A friend of mine, an “India virgin”, is making his first trip to Hindustan. He’s travelled to parts farther east — as most American professionals have these days — and understands how the world works in that unsentimental way of the educated New Yorker. He asked me to tell him about the things I most hated and loved about the land of my birth.
Let’s start with what I detest:
1. The politics: “Ghastly” would be a kind word to describe the level of integrity in Indian politics. The country is awash with divisive politicians who make Donald Trump seem like Mother Teresa. So extraordinarily rare is the incidence of personal honesty in politicians that Indians are prone to marvel when they encounter it.
2. The media: Most newspapers are badly written, edited and designed, many in hock to the highest bidder. Television news is a cacophonous bazaar of shouted opinion, with “experts” of dubious character wheeled on to shows only because they guarantee incendiary views. At the serious end of the news, editors get way too much wrong. Bihar elections, anyone?
3. The family: Is there a culture in the civilised world where the family has such an iron grip on the fate of the individual? A visitor to India could be forgiven for concluding that the primary aim of the family is to stifle a person’s independence. A clever economist should quantify the damage done by the Indian family to economic growth: the hampering of labour mobility and female autonomy, and a warping of the real estate market, for starters.
4. The Hindu religion: Hinduism has become a prime source of intolerance in India. Every week, a scientific, cultural or social atrocity is committed in the name of the Hindu religion by those who would pose as its protectors. Hindutva has gone too far. It’s time for a counter-revolution: Hindus Against Hindutva! (HAH!)
Here’s what I love about India:
1. The Hindu religion: Notwithstanding Hindutva and its absurdities, there is no greater source of beauty and tolerance in India than Hinduism. When practised as it was intended, it is a religion of calm and introspection. Yes, it has its ugly scriptural exhortations, but so does Christianity. Like Christians, however, Hindus have never shied away from reforming their own faith — an approach that would benefit one or two other religions I could name.
2. The family: India has few civic protections and no social security to speak of, so it is the family that safeguards the infirm and the vulnerable. Even as it imposes its values on the individual, it offers unswerving loyalty to members who live within its fold. In a land where strangers are habitually cruel to each other, that is like gold.
3. The media: India is the only country in the world where both “old” and “new” media are growing. The press is rollickingly free, and television is a stage on which no voice — however inconvenient — is suppressed. Speech in India is freer than it is in most of Europe. We have a deliciously aggressive media to thank for that.
4. The politics: India’s politicians may be the pits, but its voters are world-class. Every Indian is a democrat. The country breathes democracy. Yes, issues become “political” a little too quickly for my taste, but they’re almost always resolved at the ballot box. In political India, the people’s indignation is irrepressible. Indian voters have a history of punishing politicians who take them for granted. Chak de, India! Chuck them out, India!