Strangers in our own land
‘So, how are things?’ is the question banality asks of boredom.
The answer invariably is: ‘Well, getting along…’, which does not address the question. That of course does not matter since the question was not meant to be addressed at all. But if one were to take that large question seriously, it would be difficult to find an answer to it. Particularly, if by ‘things’ one has in mind ‘things in our times, our condition, our India’.
We have never found it easy to understand ourselves or to explain ourselves to ourselves.
We are so many kinds of us.
Not just that multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multiplying but we are, essentially, a multi-grained people. Our identities are splintered, our personalities are scattered, our loyalties hopelessly divided.
Those of us who live in India’s metropolises, cities and towns dress largely alike, love eating junk, watch films in giant malls. We are all stuck, neck on shoulder, to mobile telephony.
And yet ‘things’ are not the same for us as individuals. If I am 70 and a member of the behemoth called the Indian urban middle class, I am a scared human being.
Scared, first, that my high-on-fat low-on-exercise and anxiety-ridden lifestyle will land me in a stroke leaving me a putrefying burden on my family, frightened, next, about mislaying certain pieces of paper — the card that entitles me to medical attention, the one that links me to my telephone, another to a grimy room from which my gas cylinders come, another to subsidised rail travel, yet another to my precarious savings in the bank, to a lifeline membership of an association that is little else than a social or cultural ghetto.
If I have a fraction of interest in things beyond myself I am a satsangi of one or other congregation, a habitué of this or that association for periodic channels to music with snacks of my taste, jokes of my kind, ethnic swipes of my sort and political gossip of any variety.
Unrelated to ageing, gender and class, I am religious or yogic, at dawn.
I am politically confused by national catastrophes at morning news-time, domestically hassled by dysfunctions of plumbing, bijli and at home by noon, financially tense by the post that brings bills and no remittances by afternoon, ready to collapse into depression but obliged by ‘duties’ to turn up in my social warrens and boroughs by evening.
Come dusk, that twilit hour when I must turn to the mellow glow of a parting day, I am too exhausted and enervated by the multiple assaults on my identities as a person, citizen, householder, savings bank account holder, telephone dues malingerer, EMI defaulter, buster of a hundred deadlines, to be able to face the question waiting for me at the next corner: ‘So, how are things?’
If this is how split-up ‘things’ remain in urban and metropolitan India, they stay even more time-warped in her villages. True, TV and the Internet have come to the villages, mobile phones can be seen glinting in farmer’s pockets, and less frequently, strung round women’s necks.
Panchayats now have a legislated fair representation of the village’s demographic disparities and, very empoweringly, statues of Babasaheb Ambedkar can be seen, one finger raised in both admonition and promise.
But goodness knows and badness gloats that old divisions still have our villages in their grip as always.
Village streets, wells, ponds and crematoria go by caste designations. They may be used only by the ‘intended’. Though this sounds like an India correspondent of an American newspaper’s first dispatch, the fact is Hindus, Muslims and Dalits in live in our villages as close as any people can but also, worlds apart.
“We have become strangers in our own land”…The words heard last week in Muzaffarnagar are an indictment of more than those who burnt, looted and murdered their Muslim neighbours.
The country, a victim told our prime minister and UPA chairperson, was partitioned in 1947, now “our villages are getting partitioned.” This was a condemnation of the littleness of mind, the pettiness of heart and smallness of imagination that is afflicting us in all that we are doing, individually and as a people.
In Tindivanam, where I served as a sub-divisional officer in the 1969, I saw caste-Hindus refusing to break their siesta to douse a fire in adjacent Dalit dwellings. The divisions can be political as much as communal.
In Nandigram, nearly half a century later, I saw whole villages ‘partitioned’ on party lines, with flags demarcating the boundaries. The glue of urban infrastructure holds our cities’ diverse populations together. Villages lack such adhesives.
Mangled by setbacks , disappointments and drudgery as we are , do we find ourselves capable of emotions beyond our own personal or sectarian agonies? To be sure, we do.
But mostly after traumas that affect whole chunks of us as human beings, as in times of war, in post assassination gloom and sometimes but not always, after natural disasters.
We rise well above ourselves then . But the rest of the time we are ‘getting along’. Some of us do it with a smile, some with a scowl. All of us do so with unresolved questions in our minds about ourselves as persons, and as members of the large, complex joint family that is India.
‘We’ are no people but peoples — as complicated as we are complex, happily setting up home in a part of India far from our parents’, or being gypsies in our own. We can be, at once, linguistically ‘settled’ but politically homeless, culturally at home but intellectually alienated, professionally stable but emotional nomadic.
We can belong to a religious denomination at dawn, a caste grouping mid-morn, a regional order at noon, a kin-group affiliation at tennis or kabaddi time, a political faction at rummy or hukkah time or a bit of this and a bit of that all day long asking each other ‘So, how are things….?’
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor)
The views expressed by the author are personal