There is much that is good and of great value in European culture, but as Horace Alexander advocated, we must shed our lop-sided views and bring to bear the rich perspectives from the East
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Whenever a high personality from India deigns to visit our country, those of us of Indian ancestry feel a special little flutter in our hearts. Nothing special about that, because a similar emotion is experienced and expressed by our fellow Mauritians of other ancestry whenever an equivalent, or sometimes even lesser, personality visits from the respective shore.
I suppose, however, that all this applies mainly to those of my generation – baby-boomers – and those before us. I do not think that today’s generation quite ‘connects’ with India as we do – perhaps with things Indian, yes (goods and Bollywood films), but they are likely to be a far remove from what has been referred to, and still being written about, as the ‘idea of India’ (Sunil Khilnani).
Such visits also give some of us an opportunity to introspect and to reflect about our Indianness and our relationship with India, especially in these times of ‘diasporic’ awareness.
My own initial idea of India was forged by contact with Professor Ram Prakash, an expatriate who came to Mauritius in the 1950s to kickstart the teaching of Hindi and oriental languages here. From 1960 till 1964, my last year at the Royal College Curepipe, he ran a class on Indian Culture every Friday afternoon. That period coincided with the arrival of a new rector at the college, Mr Herbert Bullen of Oxonian pedigree, who encouraged extra-curricular activities of all sorts, and these took place in the several societies that were set up as a result.
One of them was the Indian Cultural Society (there were also French, English, Chinese ones – and we could belong to one or more, which we did as a matter of fact), and it was almost natural that Prof Ram Prakash became its president.
Of course in those days all that we heard, learnt and knew about had to do with England and France. India, even less China, did not even ‘swim into our ken’, as it were. As far as India is concerned, Prof Ram Prakash started to restore a kind of balance, not least because he was such a lively communicator – despite his heavy Punjabi accent (as I was to discover later) – but also because he was so highly respected by the rector and all the staff. He was quite a jovial person, always with a smile and a shine on his face, and he clearly had such an encyclopaedic knowledge along with, like practically every Indian, a prodigious memory.
Rabindranath Tagore, Radhakrishnan, Allama Iqbal, Swami Vivekananda, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose among others became familiar names to us as we gradually learnt about them from the dear professor. And dare I say that the interest, in my case at least, has only grown with the years.
But the years have also brought a certain realism in our perception and our own idea of India, borne out of our involvement with India and Indians in various roles – at student, family/relative/friend, professional or business levels. But this realism was thrust upon me, and others too, even earlier, when the Mohan Bagan football team came to Mauritius in the early 1960s.
It was India’s champion and I think it continues to hold that place there. But it got a thrashing by the local football team, and the defeat was all the more humiliating because the Mauritian team very shortly afterwards got in its turn a beating from two visiting teams, Nam Wa from China and Burnley from England, none of them being ‘Ivy League’ category teams to boot.
Of course those of us who had expectations of Mohan Bagan felt let down, but again there was nothing we could do save to accept that: Indians are not great at football. They’d better stick to cricket and, perhaps, hockey. I hope I am right because I am not at all a sportsperson.
In those pre-Independence days, when everything to do with India and those of Indian origin was looked down upon, and Europe and the West were considered in a superior light, what appeared like a simple matter added further to the negative perception, which had to be lived with after Mohan Bagan had gone. Fortunately, at the RCC at least, there was Prof Ram Prakash.
But this perception of India then was widespread. This is brought out in the book from which I have borrowed the title of this article, whose author is Horace Alexander (b. 1899), a graduate of Cambridge who spent many years in India. In the preface to the book, which was published in 1961, this is what he writes: ‘Western scholars of our age, when they talk of the heritage of the ancient world, still commonly confine themselves to the Mediterranean countries, with Mesopotamia and Arabia and Persia possibly included. The ancient cultures of India and China are omitted.’
He had the honesty to observe, a few lines later, ‘if it is assumed that western man can consider himself educated if he has absorbed what he can from Judea and Greece and Rome without reference to any other culture, then surely such a lop-sided view of the heritage of man is erroneous and even dangerous.’
In fact familiarity with European history, literature and art was considered as sufficiently indicative of an educated man in those days, clearly a great illusion under which many of us laboured, little knowing that vast oceans of sublime thinking about every possible human situation lay beyond the limited horizons of secondary knowledge within which we were kept imprisoned.
Horace Alexander would never have imagined the emergence of the BRICS countries, but he must at least be credited with prescience as he went on to note, ‘What happens to China and India and among their Asian neighbours, in politics, in economics, in ideology, and in the growth of human thought, will surely affect us all – just as surely as events in Africa and the Middle East, in America, North and South, or in the Soviet Union, cannot be neglected by Europe. So we Europeans, we westerners, must begin to bring the great cultures of the East into the compass of our knowledge and understanding.’
This process has been accelerated by the financial crisis that began in America and since spread to the eurozone, forcing us here to turn away from our eurocentric stance. Unquestionably, there is much that is good and of great value in European culture, but as Horace Alexander advocated, we must shed our lop-sided views and bring to bear the rich perspectives from the East.
The Indian and Chinese civilisations are the oldest in the world, and have a lot to teach us. We should prepare ourselves to be ready to receive their ancient wisdom.