don’t often expect to be left with a sense of urgency for one’s
country after hearing a speech by a diplomat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
even from a child’s view was gripping, elusive, wonder inducing,
changing within the space of five or ten hours.
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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
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.”
need to change our glue.