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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 29 May 05


You don’t often expect to be left with a sense of urgency for one’s country after hearing a speech by a diplomat.


Humour, a careful diplomacy, a charming urbane exchange, a government line maybe, but passionate honesty about his country that momentarily forces you to drop stale stereotypes on two sides of the world to confront a labyrinth of complexity that it’s up to you to navigate or walk away from. That’s rare.


Yet the Indian High Commissioner Virendra Gupta did it all without speaking of T&T.  He spoke of his own country at the opening of the Idea of India, a photographic exhibition at the National Museum.


The photographs of a solitary figure in a rippling desert, of brightly dressed Rajasthan girls in a dancing circle, of a reflective moment of people at the Ganges, of a man being pushed in a makeshift palanquin along train tracks, the Taj Mahal in the background, of huge crowds glued together to partake in a holy festival, of mosques, of temples and elephants of skyscrapers and auto rickshaws, each engulfed with its own intricate tradition and history.


The exhibition reminded me of an emotion I felt as a child flashing past a vast Indian landscape on a long train journey, moving from teeming bewilderingly crowded train stations in cities where coolies carried baggage, and hawkers offered hot tea and fried snacks through the bars of the carriage, whipping past fields, and mountains, deserts and slums, in hot summer sun, through mysterious moonlit expanse.


India even from a child’s view was gripping, elusive, wonder inducing, changing within the space of five or ten hours.


By likening India’s amorphous moving mass was saying no matter what your view of this country is, it is only one view, valid but not the whole picture, that this country will always evade definition because it is a mosaic of many races people thrown together by its history of many conquerors.


Naturally Gupta did his duty, spoke of India’s giant steps in IT, in defence, in industry, of India’s rapidly expanding middle class. Yet he contrasted the wealthiest Indian who can afford a $200 million wedding in Europe for his daughter with the reality of millions living in poverty, of the 20 per cent living below the poverty line.


Indians know what that means. Slums, ill-health, hardship, a hole that is impossible to crawl out of. The political analyst sitting next to me quietly remarked “isn’t it strange. Our own Prime Minister would never acknowledge that despite our overflowing oil wealth, over 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, half of us are functionally illiterate, and we are wrecked by crime and a rapid brain drain. If it’s not acknowledged where is there to go?


India: What glue holds a country of over a billion people with its bloody history of colonialism, and conquerors, of northerners and southerners that look so different, in 14 provinces, each with its own meticulously separate rituals, language, together?


How do a people that belong to a country where here, the snowy mountains touch the sky in Himalayas where children skate and whip across fields of marigolds, and there people work in skyscrapers, play in nightclubs, here, walk in the shifting sands of deserts, there navigate in an underworld of slums, and everywhere live amongst the relics of its own brutal history of tombs, mosques, temples?


The glue, answered His Excellency, was in the broad psyche of a people, gleaned from the Bhagvad Gita who believe in working hard, always striving, saving, doing without, so their children would do better, a people that don’t expect something for nothing, who, far from passively accepting their position in life, accepted responsibility for their own lives.


I thought then of our history, India in miniscule, strands of five continents, our own mosaic and where we’ve arrived: To the woman who related how kidnappers stubbed her sons skin with cigarette butts, saying, “you have, so I can take”. Not “you have because your father worked. I too will work.”


We need to change our glue.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur