India, getting to the bottom of it


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Category: Travel Date: 11 Mar 99

‘I believe that most half-decent writers are not researchers of facts, but divers searching for truth; we have to reach into the depths of ourselves and display whatever we find, be it pearls or poison’


I got a couple of responses to my last piece. The gentleman whose call I returned began by asking somewhat aggressively if I had been to India recently. I replied that my piece was written partially in India.


He quizzed me, disbelieving. Where did I go? Delhi and other cities, I replied, stung by now. He accused me: “You only wrote about a little part of India, misrepresented it.” I patiently replied that it was a mere impression, India being too vast and complicated to sum up in one article.


He continued with the refrain, which he kept up for the entire conversation. “You’re being unfair to India, you’re being unfair to India.” I replied, now irritated: “I was born there. I lived there all my childhood. You can’t love India more than me but that doesn’t mean I don’t see her for what she is.” He will write to the papers, he said, but no hard feelings. No hard feelings, Sir, but the conversation was unnerving.


Did I misrepresent India by writing an impression that was too unscientific, not supported by facts and figures, of the underclass? Thankfully, the answer came quickly. (I have always believed that art, meaning any act of creation, be it writing, painting, sculpting, any creation, is led by some divine force.) I happened to open a book I hadn’t read since my school days: The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad. In the preface came my reply. Conrad wrote that art was an attempt to render the highest justice to the visible universe: it tried to find in that universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what was fundamental, enduring, essential. The writer’s method of attaining the essential was different from that of the scientist, who knew the world by systematic examination. The writer, Conrad, appealed “to that part of our being which is a gift, not an acquisition, to the capacity for delight and wonder.

“Our sense of pity and pain, to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts. Which binds together all humanity.”


It is an enormous ideal to live up to, but I believe that most half-decent writers attempt to do this. We are not researchers of facts, but divers searching for truth. In an untidy, huge and disordered universe, we have to reach into the depths of ourselves and display whatever we find, be it pearls or poison. Sometimes we ourselves don’t like what we write because we would like to be liked, but that would destroy the essence of any writer worth his or her salt, the quest for truth, the desire to dig low, get to the bottom of things.


The other response was less aggressive, but predictable. It came in the form of an e-mail. The subject was “Proud to be Indian”. I was presented with a series of facts about India (published in a German magazine, which presumably lent credibility) which proved what a great country it was.


I have seen similar shopping lists about many countries including Africa, and Trinidad. (Oddly, countries which are financially and socially secure, unless they are at war, rarely feel the need to pass these shopping lists around.)

Here is an extract: “India never invaded any country in her last 10,000 years of history. It is the only society in the world which has never known slavery.

“India invented the number system. Zero was invented by Aryabhatta.

“The world’s first university was established in Takshila in 700 BC. More than 10,500 students from all over the world studied more than 60 subjects.

“The University of Nalanda, built in the 4th century, was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in the field of education.

“Sanskrit is the mother of all higher languages. Sanskrit is the most precise and, therefore, suitable language for the computer software” - a report in Forbes magazine, July 1987.

“Ayurveda is the earliest school of medicine known to humans.”


The piece also included comments on India by famous writers:

“Mark Twain said: ‘India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.’

“French scholar Romain Rolland said: ‘If there is one place on the face of Earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.’

“Hu Shih, former Ambassador of China to USA said: ‘India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.’”

This last one had me in fits because, just seconds before, I had read in this very piece that India is the only country in the world which has never known slavery.


I know the young man who sent me this e-mail. I want to ask him about the coolies in the hills carrying huge loads, and the servants mopping marble floors of hotels and homes on their haunches, the untouchables who are only allowed to clean toilets, the people who flinch in the face of authority, who are accustomed to being treated as sub-humans - is that not slave labour? And the ancient caste system which has perpetuated hierarchy on the basis of one’s birth, isn’t that a form of slavery?


And before and during colonial times, wasn’t India run by the feudal Nawabs and Maharajas who lived in marble palaces while their subjects lived in huts? What about the women who are married off as children, the teenaged widows who are condemned to wear white and live a life of servitude to their in-laws, relegated to a second place in society, is that not a form of slavery?


Look, perhaps I was unfair. Perhaps I only spoke of the India of cities, and not the vast plains, and hills and mountains. Perhaps I did not speak enough of India’s beauty. And it is beautiful.


Here images dance before me: the trays of strung jasmines waiting to adorn the hair of thousands of brightly-clad women; the hum and buzz of a vast market, shops where yards and yards of silks, chiffons, crepes, cottons are flung open to reclining women; the smell of delicious snacks on the streets; crisp turbanned men welcoming you into air-conditioned restaurants; dark cellar shops of sandalwood, and silversmiths.


More shots swim into focus: Delhi’s wide boulevards, and gracious colonial civic buildings, Jaipur’s palaces, Varanasi’s temples, Simla’s pine trees and fields of marigolds, snow-capped Himalayas. Bangalore’s buzzing computer industry, leading the world in this technology.


But I saw another reality. In Delhi, I asked for the taxi to drive me through the miles of slums, tucked away on the outskirts of the capital. Here, there are no conveniences, and it appears that the human experience is no less random than that of stray cows. In Bangalore, I held my orhni to my face to escape the fumes of pollution and runaway construction, heard horror stories about the corrupt public service. The beast and beauty live together here.


Finally, a lasting impression of India: a ragged bootblack was pestering my brother to have his shoes cleaned. We were walking around in a fashionable shopping area in Delhi. Eventually I gave him some money to get rid of him and we walked into a restaurant for lunch. He was the first person we saw when we came out. Thinking he wanted more money, we tried to lose him by walking quickly. He practically chased us and, to our surprise, began running behind us begging my brother to polish his shoes saying, “Please let me polish your shoes for the money you gave me.”


We were in a hurry but my brother stopped and got the shoeshine of his life. As we walked away he said again, “I am not a beggar. I earn my keep.” That, too, is India: humility, dignity, pride, tenacity in the midst of poverty.


My small experience of India is still slowly unwinding in my head. There is only one thing I am sure of. This country, more a continent, will always escape definition; it is a mistake both to idealise her or demonise her. To do either would be to do her injustice.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur