India: Land of Contrasts

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In February 1965, after the results of the HSC exams were declared, I responded to an advertisement by the Indian High Commission and applied for a scholarship to study medicine. My father had already warned me, upon my telling him that I would like to become a doctor, that he would not have the means to finance me for that purpose. ‘Either you become a laureate,’ he said, ‘or you win some scholarship.’

It had been clear to me early enough that I was not what one called ‘laureate material.’ So it had to be ‘some scholarship.’ I had the possibility of going to Germany as well, but since ‘a bird in the hands is worth two in the bush,’ I promptly accepted the Indian scholarship which came earlier. There was the added advantage, in a manner of speaking, that I would not have to go through the study of a foreign language before I embarked on medical studies proper, which I was impatient to do.

Looking back, it does not matter in the least that I did not become a laureate – but of one thing I am almost certain: had I been one, and gone to the UK for studies as used to be the case in those days, I would most likely have not returned to the country, and landed up doing pure medical research, my ‘first love.’ As it is, I will have to leave that for another reincarnation, but I do not consider for a moment that I have lost out in any way, from a general life perspective, for not having had the opportunity to study in the UK at the initial stage of my medical education. I did, however, pursue my specialist studies there, and my professional and other connections with the UK have remained very strong.

When I had gone for the interview, the panel consisted of Mr Mani, who was the Indian High Commissioner, and Mr Derek Hollingworth, Senior Education Officer. As my late chacha dropped me at the Indian High Commission, situated in Port-Louis opposite the Champ-de-Mars, he asked me whether I was feeling nervous. ‘A little,’ I replied. He then wished me good luck and left.

As it is, the interview turned out to be more of a ‘trialogue’ between me and the two panelists. I was most comfortable, and we talked for about 20 minutes in a light atmosphere. When I was done, I was fairly confident of a positive outcome, and in due course this was confirmed by the letter from the Commission. Now would come the more difficult part, preparing to go to a foreign land and be away for several years.

Before we, the scholarship winners of that year, left for India, we were convened one morning at the Commission to meet the High Commissioner. Mr Mani, ever as suave, courteous and an elegant gentleman diplomat, received us with a warm welcoming smile in his large office. After we had all sat down, he did so too, facing us directly. His opening words still resonate in my ears: ‘You will find that India is a land of contrasts.’

He could have said that again, and again. Comparing India with Mauritius is out of the question of course, although we do tend to do so: when I saw the surge of crowds as I looked towards what appeared to be a railway station on that morning when I first woke up in Bombay, I stood agape at what I thought was a special occasion: that crowd was I do not know how many times larger that the largest that I had ever seen back in Curepipe, when the football matches at the St Georges’ stadium would rush out towards the buses after the game. Football match? – not so early in the morning, surely! I was soon to learn that this is a daily affair, hundreds of thousands of passengers travelling at practically all hours of the day. I have been part of that sort of crowd many a time since, and I thoroughly enjoyed my 48-hour trip from Bombay to Calcutta.

It seemed that more crowds were lined up for me as I got off the train at Howrah station on a warm, sultry, humid Sunday afternoon, at nearly 5 pm. My heart sank when we were going past the line of drab, red brick buildings as we approached the city. ‘Is the medical college of the same type?’ I asked my fellow traveller in the first-class compartment. He could not give a clear answer. More heart sinking. It turned out not to be, to my great relief.

But there were other things that overwhelmed me. A few struck, and have stuck in my psyche, from the very beginning. My hostel juxtaposed to a slum. Got used to that. The skinny lady who was blind and who lived with her equally skinny babe on the pavement. Got used, like other passers-by by the hundreds daily, to her sight. She was still there when I left after nearly six years. From time to time, I would still my conscience by doling out some paise. The beggars with hands outstretched, baba baba ek paise de baba… Heart-rending…

The hustle-bustle at Chowranghee, centre of the city, where you could not walk without jostling with people, invariably rubbing shoulders against each other. But there was also College Street, a kilometre run of pavements on either side, with books stacked this high, books new and old, at prices affordable to all purses. I bought my book of medical statistics there for Rs 5, and it is still preciously kept, and referred to from time to time. There was Flurry’s, posh salon de thé à l’Anglaise in Park Street, where one went for breakfast – and ordered, hold it, beans on toast!

Then of course, there were the babble of languages, the sounds of music, the sounds and smells of everything else, felt and ‘internalised’ as I travelled to other cities and places. I will need a few more lifetimes to pursue my unfinished journey in India, and every time there will be more contrasts.

More fundamentally for me, I found that India is home. And I share the angst of Indians, as expressed by Akash Kapur in his article In search of a new India, writing in the latest TIME magazine: ‘What kind of country does India want to be? Does India want to continue down the path of rapid growth without regard for the social, cultural and environmental consequences? Or can India combine growth with justice?’

The sooner that Indian genius does this, ‘reinventing the game’ as Kapur hopes, the better it will be for all of us, Diaspora Indians, and for mankind. Tall order, but only India can do it. Jai Hind.

* Published in print edition on 27 October 2012

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