Peeling India

It was not the answer I was expecting to my question. It was the answer to a question I was yet to formulate; to a future question — one still unborn. It gave me a tinge of surprise and utter delight.

“I love Bharat; not India”, he said with a strut of confidence.

I met Avinash at the Annual Jaipur Literature festival in India and we established a connection we once had in New Delhi. He was the guy I once asked for directions to the nearest metro station. After Jaipur, we started communicating on a regular basis.

Through him and other Indians, I sought to know India in a more personal way. It was based on my theory that the biographical provides a very personal account which invariably serves as a potent lens for understanding the world.

And I was proved right that weightless morning when I asked Avinash if he loved India. Though a second-time visitor to India, I was very cautious in making any sudden judgement. In a way, India offers a picture that disarms the quick judge. It defies categorization in the way that would make post-modernists pause.

So the idea of giving an Indian the first word on assessing the country gave me a refreshing appeal. I knew Bhārat (Gaṇarājya) as an alternative name for India; but the idea of one being separated from the other jabbed my curiosity.

To give form to his words, Avinash took me to a street corner in New Delhi to have tea. It was a spot strung along the bushes; where customers were served from a boiling teapot by an old man. It was the kind of environment reminiscent of some parts of communal Africa; which I knew too well.

“This is the concept of Bharat. It is different from the disposable cup and machine which churns out coffee or tea. That is India. This is Bharat”, he said.

I knew what he was pointing to.

It was the contrasting walls of peeling paint and the glass towers across town. It was obvious in the way tombs and temples of yesteryear share streets with tall malls and night clubs. I saw it riding in the auto-rickshaws and the finest automobiles on India’s streets. The coexistence of the bearded keepers of the Ashram and what Indian writer Palash Krishna Mehrothra tags as “The Butterfly Generation” were ever-present themes for one to see. It is the stuff India is made of. I however saw the contrasts more as features of India’s transition. As change. Part of a larger story.

Avinash however saw it differently: the alien and the native. He called it “the foreign concept of India against what India was meant to be”. He sounded convinced. His words were marked by the nuances which could only come from living. His words saved me from the Fundamental Attribution Error. It brought me liberation in a nameless zone – one that dotted on my thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Before that moment, I noted how India was not only offering me answers to questions I never asked; but also questioning answers I have always had.

It all reminded me of the Marabar Caves described by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India. I thought about the cave’s unusual echo; which ultimately puts a spin of the inexplicable on the novel:

“If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same-’ou-boum.’ If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge and bluff-it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling”.

It was this echo and the complex symbolism of impersonal eternity it denotes; which caused Mrs. Moore – one of the novel’s main characters – to eventually lose her idealism and her faith. In a mysterious way, the echo revealed the limitations of both.

In many ways, India started drawing me into the outer fringes of the established – just like the Marabar Caves. Mine was a place where long known limitations were being weaved into a collage of the possible; with the tensions of cognitive dissonance at bay. It was a dip into a well that provided a twin opportunity to negotiate the wet and the dry. I call it the Indian twists.

With the answer from Avinash, I started a journey to ground the indeterminate on my own terms: Bhārat and India may just be a way of using metaphors to tell a larger story.

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