& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Celebrating India

Bharat Mata by MF Husain

I suppose remembering India is in inverse proportion to the time and distance.

I've been out of India for a very long time. And Canada is far, too far. So remembering India is easy and effortless. Of course, with Facebook, time and distance have ceased to matter. The best way to remember India is to read books on India. I recently re-read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh. I don’t think any writer can equal Rushide’s love for India.

Here are two short paragraphs from these books that reveal his passionate love for India.

“August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna's birthday and Coconut Day; and this year-fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve-there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will-except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth – a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”
Midnight’s Children

“…the dawning of a new world, Belle, a true country, Belle, above religion because secular, above class because socialist, above caste because enlightened, above hatred because loving, above vengeance because forgiving, above tribe because unifying, above language because many-tongued, above colour because multi-coloured, above poverty because victorious over it, above ignorance because literate, above stupidity because brilliant, freedom, Belle, the freedom express, soon, soon we will stand upon the platform and cheer the coming of the train…”
The Moor’s Last Sigh

And then there are special occasions to remember India, especially when you’re outside India. In Toronto, the Panorama India and the Consulate General of India Toronto organize the India Day parade. It’s a feel-good event when Indians come together and have a few hours of fun at Toronto’s Dundas Square (which celebrated its decade this week). Indians from different provinces group together and take a walk around the block.

This year, the floats were missing and had been replaced by Kolkata-style hand-pulled rickshaws. Even tiny Manipur was represented. And the most vibrant groups were – expectedly – from the southern states, although the Gujaratis with their garba didn't do too badly either. A couple of years ago it was the Rajasthani group which played Lata Mangeshkar’s Meerabai bhajans (read about it here).

The human rights groups, along with groups opposed to the Indian state, including Sikh separatists, stand on the other side of the square, raising slogans.

Despite ‘voting with my feet’, so to speak, in favour of Canada, I've participated in the parade for the last five years that I've been here in Toronto because, that cliche about taking an Indian out of India but never India out of an Indian is very true. I'm the first to point out an 'incorrect' map of India (which excludes part of PoK / Azad Kashmir from India), despite being generally in favour of the Kashmiri right to self-determination. I know this at variance with my conviction that nationalism and patriotism have little relevance in a post-colonial, globalizing world.

These concepts had a special significance in the colonial era. Nelson Mandela succinctly explains it in his autobiography. In his Long March to Freedom, Mandela quotes Anton Lembede (1914-1947):  “The history of modern times is the history of nationalism. Nationalism has been tested in the people’s struggles and the fires of battle and found to be the only antidote against foreign rule and modern imperialism. It is for that reason that the great imperialistic powers feverishly endeavour with all their might to discourage and eradicate all nationalistic tendencies among their alien subjects; for that purpose huge and enormous sums of money are lavishly expended on propaganda against nationalism which is dismissed as “narrow,” “barbarous,” “uncultured,” “devilish,” etc. Some alien subjects become dupes of this sinister propaganda and consequently become tools or instruments of imperialism for which great service they are highly praised by the imperialistic power and showered with such epithets as “cultured,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “broadminded,” etc.”

Mandela affirms: “Lembede’s views struck a chord in me. I, too, had been susceptible to paternalistic British colonialism and the appeal of being perceived by whites as “cultured” and “progressive” and “civilized.” I was already on my way to being drawn into the black elite that Britain sought to create in Africa. That is what everyone from the regent to Mr. Sidelsky had wanted for me. But it was an illusion. Like Lembede, I came to see the antidote as militant African nationalism.”

In my very humble opinion, in the present context, and with specific reference to India, unbridled nationalism is harming India because it’s being used as a means to segregate Indians on the basis of religion, and exclude the minorities from the mainstream (see photograph).

BJP poster welcoming Modi to Hyderabad (August 2013)

Ramchandra Guha concludes his classic India After Gandhi thus: “Speaking now of India, the nation-state, one must insist that its future lies not in the hands of God but in the mundane works of men. So long as the constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and fairly and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can speak and write in the language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army, and – lest I forget – so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive.”

And in India’s survival and prosperity, I don’t think nationalism and patriotism are of any particular significance. 

Image: Barefoot across the nation Maqbool Fida Husain & the Idea of India Ed: Sumathi Ramaswamy

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