Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
When I tell my loved ones from India that I have only temporarily been ejected in this small island, they tell me that I must be crazy to want to live in India! So be it – but the time is not yet come. It surely will
On Wednesday morning, August 15, I sat in bed watching the celebrations of Indian Independence Day at the Red Fort in New Delhi, and listened to some parts of the speech of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Later during the day I talked to a young doctor-in-training residing in Faridabad, a town adjoining New Delhi, and I told her I’d been listening to the speech of her Prime Minister. Her response was, ‘I wouldn’t waste time doing that!’
The disaffection of Indian youth I come across with vis-à-vis their current dispensation is perhaps not unexpected, and could well be part of the anti-establishment wave that is sweeping the world in the form of various ‘Spring’ movements, the most well-known being the Arab Spring. Its outcome is yet to be assessed, but that there is a remise en cause of established orders worldwide cannot be denied. If only it were Nat King Cole’s ‘It’s love, it cannot be denied’! Alas, this is more like ‘It’s hate, it cannot be denied’, especially where dictatorial regimes are concerned.
For me, India, warts and all, is part of my existence in a way perhaps that India does not make me part of her. But I am happy that many Indians do, our lives having become inextricably and intimately linked in a continuum of time and space that makes up our narratives, each one as enriching as the other. Only a few weeks ago, I had the greatest surprise – and joy – to play host to a friend with whom, as often happens as we part at some point and forge our separate paths through life, I had lost contact after we last met in January 1976 in Mumbai, where he was then residing with his family.
It’s a long story, and suffice it at this stage to say that when I was a medical student in Kolkata from 1965 to 1971, they were staying in a flat opposite the International Students’ House (ISH) where I was a resident. They were a family of four sons and a daughter, and Vinod was then studying at St Xavier’s in Park Street. We became very good friends, and he took me into his family. It was not long before I became adopted as the ‘fifth’ son by his mother, calling her Biji – as mother is often addressed in Punjabi – as her own children did.
For me, orphaned of my mother at the young age of ten, this was more than a gift, it was pure love that embraced me and gave meaning to my life, because Kolkata was not an easy place to live in. And later when I got married in New Delhi, Biji was there as my mother, as she handed me over, as it were, to my other mother. For my mother-in-law, who had two daughters and no son, regarded me more as a son than a son-in-law, our bonds being that much stronger because after completion of internship I and my late wife returned to Mauritius, and visited only at intervals.
The unfolding ceremony in New Delhi brought back old memories, but I do not really have to wait for such triggers either to reminisce or to think about India and things Indian, which is a daily affair as far as I am concerned. Nevertheless, as is wont to be, there are special moments that nostalgia pushes to the surface, and Indian Independence Day is one such. It was the day that I reached Kolkata after a 48-hour train ride from Mumbai, starting from the Churchgate station to reach Howrah station at about 5.30 pm. On the advice of ex-Royal College Curepipe mates who had come to meet me and my two other fellow students, I had paid a top-up on the second class ticket to which I was entitled and traveled in the first class compartment. There was only one other passenger throughout the journey, a middle-aged gentleman who told me he was a Gujarati – which to me then did not have any particular meaning – and who, to my delight and comfort, paid genuine attention to my needs and comfort, as he came to learn about me and that I was a complete novice as far as travel is concerned, and further as I was a stranger to the country.
As we were nearing Kolkata, we were passing by blocks of redbrick flats that looked pretty drab as I remember. It had rained, and the sky was a heavy dull grey, so their appearance was even more drab than would otherwise have been I suppose. My heart started to sink, and I asked the gentleman whether the medical college where I was going to study looked similar. He could not give me a precise reply, saying that there were four medical colleges in the city, and it depends on which one I was going to attend. More anxiety… But it turned out that the Calcutta National Medical College buildings and hospital were painted an ivory colour, and in the parts of the city that I had to commute in more frequently, I did not have to confront as many redbrick buildings.
An officer of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which had awarded me the scholarship to study medicine, came to fetch me at the station, and we drove through a rain-soaked city to go to the ISH which was to be my home for my remaining medical student years. Dominique Lapierre’s perspective of the ‘City of Joy’ was clearly quite different from my initial traumatic encounter, starting in Mumbai in the early hours of August 13, as we landed at the Santa Cruz airport after flying Air India from Nairobi via Aden, where we had an equally traumatic stopover: as we got out of the plane, we were literally hit by a wall of extreme heat that took us by complete surprise. Years later we would still talk about that!
It was past 6 pm when we reached the ISH, and there was a function going on: the Foreign Students’ Association, which I joined later, was holding an Independence Day party in the lounge on the ground floor. I walked in with my luggage, and temporary makeshift arrangements had been made to accommodate me. I met three Mauritian students who were already pursuing their studies in Kolkata, one of whom was not participating in the party for reasons that I would learn about later. He is the one who helped to ‘setttle’ me in that evening, unfortunately in a not too friendly way, because he had a disdain for what he called ‘Royalists’. And I was one, and therefore his target from the very first few moments of our meeting. However, later we became very good friends! And I got to understand why he had this complex.
Distant and ‘unconnected
It was in April 1965 that the results of the Indian scholarships were declared public, and as I read my name in the papers, my heart leapt. As most of us did then, I had taken a job as a teacher in a private secondary school while looking for opportunities for university studies, and as soon as the results were announced there began the process of preparation for the eventual departure. There was excitement, but also apprehension, because I had no known contact person in India at all, although India was already part of my mental make-up, essentially through the Indian culture classes that were held by Prof Ram Prakash for one period every Friday, from Form IV to UVI 3, and also by participation in the activities of the Indian Cultural Association at the college, which was founded and presided by the professor himself.
At home, we used to use brass utensils, that my dada (paternal grandfather) had brought from India: he told me that he had once seen Mahatma Gandhi walking past, but I never got more details and didn’t ask, being too small then to take any interest. There were framed pictures of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in our sitting room, and thinking back I am sure that dada must have brought them. These figures remained only names until Prof Ram Prakash threw light on them and a number of giants such as Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, Allama Iqbal and others. Still, they were distant and ‘unconnected’, and it is only regular physical presence in different parts of India, and the links that have developed since at family, friend, professional and spiritual levels that everything to do with India and Indians is now a matter of direct concern.
“The drains are India”
It was inevitable that at some stage I would come upon American journalist Katherine Mayo’s ‘Mother India’ published in the 1930s or so. It was a scathing attack on specifically Hindu customs and ideas, and this was what Mahtama Gandhi had to say about the book: ‘This book is cleverly and powerfully written. The carefully chosen quotations give it the false appearance of a truthful book. But the impression it leaves on my mind, is that it is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains. If Miss Mayo had confessed that she had come to India merely to open out and examine the drains of India, there would perhaps be little to complain about her compilation. But she declared her abominable and patently wrong conclusion with a certain amount of triumph: “the drains are India”.’
Medical history affords us an insight into the sanitary conditions of many European cities in their early stages of development, and anyone who makes an objective study will find that localities in many Indian cities are at that stage, the difference being that these are in juxtaposition with zones of affluence and opulence that can rival with the best anywhere. But every country has its ‘non-picture postcard’ realities, except that in India they are so situated as to be prominently and painfully visible. We all have romanticised views of our countries of origin, and those of our colonial masters. But we learn by the by, and also learn to adjust to both reality and perception. Who can fail to be moved by the performance of Nargis in the film Mother India?
Mother India indeed. She remains the berth of mankind’s oldest extant Books of Knowlegde, the Vedas, Mother of us all, in both actual life and imagination. As for me, I am convinced that I am forging the karmic bonds that will lead me to reincarnate there in my next life. Like Swami Vivekananda, I need to be born there, again and again, because the task is not yet over… When I tell my loved ones from India that I have only temporarily been ejected in this small island, they tell me that I must be crazy to want to live in India! So be it – but the time is not yet come. It surely will.
* Published in print edition on 17 August 2012