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Heaven, hell and everything in between
“How is Delhi?” asked a friend on Skype two days after I got there. “Cold. Very cold. Freezing.” “Wait, it gets cold in India?” Everyone is surprised that it gets cold in India. Even Trinis. “Seriously? India cold?”
No matter how many times I have this conversation I am taken aback, recognising the gulf between what is being asked, what India is, isn’t and how much of her there is to know, and how little I can convey how much I know and don’t know.
I am momentarily indignant, wondering why people can’t get past the barrier of some 1970s black-and-white image of India: Mother Teresa’s Calcutta of lepers and beggars, of mother and child begging in punishing heat, waving off flies.
For those who think I am shoving my head in the sand: yes, India houses a third of the world’s poorest. Yes, the Dharavi slum in Mumbai is the biggest in Asia. Yes, the corruption is out of control. And women are under threat, recently symbolised by the unbelievably brutal rape of a young girl where a nation collectively bowed its head in shame, yes.
There are 700,000 troops deployed to keep the potentially explosive dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir in check. Yes, the gap between the rich and poor, in this country of 1.2 billion people, 28 states, seven union territories, 40 cities with over a million people, 300 large towns, 3,400 medium-sized cities, 640,000 villages, is vast.
Yes, India’s explosion into the global economic scene, and as a member of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations (expected to eclipse the combined economies of the current richest countries of the world by 2050) is creating more Indian billionaires in the Forbes list than ever before, making Indian real estate pricier than the most exclusive in London, Paris, New York—while over 100 million live without a home, many holed in urban slums.
But I feel like a knife twisted in my heart when I think of that Mother-Teresa image of India as a place entirely of malnutrition, heat and dust, or those who limit India to a place of sadhus in orange robes, of non-materialistic “spirituality” in ashrams.
So after many years, to anyone who looks pityingly at India, I borrow the words of TS Eliot: “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” A landscape of a continent, a country 5,000 years deep, a culture layered with Mogul, European, Persian, Portuguese, Afghanistani conquest, heavy with almost 2,000 languages, cannot be reduced to a single tragic image that is frozen in minds worldwide.
So this time, after arriving in Delhi in the freezing cold, in fog which made me feel like I was on a film set (this has been the coldest year in India in over 44 years) wearing the ensemble that may bring the call of “Paki” in the west—jeans, orange kurta, red shawl sensible walking shoes—I began thinking of the “cold” comment.
Feeling the weight of my responsibility, I think, cold, the Himalayan snow-capped mountain range, an arc on top of the subcontinent, is the essence of my childhood. How do I say that most of my memories, perhaps because my father was in the Indian army, are of India’s hill stations (there are some 80 such high-altitude towns, once used by the British as refuge from summer heat, including some in South India).
How else would I remember Simla (quaintly dotted by stately colonial mansions and cottages crowned by a misty English castle amidst pines—the viceregal lodge—where Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten met to hammer out the ripping apart of India from Pakistan)? Waking up on my eighth birthday to a heavy snowfall, a new blue coat, and when the cold set in, an afternoon of skating in the rink, freezing, with the view of Himalayas.
Yes, it is hot and dry in South India, Karnataka. But Bangalore, the city in which I lived and went to school, even that was known as the garden city of India, and apart from a few months in the summer is perpetually cool.
How do I explain that in Gawahati, where I was born, the monsoons persist for seven months, making the forests of Assam the greenest rainforests in the world, the home of tea growers. How do I say that in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Predesh and Sikkim the temperatures drop to zero and below in winter?
And Rajasthan, the soul of the Indus valley, civilisation is a subtropical desert with deep sand, known for safaris and dunes, forts, intricately carved temples and palaces that get as hot as 50 degrees in the summer but drop to below freezing in winter.
I had to find a way of explaining that although each person, each community experiences India differently, although India is an ancient civilisation, there is some magic in her that binds 1.2 billion people, makes every experience authentic.
If you asked me what that was, I don’t know. Except I can meet the eyes of people poor, middle class and rich, and often see, especially if I am with my mother, a flickering acknowledgement of approval. “Good,” they seem to say, “you are with your mother. Bless you.” Whatever mother India is, her humanity is intact. She doesn’t need pity from a stale image, but if you reach out to her, you will find heaven, hell and everything in between.
Next week: Meandering through Delhi.
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