The Real Renaissance: Why India’s Age-Old Practices Have To Be Given Pride Of Place
A real renaissance will take place in a fractured India only when Bharat is restored to its centrality and age-old ways of living given pride of place.
In the previous parts of this series, we have seen that though India has survived the ravages of time, including a thousand years of invasion and foreign rule, our regeneration as a civilisation is as yet incomplete. The real question is what do we need to do to bring it about. To me, the answer lies in striving for true swaraj. In order to do so, we must deeply understand the relationship between dharma on the one hand and the Indian state and civil society on the other. We must restore the dharmic way of life both at our national and local levels to attain swaraj.
I want to illustrate the importance of this reconnection by remembering an extraordinary story narrated by Dharampal, the author of The Beautiful Tree, and one of the most important independent intellectuals of our time. The reminiscence occurs in a lesser known essay called “Undamming the Flow” which was published in Ayodhya and the Future India edited by J K Bajaj.
Dharampal begins by asking, “What sort of society is this?” A question whose answer, I am afraid, is still not very clear to us. Indeed, we seem to be living through an identity crisis, which is at the root of our on-going — or should I say in-going — social churn if not (un)civil war.
Dharampal offers a hypothesis: most of our current problems, including the dispute over Ayodhya, which was the subject of the book in which his essay appeared, were because we were living in a fractured and divided society: “I think this is the general condition we are getting reduced to. In many ways we are shrinking, splitting and fracturing. This is the sort of society, we have come to.” Dharampal is open, even speculative, about the causes of the malaise, not attributing it merely to Muslim invasions or British colonialism. It could, he wonders, even be “a problem which is somehow intrinsic to the Hindu society, which comes from Hindu thought, Hindu ways, Hindu institutions,” or “it may be the result of a certain defensive interaction between the Hindu society and other societies.”
He now comes to the story. Travelling from Gwalior to Delhi in 1960 or thereabouts, Dharampal received a new insight into India, “the larger India” which was very different from “my India or our India,” or the India of the educated elites. Dharampal got into an unreserved train’s third class compartment for the six to seven hour day journey. I will now quote Dharampal at some length because to paraphrase him would be to risk losing the inner meaning of his narrative:
“It was crowded. Then some people made a seat for me. Somebody moved down on the floor and I sat on the seat. And there was this group of people, about 12 of them, some three or four women and seven or eight men. I asked them where were they coming from. They said that they had been on a pilgrimage, three months long pilgrimage. They had been up to Rameswaram and to various other places. We got talking.
“They had various bundles of things, and some earthen pots with them. I asked what they had in those pots. They said they had taken their own food from home. They came from two different villages, somewhere towards the north of Lucknow. And they had taken all the necessities for their food – atta, ghee, sugar – with them, and some of these were still left. “The women were sitting on the floor, not above on the seats, and people were passing by. And the people, in their attempt to move around in that crowded compartment, sometimes sort of trampled over them. The women didn’t seem to mind that, but they did mind if someone touched their bundles and pots of food with the feet.”
“So we began talking. And then I said they must be all from one jati, from a single caste group. They said, “No, no! We are not from one jati – we are from several jatis.” I said but how could that be? They said that there was no jati on yatra, not on a pilgrimage. I didn’t know that. I was around 38 years old, and I suppose I was like other people like myself, who know little about the ways of the Indian people.
So it went on. And then I said, “Did you go to Madras? Did you go to Bombay?” “Yes! We passed through those places.” “Did you see anything there?” “No, we didn’t have any time!” It went on like that. I mentioned various important places of modern India. They had passed through most, but had not cared to visit any. Then I said, “You’re going to Delhi now?” “Yes!” “You will stop in Delhi?” “No, we only have to change trains there. We’re going to Haridwar!” I said, “This is the capital of free India. Won’t you see it?” I meant it, I was not joking. They said, “No! We don’t have time. May be some other day. Not now. We have to go to Haridwar. And then we have to reach back home.”
Dharampal is astonished to discover that the pilgrims, from various castes, not only were a united and coherent group, but had entirely and voluntarily bypassed what goes by the sobriquet of “modern” India, “the glorious India of the new age, built by Jawaharlal Nehru and other people, these modern temples, universities.” He comes to a fascinating, if startling insight: “they were more representative of India than Jawaharlal Nehru ever was. Or, I and most of us ever could be.”
The story doesn’t end there. Dharampal pushes ahead to extract the significance of his observations by comparing these humble pilgrims with visiting British royalty:
“About the same time Queen Elizabeth II of England was visiting India. She probably came within one month of my meeting with the pilgrims in the train. And there was a write-up about her visit in The Economist of London. The Economist, describing the visit of the Queen to India, said that she was bringing her own food from England, she was bringing her own chefs, she was not going to visit any temples, or any traditional places of India, she was only going to certain other places, modern places, Europeanised places, etc.”
Dharampal cannot but notice the irony:
“And I said, how similar! How similar were the ways of the Queen of England and those of the people of India I had met on their way to Haridwar! Those pilgrims were real royalty. And, they represent the Indian people. All of them, all of the Indian people, in their minds and at least to themselves, are royalty.”
The Queen, or for that matter many of us who consider themselves modern, would behave in a manner similar, but obverse of the Hindu pilgrims.
We would never visit centres of pilgrimage even if these were within the very cities we inhabit; we would never even go outside our comfort zones to slums or villages nearby; we would never eat the food that people living in such areas would eat; there would be nothing about their lives that would interest us. Our only contact with them would be when they served us in some capacity or other, but, again, we would prefer to speak to them in English instead of the vernacular. Outside such familiar and ordered contexts, we would not even notice these Indians, let alone pay attention to them. As to visiting their homes, let alone their festivals, weddings, or family gatherings, that would virtually be impossible.
No wonder when movies such as Salaam Bombay or Slumdog Millionaire are released, we gasp, “Oh! How horrible the conditions in India are!” We would thank Mira Nair or Danny Boyle for sensitising us to the miseries of our own fellow Indians and citizens, all the while ignoring them when they came begging at our tightly shut car windows at traffic lights, or when we drove through their villages on the way to some other city or modern establishment replete with running water and toilet paper. What else to call our blindness to Bharat than percepticide? We simply do not see what is right under our noses even when we talk big about poverty alleviation, development, or transforming India.
Ending The Schizophrenia Between Bharat And India
Actually, we, the modern people of India, like the visiting Queen of United Kingdom, don’t care about Bharat. But what is equally, if somewhat more disconcertingly, true that the people of Bharat care equally little about us. Is that the reason why the narrative of what India is or stands for, promoted by the politicians and mandarins of Lutyen’s Delhi, is wearing thin, if not already falling apart?
The people of India have had an unprecedented chance since 2014, and the elevation of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India, to restore this country to its natural way of life, while at the same time pushing ahead with economic growth and all round well-being.
There is an India which we know well and which we inhabit; it is the India of the Constitution, of English or the developed vernaculars; it is a literate India; the India of television and newspapers; of banks, industry, commerce; of universities and scientific institutions. There is another India in which the masses live. It works according to another set of rules and conventions, with its own temporality and spatiality.
Unless we accord full respect and citizenship to the billion people who inhabit this India, our Independence will be incomplete. We will continue to be a fractured, fractious, divided, even easy-to-subjugate people.
But the deeper logic of India as also the vestiges of its older society and ancient way of life, continues beneath the veneer and sheen of this modern, somewhat brittle republic. It is only when Bharat is restored to its role of centrality and our age-old customary ways of living given the pride of place, will a real renaissance take place in India. That is when our splintered society will be healed and we will be able to manifest our highest genius as a people and civilisation.
The author is Professor of English at JNU. His latest publications include The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015), Cultural Politics in Modern India: Postcolonial Prospects, Colourful Cosmopolitanism, Global Proximities (Routledge, 2016), and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito (University of Sao Paolo Press, 2016).
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