a bang and a whoosh, with a whoop and a holler, riding the tube into our living rooms, shrilling its siren song with its burden of supermarkets and vacuum cleaners and TVs and cars and music systems and home-delivered pizza. And we were mesmerized, open-mouthed, salivating at the prospect of immersing ourselves in this new vision that promised to catapult us into the company of civilized nations – by which we meant the USA, Europe and Australia – that were so much more advanced than our own and consumed oh-so-much more of the world’s resources.
Now we could do the same. Hooray!
Being a part of this select group of nations seemed crucial to this new Indian identity. We longed, craved, hungered to belong to the Masterclub of “developed nations,” to be as admired and envied as they were. Not, of course, that we had been innocent of materialistic ambitions or had not striven to keep up with the Guptas and the Sharmas. But differences in the quantity of something can rise to such heights as to constitute a difference in quality. So it was with the tidal wave of consumerism that hit us, took us at the flood, and swept some of us out to fortune, while at the same time making it possible for us to ignore those who, gasping and stranded, were left behind in the shallows.
We were too busy to care. A new vision was gradually obscuring our imaginative horizon. An advertising slogan that aired on TV around that time spoke perfectly to the change that had arrived. It was, fittingly, a tagline for an ad hawking a television brand, a metanarrative of the new change if there ever was one. The ad assured us that should we choose to purchase an Onida television set, we would be in an enviable position vis-à-vis our neighbors – that such an outcome was an entirely desirable one was never called into doubt. “Neighbor’s envy – owner’s pride,” promised the makers of Onida – and the line, including as it did two of the seven deadly sins, was positively purred out by a handsome devil – literally a devil - in a shiny green suit, a pair of cheeky little horns and a long, curling tail.
Nor did we have much difficulty believing the promises. As we sat munching on ready-made snacks out of new, glossy packages that had recently arrived to displace the homemade and less glamorous local alternatives, sloth and gluttony were already upon us. The three others on the list could not, then, be far behind, and would follow in no particular order.
As our appetites rose, our awareness withered, beautifully in sync. If our goody bag of desires was now crammed full to bursting with the latest offerings served up by the corporate marketplace, there remained no room for the “poor” in this still very poor country. If you no longer see a thing, so much the easier to pretend it isn’t there, or if it is, its existence has been vastly exaggerated and the rumors of its death all too true. Through our new glasses, brought to us by Uncle Sam and his lesser European elves, there was so much we no longer needed or wanted to see.
Once you no longer identified as a poor country, you were also absolved of the responsibility of having to do anything to alleviate poverty. In fact, your entire worldview is changed, changed utterly. In this new redefined India, the poor were no longer victims. They occupied a more complex role: they were squatters on their own land, impediments in the path to progress, stubbornly hanging on to their forests and rivers and the earth and her treasures – bauxite, aluminum ore, uranium. All there for the taking, if only we could do as our new overlords the West had done for centuries – get rid of the natives.
The population hardest hit, rendered by turns invisible and dangerous by the prestidigitator media – were tribals who had lived for millennia in the forests of the Indian heartland. We set about damming their rivers, felling their trees, destroying their homes, blowing up their mountains. They become our version of British journalist Mark Curtis’ “unpeople,” either they did not exist, or, when we are forced by their natural resistance to having their lives wrecked around them, to notice their irksome presence, they became “unpeople” of a different sort – dangerous, anti-social, and the latest game in town: “terrorists.” We sent out militias against them. Earlier, there had been some talk – and even some action following - of schools, roads, electricity, jobs, health clinics. Our Prime Minister, the white-haired and venerable Oxford economist Manmohan Singh, doing an Obama, declared solemnly,” There has been a systemic failure in giving the tribals a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces.” We, the educated middle class, nodded gravely, lips pursed, expressions thoughtful as became the acknowledgement of our failure. Then, having confessed and absolved ourselves, we carried right on fucking the tribals and the farmers and the city shanty-dwellers.
I do not mean to suggest, of course, that we were some sort of terra nullius before the invasion of Western materialism in its current form. On the contrary. India has been repeatedly and assiduously invaded by every fortune hunter and glory-seeker from Alexander of Macedon to the Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan to the merchant-buccaneers of England, France and Portugal. In fact, even Hinduism appears to be the amalgamated end-product of the chthonic – and mostly female – powers worshipped by the indigenous, pre-Aryan people and the more patriarchal deities of the Indo-European Aryans who first poured into the country some five thousand years ago.
Given this history, I make no claims for innocence. There is no linear narrative here of indigenous victimhood and corrupting Western incursion. We have been melted and potted and remelted far too many times; our crimes and punishments and suffering demand more complex explanations, interweaving tales of mutual exploitation where plain tales of guilt and virtue have a way of foundering amid complex and shifting realities.
So our new identity and its travails may not be our final one, but merely one among many that have gone before and many that are yet to come. (Not, however, if the environmentalist doomsayers are right, or if the white-hot promise of mutually assured nuclear destruction should come into being – as why should it not? Then, I am afraid, we are indeed on our final caper, living out the folly before the finish). Still, the way we imagine ourselves India now has some characteristics that have been less crucial to earlier socio-economic shifts.
Occupation by the British had bequeathed to us a country impoverished by those years of colonialism where the country’s wealth crossed the ocean to enrich the coffers of our gora masters. Resisting the occupation had, however, given rise to unprecedented levels of unity; although divisions of caste and region continued to simmer in the background, the necessity of ousting the British did engender a degree of solidarity where people realized that displacing the common enemy required them to bury, if only for a time, their internal differences. More importantly, and with more enduring effect, various reformist movements arose during this time that challenged the deeply entrenched caste, gender and feudal hierarchies and offered more egalitarian alternatives. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, with his inscrutable sense of irony that continues to infuriate uncomprehending readers, expressed something of this paradox in his dedication to his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian to the British Empire in India, adding that
“All that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.”
Not only Chaudhuri, but an entire nation came to know itself in new and radical ways as a result of the forces unleashed during the British rule.
However, now that “the man” has departed Animal Farm, the pigs have emerged to fill the power vacuum. And eventually, inevitably, the pigs have invited the man back on to the farm.
Our films, TV and print media no longer foreground rural India or its problems. The front pages of our major newspapers are filled now with photographs of supermodels twitching anorexically down catwalks, or the latest scandal brewing in the personal life of some overpaid celebrity. We are told of vacations in Hawaii and Belize and Monte Carlo, in a country where most people do not have a proper roof over their heads. Daimler and Rolls Royce and Swarovski have arrived in India. This grotesquerie plays itself out against a backdrop of tens of thousands of farmers in several states who have committed suicide as a result of debts racked up and genetically modified (GMO) seeds whose introduction has destroyed their traditional practice of saving seeds for the next planting season. The same multinationals to whose employment millions of our young graduates eagerly aspire have, with government connivance, at gunpoint and with bloodshed, intimidated rural communities into giving up their land. When they resist, they are called “terrorists,” whose recalcitrance has compelled a benign government to take harsh countermeasures. These “countermeasures” have included forced evacuation, attacks by police or party thugs, rapes and even assassinations.
Ah, “terrorist.” The new bugbear of the twenty-first century. Earlier, we had our “foreign hand,” a euphemism for Pakistan – which was blamed for India’s reprehensible policy in Kashmir, for the outbreak of terrorism in Punjab, for separatist movements in Nagaland and even, as writer Khushwant Singh once remarked, when someone pinched a woman’s bottom. But now we are more cosmopolitan; even our bugbears are updated, 2.0, in sync with the hot trends on the international scene. We now have our own terrorist threat, and the attacks in November 2008 gave us our own version of September 11. We are coming to resemble more and more our master and, it may be said, our most important John, always up for the tricks we turn – the United States of America.
Since we do not yet possess the funds and the firepower to pulverize faraway countries full of “terrorists” as our master does, we have perforce to fall back on our own land to find “terrorism.” This maneuver involves designating large numbers of the poor as “terrorists,” and ignoring the desperation that led them to take up arms in the first place, or to come out in support of those who take up arms on their behalf. Recently the government has embarked on a new phase of “counter-terrorism,” dubbed “Operation Green Hunt,” to hunt down Naxals and Maoists in the Indian state of Chattisgarh and other areas. The Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, has assured us that the Govt. does not make war upon its own citizens, which means of course, that making war upon its own citizens is exactly what the Govt. is doing. Looking glass creatures, draw near, as Alice said – you’ll find yourselves right at home.
I no longer do, though. I fear this new India, where I should have great difficulty fitting in. My father was given to pronouncing the dictum of “simple living, high thinking,” a piece of advice at which, growing up, I invariably scoffed, thinking it just a ploy of my father’s to avoid getting me whatever gewgaw it was I had my childish heart set on at the time. Knowing my father, it may still have been that, but it must be a sign of approaching old age that this philosophy is now beginning to make sense. I am unable to find my way among the towering glass-fronted malls rampant across the metropolitan skyscapes, the enormous SUVs straddling roads so narrow people flatten themselves against the walls of houses and stand above open sewers to let the monsters roll by, the billboards shrieking determinedly of the desirability of a completely unsustainable way of life.
I am lost amid so much plenty, so much development, so little renewal; so much wealth, so much more poverty. As often when lost, I head for a bookshop; somehow, in whatever country I happen to be, a bookshop feels like a kind of home.
Oxford Book Store: Coda
The interiors, lit by warm yellow light, are tastefully appointed, decorated “ethnically,” not for a foreign clientele, as might have been imagined, but for the indigenous upper class. Coffee table books on Calcutta and India are prominently displayed in carefully chosen nooks and corners. Above, on a sort of open first floor, sits a tea shop where the charge for a bottle of water (I ask, being thirsty) comes to nearly as much a the poorest Indians make in a day’s wages. Wandering about the shop’s closely packed interior, I pick up a book by Indian Foreign Service Officer Pavan Varma that appeared to be extolling the rise of India’s middle class – the emerging superpower’s biggest consumer market and strongest asset. I recall a conversation with another friend, also in the Foreign Service, who had spoken to me with pride of the rising power of this new middle class. Another friend, living in Singapore, had been baffled at the eccentric behavior of the farmers who seemed persistent in their chosen course of suicide. “ I don’t know why they’re doing it,” she’d said, seeming piqued at their actions, which she evidently found in dubious taste. “Their standard of living is not all that bad.”
I do not see a book here on the farmers, because annoying nuisances like them rather tarnish our powerhouse image – these ultimate expressions of despair and powerlessness do not fit easily into the dominant narrative of success and prosperity that we wish to project to the world and to ourselves.
It is brightly lit inside the bookstore, but when I step out into the warm evening, dusk has already fallen. Sitting against the railings that separate footpath from road, right in front of the shop’s repeatedly opening and closing doors, are a woman and her two young children. One is fully clothed, though in the filthiest of rags; the other wears only a thin little shirt and nothing more, so I can see he is a boy. All three are the color of city dust, grey and brown as though wrought from the selfsame dust that is thrown up by the thousands of cars and buses and autorickshaws that rumble and roar down Park Street in a ceaseless, unheeding stream. The headlights illuminate the trio, but render them curiously transparent and ghostly, as though they are not really there at all. As I still stand there, the little boy, who looks about two, moves a little way from the rest of his family, huddled by the railings. Standing well away from the noisy flow of traffic, back carefully turned to the road, he urinates against the dull black palings into the sidewalk. Business done, he strolls nonchalantly back to his mother – evidently the action is a common one, for neither of the other two even glances in his direction.
I am a member of the middle class Varma’s book talks about, the ones who measure out their Indianness in coffee table books. When I come to India, still the land of cheap labor, I can afford to hire a chauffeur-driven car – a modest one, it is true, but still a car – to take me around the city. Mine drives up now, and I get into it, and am driven away from the brightly-lit bookstore and its faceless, dustgenic guardians of the road.
Pubali Ray Chaudhuri lives and writes in Newark, CA. She can be reached at email@example.com.