Like India: Profound, mundane, exciting.
Any anthology must be greater than its parts. A collection of essays on the Idea of India, published to commemorate our 70th Independence Day, launched when strongly antagonist fundamental worldviews are engaged in a bitter war on several fronts, raises high expectations. We expect each piece independently would be a fascinating argument, and in unison, the collection would enrich our perspectives, as Salman Rushdie wrote, “India, as enigmatic as God or money”.
The book, Left, Right and Centre, named after the NDTV show of the editor-author Nidhi Razdan, promises to throw a posse of perspectives along diverse fault-lines, integration not two countering views, but many.
I hoped all pieces, including some of India’s best thinkers, would debate threadbare various issues with conviction to address our collective apprehensions as a nation. I hoped the range of arguments would truly stretch across from the boundaries and edges of left to right; that freedom to dissent we so seek would be found practised in the book; that its arguments would voice the politically incorrect, shrug safe zones; and above all, there would be nuance and balance, beyond left and right, to cover all spaces and views in between.
Alas, it was a mixed fare. Like India itself, the book is profound and mundane, in parts, in parts exciting, edgy, but at others, clichéd and trite.
Razdan, with her compiler piece, is direct and personal; like her life, the book begins in Kashmir. She argues respecting (and thriving) plurality was the essence not only of Kashmir, but left an impression to her as the only acceptable ethos of India; past, present or future. She dismisses extreme or forced nationalism. She enlists recent threats — Twitter trolls, lynching mobs, terrorists, shrinking of space for dissent in universities; and concludes, quoting Rabindranath Tagore, “To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.”
The first two pieces, on Kashmir, are amongst the most engaging — Shah Faseal’s On Wrong Side of History and Rahul Pandita’s Coma of Civilization. Faseal narrates a tortured, tragic personal story of growing up as a bystander (neutral) in a never-ending war between India and Pakistan waged in Kashmir. He reveals how his father was killed by the militants, his rise and success, to becoming a hero, or a suspect, after topping the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) exams. He strongly condemns hypocrisy of popular narrative from and about Kashmir; a death of a Kashmiri by a soldier becomes a spectacle and cause for protests, but murders by militants are silently brushed under the famed carpets, compromised with as collateral damage. He calls militancy a “cat in the attic”, a cat that just won’t go away.
Pandita, in his piece of brilliance laced with bitterness and anger flared by betrayal, anguishes over the loss of Kashmir to the Pandits, forever. He narrates a heart breaking discovery that theirs’ was not a tragedy record keepers cared to chronicle, because it was an exodus that would fit any popular narrative. Displaced from Kashmir for being “Hindu”, but disowned by the rest of India they forcibly migrated to, as refugees, only to find professional mourners had not been paid, and so they must weep alone; or the bitter truth that only Indian landlords are truly secular — not discriminating against Hindus or Muslims, and making lives of all tenants miserable, alike.
In two exceptionally argued pieces, readers would find insights to shape or amend their own narratives of Kashmir, placing J&K anew within their idea of India.
The early start of the book is alas easily frittered away. A disappointing array of essays, weak arguments, clichéd examples, loose conclusions and pontificates aplenty, without much substance, originality or power, follow.
Gautam Bhan’s lame attempt is hardly the case that freedom of sexuality under-siege deserves, or needs to script an erasure of popular and legal prejudice.
His penchant to seek parallels between today’s India’s zeal to censure, ostracise and criminalise alternate sexualities and Nazi Germany makes his moaning sound like an irritating constipated crib. Yashwant Sinha recounts a few interesting anecdotes, attempting to pass them off as an argument to substantiate something he has in his mind, only we never learn what it is.
Chandan Mitra, in possibly the book’s worst piece, sets a record in laundry listing; essentially statistics of past elections in a charade of political analysis.
Add to it, unforgivable errors and shoddy slips of detail (he says Congress won 410 Lok Sabha seats in 1984). It concludes, “successfully”, that BJP has won more seats in 2014 than 1984.
Other disappointing pieces, like Sunita Narian’s “Our Idea of Utopia” touching upon environment, farming and science, and Shabana Azmi’s “Negotiation”, a Bollywood-esque Amar-Akbar-Anthony idea of secularism under threat from You Know Who.
Aruna Roy’s “Indian Feminist at Seventy”, a tale woven through her own, and two other ladies’ struggles; Naurti and Nadini, is neither an analysis of struggles of the everywoman, nor a new manifesto for gender empowerment and justice. It turns out to be her wonderfully disguised resume for a job that she already has. Derek O’Brien’s very short piece, a dramatised letter to his great-grandmother, Nellie Bela Biswas, reads like a reluctant, under-paid disgruntled employee’s output on a bad day.
The collection is salvaged by Mukul Kesavan’s “Anti-Colonial Origins”, a piece that brings the theme back into focus. Shashi Tharoor, with usual brilliance, takes the book to heights, with a memorable argument, “India: Ever-ever Land”, with a serving of rhetoric meshed with historic factoids, expanding our idea of our nation. India to him is not a melting pot, or only a Republic with Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms, but a civilisation continuum, a nation where contradictory truths abound, and even define us.
The “Right” in the book is feebly and misleadingly advocated, by design or definition. Imagine how a Subramanyam Swamy or RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, or spiritual guru Sadhguru Vasudev Jaggi would have articulated the saffron revival and consolidation in ideological terms. How would an Asaduddin Owaisi have defined India? The absence of Libertarian or right-wing economists in a year of demonetisation and GST makes the title’s claims on having “Right” shallow.
While it is beyond any critic to pick on what is not written in a book, but I could not help wonder what “outsider-Indians” like Patrick French or William Darlymple would have shown us for a mirror? How would, as subaltern voices go, a Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd or a Meena Kandasamy have set newer reference for a collective introspection as a nation?
Voices representing diverse beyond easy access of pre-eminent reputations and location makes us wary. North-east — missing. Voice of farmer — missing. Soldier — missing. University student — missing. Dalit or Muslim — missing. Single mother — missing. Business or start-ups — missing. Even contexts which supposedly unite us as a nation, however transient, like Bollywood or cricket are missed.
Despite its shortfalls, I recommended the book as an important work. Its entire worth and value lies in the single greatest essay by Pratap Bhanu Mehta — a writer India must acknowledge as its most outstanding original thinkers.
Mehta dismisses conflict between religions, or between a communal versus a secular view as India’s greatest challenge, or underlying concern. In a construct sui generis — he presents a perpetual negotiation for power between those who view India as a collection of communities, versus those who stand for it as a zone of individual’s freedoms. With this peerless essay, he fascinatingly links India’s conflicts and evolution, its progress and regressions, as an unending fight between collectives versus the individual.
India as an idea, he argues, is a fight between an Indian versus the Indians.
Razdan must be lauded for her maiden work, its ambition and scope, despite some poor choices to represent all of us, despite either a myopia of viewing India with the spectacles of Delhi, or merely tyranny of distance, brings the most significant debate to the fore. Whatever be our idea of India, it must forever be broad enough to have a significant left, right and centre; and in making that belief its core, this book is a great gift to celebrate our nation’s independence....