When I was first sent to report India, I seldom raised my eyes to the gothic edifices and facades of the British Raj. All life was at dust- and pavement-level and, once the shock had eased, I learned to admire the sheer imagination and wit of people who survived the cities, let alone the countryside -- the dabbawallahs (literally "person with a box"), cleaners, runners, street barbers, poets, assorted Fagans and children with their piles of peanuts.
In Calcutta, as it was still known during the 1971 war with Pakistan, civil defence units in soup-plate helmets and lungis toured the streets announcing an air-raid warning practice during which, they said, "everybody must stay indoors and remain in the face-down position until the siren has ceased to operate." Waves of mocking laughter greeted them, together with the cry: "But we have no doors to stay inside!"
When the imperial capital was transferred to Delhi early last century, New Delhi was built as a modernist showpiece, with avenues and roundabouts and a mall sweeping up to the viceroy's house, now the president's residence in the world's most populous democracy. If the experience of colonialism was humiliating, this proud new metropolis would surely be enabling. On 15 August, 1947, it was the setting for Pandit Nehru's declaration of independence "at the midnight hour." It was also a faÃ§ade behind which the majority hoped and waited, and still wait.
India's ascent to "new world power" is both true and what Edward Bernays, the founder of public relations, called "false reality." Despite a growth rate of 6.9 percent and prosperity for some, more Indians than ever are living in poverty than anywhere on earth, including a third of all malnourished children. Save the Children says that every year two million infants under the age of five die.
The facades are literal and surreal. Ram Suhavan and his family live 60 feet above a railway track. Their home is the inside of a hoarding which advertises, on one side, "exotic, exclusive" homes for the new "elite" and on the other, a gleaming car. This is in Pune, in Maharashtra state, which has "booming" Bombay and the nation's highest suicide rate among indebted farmers.
What is always exciting about India is this refusal to comply with political mythology and gross injustice. In The Idea of India, wrote Sunil Kjilnani, "The future of western political theory will be decided outside the west." For the majorities of India and the west, liberal democracy was now diminished to "the assertion of an equal right to consume [media] images."
In Kashmir, a forgotten India barely reported abroad, a peaceful resistance as inspiring as Tahrir Square has arisen in the most militarized region on earth. As the victims of Partition, Muslim Kashmiris have known none of Nehru's noble legacies. Thousands of dissidents have "disappeared" and torture is not uncommon. "The voice that the government of India has tried so hard to silence," wrote Arundhati Roy, "has now massed into a deafening roar. Hundreds of thousands of unarmed people have come out to reclaim their cities, their streets and mohallas. They have simply overwhelmed the heavily armed security forces by their sheer numbers, and with a remarkable display of raw courage."
An Indian Spring may be next.