A Paean to the Past

I grew up in a country that thrived with diversity.

I grew up in a country where we were taught to accept diversity of cultures, languages, religions as a normal way of life. The phrase used was ‘Unity in Diversity’. Of course, there were many issues in a country that was fairly young — bled anaemic by the greed of a company that cared only for money and profits at all costs — the East India Company. Long ago we had been a rich country. But there had been so many invasions, such a display of greed that it makes me wonder, would the country have continued prosperous even if the East India Company did not carry out a systemic loot? William Dalrymple tells us in The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company that ‘loot’ became a common parlance in the English vocabulary only after the advent of the British traders into India.

Those of us who were born within the first two or three decades of Indian independence grew up with syncretic lores woven into the narratives of our daily lives. We celebrated all festivals with friends from different religious, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, who did not necessarily look like us and, in our innocence, strongly believed that all humans are the same, divide and rule was evil, the colonials were mini monsters. As we grew up and travelled, we found that though we wanted all humanity to be united with love and peace, not all of the species wanted that. Divide and rule, a colonial legacy, had stretched beyond the Empire to the twenty first century. The colonials were replaced by rulers from within the country who perpetrated the same divisive ethos, othering large groups of people.

I had thought I would be pouring my heart out about my past when I started writing this piece, but I hesitate. Because everything has changed. My past — as I knew it — no longer exists. It is, therefore, important to record it for our progeny to help them develop a diverse sense of history… that it can be retold from different perspectives, of the victor, of the victims, of the bystanders.


Rajpath remains etched in my memory. It used to be Kingsway. The canopy near the India Gate stood vacant. Under colonial rule, it had housed the statue of George V. Then it was empty for decades. A fire kindled under the arch of the gate in memory of lives lost in the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) when I was a tiny mite. Now, the fire is missing. It has been relocated to a place I have never seen. And there is a statue of a leader in the empty canopy, one who took help from Fascist forces, enemies of the Allied forces, to “fight for independence”. The fight was between Indian soldiers belonging to what was the British Indian Army and more Indian soldiers in Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj. The soldiers on both sides were mainly born and nurtured in the Indian subcontinent and fought for different bosses, which makes me wonder did the soldiers on the British front not want ‘independence’?

That seems a bit strange.

But I guess values change… I worry now that values deplete to embrace hatred, intolerance and anger against people who think differently. While embracing the majority is a necessity, making sure youngsters migrating out of villages get an education to help them make an honest, decent living is a bigger responsibility. Who will shoulder that?

When I visit India, I see beggars — among them, mothers with infants and, sometimes, just children, all alone — often from inside a car. I wonder why they do not have homes. I worry if the babies and children will get enough to eat. And yet, we grow obese eating beyond our own needs… There is, of course, the bit people say about our past karma, but does that justify starvation, poverty, lack of homes and potable water for any person on the planet? Abhijit Banerjee, the economist and Nobel laureate, had pointed out that there is a solution to hunger. If we are independent, should it not be our first task to appease hunger, water and housing needs for every person? Why do people still sleep on pavements and why are there slums?

As my mind wanders down the canopies of those large trees that had lined the way to the Parliament House which has now been dubbed ‘old’ and converted to a museum for ‘freedom’ we gained by our independence from colonial rule, I wonder what this ‘freedom’ has done for us? Who was it that ushered in independence? And what did this word mean — independence? What was the vision of free India? Whose vision of free India was forged out of the bloodshed, death trains and the violent tearing of people from their centuries old homes based on a human construct created by colonials? I am not quite sure. Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre had suggested varied interpretation of what independence would bring among the leadership and masses in their classic, Freedom at Midnight. Did the leadership know exactly what they wanted while declaring the ‘independence’ of the world’s largest democracy in 1947 amidst gore and fanfare?

I have come to the conclusion that any turmoil that hurts people is not good for the planet — be it a war in Ukraine, a skirmish in Middle East, a riot within a country or a civil war. With the extreme weather conditions that are wiping out large parts of liveable land — floods or fires — we need to focus on finding alternative food, jobs and homes for the displaced mass of humanity. Tomorrow, it might be you or me in the stream of refugees. Climate and war, both create refugees. Additionally, use of weapons only pollutes the planet more and worsens the impact of climate change on humanity. No country lives in isolation anymore. And war impacts even others in distant lands. A combination of wars, floods and fires seems almost apocalyptic!

I have been outside my country of birth for long — I cannot find what I left behind even when I go back and search. And yet, there is that strange umbilical bind that does not fully let go! The values I cherish were taught during my childhood in my country of birth and have sustained me through life, nurtured in my adopted home, which has allowed me to thrive and grow, giving me space, time and a peaceful existence to meditate and write. I can write —


We Cannot Write of Rajpath Anymore …


And yet they do not allow us

to write of Rajpath anymore.

Long ago, kings rode along

that road. Battles, politics—


all these overwrought the

weak and spoke for the

strong, whether right or

wrong. But the common


man had the right to speak.

History singed, written by

victors, but still between the

lines, there were glimpses of


truth. Now, incarcerated,

history stands, mutilated

towards erasure. We wait

for the hangman’s noose —


For, we cannot write of Rajpath anymore.

Over time, for me, celebrations are only for all humanity — that humanity of which I am a small part, one in a population of more than 8 billion! A drop in the ocean of humankind that flows…looking for a new way to survive on the planet that still remains our only home and hope…

Mitali Chakravarty is the founding editor the Borderless Journal, which has just published its first collection in hardcopy, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World.


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