THE IMAGINARY INDIAN
“I love India, but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression.” – Rabindranath Tagore
By SB Veda
Here at the magazine, we like to say Rabindranath Tagore was one of the world’s first Global Calcuttans – but, in a letter in which he disclaims the term patriot as an expression of a singular love of geographical territory, he may well have viewed himself as an Imaginary Indian, too; perhaps, even the first of his kind!
Certainly his idea of India fits with one of our defining principles, namely the mobility of cultural identity, made more significant by an ever-growing ‘global citizenry’.
Shaped by the humanistic Indian thinkers 19th century British India but caught between the colonial entity into which he was born and the idea of nation which was being shaped in opposition, Tagore’s India as revealed through his writings is naturalistic, romantic, sentimental, and above all – free. Though it gives a keen sense of surrounding, is neither parochial exclusive. And, that liberty of word lies not only in the realm of norms, mores, and rules created by men but also – and this, far more compellingly – in thought.
The India whom Tagore loved, for whom such love was proclaimed verbally, melodically, and even graphically, could well be called Moner Desh, The Republic of Imagination, a nation of mind.
This space remains unbound, uncontained, and undiminished by time but the question remains: has India managed mold herself in the form of Tagore’s thoughts or has she taken on a different identity, altogether? The answer clearly is, ‘no – the India, today, is not the India of envisioned by Tagore, awakened in a space where the mind is without fear’. But, in fairness she was not at all close to that ideal during his life time. Over a century and a half since his birth, we are left wondering in which direction have the people of sub-continent taken the now three nations, which have been carved out of her soil. Are we closer or farther away from that conjured abode elucidated by the magnificent magus?
I have been defined as Indian despite being born in London and raised since age five in Canada. I am a Citizen of Canada by naturalization and a de facto British National by birth. I suppose the physical differences between my peers and me had made me Indian by exclusion at first. And then, later, as I learned about India, Indian culture, and Indian philosophy, I made myself Indian in mind. More meaningfully, I suppose, I have always had an Indian heart, which caused me to internalize the Western world differently from other Canadians. I manifested, therefore, a Desi or Bharatiya identity.
I was never a confused Desi as ‘ABCD – American Born Confused Desi’ the popular term to describe foreign raised Indian origin people, suggests. I embraced this sense of being Indian, and did not have much of a problem reconciling it with my surroundings. My problems acclimatizing to living in my parents’ immigrant home had more to do with their values upwardly mobile new Canadians clashing with my non-materialistic ideals of being Bharatiya. We experienced, at times, not a clash of cultures in our home in Canada but rather a bruising collision of cultures, which resulted in my being profoundly restricted in choice – but it had scant little to do with whether or not I considered myself Indian.
My feelings were put in perspective after I read, Salman Rushdie’s book, Imaginary Homelands. I have since concluded that my desire to be perceived (even by myself) as ‘Indian’ stems both from a sense of nostalgia and aspiration. The Imaginary Indian who inhabited this body was a man inspired by its revolutionary politics – Subhas Chandra Bose et al, by its philosophical traditions as so elegantly rendered in the writings of Swami Vivekananda, by melodies intoned by classical masters, and in her natural beauty, being home to mountains sea, jungle, desert, river and rock. My India was the Bharat in Mahabharata, the wisdom of the Veda, the inclusiveness of Akbar’s court. It was kept in a secure place, safeguarded from hatred, unaffected by exploitation, unblemished by pollution and most of all, insulated from poverty – though the actual place was rife with these problems. And, this is not to mention the corruption.
I saw in India a spiritual ideal much in the same way a Muslim might see Mecca, a Jew – Israel, A Christian – Bethlehem – but my India was more than this – it was pluralistic too. I believed and continue feel that God exists everywhere, so the idea that the soil of a particular place should be more holy than another seems irrational. But our associations with certain grains of earth may make us think about God when we otherwise wouldn’t, standing on different ground. And, therein lies the power of pilgrimage. I have made these physical journeys more recently life – but since childhood they have necessarily and consistently been taken within recesses of my mind.
Unlike Tagore, I could afford to retreat safely to the yoke of my imaginary homeland because I did not actually live there. All of that changed a few years back when my Indian wife insisted that we ought to go back to her home country where the warmth of family would surely be an antidote to our isolated life in cold Canada. And, in reversing the migration of my parents, I could give my Canadian-born son an innately Indian upbringing – something I never had. I being diaspora – he being post-diaspora. We both being Imaginary Indians, I believed I would be in an ideal position to guide and comfort him should he feel any sense of dislocation or confusion. He has not. He is surprisingly comfortable everywhere, and longs to live in London.
It is I who still find myself lost and alone, folded in the ripples of of transnational currents, flung to and fro by the torrents of expectation, fighting the tide of populisim. I am reminded of what JM Coetzee told me, recently, as we discussed identity over lunch at a Literary Festival in England, ‘this is one of the perils and blessings of being professional a writer – to some extent one must remain a perennial outsider.’
Here is a snippet of this conversation as best I can recollect it:
‘You seem North American in speech and manner; do you feel actually feel at home in Calcutta?’ Mr. Coetzee asks me.
‘Not completely,’ I reply. ‘But, I don’t fee at home anywhere,’
‘Probably not a bad thing for a writer,’ he comments, adding, ‘too much comfort can lead to complacency.’
I mention in passing my ability to adjust and become at ease with the differences. Just enough, anyway to keep on moving. He smiles in that way that makes one wonder what he is thinking. I realize it is easier to inhabit Tagore’s mind than his. But he asks about speaking the Bengali language, communication across the border of India and Bangladesh. I say it used to be active, vibrant, a real conversation. Now, it is more about posturing.
During those first few months after the move to India, my wife, son and I, stayed with relatives (hers to be precise), and then in a rented flat. I ‘adjusted’. I was made to ‘adjust’ further as, after a long and arduous search, we bought an apartment, and had to deal with the struggle of the day-to-day of living in Calcutta (or Kolkata as I should officially be calling it). Not all adjustments have been negative. I am taken aback at times by the respect accorded me, though ironically, this reverence derives from my being a ‘foreigner’. But it’s more than that, it’s the way I talk, the way I carry myself, my attitude and expectations – people here get a sense that I may, indeed, be worldly. And, as I look back, I feel they are not wrong in this assessment.
My wife and I have traveled to other parts of India and have observed some marked differences between Calcutta and other Indian cities and the villages – but we have both found ourselves wondering about an argument: the question of which ought to have come first, independence or literacy – it was an argument had out between Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi – a dramatic point of contention between them in an otherwise mutually reverential relationship. Gandhi said, ‘Independence first, education can come later.’ Better to be part of a largely illiterate Indian-run country than a literate but subjugated colony. Tagore felt that independence had little value without education. What good is changing the skin colour of the oppressor if the downtrodden are kept down in their ignroance? Who, indeed was right? Is it better to be a servant in a literate house or master of an ignorant Kingdom?
I find myself, increasingly, sitting in cafes wondering how far Tagore’s imaginary India might resemble the image of the republic of India as reflected in our corneas, tattooed on our retinas. How does the India of the mind reconcile to the the feel of her hand in ours, the sound of her resonant voice humming softly or reverberating sonorously on our eardrums, her sweet scents and overpowering smells wafting in and out of our noses and mouths. Are we left with a pleasant after taste – or has it all gone sour?
Tagore died six years before independence but his shadowy spirit has loomed large (at least over Calcutta) since. There are times when I see his dark shadow, by now freckled by pollution, swimming through the smog, bending under flyovers and leaping over vulgar billboards. His hands are upheld, gesturing, but not to emphasize the the melody of one of his songs (required by the state to be played at public intersections in oddly Orewellian form). Rather, he beckons, implores to think, feel, live and love. Is he asking me to stay as I contemplate leaving? I am not certain but in between the back and forth of our cryptic communion I am certain of one thing: he proscribes me to put pen to paper and move it, lyrically, if possible, through force thought fueled by an explosion of feeling. ‘Your negativity is combustible,’ he seems to say. ‘Let it burn! Your doubts may be paralytic but they should not be persistent, vanquish them!’
So I describe the India I have consumed, and compare it to the place for which I hunger. With these musings, I tap gently on Tagore’s door, wondering if he will let me inside his phantom dominion. I fantasize about a collective consciousness of India’s of the mind, creating an amalgamated cultural realization – our thoughts becoming cells of a new body politic – the body cultural of Bharatavarsha, Desh, India . And then the mind’s eye opens to the singularity of my India, the loneliness of an island populated by one. In an effort to reach others, I can only offer thoughts, which many will no doubt find insufficient and phrases, which others may find inelegant. Some smatterings of language, mutterings of speech, and utterances of sentiment, soft and loud. I fear that the activity, though it may be vigorous at times, may not accumulate a critical mass of much socio-cultural significance.
Still, I must write on.
My thoughts, once again, seems echo those the great man, when he proclaimed, “I shall ever seek my compatriots all over the world,”
For, in the end, we cannot deny being Indian, South Asian, Desi – whatever that may mean to us. As notional or even mythical as our conception of motherland might be. She is alive all around us, and we long to be connected to each other – huddled together in this cold world, under that soft free end of her interminable sari. It is this feeling -one that is surely not imagined – that bonds us together and makes our connection real.
This series of articles by S.B. Veda are glimpses of his experience in India; An amalgam of memoir, fiction, history and commentary.
1. Ghosts of Calcutta (as read at Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich, England, June 17th, 2014)
2. Durga Puja Inc and The Company Puja (A reflection on the corporatization of a festival)