Indian Valentines

I came from Ooty yesterday, after having spent a few days relaxing. Sunday night I had a really amusing time playing cards with some 19-year old English boys who were on their way around the world in 14 weeks. Monday I went ‘trekking’ in the hills, which turned out to be more like meandering. We eventually did ten kilometers, but over a period of eight hours, so you can imagine the pace. The guide, Anthony, was a very relaxed middle-aged Indian man; he said that during the summer he didn’t get much work, as ‘Indians don’t like to walk’. Apparently an old lady in a village once tried to give him  money because she kept seeing him strolling through and thought he couldn’t afford to take the bus. This reminded me of seeing people walking all over the countryside in South Africa: they walk because they have to. It’s a peculiarly Western luxury to walk because you want to. As we stopped for a break next to a herd of sheep, a French tourist asked if the shepherds used dogs. Anthony said, with a wicked smile: “Dogs in your country. Here we use the lady.”

Tuesday I slept in, which in India means I stayed in bed past eight o’clock. I’ve completely changed my pattern here, going to bed at nine or ten and getting up much earlier. [ It makes sense in the heat, but it also has to do with the fact that being alone I don’t have anywhere to go in the evening. I don’t see it as a problem: I read at night, and it’s sort of nice to get up earlier than I’m used to. I doubt it will last once I’m back in the west, however. ] I went for a stroll around town in the late afternoon and ended up at the Savoy, a faded relic of the Raj. From the guidebook’s description I had been expecting it to be much nicer, although its manicured grounds and two men on horses stationed outside the main entry certainly set it apart from the garbage strewn streets of the rest of town. I’m beginning to wonder where the rich people live. I know that the Indian upper class, although relatively extemely small, is as wealthy and sophisticated as any other in the world, so I can’t imagine that they put up with rubbish and bad smells and falling-down buildings. My hunch is that they’ve fled to the suburbs, to places where as a tourist I would never go. But I wonder if they are actually present in the city centers, and that they spend their money on interiors and grow up ignoring the outside? I plan to do more research, but if anyone knows, please enlighten me.

The two big topics of news here at the moment are Valentines Day and the coming election. As fate would have it, they are very much intertwined. The fundamentalist Hindu party recently orchestrated a spate of attacks in pubs in Mangalore, throwing out and even beating up women who dared to be present in a bar. For Valentines Day, these pleasant gentlemen have vowed to go around public places and forcibly marry young couples on dates. Thankfully, the mainstream press is condemning the fundamentalists, and most people I’ve talked to seem to agree.

In fact, all the reading on history and politics I’ve done so far and the cultural signs that I’ve seen since I’ve been here point to a remarkable ease of co-existence between Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Budhist, and even atheist. (Anthony noted that the head of the Dravida party is an atheist.)

It’s becoming clearer to me that the Western press is responsible for our view of the East as a hotbed of communal violence; I would guess that statistically speaking (for a country of a billion people) Indians do a better job of getting along with the ‘other’ than Americans do. Since I’ve been here I find that my view of religion has been changing. As an outsider — someone who grew up without it and who has never professed to understand it — I always thought religion was a divider: not much more than a way of mobilizing masses. Through osmosis here and through the help of a few dear Catholic friends, I am beginning to understand that at its simplest level it can be a thing of comfort and beauty and compassion. My problem, however, (apart from the fact that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever understand religion in the same way that a believer does) is that I doubt at the higher levels that religion can be divorced from politics. I’m currently reading an exhaustive history of India from Independence: what strikes me the most, here and in other reading I’ve done, is that it was the personal arrogance and power-lust of Jinnah’s Muslim League that made Partition and its ensuing violence inescapable; it was Bhindranwale’s cult of personality that enflamed the Sikhs in the early 80s and led to Indira Ghandi’s assasination. Without ambitious reactionaries, the people of India seem to get along OK.

Religion is everywhere here, from the gorgeous call of the muezzin; to little Hindu shrines on public buses; to Christian schools; and yet I would say that the Indian government does a better job of remaining secular than the US government does. Our attempt at separation of Church and State seems only to have allowed the dominant religion to win. As a confessed atheist, it is unlikely that I will ever be able to run for more than local politics: with rare exception our politicians are required to prove loyalty to the Christian God. I am a huge fan of Barack Obama, but even I find it convenient that he found God as he was beginning his political career; I hope that is too cynical of a thought to be true.

India’s policy of secularity has not led to a supression of religion in public life, but to the encouragement of every kind of view imaginable. Indeed, my opinion is that repression of any kind leads directly to entrenchment of the repressed behavior, which may be why fundamentalist Christianity is on the rise in America. Look at Iran under Reza Shah: if he had introduced modernization as something encouraged but not required, the history of the Middle East might have been quite different.

The same was true of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. By use of thoughtless force instead of dialogue and considered action, the administration created a flowering of hatred among orphans and dispossessed — in countries that not long before had been our allies. I would never apologize for terrorism, but at the same time I will not stand by and claim that our government is blameless. This point of view is often accused of being unpatriotic. I don’t see it that way. I see a nation as analagous to a person, composed of many experiences and viewpoints. At any point in our lives we may realize that we have been acting wrongly and take action to correct it; it is a stronger person who is able to criticize himself rather than claiming that he is always right. Rabindranath Tagore, in his seminal novel ‘The Home and the World’, wrote: “I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is greater than my country.”

One of the aspects of American culture that I have always considered our greatest strength is our tolerance for dissent. But the past few years have seen a clamping down, a rise of a culture of fear that says patriotism demands blind obediance to leaders. My greatest hope for this new administration is that it will be transparent; that it will encourage our messy multiplicity of viewpoints that, until my introduction to India, I had thought unique in the world.

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3 comments
  1. Alex G said:

    What about partition? I just read a (mostly pretty silly, i admit) novel about Indian immigrants in the us, but one thing that it talked about was the younger generation not understnading the depth of the scars left by the horrors of partition on the generation that lived through it, who were children forced to flee, etc. It talked about how there had been peace and neighborly tolerance, and then suddenly there was a bloodbath, reprisals, boiling over.

  2. mirren said:

    Oh yeah, there was a major bloodbath. Millions of people died – at least on the same scale as, possibly much bigger than the Holocaust, which is odd because no one in the West talks about it. But my perception (or at least that of all the authors I’ve read so far) is that the killing was stirred up by politicians and hired thugs. Once it got going, its momentum carried it and created resentments that may not have existed before.

  3. mirren said:

    Also: Nehru made a huge effort after Partition to make nice between the religions, but religion wasn’t the only issue. Language, caste, and class probably had just as big an effect on the instability of the early years. There were over 500 princely states to incorporate into the new Union, which went ok until Kashmir stuck (which was also mostly the fault of its hereditary ruler, who waffled about whether to join Pakistan or India for far too long). The border clash in Kashmir is less about religion (since there are many more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan) than about a grudge that got blown out of proportion and let neither side back down.
    The Muslims who went to Pakistan were mostly the upper and professional classes. The 60 million who stayed in India (now 140 million, the second largest Muslim nation in the world) were traditionally the underclasses, so many of their gripes had to do with economic issues. The Congress Party may have made a mistake in promoting government job reservations for the Untouchables but not doing the same for Muslims.

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