….First published 1983
A foreign correspondent in India experiences an authentic adventure – stimulating, absorbing, daunting, sometimes moving and shocking. Here is one of the world’s great dramas; an ancient, vast and crowded land committed to the most formidably challenging exercise in mass democracy. It is a spectacle in which hope, pride, paradox and uncertainty mingle and struggle; it is conducted on the whole, and to India’s credit, in the open. It has been fascinating to be a close witness. I cannot recall that the sun has ever set on a dull day.
If you wish to know something about India you must empty your mind of all preconceived notions. Why be imprisoned by the limited vision of the prejudiced? Don’t try to compare. India is different and, exasperating as it may seem, would like to remain so ……. This is the secret of India, the acceptance of life in all its fullness, the good and the evil.
- Indira Gandhi
Indians embrace the universe and their fated imperishable souls move to its mysterious awesome rhythms, out of one life and into the next, sins and atonements inked in heavenly ledgers.
The astrologers are therefore at hand, like discreet, wise and reassuring valets, with star charts rather than freshly pressed trousers. …. They comfort parents whose sulking sons have left home by predicting the ‘when returning of gone person’
Indians are a tactile people, living thigh by thigh, jostling, holding hands and embracing, close to each others breath and borborygmi, the bubble of each others pots. They have learned to cram, to take a deep communal breath to admit just one more, to fill every crevice, to hang by their nails, to sit on one buttock, to stretch the seams of their streets, houses and vehicles.
If you drive through India, or observe it from a train, you will see few parts of it unpeopled. You may stop the car in a seemingly empty space, to drink some water and sleeve the brow, only to find that people emerge, as if from the soil, to watch with curiosity.
Satyajit Ray, the film maker, recalls that he once began shooting a film in a quiet country location fifty miles from Calcutta. After three days, however, a large and curious crowd arrived by rail from Calcutta and climbed trees to watch the filming. The shooting plan had to be changed, and six spectators were hurt when the branch on which they perched suddenly snapped.
The democracy is lively, in spite of having had its air supply interrupted for two years from mid-1975. Socialism can hardly be said to have been practiced with any determination, and the secular state is profoundly religious ….. India has been from ancient times a geographical billiard pocket, a destination and a place of settlement rather than a staging post
As a people they take themselves seriously and their sense of humour remains as yet an undeveloped region. They are, however, enthusiastic analysts of their society, bitter and persistent critics of their politics, institutions and each other, as disputatious as starlings.
It is simply that India occupies several centuries at once….. In 1981 bullock carts were used to transport Mig 21 fighters to the Republic Day parade in Delhi.
Air travel is in the 1980s, cars are in the 1950s and the telephone is in the 1930s.
The new Indian is more likely than not to be a Hindu, one of the 582 million and 83 per cent majority. He might also be one of the substantial Muslim minority of 77 million; or one of 14 million Sikhs, so busy and distinctive that there seems to be more of them than that; 18 million Christians, who will cook both beef and bacon; 3.5 million Jains who would not hurt a fly; or 5 million tolerant Buddhists, a mere splinter of the great faith in the land of its birth. He stands a one in twelve chance of being born into one of the aboriginal tribes which inhabit forests and remote regions, and which are gradually being drawn into the mainstream; and a one in ten chance of being a Brahmin, the upper crust of society; and a one in seven chance of being born into the community of those Hindus whose place is, strictly speaking, outside the caste structure and who are graded as untouchables.
Whatever he chooses, an Indian with even a little eduation will hope to occupy a ‘position’. India is a commnity of hierarchies, rigidly stratified, and a position is of great importance.
At Bombay airport you present your boarding pass to a young woman at a table and she stamps it. This serves no purpose. There are two other women alongside her doing nothing. It is the same throughout the subcontinent: the bureaucratic warrens are overrun by clerks with little or nothing else to do. Americans tell me it is all the fault of the British. But if the British gave it the Indians embraced it.
After marriage there is sex.
In India it is usually in this order.
There is a saying in the Chambal that if a man has three sons one will become a farmer, one will go into the army and the third into banditry.
We spend more time in the pursuit of religion than any other people in the world.
- Khushwant Singh
Hinduism is both a religious and a social system ….It is a sponge, admitting far more than it prohibits, and sets little store by dogma. The existence of an omnipotent force is recognized, but this god-alone is by no means the central exclusive focus in a religion which admits millions of gods and allows immense freedom of worship. The spiritual and superstitious can be blended, permitting limited notions of heresy. You can shout at your god if he or she displeases you, and withhold your offerings as long as your sulk lasts.
Mrs Gandhi asked newspaper editors not to call her an empress.
- Newspaper report, 1982
He will not kill cows, but he can watch thousands of imprisoned human beings wither before his eyes.
- K. F. Rustamji
The gap between private cleanliness and public squalor is one of the notable paradoxes of India.
There are no better critics of Indian callousness than Indians themselves. They have a very sharp critical faculty and they are certainly more scathing about their national shortcomings than any foreigner could be.
Films …. A happy, or at least a positive, ending is mandatory. India is a country where people aim to survive and they want their films to give them ideas of survival. They do not want unresolved dilemmas, to be sent out into the night puzzling.
There was that strong smell of urban India, a compound of vegetables, drain water, perspiration, fish, bidis, petrol, damp pavements, sacking, dungcakes, urine and rot.
…Calcutta …It was Kipling’s ‘city of dreadful night … the packed and pestilential town.’ The young Winston Churchill wrote to his mother that he was pleased he had seen it because he would not have to see it again. A hundred years ago a visitor, reflecting on its marshy location and stinking stews, wrote: ‘Its situation is so bad by nature that there is little that man could do to make it worse, but that little has been faithfully and assiduously done.’