Not long freed from colonial bondage, the India of then had yet to fully find its economic feet, and thrift and austerity were the watchwords of the day, necessitated by lack of resources. The great wide world outside, with its promise of glittering goods and services, lay on the far side of a khadi curtain of frugality we had drawn across us to keep us safe from the temptation of prodigal foreign delights.
We even coined our own word for foreign — phoren — which made foreign sound more foreign than foreign. Being phoren-returned was a great cachet, vouch-safed to the elitest of the elite. When an uncle of mine became the first member of the extended family to obtain a passport, a clan get-to-get her was organised and the prized document was passed from hand to hand amid exclamations of wonderment and awe. My uncle had business with a Swiss company dealing in dairy products, and when he returned from one of his foreign trips, he’d shower us children with chocolates of that country, seductively sweet with the taste of forbidden fruit.
But if in the India of then the more material goods of distant climes — from cars to confectionery — remained virtually inaccessible, the intangible products of thought and opinion suffered no such restraint. Be it the Non-Aligned Movement, suitably capitalised as befitted its gravitas, to the Suez crisis and later the US involvement in Vietnam, world affairs were the pith of the moment, not just in editorial columns but in everyday coffeehouse conversation as well.
In what was then Calcutta, ‘Amar naam, tomar naam, Viet-naam!’ was the rousing rallying cry against US imperialism. The word — or was it a title? — ‘intellectual’ was an encomium, not an epithet describing an anti-national element of seditious intent. A common mantra of the day was ‘simple living and high thinking’, the paucity of consumer products made up for by a wealth of diverse discourse.
The India of now, echoing Marx’s comment on Hegel’s proposition regarding the dialectics of history, seems to have stood the India of then on its head. Today, our towns and cities boast supermarkets which are a cornucopia of international brands of comestibles of all kinds. On our roads and highways stray cattle negotiate hazardous rites of passage with motorised vehicles sporting the insignia of global marques.
It has become cheaper, and more attractive in other terms, for a middle-class family from, say, Delhi to have a flying vacation in, say, Thailand than in Kochi, or Goa. Indians can now send legally up to $250,000 abroad per year per individual. ‘Phoren’ is no longer phoren.
But if the world, in all its corporeal manifestations, has opened up for India, India, in large part, appears to have closed its mind to the universality of thought it once embraced and substituted it with parochial pride and prejudice. Our own tradition of eclectic philosophic exploration has been subsumed within a valorisation of a mythic past in which an elephant-headed deity is cited as evidence of organ surgery, and Kurukshetra is claimed to have been a theatre of strategic nuclear warfare.
The phraseology of our public disquisition has undergone a narrowing of horizons, with terms like ‘love jihad’, ‘gau rakshak’, ‘cultural nationalism’, and ‘illegal migrants’ replacing the wide-ranging sweep of the lexicon of the India of then. Has the gain of material plenitude been worth it when weighed against the impoverishment of ideas?
The India of then and that of now would have two very different answers. And that irreconcilable bifurcation sums up the partition that has sundered the two Indias.