Friday, May 24, 2019

The Re-Discovery of India

First, let me apologise: I am so much a product of Nehru’s India that I could not think of a more original title. But this is the most apt summary for what this day (May 23, 2019) has brought to me—a re-discovery of India, a world that I thought I knew, but clearly didn’t.

In recent weeks, I have wondered if such a re-discovery was about to happen, and I have waited, with dread, to find out. Well, it’s here and today I learned many things about Indians—my fellow-Indians—that I might have learned earlier if I had not ignored hints and remained in denial.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians are people who don’t care much about other people. They do not care about those whose lives were destroyed in riots. They do not care about those who were lynched at random. They do not care about impunity for horrendous acts of sexual violence or those guilty for inciting communal riots or terror. They’re okay, and so all is well in the world. Today, I learned this about my fellow-Indians.

I learned that the misery caused by demonetization really did not matter to any of them. Today I learnt that flighty polemic is more real to my fellow-Indians than the real misery of those who depend on daily cash wages, those who lost their savings or those who were unable to access care because they could not access their cash. Even those who suffered were apparently okay with it.

Because my suffering pales when compared to the joy I get from endorsing violence against others. Today I learnt that my fellow-Indians live with a long list of ‘others’ that include virtually everyone else. People who speak other languages, follow other faiths, eat other food, are born into other castes and communities, don’t speak like us… the list is long and they are all ‘others,’ less worthy than we are. So, discrimination and violence against them do not matter, as long as we are alright. And as long as we can choose to believe in our strength and superiority.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians have very weak faith, especially my fellow Hindus. We have a philosophical tradition that is millennia-old, steeped in dissent and diversity and home to one of the oldest examples of skeptical poetry, and our pantheon is infinite and ancient. But we do not believe our ideas or our gods can defend themselves. Now, I thought our genius and uniqueness was our ability to embrace new gods and engage with new ideas. That is what I learned from our puja shelf which housed images of Balaji, Ajmer Sharif and St. Jude. Today I learnt that the divine powers in the universe need puny human Parliamentarians or armed mobs to fight for them, or so my fellow-Indians believe.

Today I learned that while we Indians believe we are among the smartest people in the world, the adage that 'the more you know, the more you know you don't know' does not apply to us. We are experts on everything. And therefore, we are always right. We firmly close the door on learning better or learning otherwise. We remain as Alberuni found us, ignorant, confident and combative about our opinions. 

Today I learned that each Indian is argumentative and brilliant and opinionated and right, but no one else is, and therefore, I was wrong, freedom does not matter. You cannot differ because I am always right and therefore, you must be wrong and if you are wrong, you had better not speak. Freedom is the preserve of the strong and today, I learned that strength lies in shouting, in controlling, in silencing and in the ring of certainty that I find frightening. Freedom belongs to people who are always sure of themselves and who believe that the world falls in line with their utterances. Today I learned the folly of believing that democracy is freedom.

“Democracy belongs to the majority.” Today I learned that this is what my fellow-Indians believe. Now, I don’t know whether this means I am entitled to democracy or not because the lines between us keep shifting. I may be part of the majority or I may not. But just in case, I gather I should keep quiet. I cannot express doubt or ask questions. I am not entitled to clarification. I cannot disagree. Even if I were a part of the majority that is entitled, these speech acts would disqualify me.

Today I learned that my fellow-Indians actually have a huge inferiority complex. They need someone who sounds certain and confident and completely lacking in self-doubt. They need someone who can tell them what is good for them and how good they are. All the time. They crave a strong leader—a daddy figure—and while they are proud that they can do jugaad and break rules, they want someone who will punish others who do. Today I learned we do not really trust our ability to assess a situation and while we sit, starving, cowering and censoring ourselves, we are willing to believe someone who tells us we are wealthy, brilliant, valiant and free. As long as it is uttered with confidence, it must be true.

Today I learned that while our constitution enjoins us to "develop scientific temper," we've done better with "temper" than scientific on average, and "science" is a spectacle, not the habit of critical and analytical thinking. Never mind, I misunderstood that one.

Today I learned that while we boast about ahimsa and like to be seen attending Bhakti and Sufi music concerts, we actually do not value gentleness, compassion, honesty or humility in our politicians. We want them to sound like swashbuckling warriors ever-engaged in epic battles. We do not care for subtle reasoning or nuanced vision. It has to be all out there like the garish plaster-of-paris-meets-plastic baubles of television epic serials.

Today I learned many things about my fellow-Indians that I really did not want to know.

This is who we are—uncaring people who do not care about other people’s rights, freedom, culture or bodily integrity. The party in power ran a divisive and hateful campaign and we did not punish them for it. They lied to us about a thousand things and we did not care because it suited us not to challenge them. This is who we are, as deeply disillusioning as it is.

But what I was afraid of did not happen. The re-discovery of India—this India—did not devastate me. I see it, I acknowledge it and I am still standing. As are the hundreds of thousands of Indians who share my values, as I know they do.

My India—that beautiful, diverse, plural, inclusive, compassionate India—is still alive, even if it is now half-hidden under the crush of this brash India that celebrates the worst parts of our legacy—violence, hierarchy, discrimination and mutual disregard. In my India, there is room for everyone, no matter what discoveries we make about each other along the way. As the old school pledge went: "India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters." We are not identical, but this is our charm. Though charm can be toxic and nauseating, we cannot disown or abandon each other. We are one family, right? 

This is who we are. 

This is who we are and I am still here and I will still be when this moment passes, even if it takes years. And in that time, I will do everything I can to engage with my fellow-Indians, to challenge them, to remind them of the joys of inclusion and sharing and the gifts of compassion and empathy. 

In my first act of faith, I will bravely post this reflection. 

Written on May 23, 2019