One of my favourite quotes from Mahatma Gandhi is, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. That being the case, the state of this country appears to be neither great nor progressive. Well, I’m not Aamir Khan, so I can get away with saying it: I often wonder if perhaps someday I shouldn’t just move elsewhere. Just call it quits. And quit.
In a country with such an enormous populace, such a vast area, so many languages, different cultures, multiple cuisines and don’t even get me started on religions, I suppose it is no wonder that the smallest of problems takes a large amount of resources and time to solve. As Shashi Tharoor has so often and so eloquently pointed out, let’s say when you succeed in elevating several million people out of poverty, if you look at that impressive figure in terms of percentages, it is anything but impressive. The scale of our problems is so very, very large, and the problems themselves so deeply entwined, that it is often extremely disheartening for anyone who wants to effect any sustainable progress.
I personally, am one of those who has the great luxury of returning home every day and being able to close my sound-proof windows, crawl in to my cozy bed, turn on my HD TV and effectively, transport myself in to a land of my choosing. But what if, despite everything, I’d like to choose this land?
It’s that time of year again, when public spaces are decorated in the colours of our national flag, little plastic tricolours are sold at traffic lights along with bumper stickers and miscellaneous decorative items with slogans such as “proud to be Indian” and “I LOVE MY INDIA”.
Just last evening, I was groaning as I watched the news and learned of the embarassing letter issued by the International Olympic Committee to our ‘honourable’ (because somehow they all are), Sports Minister, telling him that his band of goons were not free to roam about as they pleased and were not entitled to be rude to the officials. And that’s from the easy-going brazilians. Imagine if it had been Germany…! Then there’s the question of why there are so many ‘official’ delegates anyway or whether all the members of the technical team are even truly qualified for what they’ve been sent to do. And if they’re not, isn’t it a terrible disservice to the nation for them to be there and not be able to provide the very best support to our very best athletes?
While I was drawing some sort of pained amusement at the fumbling politicians being grilled by journalists on the Rio Embarassment, I had other matters to tend to back home. I was delivered a ‘warning’ by someone who had recently beaten up my friendly neighbourhood dogs and subsequently apologised for it. The warning was delivered timidly by the sweet guard at the house where these dogs sit, to say that if the dogs were ever to attack this man’s dog, he would ‘bring his gun and shoot them’. No question of politely discussing a problem or expressing a concern or grievance. Nope. WARNING. Because that’s how we do it now and everyone is a law unto themselves.
Last winter, as we prepared to shift house, I thought I’d leave behind a lasting present for the various street dogs I had befriended nearby. So, I did my research and designed a few comfy kennels.
There was much excitement for several days, as the carpenters worked in the garden and cheerful-looking kennels began to take shape. I decided the first one must go to the old, little dog on the roadside, who is pretty frail. So I hopped across to the nursery where the dog has lived for years, and sought permission to place the kennels inside. The surly supervisor met me with a scowl and pat came his reply- “No. Not here. We don’t have permission”. I turned on my heel and walked out, determined to find a perfectly suitable place regardless of this put-down. But as I walked away that morning, my enthusiasm and earnestness having received an unceremonious boot, I couldn’t help but wonder- “What would Gandhi say?”
That same thought occurred to me the other day when a woman told me and my friends to ‘keep your compassion to yourselves’ as we pleaded with her not to try and displace the same old dog whose kennel I built, again today in light of the disappointing performance of our non-athletes at the Olympics and on more occasions than I care to recall when ghastly inhuman crimes are committed against people and animals alike. This is the India that I don’t belong to, the one I want to go away from, the one that shames me and rejects me.
So, when did I stop being patriotic? I didn’t. I am still very much a patriot. I pledge my allegiance to the idea of India. The Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic India. I think of the India our leaders envisioned when they fought for Independence- the India which was moral, kind, peace-loving, compassionate, pluralistic. I think of the time when one wouldn’t need to seek anyone’s ‘permission’ or face aggressive opposition to do a simple, good deed. I am proud to be that Indian.
Why is it that yoga and Ayurveda are trendy in India only now that they have been appreciated abroad? Why do we turn up our noses at our beautiful Indian dogs who are dying for homes while we import poor Huskies and Saint Bernards to give them a miserable existence in a miserably incompatible climate? Why is it suddenly ok for the non- hoy-poloy to enjoy cheap, Bollywood music, since it’s become popular abroad too? Why are Indian men in Indian cities never dressed in traditional clothes? Ever seen a rich household whose staff uniform is a kurta-pajama?
In our seven decades of freedom, we seem somehow to have freed ourselves altogether from what and how we were all collectively meant to be as a nation. It’s a Herculean task to get back on track, but Gandhi has addressed that too: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
For critics who prefer more “modern” and “western” thinking, take a cue from Donald Trump (but please, let it be the ONLY one)- Make India Great Again. Jai Hind.