A Wistful Nostalgia

By Dr Dileep Jhaveri

Dileep Jhaveri
We were four, seven or ten years old when Independence came. Most of us were born when the Second World War was on. We understood neither the war nor the independence. Our parents thought that everything would change once the war ended and the British left our soil. They hoped for a house near a river or a sea-shore, permanent employment with higher salary, cheaper vegetables and fruits of superior quality, a telephone and a radio in every house, perhaps a Morris or Austin car, visiting cinema theatres once a month. Some thought of visiting foreign lands.
We were living in cities and towns with our native villages far away. The farmers and labourers in those places knew neither of war nor of independence. They had penury as their permanent partner. Electricity was unknown and they had never seen a radio or an automobile. They only knew to salute anybody wearing pants or footwear. They knew they were being punished for their evil deeds from their past incarnations. The punishment visited them as stillborn children, sicknesses, famine and they were very intimate with death. The death was a chance to be free from this world and possibly have a better life in the next birth when they may have two full meals with occasional fritters or sweets, some fresh smelling affordable clothes, enough dry wood for their hearths, oil for their night lamps, never drying wells, timely rains for their tilled fields and a cow or at least a goat in their backyard.
Not many knew of the world that had progressed beyond their reach or dreams.
But all were happy to be free without knowing that reality does not change like the shapes of the clouds in monsoon. We became free in a wet month of August. There were many who had suffered the wounds of partition. The sky was weeping for them. But in the large cities there were areas one was afraid to venture into. Those were hostile territories. It was safe to be near the people sharing allied religions, languages and food habits. It was better to be close to the relatives or those belonging to the same caste. Safety was sharing the same colours of the feathers. That assured sound sleep without nightmares and dreams.
We were thirty three crores and Mumbai was fast reaching four million mark. But many areas of the city were unknown, as if they existed in a different country. Those who took over the reins were prudent idealists, visionaries with faith in a glorious future and dreamers who were jolted from their trance by the stark reality of hunger, poverty, intolerance and moral turpitude. There were black-marketeers in collusion with corrupt state agencies, there were underpaid workers outnumbered by unemployed. A very large part of the society was illiterate. Even though accepted as destiny, disease and untimely death were prevalent. Scarcity of food, water, irrigation, communications, markets for agriculture product and traditional crafts had to be dealt with as a priority to survive life. What is freedom without life?
But the dreamers also had friends with brilliant minds and the process of planning was initiated. The leaders knew how to distribute the responsibilities. If Nehru thought of glory of the nation, Sardar Patel took to unifying the country and making it strong internally. If Maulana Azad initiated educational institutions, Ambedkar worked on strengthening the nation’s integrity and sovereignty by collecting a team to draft an ideal but practical constitution. The list is endless.
The results were not as expected. The huge industrial and infrastructure projects turned out to be white elephants by book-keepers who could read only the numbers in P&L accounts. Many in opposition did not realise the number of unemployed getting jobs, unskilled workers becoming skilled, how peripheral small industries started growing, how the labourers got accommodation, how their children got education, how their health and future were insured. Corruption became the everlasting centre of the dartboard of every kind of opposition. Some were against the socialist concept while others were hard-core millionaire communists! Some communalists bereft of any economical ideology absurdly asserted that the British rule was better!
We were by now in schools and some had reached colleges. Our need for role-models was slaked from the recent history. Gandhiji, Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose were our idols. But the heroes of previous five centuries also entered our history. Shivaji and Tanaji, Rana Pratap and Chandbibi, Sri Krishnadeva Raya and Tipu Sultan, the leaders of the revolution of 1857 and many more became pan-Indian idols. We were getting united as one nation. Still, untouchability was prevalent but those unfortunate classes also found their hero in Ambedkar who sought out Buddha with his profound foresight. The revolution brought about by his ideas is still dynamic and relevant. The concept of freedom, human dignity and faith in the future was central to all these great men. There were many intelligent, competent and hardworking individuals all over the nation ready to erase their personal identity to promote the masters like several poets over many centuries adding their words to the epics of Valmiki and Vyasa without putting their own signature. Abdicating personal fame is a major ingredient of Indian tradition. The recent past also was not forgotten. All the leaders of the freedom movement before and along with Gandhiji were our heroes. In the first fifteen years after the freedom our generation did not differentiate between caste, community, religion or language. Bharat was a concrete and ideal reality for us.
Unknown to the rulers and the people the Devil was also working tirelessly. Within less than two decades the one nation that had become free enlarged into two. The planners had charted for one poor nation and now another hungry one was howling. Indians were profusely productive as far as progeny was concerned but Death was not an equaliser. By now healthcare, insufficient and incompetent, had pushed death to the periphery of the arena. At this point the birth-rate and demands from the Sarkar for fulfilling every desire knew no control. India had become the leader of newly independent nations of the third world, was the largest democracy and refused to participate in the cold war (progeny of the Second World War). Nehru was a highly respected legend internationally. But he was not clever to clean-up the Kashmir conundrum, Pakistan’s adolescent adventurism and cunning covetousness of the other neighbour China. Within fifteen years we knew what the war meant.
Nehru never recovered from his dual debacle. As a historian and an erudite leader he should have known the millennial old arrogance of culturally secluded but expansionist China. In the increasingly materialistic world, the practical China was always going to be successful over the moral and almost spiritual values that he championed. Simultaneously, charisma alone would not last forever against the harsh reality the followers had to face. Hitler and Napoleon earlier had charisma but had failed and had fallen as fast as they rose. While Napoleon was welcomed by French people, Hitler was democratically elected. India had a democracy of primitive nature with low voting rate and largely illiterate electorate opting en masse and one cannot put faith in the fickleness of their mind. Federalism had separated states and centre. With the emergence of local satraps eager to reap the rewards of rank; austere ethics had surrendered to selfish scheming.
By the time Nehru passed away we had lost faith in democracy and moral values. The middle and upper classes were indifferent to elections but ready to derogate the ruling class. The masses were lured by flimsy offerings and the winners represented only fractional support. When only less than half exercising their franchise, what was the meaning of winning an election! Even when pitted against each other the parties were united in sharing the profits of the office. Opportunism was in full bloom when Indira Gandhi came to power. She was brave and audacious in getting rid of the powerful old guard satraps and nominated new guards. She boldly nationalised the banks and abolished privy purses. This did change the fortunes of many who were poor but enterprising.
Green revolution brought many benefits that had to be shared with clumsy rationing systems. The ill-starred neighbour trusting the sword kept on waging wars and failed repeatedly. These wars united the nation notionally and the rulers used the wars for scarcity. We had become a nation of queues. When things went out of control, Emergency stepped in. Democracy was dead. Power was rampantly abused for selfish ends. The opposition that bravely suffered seized power when Indira declared elections. But where was democracy? Soon the people in the streets started singing the virtues of Emergency. However, except the ideologists, liberals and political opponents neither the upper classes nor the masses were affected by the emergency. The rich had become richer and the poor were where they always were. Along with the contradictions of the democracy, the incongruity of Indira’s character was also revealed. Her elegance, knowledge and concern for the poor and the nation remained intact but she thought that power alone can solve the problems of the nation. The daily rhetoric practiced by her and the associates had aroused aspirations of people and that was going to be a millstone around the neck. Thinking outside the box was non-existent. And now there were three countries in the same geographic area. The rising population was the result of indiscipline of the people who were not ready or mature to take the responsibility of life.

But, along with the nation ruled by the politicians, there was another vibrant India. When we became independent only 150 million had two meals and now there were over 500 million who could eat. In the place of 10 million literate, 60 million had gone to school. Many hospitals had opened, many colleges had come up, the opportunities of entertainment multiplied, and people wore better clothes, travelled more and were happier. The politicians would like to appropriate credit for this but all this was achieved by people themselves. Survival of species does not depend on clan leader alone. It is the result of adaptation. The people of India showed that they also were part of the evolutionary process. History records only the rulers but the populace outlasts them.
The state controlled much in order to generate revenue, granting favours and perpetuating corruption. Bureaucracy controlled a lot. The administrators at the highest levels was supposed to be the cream of the education system. The lower levels were rigid, inhuman, unimaginative, without work culture and largely corrupt. It was a pity that the top officers started with idealism and enthusiasm to quickly turn indifferent and petty. The power putrefied their dead romanticism and protected their apathy. For the personal prosperity and safety they colluded with the inept and despotic pigmies who got elected and often steered them to fraudulence. But life is more than the acts of these governors. From small time traders to huge corporations, from nursery schools to colleges, from small charitable clinics to multispecialty hospitals, from inconspicuous eateries to five star hotels individuals and people collectively created this nation of their dreams and visions. On the other hand unimaginable creativity surfaced in writing, music, painting, dancing, films and several arts. This was freedom. To choose to be what one wants is freedom. It was not easy to choose when we were under the British. Independence gave us this opportunity. Success depends on multiple factors and is never predictable. But the freedom to act is everyone’s right. For more than six decades excepting the brief Emergency no government could restrict this right. Inequality, injustice, inept governance and many such factors exist in every society. But India did not deny freedom.
After Indira, the masters in Delhi had to grapple differently with the reality. Computers, mass media and several scientific and economical advances had changed the world. Now the leader had to direct and the executive had to deal. Modification was the Mantra. There were successes and failures. But the greatest failures belonged to the politicians. Wealth assured them against failure. Some could not garner wealth but corrupted the heritage of India that had survived challenges over thousands of years and had a unique and indefinable identity. India could contain contradictions within its cultural diversity and still claim to be one. Those without power tried to corrupt the notion of this plural culture. Some succeeded. Well, Hitler also thrived, but how long? Communists flourished in Europe, but how long? In the end the universal takes over and love remains eternal.
In the last 70 years we changed a lot, wore many identities, retained and gave up ethical values, regretted our losses and rejoiced over small gains. We may have started as dreamers and idealists but corruption grew in our lifetime while excellence took a nosedive and we were the loudest in bemoaning these facts. We taught our children that success alone matters in life. We spent on their education amounts equal to build a decent roof above the head. We worked hard but not honestly always. Our generation was very lenient toward itself and did not indulge in self-criticism. We were always eager to criticise others. They were neighbours, our superiors, subordinates, grocers, vendors, public servants, local leaders, national leaders, every hue of politicians. We lacked the valour to revolt due to lack of courage and the covert knowledge that we too were part of the system.
One more nation was added in this new century. Still India drifted along. The earlier infrastructure was crumbling but still bore the weight of increasing population and patchy solutions of escalating demands. The institutions are wobbly, the executive is vocal but the administration is rickety. All the weaknesses of immature democracy are evident. Bharat has progressed but many of the Bharatiya citizens have remained in the same backwardness as before Independence. Since neither Independence nor democracy is a guarantee to better existence, those who care for the neighbour have a mind boggling problem. And now we are four nations and have many more neighbours with whom we have to learn how to live and love.
Neither entertainment nor religion, patriotism or art can solve the crisis of existence. Either we should wait for the Nature to correct the course or we need to return to the selflessness, idealism and vision of Gandhiji, Nehru and several others who brought us freedom. At the end I would like to return to the childhood that watched the joyous crowds in the streets cheering Independence. I too held a paper tricolour flag with a wheel in the centre. It was stuck to a fragile stick of wood that broke soon after waving vigorously. Holding the flag close to the chest, I would run and the faster I ran the closer remained the flag and I could raise both the hands in shouting Jai Hind but the flag remained stuck to my heart.
That flag was an expression of joy, of existence that did not need to prove patriotism. It united me with the other children, the street, the city, the country, the human beings of the world, the universe without becoming a symbol of my identity for exhibition.

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