Another tryst: imagining India & Russia

“...iPods screens, high–speed metro trains, vertical ultra–modernistic, futuristic constructions... It was easy to get evidence that ‘Imagining India,’ a European, Orientalist perception of India summed up by Ronald Inden, is rather different from ‘Imagining India’ by Nandan Nilekani and his ‘idea of a renewed nation.’”  

I arrived from Stockholm via Moscow a few days ago. It was already dark when I stepped off the plane at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. As I looked up to the sky, the stars seemed to be falling to the earth, throwing celestial light on to the part of the world to which I have been emotionally and professionally attached most of my life. I tuned my ears and nose to the sounds and smells of the place, eagerly selecting the familiar ones. Are they the same as they were five years ago, when I finished my previous ambassadorial tenure here? Is this country the same today as it was some 38 years ago, when I first stepped on its soil and immediately felt at home?

It seemed that the sounds of the capital’s nocturnal symphony have not changed a bit over the years, bringing back nostalgic memories. Later in the daytime I saw those very scenes which I was craving for in other cities around the globe: I was longing for the bewitching haze of agarbatti, the luring aromatic spices and a sharp note of Dettol, that epitome of Indian sanitation. As it turned out, I felt deprived without the street mêlée, when I could not hear either the blasting car horns or shouts of the street vendors, or unpretentious and naïve Bollywood songs blaring from sidewalk dukans and magnetic Sufi qawwalis from melancholic dargahs. In a nutshell I missed all that mirch-masala whose absence would make the rest of the world seem insipid and drab if you ever happened to visit India even once.

But the stigmata of the 21st century were all too evident and impossible to ignore. Computer monitors and iPod screens flickering here and there like candles in the wind, high–speed metro trains synonymous with any modern metropolis all over the world, vertical ultra–modernistic, futuristic constructions – all this was infusing into the windmills of my mind certain fresh emotional overtones, adding kind of technogenic luster to the bright Indian kaleidoscope. It was easy to get evidence that Imagining India, a European, Orientalist perception of India summed up by Ronald Inden, is rather different from Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani and his “idea of a renewed nation.”

As far as my personal perception goes, it would be no exaggeration to say that India has entered my life as a second homeland. It has become my karma–bhumi, because I worked here for so many years, my gnyana–bhumi, because I have learnt a lot here, my tapa–bhumi (especially in the hot season), but most importantly — my prem — and maitri–bhumi, because I have given a half of my heart to India, because I personally and the new Russia, which I have the honour to represent as Ambassador for the second time, have millions of good friends here.

“Russian–Indian friendship has withstood the test of time” is a long overused, ritualistic mantra at official meetings, and my memory retains the phrase from student textbooks – Rus aur Bharat ki maitri samay ki kasauti se khadi utari hai. Yes, unlike some other partners, we do want to see India stronger, since it is in our national interest. However, mere expressions of friendship and affection are meaningless if they are not sustained by purposeful and creative efforts of both sides, keen to nurture, develop and strengthen the ties. As time went by, we grew accustomed to the maxim that our countries would stay friends, allies and partners forever, and have decided that we have already done our best for that.

At some stage, we started to take it for granted. It resembles a common delusion of a happy couple who, once the family has been created, at a certain moment decide that love is a self-perpetual feeling. Alas, nothing in this dynamic world lasts forever. In order to remain where we are and to safeguard what has been achieved, we must keep moving on. Complacency pushes even loving spouses and staunch allies into the arms of new, strong, and attractive partners. The earthly assumption is that the old ones will always remain there as a fallback option.

Similar things happen in some families when old photos, instead of touching one’s heart, cause irritation: “I could have found a better match,” “What do I need it for?” In such free straying towards new alluring horizons there comes a temptation at times to sneer at ‘ bhai–bhai’ slogans or even Bokaro and Bhilai, Soviet antibiotics of Rishikesh, and the joint manned space mission. And yet, the irony of real facts is that without Bhilai and Bokaro steel, Rishikesh antibiotics, Bangalore’s modest electronic lab, and India’s ‘Aryabhata’ of that era, there would have been neither the Indian auto industry, nor the remarkable pharmaceutics, nor the Chandrayaan module or the Kudankulam nuclear power station.

Let us be in no doubt: in this strikingly new world, which smells and sounds different, our two countries are in greater need of each other. Our common past — however touching and romantic its narrative sounds, as if sung by Raj Kapur’s personages — is not the only bond uniting our two countries. Together we face the pressing new challenges of the dramatic present and so far hazy future. We are so much alike; so similar are the problems we encounter. Both you and us try to establish and maintain cohesion in multi–confessional and multi–ethnic societies.

We are anxious to strike a balance between loyalty to the cultural heritage and, as Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, to throw open the windows of mind for fresh breezes of new ideas to blow in. We seek to put scientific and technological progress at the service of society rather than of individual corporations; to overcome the financial crisis and counter cross–border terrorism, separatism, chauvinism, violence and social vices; to create beauty inside ourselves and around us, as directed by India’s best Russian friend — Nicolas Roerich. Each of us has its own experience, both positive and negative, which could be of use to the other. Finally, there is a desire to share these experiences and discuss them.

We can and should serve each other not only as sources of goods, arms, and energy but also as a treasure-chest of ideas. It might sound abhorrent, even sacrilegious, coming from a diplomat, but I must insist: we should not allow our hardened bureaucrats to feather their nests at the expense of our partnership by ritually getting together, uttering cliché phrases, holding round tables and other protocol shindigs and ceremonies, which hardly have anything to do with our public and social milieu or ever seem relevant to our peoples.

I wish that our economic cooperation were measured not only in trade statistics figures, but in real projects — enterprises, ventures, roads, banks, hotels, and joint scientific researches. I wish there was greater contact between our professionals from all other fields — both technical and humanitarian. I wish that our cultural interaction would imply not only sitar playing and bharatanatyam or the circus and ballet, which we seem obsessed with, but many other genres. I wish that our journalists would remember Russia and India not only at the time of summits, natural disasters or — God forbid! — terrorist attacks. Finally, I wish that charter flights and tourist buses would carry not only Russian tourists to Goa or Agra, but also Indians — to Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Suzdal, Pereyaslavl-Zalessky, and Lake Baikal.

Undoubtedly, the time has come to write Imagining both India and Russia and implement the most daring plans. So dear to us are the flavours, sounds, and stories of the past. However, while cherishing them, we should not miss the wonderful chance of taking our relations forward, to a higher plateau. I personally pray and work for it. It is my karma in yet another incarnation as Ambassador to India.

(Alexander Kadakin, an India veteran, is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of India. This is his second ambassadorial assignment in India, the first covering 1999-2004 when the bilateral relationship was revitalised and set out on a new path. In addition to Russian, Mr. Kadakin is proficient in English, Hindi, Urdu, French, and Romanian. A prolific writer, he has authored several books and translated from English and Hindi.)

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 12:57:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Another-tryst-imagining-India-amp-Russia/article16893072.ece

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