Shifting bases from one part of the country to another in a diverse country like India is no less than moving countries. People are way too different, and at times, the cultural shocks are too much to digest. When I first moved cities across the same political state, I realized that although we are all Indians, we are not alike. Needless to say, moving to another state was like moving across continents. The title of this piece is inspired by a part of a book educated me thoroughly and made me aware (of at least one side) of the history of this nation. I will leave you with a paragraph of the prologue of the book—the section named Unnatural India (India After Gandhi). The picture here is of a beautiful garden in the heart of Bangalore city (Lal Baug) and feels as surreal as it looks… You will not believe the chaos that exists on the other side of the walls.
By 1888 the British were so solidly established in India that they could anticipate, if not a thousand year Raj, at least a rule that extended well beyond their own lifetimes. In that year, a man who had helped put the Raj in place, gave a series of lectures in Cambridge, which were later published in book form under the simple title India. The man was Sir John Strachey.
In Strachey’s view, the differences between the countries of Europe were much smaller than those between the ‘countries’ of India. ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab.’ In India the diversities of race, language and religion were far greater. Unlike in Europe, these ‘countries’ were not nations; they did not have a distinct political or social identity. This, Strachey told his Cambridge audience, ‘is the first and most essential thing to learn about India – that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious’. There was no Indian nation or country in the past; nor would there be one in the future. Strachey thought it ‘conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries’, but ‘that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North-western Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible. You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe.’
When one looks at this vast country and its 524 million people, the 15 major languages in use, the conflicting religions, the many races, it seems incredible that one nation could ever emerge. It is difficult to even encompass this country in the mind – the great Himalaya, the wide Indo-Gangetic plain burnt by the sun and savaged by the fierce monsoon rains, the green flooded delta of the east, the great cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It does not, often, seem like one country. And yet there is a resilience about India which seems an assurance of survival. There is something which can only be described as an Indian spirit. I believe it no exaggeration to say that the fate of Asia hangs on its survival. The heart hoped that India would survive, but the head worried that it wouldn’t. The place was too complicated, too confusing – a nation, one might say, that was unnatural.
In truth, ever since the country was formed there have also been many Indians who have seen the survival of India as being on the line, some (the patriots) speaking or writing in fear, others (the secessionists or revolutionaries) with anticipation. Like their foreign counterparts, they have come to believe that this place is far too diverse to persist as a nation, and much too poor to endure as a democracy.