Everyone has a story about India, even those who haven’t travelled to or within the country. Often, especially in the West, the most common references to India are anchored to accent, religion, sport, cinema or food. It is not surprising to discover the country first through travelogue, film, literature or devouring the ubiquitous British invention, chicken tikka masala, now served in India as well. As Prime Minister Modi visits Sri Lanka for Vesak, I recalled my own encounters with his country.
My first flight to India was also my first ever flight. We landed in the sweltering heat of Summer in New Delhi, with several other families all flying in to admit their children to University. On the way to our temporary lodgings that evening, the steering wheel of the van we were in, though mercifully close to our destination, came off in the hands of the driver. Seated in front, I recall vividly how this stark fact escaped the driver for a few seconds that lasted an eternity, as he, half-asleep, continued to turn a wheel that wasn’t connected to anything. Jolting awake at the realisation of the disconnect between his function and what was now an autonomous vehicle, several thrusts to brake pedal managed to eventually create enough friction to turn the van into a ditch, which had the intended effect of halting progress. The violent stop meant that inside the van, those seated and the luggage stacked behind were, upon looking back, almost inextricably entwined. After significant effort to disentangle in what was even in the early hours of the morning an oppressive latent heat emanating from concrete, tar and pavement – we trudged wearily to a friend’s house. In the fortnight thereafter, in heat that shot beyond forty degrees Celsius, I had to learn how to gain admission to the University of Delhi, since what was a madness that had some method to locals was indecipherable to anyone from abroad. This meant finding a College that would admit me first, and then going to the University with a letter of acceptance for admission. All this required endless forms, travel to and from places widely spaced apart in hellish heat, feverish mobs instead of queues, three-wheeler drivers who fleeced anyone who couldn’t understand the language and officials who for whatever reason, never gave out information accurately, in full or an intelligible way.
It was unspeakably horrible, and I hated India and everything about it.
It was only in the months and years to come, alone as an undergrad student and travelling around the country by train, that I came to love the country. Admittedly, that love never extended to Delhi as a city. It was, even twenty years ago, insufferable, but for different reasons than one can readily peg today. More than the traffic and pollution, out of control even in the late-nineties, the timbre of the people I met in Delhi was overwhelmingly eviscerating. They were without heart and soul. In well under a year, through sheer necessity and constant, deep immersion, I was fluent in everyday conversational Hindi. This allowed me entry into the personal experiences of rickshaw-wallah’s, often as I shared their food on street-side, street-level, stalls. They were victims and perpetrators, from Bihar and elsewhere. Men on edge. Men who had no love for the city there were in, and less love for where they came from. Men who couldn’t contemplate a future – in a very literal sense – since they were consumed by just getting through every day, a never ending existentialist crisis that made them malleable to any voice, no matter how incredible, that offered them a better future. Delhi was a hard place, and it made you hard. But it was also, perhaps unwittingly, a great teacher. Living in Delhi taught me to cook, wash and clean toilets (of the squatting variety), barter, bargain, fight, run away, cross busy intersections (the trick being to keep walking at a regular pace no matter what, because if you hesitate and stop, you die) and negotiate a bureaucracy designed to enslave those in it, and drive to drink those encountering it.
Not all India was as grating as Delhi, and not all those in in the city were without heart and soul. The close bond with many wonderful Professors at Kirori Mal College continues, and some of my best friends remain those I met in Delhi, including many who were born and schooled in the city. But it was through travel beyond Delhi that I learnt to love the country writ large. The train journeys were never short of epic. From Delhi to Chennai, and then on to Pune and Bangalore for a theatre festival. In my final year, after shipping home all of my books, Delhi to Trichy on the Konkan Express, under the Western Ghatts and skirting the verdant fields of Kerala. The gastronomic variety of station food. The abundance of colour. I was in India before any conceivable social media, smartphones and even broadband, when Yahoo! offered 2Mb in total, and Google, leave aside Gmail, wasn’t even around. I never used a computer in University. There were none around. The only computers I used were in subterranean cybercafés in Kamla Nagar, close to the North Campus of Delhi University or at the British Council library, for which one had to pay every half an hour in order to use. Nirula’s was the only fast food chain around, and the coffee houses were gloriously smoke-infested, noisy, beautifully decaying meeting grounds for the dissection of play, politics or party.
Amidst all this, there were revealing absences and silences too. The North-East of India was erased from public discourse – it was like the region didn’t exist on the conversational and media map of the country. Gender based violence, from mutilation and rape to systemic discrimination and even murder, was already high, but not really discussed as undergrads. We walked past corpses on road on the way to exams, dead because of either the cold or heat. The sheer abundance of humanity had resulted in a strange devaluation of life. Garlanded cows seemed to have a better deal than most at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. The so-called Kargil War was fought in my second year of College, and the realisation that two nuclear warhead wielding States were in open conflict was chilling. It was also then that I learnt that India’s first successful nuclear bomb test was codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’ – an irony that escaped many I brought this up with.
The contradictions continue. I took my first train journey in India last week – from Chennai to Bangalore, and then on to Mysore – in over seventeen years. Much has obviously changed. Much remains the same. Sadly, a lot has grown worse. The India seen by train in urban areas is one big cesspool of excrement, rotting garbage and squalor. Inside the train, the Incredible India! campaign looks like a cruel joke, representing a country a world apart from what’s just outside the window. A grotesque materialism has gripped many parts of the country, and the politics are more violent and divisive than ever.
The India I love, however, it still there. The indescribable beauty of Mysore stretching to horizon, seen from Chamundi Hill, around sunset. The miracle of modern transportation that is the Delhi metro. The boutique beers of Bangalore, along with the sheer variety of food and venues to eat in that city alone. Path-breaking wireless cash services like PayTM, even as the violence of demonetisation impacts far more than those who make the news. An arts, theatre and cultural landscape, in most cities, that is greater and richer in depth, scope, imagination and curatorial prowess than anything Sri Lanka has hosted. Fast and reliable Google Wi-Fi in railway stations, even as basic access to platforms for the disabled remain absent. Progress cheek in jowl with so much left to be done, or deliberately left undone.
The late High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in Delhi, Mangala Moonesinghe and his wife Gnana, gracious hosts of the student community at the time, never failed to encourage us to travel within India and critically imbibe tradition, myth and even at the time, aspects of an embryonic modernity. Sadly, few in the student community listened. But those who did found a country that defies then, as it does today, easy capture. India is Kali, irrepressible and through sheer force of time, devouring those who suspect the country’s resilience and innovation despite the worst austerity and politics. India then is an idea, continuing a tryst with destiny and embracing all of us that neighbour it, willingly or not, in its wake. And even as we must continue to stamp our unique identity in South Asia, Sri Lanka forgets or seeks to somehow devalue India, as country, idea, continent, market, friend or adversary, to its own peril.
You can love or hate the country. But you just cannot ignore India.
First published in The Sunday Island, 14 May 2017.