day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too
strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise
to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that
they possess the authentic taste of truth that they are despite
everything, acts of love.”
Salmon Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.
anniversaries have their rituals. And on this anniversary I would like to
write a letter to my two Trinidadian children - even though they are too
young to understand it now.
on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence I woke with a catch in
my throat and in a maudlin gesture which will surprise even my parents,
wore a Spartan hand-woven kurta pajama (I was so sentimental I remember
thinking Gandhi ji will approve of it - it is a hand loom) rummaged for
the tape of Ravi Shankar, dipped into passages of Rushdie’s Midnight’s
Children, which begins on the dot of 15th August, 1947.
write this letter with much humility because I am no expert on India. I
have not studied it and my experience of this vast country is sketchy, 11
years long, a child’s memory. I even doubt the authenticity of my
emotion, wondering, like the prodigal child, if I have a right to lay
claim to the land I no longer live in, feeling treacherous too, to the
country which has been hospitable and to which I am indelibly linked now
through you, my West Indian, Trinidadian children. This evening at the
Indian High Commission I was delighted at the festive rows of lights, so
reminiscent of India at its threshold, surprised at the tear on my cheek
during the Indian National Anthem.
I tell myself as I catch a memory here and there and examine it eagerly as
a child would a many-dimensional coloured marble, that children see with
clarity, that they are devoid of biases which blind us as adults. We,
children of the Diaspora, because we have been grafted, have to redefine
who we are, quickly polish up the fading past, and apprehend it so that
the split in my two worlds, the motherland and the adopted country
gradually becomes seamless, and acquires a history of its own.
not only two worlds but split lives. That’s the legacy of the children
of immigrants. The Indian way in your parents’ home, and the
Trinidadian, American, British life in “the real world.” The sudden
loss which comes from giving birth and realising that your children and
grandchildren will not ever be part of the world where you were born is
also part of it.
know that India, being more of a continent in size and diversity, that an
Urdu-speaking Muslim and a Tamil-speaking Brahmin would have even less in
common than a Nigerian and a Scotsman. Perhaps these differences prompted
Salmon Rushdie’s claim in his 50th anniversary piece for the Times to
imply that India is just an idea. I disagree. We each have our private
idea of India but there is a inexplicable commonality which makes us
of us toil in the Diaspora, shivering till after midnight in corner shops
in London or Manhattan. Others of us are guilty of comparing ourselves
with our cousins in India and think how lucky we are, how free, as we walk
along Fifth Avenue, or how lovely the tulips are in Holland park, or
wonder with a wicked smile “what would they think” as we take a gulp
of Carib and cross the Savannah stage in our skimpy Carnival costumes. But
an encounter, no matter how casual, with the Gujarati in the corner shop
in Southall in London; the Punjabi in the overpriced camera shop in Times
Square; the South Indian doctor waiting for a taxi in Maraval, there is
not only a start of instant recognition of commonality, relief, even
gratitude, a sense of being absolved for leaving.
also complicity - we have escaped being narrow, limited. Our world view
has expanded, we are richer with the fullness of living in the larger
world. The memories I polished today: foggy Delhi in winter, warm Kashmiri
shawls, boiling cardamom spicy tea, slipping on ice in the skating rink in
Simla, a simple meal of raagi kei roti and vegetables eaten in a servant
girl’s hut in the Himalayas with the view of the snow-capped mountains
and wandering sheep, picking mushrooms in Gauhati.
the voice of your mother accusing the milkman of diluting pails of fresh
cow’s milk with water, homes where memsahibs command a cool glass of
lime juice on silver trays at the tinkle of a bell, courtyards in Delhi,
Aligargh, of joint families, crisp cotton saris and freshly washed hair
adorned with garlands of jasmines, the sudden sharp memory of watching
from a window in the officers’ club a 24-year-old Benazir Bhutto walking
with her father in the upper mall in Simla.
both may say I romanticise it, that I had a better than middle-class life,
that I don’t represent the minions, the beggars of Bombay and the filth
in Calcutta, that I have never lived in the slums.
may be true. But at the risk of sounding nationalistic, let me remind you
that India’s middle class is massive, that the divide between the rich
and the poor is being broadened by the millions who represent its middle
anyway, the wide vermilion skies hazy with pollution belong to all of us,
so do the thronging bazaars with their clutter, sandalwood and marble
knickknacks, incense, grains and spices piled up on scales, wrapped in
brown paper, the smell of the fish markets, the meat markets, the fresh
and rotting vegetables, the blaring Hindi songs, life-size movie posters
of voluptuous actresses. The jangle of rows of coloured glass bangles, the
fly-ridden sweet stalls, the gol-gappas crisp round shells filled with
tamarind water, the carts of jasmine, the shops where rolls after rolls of
fabulous vegetable-dyed silk saris are unwound before women shoppers, the
chaos of a train station with its cries of “coolie”, the long whistle
and the jolt as its enormous wheels are set in motion and we watch the
expanse of the Indian dark from the bunks in our small compartments.
of humanity is here - magnified. India forces you to engage yourself with
her. Impossible to be detached. Maybe that’s what India is - a perpetual
assault to one’s senses, sometimes luxurious, sometimes nauseating. The
history and prejudice, knowledge and myths of the ages congeal somewhere
in each of us. The Indian flag, Gandhi, Nehru - our icons - belong to us
all - no matter how we dress or where we were educated or which one of the
14 states we come from.
are national characteristics of elaborate formal manners, a convoluted
communicating style heavy with undertones, unwritten codes of modesty
between men and women. I am resentful of the Deepak Chopras of this world
because they take what’s ingrained in most Indians and make it into a
money spinning cult - the vegetarianism, the meditation, detachment, the
view of life as a cycle, the doing of one’s duty.
The Tonga wallah who cycles with four people in his cart, the
college girl, the boy who shines shoes on the road always knew that.
my parents I have not had a lifetime in India - there are enormous gaps -
amply filled in with Europe, North America and the Caribbean. I have
gained far more than I have lost: opportunities, experiences, education,
and the discovery that people are not so very different. Our common fund
of humanity runs deep. But there will be no loss for you. A visit to
India, Africa, Europe will only add to your store. It’s true you may not
understand the nuances of my country, you may also have a very low
tolerance for its drawbacks and you may be immensely relieved to come
home. That is because they are grounded here. This is your home.
on the eve of the 35th anniversary of independence of your country I want
to remind you of another anniversary which began several weeks before
India’s independence - that of partition. Your grandfather remembers how
a million or more Muslims and Hindus slaughtered one another as the
population exchange took place. Pakistan chose to be a Muslim state, and
India a secular one. Trains filled with dead Hindus arrived in Punjab, and
in retribution, Hindus killed thousands of Muslims. Brothers were
what happens when people become narrow. And I have seen that waste mourned
in warm embrace of a Pakistani and Indian outside India where they
recognise themselves in one another. Their sense of who you are will not
come naturally because it is still being realised. You are living in a new
world which has the shadow of three continents over it. It is a lavish
legacy. Widen and deepen your ripple.
of it you are creating what is uniquely yours. You must take part in
building your sapling country. It is a hard task. You don’t have
thousands of years etched into your sinew. But it is also tremendously
exciting to chart now your history mingled now with Africa, China, Europe,
have begun with your sporting icons, your brilliant writers, your national
instrument, your exuberant expression of all your cultures. Don’t spoil
it by giving your primary allegiance to a country you will never live in,
a country which may not even understand you, a country your father’s
ancestors left long ago, a country which has shed much blood in the name
of religion, caste and territory. Enjoy its feasts and clothes and
traditions, remember your history. Your future is indelibly enmeshed with
people from two other continents. Your real allegiance has to be to that
red, white and black flag as mine still is to the green, orange and white
flag even after all this time.