Sunday, January 13, 2008

The country of countless contradictions

Book Review by Kuldip Dhiman

Assignment India edited by Christopher Thomas. Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi. Pp. 250. Rs 395.

FOR some it was just another assignment; for some it was the best job in journalism; and for others it was an adventure of a lifetime. They came here, got over the culture-shock, mingled with the multitudes, and tried to understand the confusing history, culture, and politics of India.

"Assignment India" is a collection of 10 nostalgic essays written by veteran correspondents representing such illustrious institutions as the BBC, the VOA, Reuters, Daily Telegraph (London), The Times (London), the Guardian, the Washington Post and others. A project of the Indo-British Historical Society and Har-Anand Publications, "Assignment India" is a tribute to the golden jubilee of India's Independence. But unlike most tributes, this volume, mercifully, does not read like government-sponsored propaganda.

What makes this book interesting is that it is a collection of impressions and reflections, not judgements. Although some of the contributors came here expecting to find an India of Kipling, they soon grew wiser. "Our stay," confess John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore of the Washington Post, "was a constant exercise in discarding preconceived notions and stereotypes. Two-thirds of the way through our tour, when we admitted to a friend that the longer we were in India, the more confused we became, he replied, "When you realise how much you don't know, that is the beginning of knowledge of South Asia."

Yes, no one knows India, not even Indians. What can one say about a land that is an amalgam of diverse peoples, cultures, religions and languages. Christopher Thomas, editor, puts it succinctly in the introduction: "India has produced more clich├ęs than chillies: my own contribution to this over-abundance of slick phrases is plagiarised from an Irishman who told me in Belfast: 'The man who understands Ireland is misinformed.' The quote transports well to India, because so much has been dissected and disgorged, there might seem to be nothing left to say. But nothing has been said: there is not even an Indian who understands more than a fragment of the country, let alone a foreigner."

Whether one likes these vignettes and personal impressions that fill the pages of the present volumes is a matter of opinion. One thing can be said with certainty — they are written in a very lively style. Devoid of journalistic jargon, statistics, tables and charts that we are so familiar with, the book is entertaining and riveting.

It is a delight to share the experience with old India hand Doon Campbell (not to be confused with Alan Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten's Press Attache) who was here since the late forties. He remembers covering the first Independence Day when one-fifth of humanity awoke to freedom. Later he recalls his interview with Mahatma Gandhi, Jinnah and others leading personalities. Then we have Mark Tully, who has always maintained that India was more important to him than the BBC. Mark Tully is so popular (at times unpopular) that whenever the masses of the subcontinent see a white journalist, they ask him, "Are you Mark Tully of the BBC?"

The assassination of Gandhi, wars with Pakistan and China, the creation of Bangladesh, the dreaded Emergency, Indira Gandhi's comeback, Sanjay Gandhi's rise and fall, Rajiv Gandhi death, the opening of Indian economy, nuclear tests — so much has happened in the past half a century. So much has changed, and yet it seems nothing has changed. Most Indians still live below the poverty line, thanks to the power-hungry politicians and their stooges. Nobody will seriously disagree with Christopher Thomas when he derides Indian politicians: "I believe there is no vindictive adjective too strong to describe them, considering what they have done and continue to do with their grubby manipulations and hateful ambitions...."

What is alarming about us is that we have begun to accept our lot with appalling passivity. Exploitation of the poor, rapes, bride-burning, female infanticide, child labour, gang rape, sexual harassment, violence, corruption: nothing shocks us anymore. The only power we have is the power to vote and we use it quite vindictively. The leaders that we overthrow in elections are replaced with another group which is equally bad, if not worse. But do we have any choice? We have politicians like Jayalalitha who redefined the concept of corruption while in office; Bal Thackeray, the Al Capone of Bombay; Devi Lal, a Haryana bull carrying his own china shop with him; Benazir Bhutto, a once-great champion of democracy reduced to an autocratic feudal ruler whose second term was an exercise in holding on to power and punishing her enemies and the Press.

"What staggers me is," writes the editor, "that people forgive them, so that they can be dumped decisively in one election and come striding back in the next with a thumping majority, only to exploit people all over again in their drive for staggering personal enrichment from the sweat of the poor." We seem to suffer from the Stockholm syndrome — a condition in which the captive begins to sympathise with his captor. So after a while, we forget and forgive, and even begin to justify and admire the methods of the people who exploit us.

If the general picture is not very flattering, the lot of the backward classes and women is even worse. In one case, Rani, a 31-year-old farm labourer from Tamil Nadu describes how she and her mother-in-law mashed poisonous oleander seeds with a dollop of oil and forced it down her two-day-old daughter's throat.

"I never felt any sorrow...There was a lot of bitterness in my heart toward the baby because the gods should have given me a son." But it is not only the uneducated and the downtrodden who have this inborn dislike for the female child. Even in the most educated and progressive families, the preference is usually for the male child. We grow up with an inborn prejudice against women. "More down to earth was the curious tale of village Kulu ka Bas in Rajasthan, where the men have only one source of income: the prostitution of their daughters."

The picture is not all that bleak; there are lighter moments too. Derek Brown remembers taking delight in dictating to his copytaker in London, the name of a Sri Lankan politician, Animalaivaradarajaperumal. And one can imagine Khrushchev squirming with embarrassment as he reviewed an army parade in Burma "to the strains of Colonel Bogey, played by the regimental pipe band." When a labourer was asked if his wife took the birth control pill, he replied, "She takes it every day....And some days, I take it, too."

Paradoxes are part of our culture. We have more science graduates and engineers than any other country has except the USA; we make missiles, tanks and satellites but "when the space scientist wants a non-conductive transport to take the shiny electronic satellite from its laboratory to the launch pad he calls up a bullock cart to carry it".

In spite of rampant corruption, exploitation, bureaucracy, crime and violence, we can be proud of at least one thing; our democracy.

"Perhaps that should be the enduring memory of India," sums up Derek Brown of the Guardian, "The people. The vast numbers involved. And their love of the democratic process."

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