I guess I knew the truth as a child, myself.
I was in my mother’s womb when India became free.
I was born exactly one year and nineteen days before we became a republic. I feel very privileged when I think of that — I was born in Free India.
My parents’ fourth and last child. I am as old as my country, give or take a few months. And, on many levels, I feel not only that I have seen a dramatic change taking place in sixty years, but that in some sweet, strange and simple way, I am the change.
I am India.
When I say that to my children, they look at me in a way that suggests they think I’m nuts.
How would they know or understand? They’ve taken virtually everything I had to earn for granted. Including India’s prosperity. They don’t connect with poverty… it’s an alien concept that has never touched their pampered existence.
While I was never ‘poor’, I certainly experienced deprivation. I did not starve like so many million people of my generation. But I was acutely aware that I’d have to work hard — very hard — for my perks. And when I did get something special from my parents, I valued it, cherished it… as I do everything I have to this date.
Nothing was taken for granted — from the occasional pink pastry in my lunch box in school… to the frilly pink frock on my second birthday. I can still taste the buttery icing… and feel the stiffness of the taffeta frills scraping against the tender skin of my knees.
These are memories I hold precious because I know what they signified in our uncomplicated lives. I know they involved a few sacrifices, I know my father thought of both indulgences as being far too extravagant. Perhaps my older siblings felt the same since their birthdays were never celebrated on this scale. Our family of six, living in ‘government quarters’, could not afford such ‘useless luxuries’ (my father’s words for anything that went beyond ‘basics’ — food, education, shelter, clothes). But even in that era change was afoot. My father’s move from a district court in Satara to North Block in New Delhi was the single most crucial factor in our family’s path to progress. Everything changed, the moment our train pulled into New Delhi station and we made our first home in what was called ‘Man Nagar’ in those days.
I was an impatient, restless child, always seeking that extra something — and getting it. Quite like India, negotiating for better terms for all the monumental loans needed to get the country up and running. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was my father’s hero (far more than Mahatma Gandhi), and retained that elevated status, till my father passed away a few months short of his 100th birthday. My father, G.H. Rajadhyaksha, had witnessed more history in the making than most human beings do. He’d monitored each milestone, with a keenness that was characteristic of his razor-sharp mind, till the very end.
We often spoke about the India he grew up in as a schoolboy, but that India didn’t interest him half as much as today’s India. He preferred discussing how IT had transformed our lives, and was a great admirer of Dr Abdul Kalam, whom he frequently quoted. Attempts to get him into a nostalgic frame of mind were never successful, for he was so plugged into the present and dreaming of a glorious future — yes, even in his nineties. Perhaps it is this upbeat attitude towards India that has shaped my own mindset.
I often stand by the railing of the balcony in our apartment in south Mumbai, watching the sun go down into the Arabian Sea. I invariably touch my forehead and say a small prayer when it finally disappears modestly in a pale pink haze. I never think of this magical moment as the end of a day, it’s more a promise of another one to dawn a few hours later.
Sometimes, I think of myself as I was during adolescence, living not too far from the area we now call home. I love what I see around me! I love the options and opportunities that beckon and I love the thought that if nothing goes wrong, I’ll be around to see our country rising like the sun, in all its majesty… seeing another Golden Era, this one even better and more glorious than the one of Emperor Ashoka’s time, when the Gupta dynasty ruled over vast swathes of the country and India resembled a lush garden in full bloom. Such a flowering is not beyond us even today, provided we don’t blow it.
‘It’s all happening here,’ a dazzlingly beautiful Italian woman said to me, as we sipped tea together.
Her husband, an aggressive investment banker from The City, was in Mumbai on a recce. The lovely lady was doing her own thing — apartment-hunting, checking out the shopping, looking around to judge that most ephemeral of attributes — quality of life. ‘I love the buzz in your city,’ she said, adding, ‘Delhi is too box-like and controlled… but I feel free in Mumbai.’
I glowed at the compliment, and took it very personally. In the past, I might’ve gone a bit overboard praising the metropolis and drawing her attention to its many hidden qualities and virtues. But not anymore. Mumbai, I realized
instinctively, didn’t need any hardsell. And neither did India. It was there — like the sea is there — take it or leave it. Most people are grabbing it — with both hands. Why? What has changed? Mumbai still stinks. It is filthy. It is crude and aggressive. It is loud and violent. The roads are awful, the distances daunting. And yet… Mumbai makes your heart race… you find yourself walking just that much faster here… you push yourself that much harder. And then you ask yourself, ‘Why?’ No logical answer.
I smiled as my newly-acquired Italian friend talked about her passion for exotic destinations… fabulous homes… and that forced me to ask myself — if not India, then where? I had the answer — nowhere! Sounds mawkish and cheesy, but I am on that intense level of commitment and I realize how irrational that must appear, even to other Indians.
‘What’s so great about India?’ students often challenge me, and I look at them like they’re crazy to ask! Would I ever consider relocating? The answer is obvious. Have I ever considered it? Never. For better or worse, this is where I belong. This is where I want to be.
I told my visitor the same, and she smiled a knowing smile, ‘Family is still such a strong force in India… that’s what makes your country so attractive.’ I reserved my wry response to that observation. As an Italian, she, too, was drawn to family… which is why she’d married and had two kids in quick succession. As she put it, ‘I see lonely single women all over Europe and I feel so sorry for them… and then I come to India and see families… children… grandparents… uncles and aunts.’ I almost believed her! That’s the way it once was, I wanted to interject, but even that is changing — has changed. India is going global, you see. And in our hurry to win the global badge of recognition, we are throwing a lot of what is our core strength straight out of the window.
After she left, the image of myself clad in my pink frilly frock (pink shoes to match) kept coming back… and I thought, what took me a couple of years to demand, has taken India sixty! India is currently wearing that frilly pink frock and preening, as I’d once done in 1950. The pink frock became a sweet symbol of aspiration and hope, even a certain flirtation with the future.
Unlike a lot of my contemporaries who lost faith in the country and fled to the West seeking a ‘superior’ education, better career opportunities or a higher quality of life, I chose to stick it out, come hell or high water. Not because I am a super patriot, but I somehow ‘knew’ I’d get a better deal from my own country down the line. I’m a survivor and like most survivors, I enjoy risks. I had several tempting offers to explore attractive options overseas. My ‘inner voice’ told me to hang on, stay put. I’m glad I listened to it, more than to the cacophony of departing friends and relatives.
Today, those very people are wondering how to get back… reconnect. For a few, it’s already too late. The daunting thought of re-locating at a certain age prevents them from jumping on the first plane East. Senior citizens stuck in distant lands have suddenly woken up to the grim realities of facing old age in either a state-run facility or a hospice, depending on the kindness of strangers. Well, I feel like telling them that if they postpone that decision by even a few years (like, five), they’ll probably face the same bitter truth back in India.
They say home is where the heart is (forget hearth). The skeptics who abandoned ship in the ’60s no longer know where either home or heart is. ‘We are Americans,’ they once used to boast, proudly telling us deprived folks about
the glory that is the USA. Armed with work permits and green cards, they’d arrive for their annual ‘staying in touch with the motherland’ trips, with countless complaints on their lips. The tirade would begin at the airport, starting with inefficient baggage handlers and going on to bumpy rides over pot-holed roads. ‘Nothing works in India,’ they’d sniff, cribbing about ‘basics’ that they’d taken so much for granted in their adopted country. During the short duration of their stay here, one would have to put up with glowing accounts of their life ‘there’, and how impossible, even intolerable, India had become. ‘It’s getting from bad to worse,’ they’d repeat, criticizing everything from corruption, bribery, cleanliness issues, inquisitiveness of neighbours, and the overall ‘chalta hai’ attitude.
And yet, all those saved up dollars would be invested in Indian banks, since the returns were far higher. And the suitcases would be crammed on departure with essentials that were far cheaper. The rest of us would be made to feel diminished on several counts for lacking the ‘guts’ to pick up lives anew in the land of milk and honey. On those rare visits to their part of the world, we dehatis would be given a crash course on how to behave in the First World. If we dared to ask a few obvious questions like, ‘How come you guys only hang around with other desis… the sort of people you’d shun back home? What do you have in common with so-and-so… ?’ our questions would be silenced. But it is true that the actual lack of acceptance by the host country is what is making a lot of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) rethink that original decision. The party’s over… but sorry… nobody wants comers to the one happening in India, either.
Do I sound cussed? So be it. I see their kids and wonder what will happen to these twenty- and thirty-somethings who, through decisions taken by their ambitious parents, are a lost lot, desperately in search of an identity to call their own. They speak strong, accented English and eat ‘curry’ at home as a Sunday treat (that is, if Mom doesn’t recommend a barbecue). When they come to India, they feel entirely excluded from their peers, who are busy leading their own, far more colourful lives. Also, earning as much, if not more than their American/British cousins. No wonder, then, I find so many friends of my children, who were once seen as whiz kids and people in the fast track, packing their bags and coming home to start all over again. Their love affair with the West over, a few are married to foreign girls, who loathe the unfamiliar — particularly the fact that they have to get used to the idea of dealing with assorted ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, often sharing an apartment with in-laws and switching to ‘pure vegetarian’ kitchens. They are advised by family elders to ‘adjust’. Easier said. ‘Adjust’ is a favourite word in India, and is used across the board, even by those who barely speak intelligible English.
‘It is important for young people to adjust,’ my Gujarati vegetable vendor tells me sagely, pointing to his own son, who has bleached his hair, pierced his ear lobes and is wearing extra-tight jeans. ‘Adjust’ is not such an awful word, come to think of it. It is practical and non-threatening.
Most Indians are like elastic bands, ready to stretch themselves or shrink, depending on circumstances. We’ve been doing that for centuries.
We’ve ‘adjusted’ to so much dramatic change without the rubber band snapping! I consider it a major feat in itself. With a jaunty shake of our heads, and a ready smile (often, for no reason), we ‘adjust’ and the Ganga flows on… or, at any rate, it used to… before the river got hopelessly clogged and polluted.
Extracted from Superstar India From Incredible to Unstoppable by Shobhaa De.