Living and loving India

I have spent an absolutely delightful two days (and hope for some more) at the Literature Live Festival at the National Centre of Performing Arts, which has for the first time thrown its doors open to a literary festival.

In just its second year, the Bombay lit-fest has been a resounding success, absolutely astounding even it’s own organisers, noted writer Anil Dharker and Shashi Baliga, my former colleague at the Hindustan Times and now the executive director of Literatue Live. So much so that they were almost running away from their own success, wondering how to handle the overwhelming crowds and having to shift the venue from a small hall to a larger theatre on the second day.

Of course, there have been a lot of successful writers, publishers and distributors at the festival. But for me, personally, the highlight was getting to meet my all-time favourite, Sir Mark Tully.

I was just starting out as a journalist when Sir Mark’s first book (co-authored with Satish Jacob) Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle was welcomed, if I remember correctly, with a ban in India.

But my aunt, travelling frequently to the UK in those days, fetched me a copy from London and I was fascinated by the story telling. I remember not only that the style was so lucid, simple and well written but it suffered nothing in content either and it brought the entire Punjab imbroglio to life for me, sitting in far-away Nagpur and wondering about what had really happened there.

Thereafter, I bought and read very book by Sir Mark. And I am not ashamed to admit that much of my own observations were guided and influenced by his own. One, I particularly remember, helped me through the turbulent, polarised and casteist era of the Nineties. I had violently disagreed with Sir Mark’s observation in ‘No Full Stops in India’ at the time that India should never have abolished its caste system.

But his observation gave me a rare insight into what is wrong with Indian society/polity today — that we belong nowhere and to quite no one. Castes, on the other hand, engendered a sense of belonging to a community and we had someone to fall back on in our times of need and someplace apart from our own homes ( like a community hall, for example) where we could belong completely, be comfortable and not feel alienated by other kinds of our own citizens.

It helped me realise that while the evil practices and discrimination of the caste system needed to be thrown out of the nearest window, it might not be quote wrong to seek out one’s own caste. And so I was one of e few journalists who has had no problem with the caste enumeration undertaken by the government this year. It is my understanding that those who describe it as a discriminatory exercise have never suffered discrimination themselves and do not know at all how much belonging to a community and seeking the benefits that go with the status mean to the underprivileged by caste.

The only book of fiction written by Sir Mark is titled The Heart Of India but reading its opening chapter I wondered if it was fiction at all. So deep has his observation of Indian society been over the years that the story could well have happened and been entirely true – a childless woman is persuaded by another who had once been childless to visit a particular sadhu at a nearby fair. At the same time her husband is taken by the other’s husband to the holy mountains to ask for a boon-that he and his wife be blessed with a child.

The childless woman does as she is told but hardly knows where she has been – she has been drugged by the sadhu’s mates and was not conscious while she received his ‘blessing’ whatever that might have been.

But a few days after her return she finds herself pregnant – she believes it was the sadhu’s divine powers that performed the miracle. Her husband believes his prayers to the holy mountain were answered. Only the sadhu knows the truth and thus all live happily ever after.

That story made for great observation of Indian society – I could go on and on. But reading his books I have come to believe that no one tells the Indian story better than Sir Mark Tully.

Or Dr Shashi Tharoor. I haven’t read all his books yet (considering his busy life as a diplomat and now a politician, he has been really prolific) but when I met him again this year, I couldn’t help telling him that I was very impressed by one story in his book India From Midnight To Millennium. It is about a young backward class boy in Tharoor’s village who his uncle absolutely forbids from being friends with. But Tharoor is drawn to the boy every vacation visit to his village though he loses touch after the boy tops his matriculation examinations.

Years later, he needs to visit the local collector’s office for some land problems his uncle has run into and when he sends his card in, the Collector cuts through the crowd to call Tharoor and his uncle in first. He is stunned to discover that the collector is the same boy who his uncle had hated while he was a child but now is only too happy to hobnob with him now that he is not an untouchable but such a big man. Of course, the big man does not forget Tharoor’s innumerable kindnesses to him while they were children – the uncle’s unkindnesses are quite forgotten.

The story had brought tears to my eyes when I first read it and I have since recommended it to all my friends and my students ( as I have Sir Mark’s books) as one of the greatest example of what Indian democracy can do for those who would once have been completely without hope.

On account of their writings of these two authors I have never lost my faith In Indian democracy and while I have a lot of complaints and cribs about India, I have never had reason to not love India with all her warts and blemishes.

More than a decade ago, I had a resident card for France that could have opened up entire Europe to me but I chose to return home in just under two years. My friends in Paris, particularly those from Asia and Africa, thought I was all sorts of a fool to give up the opportunity but I know I was right. After all, even Tharoorbhai returned home despite a brilliant career in the United Nations and even Sir Mark Tully makes his home (mostly) in India.

So I know I am in good company and we can not all be wrong about living in and loving India.

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