A fine balance

Over the last 20 years I’ve made nearly a dozen trips to India. Each time I find myself re-enchanted by it, and each time by some new or different aspect of the place.

I was born two years after Indian independence, in 1949. Throughout my childhood, the British Raj and its legacy continued to occupy a prominent place in British culture and education. It’s no surprise that l had a certain strong sense of India long before I ever set foot there.

Like most children of my era I loved Kipling’s Jungle Book and Just So Stories. In my teens I read Forster’s Passage to India and devoured John Masters’ suite of edgy novels charting the rise and decline of British rule. Later I came to Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins’ and Dominique Lapierre’s masterly telling of the story of Indian independence, while Molly Kaye’s romantic epic, The Far Pavilions, offered a welcome antidote to the horrors of partition.

An ancestor who was Governor of Bombay, and twice declined the Governor-Generalship of India in order to write a scholarly history of the country, completed the western prism through which I, like so many others, viewed the Sub-Continent. But then came new literary voices from the East—Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry, Amitav Ghosh to name a few—and with them new perspectives, new challenges to the old orthodoxies.

But nothing I had read could have prepared me for the reality of India; even though my abiding memory of the train journey to Agra and the Taj Mahal on my first visit, still jet-lagged, the morning after arrival, was that all the ticket inspectors resembled elderly, distinguished-looking English civil servants.

Since then, although I have always experienced India in some comfort thanks to my old friend Pramod’s hospitality and generosity, I seem each time to have become a little more sensitive to the essential paradox of the place.

No matter where we have been, from the hill stations of Himachal Pradesh to the tropical backwaters of Kerala, the Lutyens splendour of New Delhi to the Mughal opulence of Hyderabad, the Rajasthan desert to the beaches of Goa, the apparent chaos of India is offset by a deep underlying calm, the material inequalities by a subtle sense of tolerance and acceptance.

Which is not for a moment to underestimate the challenges of surviving at the bottom of the heap in a country of 1.2 billion inhabitants. Yet, for example, when the country’s astronomical wealth gap could so easily give rise to resentment and unrest, violent crime is far less common in India than in the West, notwithstanding the rape cases that have recently made international headlines.

Pramod tells the story of a remote rural village where one day a criminal turned up, on the run from the authorities for murder, and offered himself to the village temple in penance. There he worked quietly and diligently for some months, until the police came looking for him, whereupon the villagers refused to hand him over because, they said, he had served their temple so well. In this poor village also, rather than killing the leopards that periodically seize a goat from the communal flock, the villagers consider the odd goat, which in material terms they can ill afford, a price worth paying in order that they and the leopards can peacefully co-exist.

Pramod told us this story over breakfast one day. As we drank our coffee and scanned our iPads for news of the latest Trump outrage, a family of langurs came sailing into the upper branches of the enormous banyan tree that overhangs the courtyard of his Goa house, and noisily set about their own breakfast, mostly invisible in the foliage except for their tails hanging down like long beige bell-pulls. At dusk, once vacated by the langurs, the tree fills up with crow-sized black bats. And undisturbed, down in its roots, within a few feet of the shimmering infinity pool, lives a large and thankfully invisible ratsnake.

Monkeys and bats rain debris on the courtyard, but while they are clearly a nuisance, they’re regarded not so much as trespassers as co-residents or entitled visitors. For me this says almost as much about India as its crime figures.

Do you need time to reflect on direction, connection, purpose, creativity? We’re running The Stories We Tell foundation weekend here in Birnam in three weeks’ time –  11/12 March. There are some places still available.  www.thestorieswetell.org.uk

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