“I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc. It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry…But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe.”
For a country which had a united, glorious and flourishing civilization for several millennia before it was enslaved for eight hundred years, seventy years of independence is not so much an anniversary of nationhood as a time to reflect on how far we have recovered from the many wounds inflicted on the nation by the invaders who not only enslaved its people and looted its treasures but also disfigured its historical places and distorted its history. Seventy years after independence, it is wonderful to see my country shining, prospering, and marching towards the place it once held at the helm of the world’s economy, culture, and education.
Glimpses of India in the Bard’s work portray the country as a prosperous land of gold and precious stones and pearls and sunshine, of proud people who worship the sun and beautiful veiled women, impressions that echo in the work of other writers and travellers to India through millennia…aberrations like Burnett’s racist slur in literature started only about a century ago, and now the pseudo-liberals continue their work, trying to portray the country in a poor light in both literature and the mass media.
Someone mentioned during a dinner conversation a while ago about how they thought that the concept of patriotism was outdated in present times. But I like the quiet pride that shines in my English, Irish, Kenyan and Canadian friends’ eyes as they talk about their countries. It mirrors my love for my own nation, coming as I do from a family of freedom fighters, with a great Uncle who once fought the British with his poetry. I wished I could tell the person who called patriotism outdated that everyone should have the freedom to love their country and to say so. It is only when we feel secure in the love of our own family that we tend to accept and respect others more easily, and adapt better to a united society. Breathes there the man with soul so dead, etc. as a good Scot once wrote.
A short related excerpt from The Reengineers.
Arun’s lecture on the last working day of class ten had revolved around his favourite topic: India.
‘How many of you respect the Indian national flag? The national anthem? How many of you actually stand up when it is sung?’
I raised my hand automatically, so did Sabi. Hearing furtive giggles, I turned around and found to my horror that in a class of forty students, only the two of us had our hands up. Anu was frantically gesturing to me to drop my hand. I did so, puzzled and hurt.
Arun did not look surprised. He continued, ‘Now this question would have evoked a totally different reaction in classrooms in countries such as the UK or Japan. They have an intrinsic sense of national pride that is lacking in India. Not surprising, as it has only been forty-four years since we got our independence.’
I looked down into my book, wishing I could hide within its pages. My love for my country had turned me into a bigger freak than I already was in the classroom.
What did it mean to love one’s country anyway?
Much like the farmers who enthusiastically cheered for Mother India when Jawaharlal Nehru addressed them but were dumbstruck when he asked them who exactly they thought Mother India was, I had no answer. To me, patriotism was the joy I experienced while reading the poems of Subramaniya Bharati, Uncle RK, and Rabindranath Tagore. It was my pride in singing the national anthem and saluting the tricolour unfurled in the school assembly on Monday mornings. It was the lump in my throat when I watched songs like ‘The fertile earth of my country that brings forth gold, diamonds and pearls’ and ‘I am a little soldier of the nation. Say with me, Jai Hind’ on TV. It was the anger and resentment I felt when my mother told me not to get too friendly with Anu as he was not a Brahmin or with Sabi as she was not ‘one of us’ but a north Indian.
Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another, such as how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Vikram Seth’s poem ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards – Shakespeare and Seth through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question:’
Hamlet ponders whether to live or to die, thereby ending the suffering caused by ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and listing ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ such as ‘the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s ‘contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurn’ he fervently wishes to end it all.
But uncertainty of the afterlife stops him.
‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:’
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;’
In the poem ‘Switching Off’ by Vikram Seth, the poet-narrator believes that ‘this life is all there is’ and chooses to be not so much for fear of the afterlife, than the hope that things may get better someday, concern for his family and idle curiosity about the happenings on earth, among other things.
‘There are no fears of undiscovered countries
Or bournes from which no traveller returns
To one who knows this life is all there is;
So when he feels it has become oppressive,
The effort of drawing breath exhausts and strains him
And dispriz’d love, and whips and scorns etcetera
Have mangled him, why does he not switch off?
Perhaps the thought that, having once been happy
(and stirred by the analogy of life
Being a wheel) he will be again be so;
Or some imagined, as yet unseen sight,
Like Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky
For which he’d have to wait till ’86;
Or else objective curiosity:
Who will be President in ten years’ time?
Who’ll win the hockey in the Olympic Games?
And then his family: although he knows
When dead there’s no remorse, he cannot bear
` That they, remaining, feel he did not love them –
It is such things that hold him to the earth
And not the dread of something after death.’
From Mappings by Vikram Seth
In an earlier version of The Reengineers, the character Siddharth responds to both the bards in his poem ‘Inertia’.
What prevents one from switching off –
Reluctance to leave the entities that’ one
Has grown to know and love?
Or fear of the unknown after death?
So the bards sang. But the flowing breath
Surely might continue to remain
Dynamic owing to inertia
Than any fear of physical, mental or spiritual pain?
For a depressed person neither cares about the world in which he lives in, nor is he worried about the afterlife. Most of the time, all he wants to do is to keep breathing to stop his body from going as numb as his mind.
Inertia kept Siddharth alive when he was depressed. That was until he found A. Chatterjee’s poems, which kept him alive for a while before he finally woke up from the darkness of depression to the light and warmth of life. The Reengineers narrates the story of how he did it, crossing over from the cold, dark country of depression to a fulfilling life.