India is not a linear story. It is at once one nation and many. With different parts living in different centuries. Which is why it takes years of loving and loathing in this vast landmass we call home to even begin to make sense of it.
Funnily though, the publishing industry has more often hired foreign hands to pen the India story. With a lazy elephant on a busy thoroughfare on the cover to uncover the land of mystics and misery. India through Indian eyes has been mostly left unseen.
Atul Kumar Thakur-edited India since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation attempts to decipher India by Indians to ‘counteract the trend of looking at India’s history as a balance and a counterpoint to the outsider’s perspective or viewpoint.’ Through a collection of essays by steady hands and sharp minds, this genre-busting collection takes us through a cross-country tour through space and time.
To be honest, I was a little skeptical about picking up a collection of essays on India, fearing yawn-inducing theoretical treatises that would shamelessly navel gaze while uncovering little. I needn’t have worried.
The immensely readable Ramachandra Guha, the man who made contemporary history more interesting than an airport thriller, laments the death of the ‘linguidextrous’ in modern day India.
‘With few exceptions, the major political thinkers, scholars and creative writers—and many of the minor ones too—thought and acted and wrote with equal facility in English and at least one other language. It appears that this is no longer the case. The intellectual and creative world in India is increasingly becoming polarised—between those who think and act and write in English alone, and those who think and write and act in their mother tongue alone,’ he writes.
There is a flicker of hope in the state of West Bengal (but, of course!). ‘At least in Kolkata,’ writes Guha, ‘there are still very many intellectuals who are properly linguidextrous.’
Guha also goes back in time and recounts the wonderful war of words, if we may put it as that, between Gandhi and Tagore over English. While Gandhi had hedged his opposition to English, Tagore was worried that the former’s non-cooperation movement would produce ‘among the young especially, an atavistic hatred of the West and modern ideas.’
It is a pity then that the legacy of such great, argumentative minds is getting lost not just by the death of ‘linguidextrousness’ but also our politics and policies.
Shashi Tharoor, an iffy politician and an assured writer, talks about the detachment of the Indian middle class from the political process. Neither do they join politics, nor do they come out to vote. They also accept conduct ‘on the part of politicians that we would never condone in our neighbours.’
He compares it to the experience in America where the middle class is deeply involved with the politics of the land and where politics is also a viable career option for them.
Tharoor puts out his message to his readers: ‘When you think about the future of India, think also of getting involved in politics. The nation needs you.’
But language and politics apart, there are more serious concerns plaguing the Great Land. Derided by the market fundamentalists as ‘poverty economists’, Amartya Sen, along with Jean Dreze, lays bare his worries on India’s inequitable growth in the essay Putting Growth in its Place.
‘India’s recent development experience includes both spectacular success as well as massive failure. The growth record is very impressive…. but there has been a failure to ensure that rapid growth translates into better living condition for the Indian people… There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress.’
And this results in large-scale social unrest. In his own essay, Underlined in Red, Atul Kumar Thakur addresses the clear and present danger of Naxal violence. He says it like it is when he writes that India’s policy establishment acts in the same way that our colonial rulers did by keeping vast swathes of subalterns below the growth curve and tending to the privileged few.
But Naxals are not the solution. They have no roadmap ready for those they claim to protect. ‘Tribal India is facing a double tragedy even in present times. The first tragedy is that the state has treated its Adivasi citizens with contempt and disdain.
The second tragedy is that their presumed protectors, the Naxalites, offer no long term solution either,’ Thakur writes.
In such essays thick and slim, India since 1947 looks hard at the very idea of India. There is a lot to frown about. But a whole lot more to bring out a smile.