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The homeless amateur Indian

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-03-2017 Manu Joseph

To ruin the chances of sleeping with them, rasp, “Is the science of climate change beyond dispute?” They say things like “asparagus” and “edamame” and eat them, too; even the men do. They like Aung San Suu Kyi, and everybody she may get along with. They read very long articles in English that are called longform. They despise large dams, and the word “infrastructure” when uttered by a provincial man. But some things that they hate they would consider loving if they came with the word “sustainable”. They know what an “open” relationship means. Many of them, especially in Mumbai, have “friends” among street urchins. They wish for diversity in plants and animals even though they themselves are a monoculture of identical ethical organisms spread across the informed world whose president was Barack Obama. They think “Priyanka should get in now” is a form of political analysis. At times they hold candles and go somewhere. They probably read Lounge.

They were, for long, awkward in India, but they had their islands where they could escape the nation. Now there is nowhere to hide, not even in literature festivals. This is a government that is everywhere. So they feel uncertain in universities, think tanks, cultural bodies, journalism, theatre, art and mainstream cinema, activism and in charitable works. They have lost beef too. In the past few days they have come to fear that their biometrics will be known to the government, and that they can be raided by taxmen on any pretext, though that was always the case. In the middle of all this, an unambiguous man of religion has become the chief minister of India’s most populous state. And, if you pay attention, he seems to be saying all the right things as though everything that they had attributed to him in the past was a lie. The worst truth of this new order is that they, who received the finest education and other opportunities, and who consider themselves the most intelligent and informed among Indians, have been shown as inaccurate, unreliable and incompetent political analysts of their own nation. It appears that there is only one way left to use them as political forecasters. Listen carefully to what they have to say, for the outcome will be the very opposite.

They were always amateur Indians. The times when they strayed outside their safe houses, they did not know how to negotiate the nation. What should they do when a government official asks for a bribe, what should they do when their car hits the bumper of another vehicle, how should they speak to a cop, what are the meanings of many words in their own mother tongues? But never before have state and society encroached into their islands so forcefully and decisively.

They are not alone anywhere any more. Nowhere in the malls, theatres and restaurants can they be guaranteed a degree of refinement. Must they now stand for the national anthem? And what should they do if a man is on the phone throughout the movie? They have heard stories of friends being punched just for objecting to such things. Never have the other kind of Indians been so empowered, and so affluent. There is no place he cannot afford to enter. In any case, some of the richest residential real estate in the country have for long been taken over by fanatic vegetarians. Now there are affluent residential colonies in all major cities where residents demand the construction of temples. What should the nice people do? Where should the amateur Indian go?

They do consider themselves “global”, and everyone knows “global” does not include Sudan or Mongolia; they will be able to obtain visas for the most advanced economies. But despite everything, all things considered, it is in India that life is the easiest, it is here that they are assured of good spots on the social mountain.

What must they do? How can they become as confident as the son-of-the-soil Indian, who has friends in the police commissioner’s office and in other government places, who knows when to stand firm during a traffic dispute and when to flee, and how to game the system. How to be Indian in India?

It is hard for them to change. It will be even harder for their children to negotiate the new India because they are raised to be global. They must flee but then the world elsewhere, everywhere, is changing too. Are they then doomed to belong nowhere?

Why must one belong? Isn’t that what the problem is—everywhere, the idea of home has become the most dangerous and potent force. All disenchantments and jealousies and biases can be couched as concern for the welfare of home. But very few people, even among the intellectuals who have tasted liberal thought, can escape the need to belong to a place. There is a village in every person. Also, most wanderers realize, sooner or later, that they need a home because others have their own. In a transformed world, where democracy is not a righteous device any more but a very good conductor of human flaws, the migrants would increasingly come under various political and social pressures.

Should the refined amateur Indians accept defeat? It is a good way to survive India. There is much peace in defeat, in giving up, in becoming a hermit in a high-strung world. It is an under-appreciated form of peace. But most of them do not find peace in defeat; they have instead become more political than they realize. And the path they have chosen is the politics of the displaced.

They have become the refugee who has been evicted from home. Such a refugee tends to exaggerate the charms of home, he sees things in his home, about home, that he would not have seen if he were not displaced. He then becomes a valiant moral underdog whose purpose is to fight the evil giant.

The refugee talks or writes copiously about his condition and his powerful wicked foes; he gathers forces with similar victims and the conflict then becomes the axis of life. The resolution then becomes the useful myth, like the notion that a story has an end. And the amateur Indian slowly ceases to be an amateur.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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