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The Story of India — Salil Tripathi

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In the India in which I grew up, my father burned incense daily at the idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed one who vanquishes evil, and my mother would keep the municipal water tap turned on at night, so that she would know when water would ‘arrive’ in our flat. Ganesha may or may not ward off evil, but the family needed water, and she would not leave anything to chance. The municipality ostensibly provided water 24 hours, but didn’t tell us that it meant 24 hours in a week, or sometimes, in a fortnight. If she kept the tap on, she would know the moment it would start to whisper and cough, and water would splutter, first as a trickle, then as a waterfall, and those sounds would wake her up, and she’d fill up the pots before others did, to make sure we’d have enough water.

This was when India was the poster child for aid agencies. More Indians probably knew about the US law PL 480, than most Americans: it sent surplus US wheat to India, thus preventing mass starvation. We weren’t badly off; we weren’t well off either. We had a home but no refrigerator, no car, no scooter and no telephone for a long time. We bought our first television some five years after my city had television.

We lived in an India of scarcities, where food had to be bought from the ration shop, Coca-Cola was considered a luxury and at one time the company was even asked to leave the country. It was an India where you queued up to buy milk, and waited—in our case, four years—to get a telephone line because the government was laying down the cables at the pace of a bullock cart.

We were told this happened because of the British, or because we had too many people; the government’s slogan for family planning gradually changed from ‘Do Ya Teen Bas’ (two or three children are enough) to ‘Doosra abhi nahi, teesra kabhi nahi’ (second child—not now; third child—never). When people refused to listen, they suffered: during an Emergency, the government forcibly sterilised thousands of people.

It was an India in which we were told to dream small dreams, make sacrifices for those without much. Those who had some, didn’t have much; they sought little and got less. India ambled along, at an elephantine pace, growing at two percent a year, the so-called Hindu rate of growth.

Then, in the manner of Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis, celebrating 1963, India had its moment: 1991.

Economic freedom began in nineteen ninety-one.

It was too late for some.

After the Rushdie ban and before the mosque was torn.

The economy was opened to foreign investment. Indians got to choose: between Coke and Pepsi, Visa and Mastercard, Airtel and Reliance mobile, Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians, no longer only Fiat or Ambassador. And India got its swanky cars and blue jeans, microwave ovens and colour TV. For some, there was money for nothing—and chicks for free. Supermarkets opened. India had become the world’s biggest producer of milk; food overflowed in its granaries; there was bottled water for those who could buy; and women in Bhatinda told callers from London where they had to change trains to go from Peterborough to Portsmouth because of engineering works, or something like that; and men in Pune patiently helped Americans fix their laptops long distance. The Indian economy started to grow eight and nine percent a year. If India was an elephant, it had learned to dance; if it was a tiger, it was now un-caged.

And just as the Hindu rate of growth ceased being ‘Hindu’, India ceased being ‘India’ and increasingly became Hindu. As India jettisoned the socialism that Jawaharlal Nehru had bequeathed, and found no use for non-alignment—which had meant that India had kept what it thought was a neutral distance between the US and the USSR—Indians thought it was time to give up the third tenet that came with its independence: secularism.

For a deeply religious country like India, its secularism was different from the European version, where the state recognizes no religion, or the US version, where the state and the spiritual place—church, mosque, synagogue, or temple—are separate; India recognised all religions, worshipped every stone, as it were. And so the state allowed Hindus to divide property the way they wanted under Hindu personal law, and looked the other way while its feudal lords, the khaps, told lovelorn sons and daughters who they could marry; and India subsidised Muslims who wanted to go on the Hajj. Sikhs could carry little swords on an airplane, and even as irate academics wanted advertisements banned if they showed some skin, Jain priests could walk around naked if they wished. Assertive Hindus, who felt their identities were suppressed, wanted to change that. They objected to the state’s appeasement of minorities and wanted to rewrite history. They attacked mosques, killed those who got in their way, and destroyed art if they didn’t like what an artist did to their deities.

The world liked the new India that was open to business, but its rightward turn was not only economic. Hindu nationalists wanted a different India, an assertive, masculine, virile India, which would give up the pacifism of Gandhi and the poetry of Tagore, and embrace the martial valour of Shivaji and Subhas Chandra Bose.

As the world prepares to rearrange the furniture and seating order at the main table to make room for the newly-emerging powers—Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC)—in G20, the new global grouping of powerful nations, it is going to see a different India from the one it thought it knew. This is not only the India of Ravi Shankar’s sitar and Satyajit Ray’s cinema, or Sunil Gavaskar’s plodding 36 not out in 60 overs, or where RK Narayan writes about the sleepy village of Malgudi. Nor is it only the India of yoga and Hare Krishna, meditation and vegetarianism, the eternal Himalayas and the beaches of Goa. It is now the India of AR Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’, which mixes Spanish beat with Bollywood thump; where Bollywood stars sell international brands and make films such as Love, Sex aur Dhokha; of Saurav Ganguly taking off his shirt at Lord’s after India records an improbably win against England; where Chetan Bhagat writes forgettable novels about urban angst in unreadable prose, and yet, like Dan Brown, laughs his way to the bank—come to think of it, he is a banker. It is a proud India, a can-do India. Its companies go about buying assets worldwide. The British came to India looking for tea, and the East India Company helped found an empire. Today, Tata owns Tetley Tea as well as Corus and Jaguar. And an Indian owns the East India Company. So there we are.

Over the next decades, this emergent India will be more visible. More jobs will fly out of Europe and the US to India. More stuff will be made in India and sold abroad. More Americans and Europeans will work under Indian managers, report to Indian companies. Even as the West recovers from the financial crisis, Indians ask, Crisis? What crisis?
More Indian films will be seen at multiplexes around the world; Hollywood will seek financing from India; Indian banks will mediate loans and transactions for companies worldwide. Mumbai and Shanghai stock exchanges will matter as much as London and New York.
What sort of an India will that be? Will it be an assertive nuclear power bullying its neighbours and threatening a stable international order? Will it try to become more Hindu and less Indian?

It’s easy to be pessimistic, but I feel otherwise. India’s genius has been its ability to synthesise. It blends things; it absorbs the foreign influence and makes it its own. It invents ‘American Chop Suey’ and ‘Gobi Manchurian’; it compels McDonald’s to offer alu tikki burgers in India. And it gets Starbucks to offer chai tea latte worldwide. It gets Madonna to sport a bindi and influences Julia Roberts, as the Beatles before her, to explore mysticism. It reminds the English that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered in England.

Indians like being liked; some of them may say they want to be feared, but what they’ve sought is respect. Its economic might is earning India both in abundance. It will be fascinating to watch the trajectory India undertakes as it becomes economically even more powerful. Will its rightward tilt also mean a social and political rightward tilt? Or will its genius of synthesising and absorbing other influences prevail, making the whole world its family, or, as the father says in the UK television series Goodness Gracious Me, Indians discovered and invented everything?

If I knew the answer, I’d have been an astrologer. India has many of them. But India has many astronomers too; that’s what I like about India, and that India—of astronomers, not astrologers—is the one in which I place my faith. As the elephant dances, it might trip occasionally, and it might even slip, but it will find its feet. Ganesha, ultimately, preserves order and wishes the world well, as my father tells me. In a way, as several economic historians remind us, India is merely taking the place it had occupied in the world’s economy and politics some 600 years ago. It will be business as usual; we are returning to an older equilibrium. And India is an old country, at ease with its past even as it enjoys coexisting in several centuries


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