A Place Within: Rediscovering India

January 13, 2009 6:14 pm

In November a group of gunmen launched a series of coordinated attacks on both civilians and foreigners in Mumbai, India. In the end, almost 200 people were dead, hundreds more were injured and Mumbai itself teetered on the edge of chaos. The attacks were devastating but hardly novel. It was only in 2006 in Mumbai that seven bombs laid on train tracks went off simultaneously during the afternoon rush hour commute, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. In both instances much of the subsequent analysis focused on the terrorist nature of the attack: the 2006 bombing campaign had all the hallmarks of an Al Queda operation, while November’s attack was most likely carried out by Lashkare- Taiba, a terrorist organization based in Pakistan. According to the one gunman caught alive, their aim in killing as many people as possible was to ‘free’ Kashmir from Indian control. In any case, both attacks lay bare a series of stark truths: communal violence remains distressingly common throughout much of India and relations between India and Pakistan remain in a heightened state of tension.

The November attacks also shed light on the type of city Mumbai has become — frantic, overcrowded and unequal. The concentration of financial power in Mumbai has accelerated its transformation, physically, politically and socially. More wealth has been created, to be sure, but so too has inequality and sometimes wrenchingly difficult forms of dislocation. The majority of peasants who migrate from the rural areas become members of the city’s underclass. As for the burgeoning middle class, a majority are still forced to live in shacks in communities so dense it is likely impossible to have sex without neighbours hearing. For most people living in such a city, personal and financial freedom must be a tantalizing but elusive dream. For all of the city’s undeniable dynamism, it remains an oppressive place for too many of its citizens.

From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that many Indians choose to leave their country in the hope of creating a better life elsewhere. Yet most Indians who do leave likely remain deeply attached to their country of origin. Their ambivalence is understandable. M. G. Vassanji, a Canadian writer of Indian descent, is acutely aware of India’s ongoing painful transformation. In A Place Within: Rediscovering India, Vassanji writes of a series of journeys back to the country of his ancestors. The book is vast in scope: it is at a once a travelogue, a history of India and a meditation on the type of country it is and aspires to be. For this reason, reading A Place Within is occasionally tedious but ultimately rewarding. Vassanji documents the rise and fall of past rulers. He laments India’s pervasive violence and the injustice of the caste system. However, he also describes the beauty of traveling through India on overcrowded trains and celebrates the country’s burgeoning self-confidence.

Vassanji’s story resonates most when he writes of India’s independence in 1947 and Partition. India and Pakistan’s subsequent relationship has been characterized by lingering, simmering tensions that occasionally spill over into full-blown violence. Vassanji’s odyssey strikes the reader in part as an attempt to seek wisdom where the perpetual conflict between the two countries is concerned. The section in which Vassanji describes meeting Kushwant Singh, one of India’s greatest writers is certainly a highlight. Although very old, Singh remains a free spirit and is said to love the company of women. He also understands the vital role tolerance must play if Pakistan and India are to ever amicably settle their profound differences. More interesting perhaps is Singh’s contention that the unspeakable violence and the wrenching dislocation due to Partition has never been sufficiently acknowledged or memorialized by either country. For example, there are no museums documenting the period. There has thus been no attempt at a collective catharsis. The resentment between the two countries thus festers and is indeed intensified after every outrageous act of violence.

Elsewhere Vassanji describes talking over tea with an elderly and humane couple, the wife a painter and the husband a famous Hindu writer. The quiet and spacious setting in which Vassanji finds himself is in stark contrast to the images of dense streets and cities with which we associate India. Before long the discussion settles on the familiar themes of communal violence and the cynicism among India’s rulers. Both scenes call to mind the theme that binds together the book’s disparate parts. To use Vassanji’s own term, in India one must prepare for the darkness even amidst the country’s ‘warm embrace.’

donaldm@magma.ca

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