I am almost Midnight’s Child. I arrived some weeks before the magic hour. On August 15, 1947, they celebrated by taking a ride in a Victoria horse carriage on Bombay’s Marine Drive with me, all of three months old.
As August 15, 2017, India’s 70th Independence Day approaches, I wonder whether this is the India my parents dreamed of. Neither is around to answer that question. But I am certain that their idea of India is very different from the new India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged people to help build by 2022.
Today, apart from Independence, the painful memories of the Partition are also being invoked. Yet far away from the borders that wrenched one country into two, leading to mass migration on a scale not seen anywhere in the world and an unprecedented scale of communal killings, I grew up with little awareness of this cataclysmic event. So did many others like me, I imagine.
No one from my family went to Pakistan, or came to India from Pakistan. The only migration in the family was when my parents – from Mangalore and Mysore – moved to Bombay and then, after their marriage, to North India.
We grew up in a place that was once called Begumabad, a village near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. It was renamed Modinagar after Seth Gujarmal Modi, an industrialist who set up a textile mill, a sugar factory, a rubber factory as well as a school, a college and housing colonies for his employees. Today, most of the factories have disappeared and Modinagar has been transformed into an educational hub.
Cranking it up
In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up as a middle-class kid in this company town, where the houses were identical. Television had not yet arrived in India but everyone had radios (not transistors though). No one I knew had a refrigerator but iceboxes did the job. A lucky few had a wind-up gramophone.
Also, no one had electric hot water geysers. Nor had I ever seen a shower. Copper samovars did the job of providing hot water; a steel bucket and a brass lota did the rest.
I cannot remember my parents buying readymade clothes. The tailor stitched our clothes, usually a size larger so they would last longer. And woolen sweaters were always hand knitted.
In these days of short attention spans, it seems unreal that one could spend long summer holidays without ever complaining of being bored. We entertained ourselves either playing chor-police in the colony garden, a hot favourite where the youngest was assigned the task of being the jailor; cricket and badminton, the latter without a net and the former with a rubber ball; or board games like Ludo and Chinese Checkers. Monopoly and Scrabble came much later.
Temptation to buy anything was strictly limited to the amount of money you had. If you were middle class, living in a single income family, there was practically no surplus. You bought only what you needed. This was not some high moral principle. It was necessity.
Did it make us miserable, hungry for more, feeling we were missing out on something? I think not. The differences between living in a small North Indian town like Modinagar and Bombay, which we would visit in the holidays, did not seem so stark as to make us restless.
Was this because India’s restricted economy flattened everyone to the same level? Or was our lack of restlessness about material things a hangover of the Independence struggle that still lingered even two decades later? Perhaps a little of both.
For the country’s good
I can remember constantly being lectured in school about how privileged we were to get a good education and that we must think of what we can do for “the country”, how we can use our lives to serve people less advantaged than us. This was not the nationalism of today; it was perhaps playing on guilt but also appealing to our conscience.
That message found a resonance in many of us. Despite our parents saving up to give us the best education possible and hoping we would become doctors, engineers or join the civil services, at least some Midnight’s Children let their parents down.
Our coming of age coincided with a time of questioning around the world. What contribution could you make to the country if the structures of oppression had remained in tact despite the end of colonialism? Was getting degrees and professional qualifications enough to make you understand what was going on in a country where the majority was abjectly poor? Could those of us who lived in cities ever understand the reality of rural India unless we went and lived there? Should our engineers be building bridges and dams or going out to see how technology could change the lives of people in rural India? These and hundreds of other questions infected our minds, refusing to allow us to slip into complaisance.
Caught in this churn of questions, many of us made choices that hurt and distressed our families. But at that time, it seemed the only thing one could do if you believed that coming from your class and your education, you had to do something to make a difference.
The point of this narration is to depict, briefly, the India in which people like me grew up. There was very little cynicism and a lot of idealism.
The dark period
So when and how did this tryst with idealism get dented?
Before I, and India could hit 30, the idea of a free and democratic India had already been shattered when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency on June 26, 1975. She imposed press censorship, imprisoned the opposition and suspended fundamental rights. At the stroke of midnight, free India was un-free. Would it ever come out of this dark period? Certainly in the days after the declaration of Emergency, and the months that followed, there seemed no end in sight.
Yet, it did end, spectacularly and unexpectedly in 1977 when Indira Gandhi called an election and was defeated. We were a free country again. Or were we? For many of us, the principal lesson from the Emergency was how easy it is to erode democratic values and why the very concept of freedom has to be re-examined within the context of the gross inequalities in our society.
As India completes 70, that reality has not changed. If anything, it has become starker. What is also evident today is that the Partition of 1947 is now a reality at so many other levels in India, in the deepening divisions between class, caste and creed.
Yet Modi speaks of his new India being free of communalism. How extraordinary that a man who heads a party that has built its political fortunes on communal poison can proclaim this without a moment of embarrassment.
The old India in which I grew up also had communal schisms, between Hindus and Muslims, between upper and lower castes. But even though difference was acknowledged, it was not emphasised or demonised. Many of us grew up not knowing where we belonged – South India, North India, just India? I had coined the term “emotionally integrated Indian” to describe myself. Today, on the other hand, you are branded with your identity, in terms of region, religion and caste.
There is little in this new India that we are being promised that can keep alive the flame of idealism. Yet, I believe we can refuse to despair even though at times it appears that the unrelenting push towards changing the core of India is unstoppable; that the forces of the Hindutva will succeed in turning this country into a Hindu Rashtra where anyone who does not subscribe to their ideology will be rendered a second-class citizen if not a non-citizen.
What is more worrying is that this is happening so insidiously and at so many levels that it seems to have dulled our sense of outrage. Or perhaps there is too much to be outraged about. So one watches with despair and hopes that miraculously things will change.
If there is anything we can learn from these past 70 years it is that change only comes when people decide that they will not sit back and tolerate the intolerable. The sad reality is that even the Emergency would have continued if Indira Gandhi had not called an election. The silent majority were angry but were scattered and intimidated while the minority, who endorsed her actions, ruled with confidence.
Another midnight hour
Today, we cannot say for sure that the majority is angry. Many people are upset and disillusioned. But will they find a way to express this, or have they accepted that nothing can be done to change the direction in which this country is being taken?
We are approaching a midnight hour of another kind, not one that will lead this country into freedom, but “where the clear stream of reason has lost its way” as Rabindranath Tagore wrote. An hour when partitions at every level are becoming the norm and where based on this divided and hate-filled nation, the votaries of a Hindu Rashtra could succeed in raising their bhagwa jhanda.
There is not much point in harking back to the old India that has disappeared. But there is every reason to oppose the vision of a new India that is being thrust down our throats, that has nothing new about it as it goes about keeping alive outdated and old divisions and hatreds. Nothing new and lasting can be built on such poisonous foundations. Midnight’s Children and their progeny will have to get ready for another freedom struggle.
Kalpana Sharma is a consulting editor at the Economic and Political Weekly.