The Rise of the Individual

By Anshu Choudhry

“Art is individualism and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.” – Oscar Wilde
Anshu Choudhry
It has been a few months, when, while walking past the sand scattered orange pathways around the India Gate, I had felt a twinge of emotion, an impulsive regret for the names that lay engraved over the golden walls, much like graves scattered through a populated cemetery.  A decade ago though, the thought of comparing India Gate to a cemetery would have come across as blasphemous to my ritualistic mind. During my school days, it did not even represent the martyrs. It was an edifice, a temple proclaiming the religion of patriotism, alive and daring, intimidating the enemy with its flame of truth, valor and sacrifice burning bright.
So what had changed, I asked my pessimistic self. Why the sacrifice of our soldiers did seem such a waste? The question haunted me in sleep even as I consciously tried to fight away the demonic thoughts disparaging my country and its greatness. The days that followed turned me into a thinking machine (if it is of the shape and style of old gramophones) with a needle pointedly stuck on the events that define the aura and the era of India @ 70. Not at all an old hag; rather a coquettish, animated woman at the peak of youth philandering with the most eligible suitors, enchanting them to her own advantage, living herself, developing her yet under-developed talents in her quest to maximize herself. So, what was wrong after all in maximizing the self, even if it requires the sounding of siren of dissent, even if it is a sectarian call for fractioning the country, even if it amounts to anti-nationalism, even if this individualism threatens the very unity for which the martyrs reduced themselves to mere carvings on a yellow stone?
I have been no different from my earnest brothers and sisters in revering my country as the mother, the Bharat Mata and have rather felt proud in this feminine depiction of the land of my birth. Surprisingly, all along, the somber, submissive and silent suffering image of the Indian mother subdued my imagination of one with the potential of an aggressive feminine force, a selfish ambition jettisoning the selfless surrender. Perhaps this evolution of perception was long due, perhaps it was waiting in the wings to appear centre stage, perhaps we, the children could not feel the undercurrents of change as we mass mobilized not for a collective non-cooperation or civil-disobedience, but to assert and authenticate our individuality, our uniqueness, our singularity in the more than 134 billion faces that we now are.
The rash energy in the air is palpably triggering a restive beat in pining hearts; a fierce ambition is tearing through each soul aiming not for the elusive ‘nirvana’ from afterlives but the search for the absolute best in this one life. 70 years ago was the era of achievement with freedom from foreign powers as the reward. Patriotism was the guiding value leading to the salvation of the soul. In this day and age, the inspiration is to fulfill the individual life. Each and every soul is unique, each body special, born for a higher purpose than that of another; each superior to the other, thus inspiring freedom from another. The passive force of self-effacing, reticent masses, the conglomerates of common cause, the march of the downtrodden is long since dissipated. It is now the stimulus of the individual sense. Very much like the American Dream, the Indian fantasy is vying to give shape to a new reality. Old histories of class, caste and ethnicity seek erasure by the very fact of their millennia long existence or better still are aggressively striving to overturn the nomenclatures and definitions of inferior vs. superior.
The common cause, if any, has a measured shelf-life akin to the hedonistic impulse that ignites and dies a spark. The anti-corruption campaign that promised the resurgence of another Mahatma, the Nirbhaya case protests and many other agitations mushroom and wither away at the end of the angry season much like the brief spell of a scanty rain inoculating the minds such that instead of fighting such demons, we are left desensitized to their presence, adapting them as the necessary evils by putting them to good use for our own individual benefits. In these competitive times of depleted resources, none has the nerve or the energy against solipsism and to stop and ponder the future consequences for the generations to come.
Often at times, while driving to work, I use the leisure forced by a traffic jam to reminiscence on the scene of a metropolitan road. The bumper to bumper gridlock traffic best describes the chaos that has taken roots by this stubborn insistency for the self. The vehicle is the king on the piece of land it happens to occupy at the particular moment. Under-age riders scoot around dashing into each other like villains striking in Xbox games. Hardly a pavement exists for pedestrians, these having become the private domains of makeshift shopkeepers whom the authorities dare not evacuate in their sincere duty to the illegitimate earnings. The rulers have devised flexible ideals, pompous egos, and shallow self-respects, to keep in tandem with the amoeba shaped vote-bank that rules supreme in today’s polity and economy. Poverty is glorified not by reason of empathy or alleviation but for the large numbers of votes it has on offer. It is no wonder then that an individual bleeds to death and no one notices him or the car that rammed him; and if at all it is worth a scene, it need only be digitally captured as a feature for a WhatsApp message or a Facebook post. The civic sense is nearly dead, down in the grave, awaiting a burial like a garbage dump ready for bio-degradation. And so is the earth sense even though every now and then we shoot off newly developed missiles in the atmosphere to scare off the unknown enemy. The ravished flora and fauna, landslides, floods, environmental calamities, are just a few of the many wounds on the face of Indian soil inflicted by the exponential growth of human population. Various other inherent senses of the Indian fraternity—the filial sense, reverence to women, care for the elderly, family ties are certainly on the decline if not decimated.
While it is indeed a grave loss to lose some of the senses; paradoxically, a few such losses can be a boon. I attribute the dilution of the mass sense to such a blessing. With a sliver of hope, I feel the quiver, the mild tremor and an arrhythmic shiver from this mass instinct of feminine submission characterized by the ‘Indian woman’, the quintessential ‘Bhartiya nari’. Once a label of pride, the attributes of nobility and aristocracy no more hide under this suffocating veil. I do not and never will mourn the loss of this insidious tag on my motherland which has done more harm than good to the mothers and sisters who suffered under its confines. When earning a livelihood, opting for manual labor, educating the girl child was outrageous behavior, when disobedience to a scalawag husband was a sin, when not having a husband at all was an offence, when widows, single mothers and the non-existent divorcees were not supposed to exist, when it was a woman’s fault to be barren or to be abandoned by a man – those days are passé. The last seventy years have ensured that these dogmas and doctrines imposed on the ‘Bhartiya nari’ have slowly but surely atrophied giving way to the emergence of a desperate if not confident woman who hardly has a choice, but to make a choice. It is encouraging to see that a slum-dweller vies for a house like the one she cleans for a living; her daughter needs be educated to be a professional like her own mistress for whom she works and her son is motivated to be like the CEO driven around in the car that her husband drives.
Despite the loss of idealism, the last seventy years has given India the coveted phenomenon called hope. This hope is being reflected not just through the feminine force but through the isolated Indians who toil tirelessly with integrity. It is widely accepted in Government circles that less than ten percent of the work force is honest and dutiful and yet this ten percent minority makes the government work. Ironically, if it were not for these petty fellows, the remaining ninety percent would not get away with their corrupt, reckless misadventures, the loot that they perpetrate on the country every now and then in the form of nasty scams. The ten percent minority truly value and cherish the freedom endowed upon us by our freedom fighters and defended by the martyrs listed on India Gate. These honest, alienated  individuals, each a vertebra to the backbone of the country, sequestered from the coteries, lobbies and closed groups of  hunched power brokers, inspire hope for an erect future—that perhaps they will inspire others and one day will make India stand the tallest amongst the global community.
Already this hope is being manifested through our seventy year old vibrant democracy which is throwing up change in unexpected quarters. Centurial political parties that had mass appeal are bowing before individual apathy. Individual interests are now deciding political elections and alliances. Caste and class equations governed by communities are turned upside down by the weight of the individual vote that is now cast with a personal agenda of development for the self. No doubt the churn heavy with the 134 billion individual aspirations is whipping up novel, unexpected amalgamations by mingling and co-mingling diverse, dissenting, regional, religious, cultural, economic differences to create a new identity for India that stands apart not isolated, but recognized and admired for its individualistic stance. India is no longer just towing the line marked by superpowers or following diminutively the world leaders. She no more represents the obsequious masses on the international stage, eager to please the condescending rich countries or appease the rogue nations who once threatened fragile unity.
She is now a proud country where each of the 134 billion people are seeking to  have an individual independent voice, aspirations, opinions and above all, the confidence and the power to change our fate and also the world. The next time I visit India Gate, I am sure the martyrs will accept a bow if not a salute from my humbled, enlightened, individual sense that has cast away its doubts.

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