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Between frivolity and gravity

Akhil Bakshi, who has just released a book on his travel through South Asia, has yet another trip and some vague political plans up his sleeve

Akhil Bakshi: looking at India with a foreigner's eye and sweeping generalisations — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

AKHIL BAKSHI meets a Pakistani professor on the flight to Sri Lanka, at the start of the Hands Across Borders expedition through South Asian countries — "a mass contact programme to sensitive the leaders and people that youth of South Asia does not want any strife and tension in the region." The two hit it off, speaking in earthy Punjabi and sharing jokes on their political leaders. That proves an "auspicious start" to a three-month friendship pilgrimage, despite the irony of Pakistan itself not giving Akhil and his team permission to enter the country.

"We wanted to convince South Asian people, united in both problems and potential, that we should either swim or sink together," says Akhil, who has now documented the experiences of the 18,000-kilometre motoring journey in Between Heaven and Hell. Akhil says with pride that the team faced no hostility anywhere. They had the approval of local governments. The book, in fact, carries messages from the prime ministers of all the nations they visited. More importantly, everyone knew that it was "for the poor people", a journey that sought to strengthen the "shared heritage".

If one wants more proof of the goodwill of people, he cites the example of school children in a village near Ratnapura in Sri Lanka singing "Jana Gana Mana" every day. Ask him why they would do that, considering that a similar activity within our own border would be dubbed "anti-national", and Akhil comes up with a "Big Brother India" explanation: people in the entire region regard India with great respect. Bangladeshis have high regard for our "contribution to their liberation movement" and Tibetans don't sleep with their feet towards India because it's the land of the Buddha.

The team, one learns, was also careful not to offend the powers that be, wherever they went. They didn't, for instance, step into the Eelam territory. The idea was, after all, not to ruffle feathers unnecessarily.

Dominated by a tone of irreverent humour, the 550-odd pages of Between Heaven and Hell weaves history, myths, developmental issues, religion, politics, culture, and social idiosyncrasies of the countries Akhil and his team visit. The chapter on Sri Lanka, for instance, talks about the strife between LTTE and the Lankan army (not much on IPKF, though), the parliamentary structure, the enormous military expenses of the warring parties, the Buddhist monuments, the power of the clergy, the double-edged Dutugamunu-Elara story about the Sinhalese-Tamil relationship, the country's fascination for cricket, and so on.

The book, in stretches, crackles with keen, balanced observations and easy prose. Akhil's conversation with a watchman at Ayodhya and his observations of the military machismo at Wagah border, for instance, offer sharp, no-nonsense perspectives on weighty issues.

The jokes thrown into the narrative also add to the readability — such as the hilarious rendering of the Ramayana by a young couple on the Sri Lankan beach, the French girl's explanation on the "lingam" suffixed to many South Indian names, and the yarns on gods and saints.

But Akhil seems to go overboard with his irreverence and humour on a number of occasions. They not only sound laboured, but are also highly inappropriate. Consider this sentence that is part of a passage on the notorious Sati at Deorala. "...And since the act of suicide is being performed with the full backing the support of doting family and community, there is no need to leave a dull and boring suicide note." Disapproving as he may be of the incident itself, this "light heartedness" is surely in bad taste in the context. The book abounds in such examples.

Akhil also tends to shock you with his foreigner-like perspective and sweeping generalisations on important aspects of history. This sentence would sound completely blasphemous to anyone who loves the ghee-rich Tirupati ladoos: "The nauseous smell of lard emanated from the kitchen, where huge quantities of sweet ladoos were being prepared for the pilgrims." The long and disputed history of strife between Buddhism and Hinduism and Adi Shankara's role in it gets resolved in two simple sentences: "...In a remarkable feat, Buddha was merged into Hinduism as the ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. By the by, the divided spiritual loyalties of the populace flowed back to mainstream Hinduism." And V.P. Singh, along with Mandal Commission, gets sentenced thus: "V.P. Singh succeeded Rajiv as India's Prime Minister, and the social divisions that he unleashed took the country back many hundred years."

Akhil, who did most of his schooling in Germany and M.B.A. in the U.S., returned to India and worked with two Congress Prime Ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. He talks with pride of his work with Rajiv in Amethi in making it a "model constituency". Akhil later went on to become the Director of Nehru Yuva Kendra Sanghatan. He is the founder of two NGOs working with youngsters. He talks passionately about the deplorable state of politics in India today. "Do you know that 125 out of 425 MLAs in Uttar Pradesh have a criminal record? With the young and educated losing interest in politics, anti-social elements are having a heyday."

Would this passion translate to him contesting the next election, one wonders. He surprises you with a: "I would rather form a brand new party... with the best 500-odd people in the country." He already has a few agendas up his sleeve. He holds forth: "Reservation is not good for the country or the communities themselves..."

But all these ideas are on hold right now, as he is busy planning his next trip through Gondwana Land — a 45,000-kilometre ride through 18 countries in five months. One can surely expect yet another book in a couple of years. Only hope it won't be more voluminous than the present one, which could have been reduced by at least a 100 pages with some intelligent editing.


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