A note to self….
Some of us try to shutter up at twilight, that irresolute time when day lingers on stubbornly and night struggles to make an entrance. For me, this neither-here-nor-there hour evokes melancholy, a strange listlessness. Dawn on the other hand, equally indeterminate as it may be, is a magic hour, bringing in its wake a sense of joy and renewed hope as it gradually dispels the darkness and lights up the sky. This morning, as I sit to write the column you are now reading, dawn is ushering in something else, besides just another day.
Luck has accompanied me on my journey from New Delhi to Mumbai, and so I am installed on the fourth floor of the Royal Yacht Club, almost eye-to-eye with the Gateway of India and way above what millennial India is doing down below at the time. At this exquisitely unearthly hour the city is still rubbing the sleep from its eyes, and all I have for company are the lights of the boats and barges dotting the Arabian Sea, and a few lights being switched on in the neighbouring Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
This is also the time when a mind unshackled from routine, expectations and chores is free to wander. The personal eureka moment this particular dawn brings about — as the lights from the stationary boats begin to go out, birds take wing and the curving horizon of the sea materialises — is a sense of the vastness beyond, intimations of worlds beyond the grasp of our knowledge if not imagination. India, when it was not even called India, was always open, and largely welcoming to those from other shores, and other worlds.
We were at the crossroads, ever on the way to somewhere else for seafarers, adventurers, soldiers of fortune, imperial trading companies, traders and refugees. Among the more fascinating people disembarking in what was then Calcutta and Bombay — to stay — were British women on a husband-hunting mission. The name given to these women, who came here from the 17th century until World War II, was the ‘Fishing Fleet’. Those who failed to find spouses were derogatorily shipped home as ‘Returned Empties’.
Exchange of ideas
Geography can be destiny. The fact that India is a peninsula with never-ending coastlines made it an attractive place to drop anchor. Those who stopped by often stayed on; many were woven into the ever-metamorphosing tapestry that was India. It was ‘the wonder that was India’, as the late British historian AL Bashan so memorably put it in his book of that title. Further up in the north, the country was on the Silk Route, a network of ancient overland trade routes that connected China to the Mediterranean, allowing an exchange of ideas and art forms, in addition to goods, between the Eastern and Western civilisations.
Perhaps we were far more cosmopolitan than we now seem to have become. Earlier, the boundaries between ethnicities and beliefs were more blurred and peaceful coexistence between different communities more in evidence.
The motto may well have been: you do your thing and I will do mine. When India became independent 68 years ago this month, our leaders who had fought for our freedom spoke passionately about the unyoking of colonial rule and Independence as the dawn of a new era — despite the unimaginably heavy (and bloody) price of Partition for the two new countries, later to become three.
Now to return to dawn breaking over the Arabian Sea this morning: I could not but help think of how we are becoming increasingly less cosmopolitan, less tolerant and more partisan. Sure, we welcome with arms wide open the new goodies coming in from both West and East: all the branded clothes, accessories and looks, not to speak of the diverse cuisines and body language. But, and this is a big but, we don’t really absorb the cultures from which they come to us.
Openness of mind
For example: we wear the clothes and ape the poses we see in American movies, music, magazines and television shows, as well as of the divas of the pop world. But the openness of mind that many of them embody are rarely internalised. The meanings underlying some of the words in the songs and films are left at the door. Often, our only intake is the ersatz accent and ‘look’. We rush to buy the latest models of German, Japanese or South Korean cars; but, do we drive them as they should be driven: road etiquette and driving rules might as well not exist as we change lanes whimsically and rarely give right of way. We have fancy buildings sprouting in our uber-cities, many of which look like ready-mades that have materialised from international architecture and design magazines. Yet, we insist that only vegetarian food be cooked or served, and close the doors to the non-PLUs. We have advertisements showing a stunning woman erotically caressing imported bathroom fixtures, her face aglow with ecstasy. Yet, is this woman really liberated? Is she able to or does she even want to stand up for her rights? Does her ambition go no further than having the best that money can offer? Is a golden age her idea of the dolce vita?
The men and women who fought for India’s Independence were also fighting for the rights of others and a more just society: their dreams were not of luminous loo fixtures and pristine kitchens which look as though they are not meant to be used. Nor was khadi just a fad then.
The Internet has made the world come to us — no borders to cross here. But has it made us more cosmopolitan, more liberated and accepting of those who are different. Alas, for many ‘cosmopolitan’ is just another drink.