I began 2016 on the edge of the desert in rural Rajasthan, and spent the closing days of this stark and often surprising year in the hills of rural Uttarakhand, with the plains falling away to one side and the mountains rising on the other. Away from Delhi and connectivity, at least 24 hours behind the times, and ignorant of all sorts of up-to-the-minute happenings about the capital’s politics and indeed about the world itself, I was struck by the possibilities of shading and nuance, and by the absence of obvious social antagonism and rage in the many villages of India.
Black and white — strict opinions expressed online in pithy bullets of zeroes and ones — were not part of the conversation. There were ancient and hidden feuds, to be sure, perhaps with a neighbour, a sibling, a shopkeeper, but they were not the stuff of day-to-day interaction. There were new frustrations too, principally over notebandi, since in this part of the hills, there was almost no cash available, forcing all sorts of ingenuity in a part of the nation where digital transactions are impossible since technology has not yet caught up with the instruction to go cashless.
I do not believe that India has become a “Versus nation”, a place of polarity, although it can give the outward impression of being one. If you live your life online or watch too much television news, shades of grey will be banished almost by obligation. One politician will denounce another with terrible, fleeting vigour. If talking heads A and B think this, talking heads C and D must think that — and they will talk over each other noisily in a way that eliminates ambiguity, or the possibility they might both have some truth on their side.
If you read pronouncements on social media, where opinions are expected to be terse and virtual outrage comes at a higher premium than enlightenment, you may be left feeling that rigid political positions are the new stuff of life.
But this is not how people usually speak when they are having a human interaction or going about their daily business. India remains a land of infinite possibilities, with long-established social and religious traditions that do not require its citizens to sign up for any rigid programme of thought. We have an ability to hold multiple views and value systems at once and apply them contextually.
So, within five minutes, you might have a conversation with your grandmother, your lover, your boss and your driver, and speak to each in a very different way. If you muddle one with another, everyone will be in for a surprise! In each case, what matters most is the context.
Similarly you might, when you are online, write derogatory remarks about the actions or views of a person, particularly if you are shrouded by a cloak of anonymity. If you meet that same individual face to face, the antipathy may evaporate. I experienced this some months ago at a political conference, when I met a group of people who have aggressive online avatars, but in person turned out to be receptive of alternate points of view.
Which were the “real” identities of these individuals? The answer was both and neither — everything depends on context, and the face that is shown virtually and in human form. I believe the same discrepancy lies behind the phenomenon of “post-truth”, when a public figure says something factually incorrect but glosses it with a line like, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,”or “It depends on where you get your facts”. The reason why the public may be less bothered by this than journalists and academics expect is because people can distinguish between loud, online bragging and a situation where an attitude has a direct, real-life basis.
The phenomenon of seemingly entrenched virtual opinions is not unique to India. It is global; its effects can be unpleasant, particularly for women. But we should not give it more weight than it deserves. In some countries, such as Syria, war and a breakdown in the functioning of civil society have led to terrible suffering. In India, the interaction between people and the expression of political polarities bears little resemblance to such serious conflict. Most of the time, people negotiate each other’s difference, and accept the absence of black and white that is intrinsic to a large and highly diverse nation.
In Mussoorie, I visited a house built in the early 19th century by an Irish pioneer named Captain Frederick Young. I was curious because it was called “Mullingar”, the name of a town in County Westmeath in Ireland where my grandmother spent her childhood. The house had been rebuilt, now barely recognisable, inhabited by perhaps 100 families, each living in a room or two. By the entrance to each little residence was a sign giving an indication of the allegiance of those who lived within; it might be a crucifix, a symbol of Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism, or an echo of Tibet or Bhutan. These inhabitants of Mullingar, living alongside one another in their own small spaces and getting along fine, represent the ambiguity and constant roiling complexity of India: There is no one point of view.
The writer is a historian and biographer, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University
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