The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 28, 2002
Lead Article

India: Mosaic, mystery or muddle?

India: Mosaic, mystery or muddle?

Why does India to the common westerner still remain a sum of contradictions and mind-boggling delinquencies is not difficult to understand. The earlier travellers or visitors to India from abroad returned home to tell stories of mad elephants and snake-charmers, of mendicants and naked fakirs and those images became fixed over a period of time. India is both ‘an elephant’ and a ‘phoenix’, says Darshan Singh Maini while trying to unravel the complexity of the Indian reality.

IN my hours of meditation when I close my ears to the buzz and hum of things outside, I’m often drawn to those books in which India appears in so many forms, colours and aspects as to baffle the imagination. I leave aside, for the present, books of travel, history, mythology etc. and return to some of the western writers such as Hermann Hesse, E.M. Forster, L.H. M. Myers, among many another illustrous thinkers and artists. For how the western eye of interest and fascination views this ancient land, and how romance and reality lose their essence and get telescoped are matters that I trust, suit the novelist or the fabulator’s craft as such. Hence, the beauty and poetry of that genre.


Thus, when I speak of India as a phoenix and an elephant simultaneously, I seek to explore India as a grand metaphor for the mysteries and ambiguities of life. In a manner of speaking, each country has, to use Disraeli’s sub-title of his political novel, Sybil, "two nations" — the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, and the division is as eternal as summer and winter, day and night. Thus, what I write below could be seen as many notes towards the definition of India. It’s not a definitive statement, for India is too complex and vast an idea to yield its secret except in fleeting glimpses.

The "elephant" India is an entity with a history stretching back to thousands of years. Despite foreign invasions and occupation, despite despoliation and degradation,despite wars and riots and partitions, it has, like that slow, heavy, ponderous, yet beloved, animal, carried on nonchalantly, majestically, trumpeting its existence from time to time. This entity is palpable, visible, though it too evokes the idea of that phoenix India when the two metaphors merge, and both are subsumed in the basin of our flowing consciousness. And this India has evolved into an indestructible, metaphysical wholeness, and it gives us a vision of human greatness and of transcendence even amidst contradictions and confusions. Separately, each India — "the phoenix" and "the elephant" moves on its own axis, though the distance between the two (materiality and spirit) has been widening all along, and in the present-day Bharat that’s India, it has nearly made nonsense of the ideas, institutions and things that described it’s quiddity, it’s inner self, indeed, it’s soul.

At this point of time, what we style as "the Eternal India" is not in the line of public vision, for the swift changes in the quality of leadership, tending more and more towards Machiavellianism, have rendered that India ineffective. All the vices and vanities, all the tyrannies built in a bureaucratically-run state, all kinds of terrorisms — from the mindless communal and crusading type to the State terrorism armed with parliamentary and judicial powers — may be seen in action all across the country, divided in root and branch.

The chaos is not on the ground alone; its germs lie in the diseased collective mind of the warring communities. Politics has degenerated into politicking, and governance into a ground for greed and graft. Well, the wonder of it all is that India even now keeps walking like a somnambulist, lurching from crisis to crisis and yet pushing along by the sheer force and weight of history.

Why India to the common westerner is still a sum of contradictions, mind-boggling delinquencies is not difficult to understand. The earlier travellers or visitors to India from abroad returned home to tell stories of mad elephants and snake-charmers, of mendicants and naked fakirs etc, and those images became fixed over a period of time. The India of pristine glory was the concern only of a handful of great philosophers and writers.

I remember how difficult it was for me to explain the essence of India to a graduate class at New York University when I was giving a course on the 20th Century novel. India, even to such students, was some god forsaken piece of land at the end of the world, at best, a riddle which was hopelessly insoluble. Whitman’s great poem Passage to India did ring some bells in the American mind, but the country, as a whole, remained a tangled enigma. A warped, distorted image has come to stay, particularly in the remote mid-west states of the USA.

As I see things, the question of maddening contradictions is principally a matter of archaic residues in Indian consciousness, and their hold is tenacious and vicious. And those contradictions keep erupting in the unlikeliest manner in the unlikeliest places. To put it a little differently, several levels of consciousness — pre-historic, feudal, colonial, modern — exist at once in certain sections of our society.

It’s this phenomenological mosaic which often intrigues and troubles the Western eye. For us who live in that element, there is hardly any surprise. In fact, we hardly ever notice such daily delinquencies of thought, conduct and behaviour, having been conditioned from birth by the weight of uncertainties. Such strange sights as the presence of computers and cobras in the same place, or the parking of a Mercedes and a dhobi’s donkey alongside, or a nuclear scientist with three vedic sandal-paste marks on his broad Brahmanical forehead wouldn’t affect your attention, but such sights hit the foreign visitor straightaway, and block his vision. He has a vague idea of India’s poetry also, but the abominal sights often drive him to distraction. Ah, but the caravan goes on, and the absurd India, the ponderous "elephant" of our fancy carries everything before it — from animals, poverty, disease, flood and famine, and scores of other ills. That’s how it is, and that’s how it will be.

The point is that though we are a modern democratic state at a certain level, we are still not modern in spirit and temper. Our modernity is largely sactorial and mechanical. It’s not integral, intuitive and original. That’s why V.S. Naipaul was compelled to call us "mimic men" with our "secondrateness." He too missed the meaning of much of our reality beneath the surface, but was dead on target about our fake modernity. No wonder, archaic elements — our sadhus and tantriks and highpriests and scores of such freaks in our political parties — continue to flourish.

The Indian situation, it appears, is peculiarly hospitable to sedimented and fossilised feelings and ideas. Perhaps no other book brings out so forcefully and entertainingly this aspect of the Indian reality as G.V. Desai’s classic All about H. Hatteur, a novel written decades ago with something of a Joycean gusto. I quote:

Improbable, you say,

No fellers.

All improbables are probables

in India.

So where do we stand now, and what measures, if any, we may adopt to keep the "elephant" on course, and the "phoenix" in action, we continue to agonise over our country’s present and future in the media and in our seminars and fora. Is India E.M. Forster’s "mystery" added to "muddle", or Hesse’s land of one’s quest and moksha? Perhaps both are right, each in his own way.