Loving this country is not an easy exercise. Not for it the passive affection that hums along, dependable and unsurprising, like a long marriage. This is a lover that demands every little ounce of your being — endless energy, infinite patience, unshakeable resolve. The country is brash, it is audacious and not gentle at all with your feelings. Eventually, you are left with only two choices. Either you surrender to it, or you decide you simply cannot take it anymore and leave, only to pine from afar.
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Engaging with India is a fraught exercise. A few years ago, I decided I didn’t have the stomach for it. And as the communal tensions escalated and the apathy around real issues such as pollution and poverty intensified, I decided to mentally check out of here. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference; and so I set about working on my indifference to this country.
Should we move?
I wasn’t the only one. It was a wave sweeping over a large swathe of a certain social class. We discussed this at cocktail parties and on WhatsApp groups. What is going on? Did you read about that crazy new rule? Did you hear about this act of violence? Should we move? Have you heard that it is easy to get a visa to Portugal? Are we too old to emigrate to Canada? Will Australia work better? These are the questions that keep us awake at night. We are not worried about our children, we tell each other, they will ‘obviously’ leave.
It is easy to criticise this line of thought. I can already hear the clacking of keyboards as angry letters to the editor are composed. But this is the truth. And this was my truth too, until about a year ago when I set out to write a book about the people who were around and aware when the country was born. What I expected to encounter was exasperation and an indifference not dissimilar to my own. But what I found next blew me away.
For the generation of people who witnessed the birth of the nation, giving up on it is not an option. Having seen first-hand the sacrifices and the single-minded devotion it took to obtain Independence, to call ourselves ‘Indians’, it is incomprehensible to them that people can even question whether the country is worth it.
For my book, Independence Day: A People’s History, I spoke at length to these people, and traced the trajectory of the country through their individual lives. The exercise involved a wide net of people who are now around 80 years old (so they would have been at least four or five years old in 1947), and trying to get them to remember both the events and the conversations of the times. The group of nearly 20 I shortlisted (of which 15 made it to the book) included men and women, Hindus and Muslims, upper castes and Dalits. While each of their stories is different, the one common thread is how their young lives were irretrievably intertwined with the imminent fate of their motherland.
In Mysore, S. Narendra was born in a household that was in the middle of a revolution. His mother was at the forefront of the struggle, shielding freedom fighters from the police, going on marches and demonstrations, smuggling people to a relative’s farm, where they could be better hidden. His older siblings, who were teenagers then, had given up their education in response to Gandhi’s call. For most people, the country came first, and then the community. The individual barely mattered.
Sarabjit Singh left Lahore with his family as the rioting intensified in 1947. They moved first to Jalandhar and later to Dagshai near Kasauli where his father’s new office, the department of agriculture, was located. As a teenager, Singh decided he wanted to be an engineer. The country was young and Jawaharlal Nehru had set out to build necessary infrastructure. Singh wanted to contribute to those efforts and decided he’d be best placed to do that as a mechanical engineer. Later, when he started work, he wondered whether he should try and apply to a university abroad, like many of his friends were doing. “I came to the conclusion that I’d rather be here and build my country,” he said. Country-first was an enduring legacy of the freedom movement.
Yet, I was surprised to discover that when Independence finally came around, it wasn’t a moment of universal celebration. In Krishnanagar in Bengal, Tarun Kumar Roy and his family were distraught. The new borders were just drawn up and their district had gone to East Pakistan. The flag hoisting ceremony proceeded as planned the following day and Roy watched the Pakistan flag unfurl. Two days later, at midnight, Roy and his family were alerted to a commotion in the streets, and he went out and heard that the border was changed and Krishnanagar was now a part of India. They had a second ceremony, and this time the India flag went up. That day, he was hoarse from exchanging congratulations.
For these people, the country was a dream they had waited for all their lives. Their parents had spun tales of valour and patriotism. That was the lullaby to which they slept, the purpose to which they woke up every morning.
‘This is our home’
I asked them too what they thought about the country today. I expected a certain exasperation, a sense that all that fight had been squandered away. There was criticism from some of them, but what I noticed was that there was no hopelessness. What is 75 years, they asked me, for a culture that goes back 5,000 years? Have patience, they advised me, things take time. This is our home, if things aren’t going well, we should roll up our sleeves and get down to fixing it. I could sense in some of them an anger that I was raising the question of the current state of the nation.
Shame is not what I expected to feel at the end of this exercise. But when I now engage with my contemporaries and our endless chest-beating about everything that is wrong, it is only shame that I feel. Mine has been a namby-pamby generation, fattened by post-liberalisation affluence, softened by easy access to everything. We are taking the coward’s option in looking to leave, and in doing so we are letting down a couple of hundred years of history of fighting to make right what was wrong.
Giving up is not an option, I now know. There’s been too much sweat, blood and tears that have gone into making this landmass a nation. It’s worth staying on and fighting for. Even a mother has her blemishes, an interviewee rebuked me, does that make you love her less?
The author is a writer and editor. She lives in Gurgaon. Her book, published by Juggernaut,will be out on August 15.