The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 2, 2000
Time Off

The stuff legends are made of
By Manohar Malgonkar

A RANDOM poll conducted by the BBC to determine who might be called The Woman of the Century, revealed Indira Gandhi to be that woman.

Here in Indira Gandhi’s home country, that verdict must have been received with conflicting reactions. For the millions of followers of the political party she created, it was a vindication of their conviction reflected in the party slogan, Indira is India, and India is Indira. For them it was only just right that she was now given recognition as The Woman of the Century, too. At the same time, there must be millions of other Indians who look upon Ms Gandhi as the very personification of the infamous Emergency she imposed upon the country. Then again, there are people in India who have disliked Ms Gandhi so intensely that, when they heard the news that she had been assassinated, they expressed their sense of relief by letting off five-crackers.

  In itself, the BBC’s poll means little more than a gesture to the mood of the times. We happen to be on the threshold of an event that comes only once in 1,000 years. If we know very little about what the world was like at the end of the year A.D. 999, we cannot even make a guess as to what things will be like at the time of the next millennium, A.D. 2999 — indeed there are those who believe that there will not be a world at all.

At that a century — a mere hundred years — does not seem to be a period of time with which the human mind finds impossible to come to terms with. We have a fairly clear idea of the state of the planet at the turn of the last century. So again as an indulgence to the mood of the times, it might be pertinent to question if today’s men or women of the century will still be thought to have been the greatest of their era at the end of the year 2099.

As a rule, political leaders do not make notable historical personages. Among the 50 or so great men and women of the past in Hendrik Van Loon’s Lives only one, Benjamin Franklin, might be termed a ‘statesman’ which is something a little different from a politician. Oh, yes, Robespierre too, figures, but more as an evil genius than a wildly popular leader. Even artists, musicians and writers of today have a better chance of being remembered a hundred years from now than the men and women of the century as judged by the BBC.

As such it would be safe to predict that few people will so much as even remember the name Indira Gandhi a hundred years from now. How many people would today know anything about say, Theodore Roosevelt, or Lord Balfour who, too, might have been thought of as ‘Men of the Century’ a hundred years ago.

Not that Indira Gandhi lacks memorials. Party loyalists have given her name to a national airport and to a circle which they have transformed into a square in the nation’s capital. Then, too, there is her famous ‘Last Walk’ embalmed, as it were, for perpetuity, and god knows what else. But these are the tributes of her bhagats and in any case, she herself had no hand in their creation. Indira Gandhi’s real memorial, the one for which she will be remembered for a long, long, time, and remembered too, with affection and gratitude and not out of loyalty, does not so much as bear her name: The Avalanche which is a nature reserve in the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu. It was Indira Gandhi’s personal intervention that saved the Avalanche valley from its planned obliteration.

In a land such as India with its frighteningly large population, its level of poverty, where the rivers have been transformed into waste-carriers and whose city dwellers have to wear face-masks as though they were in a World War I situation and under a gas attack, one would imagine that environmental considerations would be given top priority in all the decision-making processes of both the central as well as state governments. Alas, it is not so. Here, environmental activists are looked upon as cranks; flat-earthers mired in a bullock-cart mindset. The opponents of national advancement.

Here, the need of the hour is ‘development’ and fast! Which shows up the industrialist as the opposite extreme of the environmentalist; the man of the hour, the hero, the storm-trooper of progress. That the barons of business also hold the purse-strings on which the very survival of political parties depend makes it inevitable that, in any conflict of interests between nature-lovers on one side and the barons of industry on the other, the odds are heavily loaded in favour of smog and acid rain and stench, and against trees and greenery and bird-calls and wild flowers.

Civil servants, politicos and others involved in permitting new industrial plants seem to vie with one another to grease the right wheels to help out the industrialists in their plans — and to hell with the cranks!

For these cranks who call themselves nature-lovers, industry is bad news. In India, however, this bad news takes on the aspect of doom, because here, for nearly a century, industry has not given much thought to its impact on the environment; here industry is not just bad news so much as the deathknell of animal and plant life over a wide circle surrounding its location. Here, the environmentalists have always been on the losing side; there is just no way, they can stand up against the mandarin-power of the government teaming up with the money-power of big business.

All the more creditable therefore, that it was in this climate of nature-lovers in headlong flight against the steamroller of politicians combining with money-power that Ms Gandhi, with a characteristically imperious firman decreed that the valley must be left untouched, thereby quite unintentionally creating for herself a memorial worthy of someone who would one day become ‘The Woman of the Century’; something far more meaningful than a signboard in the nation’s capital declaring that a circle had been made into a square, or even Delhi’s international airport being named after her.

Here, in the wild green hills of Dravidia, the red Malabar squirrel and the Nilgiri Thar still survive as does a tree called Tipubhna which, when it flowers in the summer months, resembles a peacock’s feathers.... all because a strongwilled lady in distant Delhi had waved a magic wand to countermand the process of their extinction. This, surely, is the stuff of legends, and enough reason for the Todas who are the Nilgiri Mountain’s original aristocracy, to add a new image to their places of worship — Indira Amma.

The Partition of the country had inundated the capital with refugees, all of them clamouring for houses, and the stalwarts of the Congress party were on the warpath against the institutions that the British had created for an elitist way of life. Against this background, Delhi’s Golf Club, occupying vast acres of prime land right within the environs of the city, stood out as a conspicuous example of alien prerogatives. Delhi’s municipal corporation as well as the local government’s functionaries had all but completed the formalities for expropriating the Club’s grounds when some of the panicky members thought of making an appeal to the Prime Minister to save their club. Nehru, who had never played golf himself, had to go out of his way and risk displeasing his party colleagues in order to foil the takeover bid.

I wonder if the committee members of Delhi’s Golf Club now and then drink a toast to the memory of the man, Jawaharlal Nehru, but for whose timely intervention, their golf links would now be a maze of sky-high concrete towers!