I am happy to report my spontaneous, and proudly nationalist, reaction on first seeing Las Vegas: this is just like Gurgaon! Situated right in the middle of deserts both physical and cultural, they are both shining monuments to vulgarity. The similarity runs deeper: like Gurgaon, Vegas too looks glamorous by night — towers of light piercing the dark. By the harsh light of day, both places look like building sites — between those now hushed towers, there are piles of rubble, dumps of material for even more towers.
But Gurgaon is about to be transformed. The roads are no longer going to be rough tracks, suitable only for 4×4 SUVs; the streetlights are going to function, the traffic rendered less chaotic; crime confined to the glittering palaces where the rich gather, and not seep through the streets like sewage? Well, the Manohar Khattar government has found a much simpler, even magic expedient: Gurgaon will disappear, and in its place will appear a Vedic-era village named Gurugram.
It is easy to mock these incompetents — unable to control even their own police force, they fiddled with heaven-knows-what while Rohtak burned. However, I wish to draw attention to some darker tendencies of which this farcical renaming exercise is only a minor symptom. Normally, this kind of symbolic politics — renaming things — is a feature of the politics of the weak. Unable to affect any change in the dispositions of power — the stuff of real politics — the weak console themselves with symbolic demands, which require little more than a few pots of paint, some yards of cloth, a taller flagpole, a bigger statue. But when this kind of infantile exercise takes over from the real, urgent and unattended tasks of governance, then it is time to look deeper. Are these farcical exercises the symptoms of something altogether more sinister?
It was suggested, in mitigation if not exoneration, that this instance was no worse than earlier acts of renaming — Bombay-Mumbai, Calcutta-Kolkata, Cawnpore-Kanpur — which were simply acts of postcolonial restitution. But then there is the RSS-driven narrative which holds that “colonialism” started 1,000 years ago, and any marks of Islamic presence too demand restitution to some prior, purer past. This is nonsense of course, since a significant proportion of what we value as “Indian culture” is a product of that allegedly dark, medieval, “colonised” period. But “Gurugram” is something else again: Here, time itself is the enemy.
Actually, to be fair, there are several different things going on. At one level, there is the insistence on the literal truth of the epic, mythic narratives — and so of a piece with the insistence on the exact location of the birthplace of the god, Rama. This is, again, both the inability of the illiterate to distinguish between fiction and realities — but it is also a relatively more sophisticated rejection of the distinction between history and myth. Thus, if history partakes something of the nature of myth — being not reality but a narrative-derivative therefrom — might not myth then partake something of the tangibility of history? This little sleight of mind enables Khattar to identify the actual village that was gifted to Guru Dronacharya by the victorious Pandavas, presumably in return for his “gift” of Eklavya’s thumb?
However, the really dangerous part of this apparently farcical exercise is something that was revealed by one of the spokesmen who was wheeled out in defence thereof. This worthy asserted with complete confidence that the original name of Gurgaon was, in fact, Gurugram. (This might well be the case, particularly if awkward questions about evidence are ruled out.) And, he went on, Gurgaon was merely a “distortion” that had appeared in the course of time. There is a linguistic term that captures this process exactly — tadbhava, the emergence of new forms through prolonged use, through a process of becoming. And the presumed originals from which the tadbhavas emerge are called tatsamas. Tatsamas become tadbhavas. The tadbhava Gurgaon is to be restored — unbecomed, so to speak — to its tatsama Gurugram.
“Gurugram” is, however, a relatively benign symptom of the disease in which the process of becoming, the work of time itself, is perceived as inimical — and generates a corresponding striving to return to some previous perfection. The astrophysicists’ term for their originary moment — the birth of time and the initiation of that sequence of “distortion” which we call the world — is “singularity”. This gives one a clue to Khattar’s discomfort with Gurgaon — because it is in the run of time that plurality, diversity and difference emerge, the glorious variety that we know as the world, as life.
But “Gurugram” seeks to return — howsoever vainly, given the buffaloes that continue to roam the streets between the glittering palaces — to some imagined monkish moment, when Aryan celibates stalked the land, and punished the apsaras who seduced them by, well, seducing them back. It is a fun fantasy — populated by voluptuous females who have escaped from Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, and sages oozing machismo and wisdom who are, I shudder to think, idealised versions of the RSS’s paradoxically celibate father-figures.
Still, a name-change is relatively innocent — involving little more than some pots of paint. But this aversion to the workings of time — to its wonderful “distortions” — has some alarming implications and these too should be part of the record. A “nationalism” dedicated to the recovery of some prior, already perfect nation, is fundamentally different from a future-oriented nationalism, a project that is committed to becoming a nation that addresses the needs and desires of all its members. But somewhere in Gurugram, behind the luscious females and the macho monks, one may well expect to find not only Eklavya’s thumb, but also the remnants and descendants of those aboriginal dwellers who were, and may well again be — indeed, are being in the mineral-rich highlands of central India — displaced by that vaunted, that mythic, that longed-for “Aryan” civilisation.