Thoughts about India

Independence Day is around the corner. In my mind, I am transported to rainy mornings of trying to get to school without getting my uniform wet, with dry socks beneath my rain-shoes and on time for the flag-hoisting. The damp air hangs heavy around us, but Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Vande Mataram’ manages to penetrate the thick water vapour. My picture of hundreds of children standing at ease in the back garden of my school, sweating when the sun comes out and fearful of getting drenched when it disappears, cassocks and habits on stage with the national flag and the usual assortment of prefects, teachers and staff sprinkled strategically through the student body, is animated by sound bites: a diminutive head-girl reading Nehru, "Freedom isn’t free," young teenagers dressed in white sarees singing national songs they have practised for weeks and the shuffling of tired and bored school seniors as they make their way to class for roll-call.

How far away I have come from this time and this place!

Like most middle-class Indians, I come from a family many of whose members participated in the freedom movement. Proud foot-soldiers most of them, they boycotted imported goods, took part in demonstrations, volunteered at rallies, learnt Hindi and integrated their nationalist politics into their games and family entertainments. When freedom came, it was theirs. It did not matter that most branches of my family, like families with similar caste and class backgrounds, had in fact benefited from and become pillars of the colonial administration. Freedom was still their birth-right and now they had it. When our generation was born, it was this romantic story of struggling for independence and getting it through non-violence that we heard over and over. This India into which we were born, was an India that people we knew, we argued with, we ate, sang and shopped with and who spoiled and scolded us, had earned for us, with their choices and their sacrifices. This India was our legacy and it was all ours.

My identification with India is, therefore, as personal as it comes. I have my father’s face and my mother’s manner in many things. I have inherited my ability to sing from both my grandmothers. From all of them, I have learnt to value generosity. I drum my fingers to the tune in my head, like my great-grandmother did. I seem to have inherited some martinet-like qualities from some of my aunts. And from all these people and others in my family, I have inherited India. A certain idea of India. And the conviction that, inescapably and forever, my fate and that of my country are inextricably intertwined. Without India, I am nothing, and I too am an inalienable, though infinitesimally insignificant particle of my country’s being.

But where is this India of which I write?

My longing for India cannot obscure the fact that I have apparently lost her address. I look in the musty pages of pedantic writing in some Indian journals, at familiar names and familiar topics. I wish this were my India, but it is not. I think of the broad avenues of New Delhi and the tables at Triveni packed with ethnically dressed men and women. No, not here either. Down the road at Bengali Market. No, no. The hot dusty traffic jam on the highway out of Calcutta. Calcutta? I have hardly ever been there! The quiet, lazy tree-lined roads of Bangalore? The hundreds of tired people expelled by incoming trains onto obstacle course railway platforms of unyielding and inert coolies and auto-rickshaw drivers in Madras Central. Please no, I don’t miss that at all. The bumpety-bump of a Hyderabad auto ride. My spine recoils. Air-conditioned seminar rooms filled with middle-class and elderly men who know everything. Obviously not. The India of village belles and macho heroes cavorting on hill-sides? Hardly. I look in the house in which my father was born. We have not lived there for almost a half-century. The coconut trees my grandfather and his brother planted. The temple where my great-grandfather told stories and the one for which I am named. The river my father and my uncles swam across to school. They are not even my memories, leave alone my India.

Of course, I should look in Bombay. My India is in Bombay, of course, where all kinds of Indians bring their dreams and the impossible is not unthinkable. The turquoise sky and copper sulphate water of the bay in Marine Drive, set off in the day by grey boulders and pavement, an elegant black road and sometimes garish art deco buildings and transformed by night into a blazing yellow topaz Queen’s Necklace. The crush of humanity that fill the trains and buses in an organized and purposeful fashion, exemplifying an extraordinary work ethic. Not a minute is lost—on the train or the bus, in the streets or in offices. It does not matter who you are, where you come from or what your identity. It is only the work you do and things you deliver that count. Yes, that is my India… but wait, wait! There is no Bombay any more. In its stead, is a Mumbai where everything is fundamentally different. This is a Mumbai from which people are fleeing. It is a city scarred by riots and increasing ethno-religious intolerance. The Colaba Causeway where I shopped as a teenager is now too seedy to be comfortable to the adult me. The sea-front promenades of the city are dirtier than they used to be and somehow, somehow, nothing is really comfortable any more. Familiar faces don’t remember me. It has been too long.

So where is this India for which I yearn?

I have been in the United States for eight years. For eight years, I have made friends, acquired material goods, built a network of professional acquaintances and run a household in this country. Still, I stay, not live, here. I have very little interest in local politics and almost a token professional interest in national issues. I cannot imagine working for the government of this country, although by teaching at a public university, I do. "Our national interests," a dubious idea anyway, connotes Indian interests, or even South Asian interests. I live here, and probably will continue to, in accidental exile.

I do not belong here and probably never will. I belong less and less in India. The gulf between me and people I knew in India appears to grow everyday. I am utterly irrelevant to their lives. They move. I don’t hear. I write. But they are too busy to respond. I read, write and dream about India in utter isolation from it. And when I hear the gossip, and get caught up on the latest turf-battles, and see at close quarters the battle to survive at every level, I prefer the India of my imagination, where people are good and smart and everything is just sunny and peachy.

There is a story that I recall often about a king name Trishanku. Trishanku had no sons and therefore three generations of his forebears had no prospect of release from the netherworld between lives. Their spirits were suspended there for all time, condemned by their lack of male descendants who could perform the funerary rites that would grant them that release. Moved by their plight, Trishanku volunteered to take their place in atonement for his failing to produce a son. He remains there, suspended for all time.

Like Trishanku, I live suspended between worlds. Unlike Trishanku, I do not have the consolation of knowing what sins or failings I am atoning for. Unlike Trishanku, I cannot take any satisfaction in helping anybody by being suspended where I am. And the realization grows, that like Trishanku, I will remain forever a by-stander—people will forget me in the world I have left and I will not belong ever to the world in which I operate. I will continue to gaze with longing, envy and regret forever.

Suspended in this private hell, my mind wanders back to that school ground and settles on a girl in a tight long black braid and a blue tie. In her mind are a million dreams and in her heart there is abundant confidence that she will make them come true. No reality checks remind her of how impractical her schemes to make the world peaceful and no one points out that life has its own plans. In her black and white world, things are fairly simple. You either do the right thing or you do not. You either are Indian or you are not. She looks beyond the flag and the stage at a future where she and India will grow together. She does not imagine that she will not live and die in this country. She does not imagine that the people she idealizes will forget about her. She does not even know there is such a thing as irrelevant work, and that she will be doing it twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week in a foreign country. She marches in her place, day-dreaming, inspired by Nehru’s words, of her own ‘Tryst with destiny.’ Her row starts marching forward to class. She shuffles along with them. And wakes up, as an adult, in Trishanku’s netherworld.

Swarna Rajagopalan
East Lansing
August 3, 2000

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