Sunday 30 December 2007

India in the imagination

People have asked me how I enjoyed my trip to India and the honest answer is that for the first time, I think I understand the country a little better.

For no matter how progressive your politics may be, there is always a first sense of excitement about the exotic idea of India. It’s a reflection of the Orientalism that Edward Said described so brilliantly, which is probably harder for someone raised on Kipling, Forster and the visible remnants of British India to ignore. It’s difficult not to become caught up in the thrill of finding everything unfamiliar and strange. For others, the mystical interpretation of the Indian sub-Continent, the focus on its ‘spirituality’ over other aspects of India’s cultural and social identity, is just another facet of this need to project a narrow vision on what India actually is.

Reading Amartya Sen’s excellent book The Argumentative Indian whilst on holiday, I was struck by the case he makes for comparing those who see the exoticness of India as somehow holding superior values, the people who attend the ashrams like the Osho international commune in Pune or who elevate some notion of ancient knowledge above post-Enlightenment reason and science, to the propaganda of the sectarian Hindutva organisations like the BJP or Bombay’s tiny but extreme Shiv Sena party, led by the loathsome Hitler-admirer Bal Thackeray. These extreme Hindu nationalists also reject everything modern for an entirely false reconstruction and revision of India’s history and culture, although their aim is very different from those on a personal and often very indulgent ‘journey’ of self-discovery. Too many times, I've heard visitors to India, seeking the mysticism of their imagination, disparage modern ideas in favour for the value of centuries-old 'wisdom' that is supposedly special simply because it is old and 'spiritual'. The BJP, in its brief period in government, was busy rewriting school textbooks based on a similar anti-intellectual pseudo-science.

Looking solely at any country's distant past is always liable to result in a wholly distorted view of its present. A visit to Britain that includes only Buckingham Palace, Stratford upon Avon and Canterbury Cathedral does the same to thousands of overseas visitors every year, but the difference is that Britain's historical, often turbulent religious controversies are not taken to have some particular bearing on modern Britain. The past is just the past. In India, however, the Victorian view that Indian culture is crude and incapable of embracing modernity still tends to persist. Amartya Sen argues that focusing almost exclusively on what India is perceived to be ‘good’ at – its religiosity – deliberately ignores a rich tradition of scepticism, invention and new ideas that continues to this day. And it’s fascinating that Sen’s book, along with Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, are amongst the bestsellers in India at the moment.

Like every country, India is also constantly changing and, in the seven years since I first visited, I have noticed the changes most clearly in Bombay. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown and modern India has become more evident and more confident, but perhaps less fair. There are ATMs all over Colaba and expensive car show rooms in Bandra, but literacy rates outside of a few states like Kerala and West Bengal are alarmingly low and the Dharavi district of Bombay remains Asia's largest slum. During this trip, knowing my way around meant that I could stop rubber-necking, relax a little and appreciate that India is far more than an exotic destination, but a place where people live and work, a modern country with very modern concerns. I read the newspapers more this time and whether it was the problems of traffic congestion in Pune, or attacks by Hindutva activists on art exhibitions for ‘blasphemy’; or protests in Goa against unaccountable Special Economic Zones, or most notably the fears about India’s nuclear neighbour after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (on my final day in Bombay), what is most interesting about India is what is happening now, not just India’s past.

I don’t know the next time I’ll be in India, but I know it won’t be for anything as pointless as trying to discover myself - I can do that anywhere if I really wanted to. Don't get me wrong, I love ruined forts, temples and India’s history but India is much more than its distant past, more than its religious heritage. I hope next time it will be to discover more about what India is gradually becoming, what matters today.

But first, I'm going to have to start saving. Three continents in a year has taken its toll on my travelling funds!

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