"On India Khushwant Singh" | Capturing the trials and tribulations of Indians
From a world, preaching ideas of profit and freedom to the world practising ideas of retrogressive preservation – the Liberal Order has had a tumultuous ride, writes Ananya Das.
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
This is my home, my native land?
What does it mean to be an Indian today? Does being one fill you with pride or does it make you wish you weren’t from the land of the Ganges? Why is it that Indians flourish so well abroad but fail to reach the same success in their motherland? These are just a few questions that Khushwant Singh has asked and perhaps even answered in ‘On India’.
It begs the fundamental question of just how the identity of an Indian has shaped throughout the years. This isn’t one of those long and tedious reads where you get an unwanted history lesson. It is personal, blunt, and delicate; in fact, maybe a select few won’t even like it but it does what we need writers like Khushwant Singh to do – it fills you with wonder.
The book starts with Khushwant Singh talking about his own childhood, he recalls all those times when he was asked ‘what are you?’ instead of ‘who are you?’ He goes on discussing how people have meshed into the culture of castes and sub-castes. However, he then mentions how the caste or sub-caste of your own self, was only to be revealed to someone from the same religious background, to everyone else the person could only declare himself or herself as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’ or ‘Sikh.’
India has come a long way in terms of becoming a more forthcoming country but some things linger on like an old habit. Even today in many villages and smaller towns, castes, and sub-castes matter more than they realistically should. Be that as it may, no country is without its failings but how the nation copes with that and comes up for air for a fresher start is what counts.
Khushwant Singh is quick to mention “Above all, we are the world’s largest democracy and our people enjoy a measure of political freedom unknown to any other developing country in the world.”
The book then goes into deeper issues of the country and how the author has faced them through the thick and the thin. He talks about Delhi in length highlighting all the things he hates about this city – the smell, the crowd, the overpowering noise that won’t even leave you alone with your own thoughts; it’s frustrating, yes but Delhi is as old as any of us here and oozes a sense of pride and belonging which no other city does.
Khushwant Singh quotes Ghalib and says ‘The world is the body; Delhi is its soul’. Singh doesn’t forget the other cities. To him, Madras is delightful, Mumbai is as close to the West we can get but his interpretation of Calcutta is cryptic, confusing and lacks the interest we have seen from his previous writings.
The agony of partition is clear in the author’s writing and the soreness still remains, for reasons known too well. The days of unrest are not easy to recall but Singh does so flawlessly. Usually known for his swift sarcasm and wit, somehow Khushwant Singh’s writing in this particular section brings about a more emotional side of his personality. The book then dives into a lighter topic like the seasons of India, obsession with yoga, the god-men and other underlying topics that make India truly incredible for the better or for the worse.
He criticizes the VIP culture that has taken over our nation, the etiquette of the royals, the fake sadhus and even corruption – that wrapped its dirty hands all over the country viciously.
However, by the end of the book, Singh asks the most important questions of all ‘Is this the end of India?’ and in all honesty, the answer doesn’t seem all that convincing. He mentions the dark times looming over the country he calls home – the 2002 riots, the Babri Masjid conflict, and the everlasting communal issues that have entrapped this nation in its weeds.
He doesn’t mention any solutions to the problems we have and he doesn’t need to. We know the solutions and we know what needs to be done but the heart of the matter is when will we really start working on it?
This book realistically captures the trials and tribulations of an Indian and every chapter written has a faint familiarity to it. You read it and you smile internally knowing this has happened to you or to your loved ones, also knowing that it could be your story, too. The old Sardar never disappoints.