The story of India in 1947 and 2014 is a story of three generations or probably four. The year 1947 was a time when my grandparents were young, in their late 20s and brimming with life but uncertain about their country’s future.
Both my grandparents had graduated (though in different years) from Government College of Lahore, the most prestigious institute in those days of the undivided Punjab. Neither had families in Lahore and so travelled on Tongas (horse driven carriages) and trains from Amritsar and Gurdaspur. They had moderate pin money and indulged in simple treats like home-made pinnis (traditional sweet of Punjab) with hot milk and cream; recreation was reading, cycling and playing squash and basketball. Occasionally, Rabindranath Tagore and Allama Iqbal (also an alumni) would visit their college to give lectures or share views with students.
They had grown up amidst Hindu, Sikh and Muslim friends, enjoyed listening to Ghazals and couplets by legendary Ghalib and Iqbal. Amrita Shergill and Saadat Hasan Manto were still building reputations, cricket was yet to become a rage in India, watching a movie in theatres was a thrilling novelty - Allam Ara was the first movie with sound and Kisan Kanhaiya the first with colour (Mughal-e-Azam was first to be digitally coloured much later) - and soon Madhubala, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar were to become freshly minted stars.
Back at home, messages were sent on horse-backs and later through telegrams; most villages had no access to electricity and relied on wells for daily supply of water. Days began early – at dawn or even earlier, as the orange hues of sun spread over the misty expanse of fields and the village cock crowed; by sunset, dinner had already been eaten, and in summers, beds were laid out in verandas and terraces under the starlit skies or the poor servant was given the unsavoury task of operating the hand-rope pulled fan from the ceiling. An elopement made shocking news – it was amongst the big “crime” stories that fed gossip mills.
Such were their simple but enriched times, when there was a calm rhythm to daily life. But behind the serene quiet of slowly ticking clocks, lives of people were embedded in an era of deep political turmoil.
Newspapers were filled with stories of frequently erupting riots in the background of growing differences between the Congress and the Muslim League and the inability of Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah to reach common ground.
Indians were not just entrenched in an epic fight to obtain freedom, but were also at odds with themselves. Would Muslims accept a compromise, would Nehru concede his aspirations, would Jinnah accept a bargain, and what about the future of Punjab and Bengal (besides other regions) – these were painful questions.
My grandmother, whose exceptionally progressive father had allowed her to complete post graduation and study in a different city, responded enthusiastically to Gandhi’s non-violent movement - burning all her clothes imported from England, she started wearing khadi.
But life was to take a turn. Soon she was to start a new innings after an arranged marriage with my grandfather who had joined the Indian Army under the British as an officer.
My grandfather’s family had by then bought a second house in newly built Model Town of Lahore – a city that was the commercial, fashion and cultural capital of the state. Things were already different after marriage... my grandparents could read before sleeping (there was more widespread availability of electricity in cities compared to villages), play squash and tennis together and go dancing at Lahore clubs. A camera was purchased amidst much hullabaloo and there was a new car – to ignite, it had to be first cranked by hand. It goes without saying that the car was the centre of attraction, particularly in the village, where every bridegroom would want to borrow it on his wedding day.
With Independence, everyone’s worst fears had been confirmed – India was to be partitioned. Our house in Lahore would have to be abandoned, our ancestral house in Gurdaspur along with a fair bit of land was under question because no one was quite sure from where the Radcliffe line would pass. With reasonable foresight my grandfather’s family got another house close to Delhi – just in case Gurdaspur went to Pakistan. Thankfully, due to its strategic location, Gurdaspur remained as a part of India and everyone in the family survived.
Alas, the story was not the same for thousands and lakhs of others who suffered irreparably in the worst bloodshed of the subcontinent. My grandfather who had travelled on train from Karachi to Delhi had the most horrific tales to relate of the gory episodes he saw.
Fortunately, my grandfather not just escaped untouched, he went on to work with Sam Manekshaw, whom he considered one his greatest friends and mentors, and also as a military attaché to Pandit Nehru. There was zeal to build the modern temples of India, strive to protect the borders and feed the number of growing mouths in the country.
By this time my father had completed his education and was a strapping young man conjoined with my mother in matrimony. There was a telephone at home and everyone listened to the radio for the 9 pm news. The old car had been replaced by a Fiat and an Ambassador. Recreation was picnics at the India Gate, lunches at Gaylords, Kwality and Embassy restaurants in Connaught Place and my newly married parents would hold dinner and dance parties for their friends with blaring music of Boney M and ABBA. Rajesh Khanna was the new superstar followed by Amitabh Bachchan, who scorched the screens as the angry young man. Binaca geetmala of Amin Sayani was the programme not to be missed on radio for Bollywood songs; young women including my mom wore bell-bottoms, Babita style buns and Sadhana’s bangs.
The swinging 70s were not without their peril. For the country at large, these were trying times. India had faced a distressful defeat in 1962 at the hands of China, a shock that Pandit Nehru could not survive. By 1971, India had dealt a crushing blow to Pakistan, which was split into two as Bangladesh was liberated after a long drawn struggle of the Bengali population. But war is war, and no victory is won without sacrifice. India saw a second flux of teeming refugees who had to be accommodated, growing problem of poverty and social unrest.
Amidst such turbulence, Indira Gandhi devalued the Rupee, nationalised banks, airlines and businesses and imposed Emergency. Janata Party and later BJP were born, and there was an opposition to be dealt with. Amidst her fight back of Akalis in Punjab, she gave birth to a disastrous idea – a strategy to empower Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to break the Akali stronghold. The plan backfired; Operation Bluestar led to more than a decade of alienation of Sikhs, militancy and ultimately her assassination. Indira Gandhi’s sons brought in new ideas. Sanjay Gandhi had earlier on thought of Maruti, whereas the reluctant politician in Rajiv, who was thrust in the Centre with a historic mandate, was “young and too had a dream” of a tech-savvy India.
As the decade advanced, the population expanded; people were slowly getting disillusioned with the Congress, there was the emergence of the politics of Mandal and Mandir, glorified hopes of Ram Rajya and Ram temple at Ayodhya. Our southern neighbour Sri Lanka was disturbed and we made the mistake of intervening with the Indian Peace Keeping Force. That was another decision that backfired and India lost another Gandhi to assassination.
Meanwhile, amidst political uncertainty, the era of coalition politics sprouted – an experiment which failed in its first avatar. In 1991, Congress came back to power with Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister – to his credit he discovered a finance minister in Dr Manmohan Singh and the era of liberalization started.
In the social context, in the 80s, there was a Black and White television set at home and the only programmes to watch were Krishi Darshan and Chitrahaar. With colour TV came the path-breaking Ramayana and Mahabharata and I remember vividly how I was made to sit in front of TV to watch these serials by my grandmother, all bathed and combed on Sunday mornings.
I was in school when I first heard of the launch of a fax machine in India and later a computer – classes for which meant we removed our shoes and entered a fully carpeted and air-conditioned school room. Recreation was attending Razmatazz music and Diwali festivals with friends, watching a movie at Chanakya, going to Nirulas – the only fast food joint - on the weekends, playing video-games and watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller and cartoons on the VCR. There was wild following for MJ, Madonna, Wham and Stevie Wonders and one would wait for Grammys each year to get a hand of the latest Billboard cassettes.
Such were my growing up years.
By the time I started working, the cellphone was here, but had found its way only into the hands of the rich. Our Editor had a Maruti 800 and the Executive Editor a Maruti Zen, most of the rest used public transport.
Today, the scenario has irreversibly transformed and that too at a frantic pace. The internet changed the world, the globe became a village, cellphones are used by rickshawallas and sabziwalas (vegetable vendors), smart-phones have made people smarter and dumber at the same time. There has been an explosion of information but not necessarily the best utilization of time, as new lifestyle diseases like social media / Facebook addiction have sprung up.
The trio of Khans who ruled Bollywood in my growing up years are still at the helm – but young blood, in the form of Ranbir and Ranveer, is also making its presence felt. Delhi is a lot more unsafe and so is India overall – from the time that I did night shifts till now, when the story of Nirbhaya and Nithari make headlines, life is cheaper and there are more dangers lurking not just in sleepy lanes and dark corners, but school buses and playgrounds. There is degradation in public life, more corruption and higher threshold to what one calls shocking news.
In our era, we have had the shameful IC 814 hijacking and Kargil, which was an armed engagement restricted to the border; but overall war has taken a more sinister twist. It appears in the form of Tiffin boxes on cycles and RDX filled packages in dustbins located in crowded areas to target innocents – nationality, age, gender are no bar. The more blood splatters, the more terror that can be infused in minds and hearts, the better for handlers sitting across the border or waiting in shadowy sleeper cells. We saw that in 26/11.
There is a numbing acceptance today that public places are no longer safe. Anything can happen anytime, anywhere.
Politically, the BJP has grown and become a very credible option and at no point of time in history was Congress this down and out - to think that the Grand Old Party can’t even manage to get its MP as a Leader of Opposition!
Undoubtedly, life is more comfortable in the era of iPads and iPods; the culture of EMIs and credit cards has boosted sales and the parking lot at office is choc-a-block with a variety of swanky cars of all shapes and sizes. People are more brand conscious, visit malls for pastime and whatsApp to stay connected. The number of coffee joints, fast food and fine dining restaurants have mushroomed and air travel and foreign sojourns are no longer restricted to the moneyed.
Amidst this amalgam of constant alteration, India appears to be a canvas of contrasting colours.
Today... There is greater opportunity, but more stress; more money but less satisfaction; better means but less patience, more ways of staying in touch but not necessarily better relationships.
India in 2014 is as impatient as it was in 1947. Politically a new era has started again, though in a different way. With greater sanguinity that we have today about a more prosperous future, concerns are real about our moral fabric, societal environment and, most importantly, safety.
In a way, India has always been about hope and foreboding... and in my veins I feel duelling optimism and pessimism. For a moment, one hopes for glory for the country and longing to see it towering in the world community; at the second instance, one stares at beggars from car windows and news of rapes strewn on newspaper pages. Simmering religious undertones still lead to riots in the 21st century, when young Indians are fuelling innovation at Silicon Valley.
In more ways than one, the patriotic Indian – the common man – continues to search for his personal manna – a secure life, material progress and spiritual solace; a desire to leave behind a better India for one’s family and friends, and the next generation. From the crevice of drudgery and slog, in our hearts and minds, silver light keeps shining.
And in many ways, I feel the same way my grandparents would have felt.