The twain do meet

The twain do meet

To look back at the past, to understand and locate the present, we must first give up the idea of a fundamental dichotomy between the psychology and culture of East and West

There is, indeed, a powerful and respectable “sense of history and sociology” which believes to be axiomatic a fundamental dichotomy between the psychology and culture of the East and the West. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Reading ‘in troubled times, walk with the poet’ (IE, May 9), Avijit Pathak’s poignant evocation of Tagore took me back to the troubled Emergency period when, too, Tagore — “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high” — had sustained us. Tagore himself had lived through progressively troubled times that had culminated in the Second Great War, eliciting the dying poet’s final testament, Crisis of Civilisation (1941), which underpins Pathak’s stirring exhortation.

Tagore saw the “spectre of barbarity” striding over Europe and realised the devastating consequences of “the spirit of violence dormant in the psychology of the West”. With a sense of history and sociology, Pathak now tells us, “we could understand why Tagore was disillusioned and refused to believe that ‘the springs of a true civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe.”’ He, rather, hoped: “Perhaps the new dawn will come from the East where the sun rises.” “But then” — and this is the crux of Pathak’s argument regarding our present troubled times — “with the pragmatism of the nation-making we forgot the poet’s wisdom, and today in this post-Gandhi/post-Nehru era of global capitalism and religious nationalism, the ruling forces seem determined to make the same mistake that nationalist/militaristic/totalitarian Europe did when Tagore was delivering the [Crisis of Civilisation] speech”.

There is, indeed, a powerful and respectable “sense of history and sociology” which believes to be axiomatic a fundamental dichotomy between the psychology and culture of the East and the West. Such is the hold of this belief that it turns into a seductive argument what is but a poetic metaphor, namely, a new dawn coming from where the sun supposedly rises. Further, it sees certain marked breaks in the shaping of modern India. Having for very long subscribed to this sense of history myself, I now think that it better be taken with a pinch of salt.

Convenient, even essential, though broad-spectrum categories like Gandhian, pre-Gandhian and post-Gandhian may be, their use must be informed by the awareness that they conceal more than they reveal. In any case, they tell us little of the kind of dormant forces — like the spirit of violence Tagore saw in the psychology of the West — which are central to any discussion of the patterns supposed to be unique to such large segments of humankind as the East and the West.


What moves human beings is their perception — their imaging — of the reality around them. Some of these images crystallise into collectively-believed truths and operate as critical historical forces. The imaging of the world along the East-West divide has been one such truth and historical force. The divide is not simply geographical. It polarises the psychologies of humans inhabiting the two geographical halves.

Without going into history, I shall simply point to the incongruity of Tagore separating the heart of the West from that of the East and yet believing in the universality of literature and art. What universality of creation or of reception can there be where hearts — and, constructively, minds — are so radically differently structured?

A year after he had written his Hind Swaraj, Gandhi was asked, in London, to speak on “East and West”. Contrary to Rudyard Kipling, the imperialist bard who proclaimed that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” Gandhi believed that there had been no impassable barrier between the East and the West. What was presented as Western or European civilisation was neither Western nor European. It was modern civilisation, modern industrial civilisation. An unadulterated evil, it had pulled the West away from itself, and also from the East. A wedge having been created between the East and the West, there were only two possibilities for their meeting ever again. One, that the West should throw modern civilisation overboard. The other, that the East also adopts western civilisation. The latter is what is happening (belying Gandhi’s fond hope that the former might happen).

Seen in terms of the making of the modern Indian nation, there never was a Gandhian era. It would be pointless, therefore, to talk of a post-Gandhi era. There was a Nehruvian, and hence post-Nehruvian era. But, if slash implies a degree of similarity, there is no ground — other than their coevality — to talk of a post-Gandhi/post-Nehru era. Gandhi had a clearly articulated vision of free India. His vision was categorically rejected by the new “ruling forces” led by Nehru. The “ruling forces” have since changed significantly, but there has been no sign of change about that historic rejection.

Had Gandhi been heeded — not just selectively followed when convenient — a different kind of pragmatism of nation-making would have taken root. Had the social construction programme — so integral to Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj — figured in the nationalist scheme of things, a strong institutional basis would have been provided to the making of a humane and equitable nation.

Nothing of this is unknown. And yet, tellingly, neither in received academic wisdom nor in popular memory is the dominant Indian image of Gandhi touched by these unglamorous contrary facts. He remains the Father of the Nation even as the non-violent Indian freedom movement under his leadership remains a unique experiment in the annals of humankind. This image permits us a sense of pride and an illusion of decency, besides the comforting myth of uniqueness. We cannot let our self-image be disturbed by Gandhi’s discovery on the eve of freedom that his movement had never been non-violent. It had been passive resistance, which is invariably a preparation for violence. What erupted at the time of Partition, Gandhi realised, was the violence that, for fear of the British, the Indians had kept repressed within them.

The consensus within the national movement, even during the brief phases of Gandhi’s supreme hold, was that the modern Indian nation would be cast in the western mould. There could, therefore, have been nothing post-Gandhian about the nation-making project. India’s entry into the era of global capitalism — even religious nationalism (which would require a separate discussion) — is but the unfolding of, not a departure from, the initially chosen course of development.

Humankind has through the millennia lived by a paradoxical imperative. It has needed violence, and internalised, institutionalised and valorised it. It has also, at the same time, so fashioned itself as to cherish core values — believing them to be eternal and universal — like love, compassion and forgiveness that compel avoidance of violence. This is as true of the West as it is of the East. There is no reason to believe that only one — the East — possesses the potential to usher in non-violence. Nor to believe that violence is lodged in the heart of only one.

Modern civilisation has over the centuries bred two ruthless regimes of domination: Colonialism succeeded by the total market. Compared to what they were when this process began, the West and, under its inexorable pressure, the East have undergone an identical transformation, so that now, barring geography, there is little to tell one from the other.

Humans everywhere have always had freshly-cobbled or well-worn out justifications for violence. The violence they resort to — as opposed to the other’s violence — is always just or necessary or unavoidable, or pre-emptive. At its most ambitious, it is not violence, or is meant to abolish all violence. It is with this universal human incorrigibility in mind, and without abdicating the duty to hope, that we must walk with the poet and reflect on the troubles of our times.