A question of issues
For forty years now, Seminar has been discussing the key issues which confront us. This represents a commitment of unique importance to our society. Stendhal, writing about Napoleon, said: ‘There are no great men – there are merely great events.’ Thus, for example, the extraordinary cast thrown up by the few short years of World War II – Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin, de Gaulle, and so forth.
Stendhal was right. But not completely. For it is not just great events – it is really the epic issues that underlie them. Hence the fundamental questions raised by our own freedom struggle – the accountability of power, democratic rights for the poorest, and so forth – gave heroic dimensions to the words and actions of our leaders: Gandhiji, Nehru, Azad, Patel, and many others. This, in a nutshell, is what is so moving about Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi: Accountability. It was the strength of the British rule in India, but it was also their Achilles heel. Gandhiji understood this and used it to get us our freedom. The entire confrontation is encapsulated in the key scene (historically fictitious, but dramatically correct) where the diminutive prisoner in his dhoti enters the small courtroom, and the judge stands up. This is the moment where the audience switches from being onlooker to participant and the movie changes gears.
One of the benefits of living in the Third World is that the issues we face are so much bigger than us. In rying to deal with them, we have a chance to grow. I believe this, as much as any other factor, was decisive in the lives of Raj and Romesh Thapar, and in the journal they founded. And over the last four decades Seminar has been carrying out this mandate, brilliantly and tirelessly. It is a task that today’s India needs more than ever. For, while some things in our country have become better, and some things have become worse, there is one area which has been gradually shrinking – and that is the dimensions of the issues we address.
This growing myopia is a malaise that has afflicted the West as well. This is why a century which started with Manifestos and heroic attempts to postulate a Brave New World (with Equity for the poorest, and Justice for all), is ending with the Haves in pitched battle (well, all right, in a kind of video game version of the real thing), defending their possessions, and winning, while the poor and illiterate and unemployed are likely to be left to fend for themselves. That’s the New World Order, which extremely talented mercenaries are touting around the world as the End of History. Surely you and I are going to survive, possibly even triumph, but we will have become very much more tiny in the process.
What are the issues Seminar could look at in today’s India? In this brief essay I will try and touch on some of them. Architects are compulsive optimists (almost pathologically so) but there are some things that fill one with dismay. For instance, in our country today, many of the essential elements of a democratic society are rapidly evaporating. In fact, we have somehow managed to reduce democracy to just the notion of voting every five years (or every year as per current practice). We seem to have completely forgotten that voting is only a means to an end. And that end, of transcending importance, is the accountability of those in power.
Our track record in this crucial matter is getting worse and worse. And perhaps, given our feudal past (and present?) it is never going to be easy. For, as someone has pointed out, essential to the principle of accountability is the notion of a single law of the land, one which applies to all. Now that runs directly counter to the caste system embodied in the laws of Manu, whereby our society is based not on a single set of rules but on a matrix of laws. This has developed a mindset where we are not really agitated about what is happening in the layers above us. Hence our basic apathy to so many political scandals – because, as far as we are concerned, they are occurring in the stratosphere. Far from holding those gods accountable to us, our response, at most, is to gossip about their misdemeanours – but not to really try and bring them to book.
On the other hand, anyone from levels below us who we perceive to be misbehaving, we stamp on with great enthusiasm – so that they do not dare to try and climb out of the box into which we’ve put them. This is why customs officers at our airports will cheerfully wave through passengers flying in from London and New York with bags stuffed with whiskey, chocolates and computer games, way above the official allowance, but will jump down on workers coming in from the Gulf with a few nylon saris and jewellery for their families (bought with foreign exchange they themselves have toiled desperately to earn).
The privilege we are talking about has nothing to do with achievement. The other day there was a subtle letter to a newspaper in which the writer said he would always be grateful to his father – not for the money he had left him (he was penniless), nor for his brains (he had few), nor even for his exemplary character. He was ever grateful to his father for making him a Brahmin – a gift which no power on earth could prevent him from passing on to his son. It was a wonderful letter because it conveyed in a nutshell the pathological state we are in.
And it seems to be a sickness which now has gone beyond Manu and infected the whole Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Truly we three are the last sick men of Asia. All the other countries have climbed out of poverty. But not us. And as we sink lower economically, our ‘privileges’ become more and more important to our self-esteem. Thus Christians in Goa or Muslims in Gujarat continue, even to this day, to remind themselves of their caste before conversion. No one, I guess, ever renounces privilege, however unfair. Yet it is precisely this that prevents us from exercising that key quality of any democratic society: holding those in power accountable. Without this, democracy can have no real meaning.
Another fundamental characteristic of democracy which is woefully absent in our country is the courage to stand up for our neighbour when his rights are being abused. Of course one understands that this will be difficult in a poor country like India, with our heritage of poverty and zamindari despotism. ‘Show me a full stomach’, said Bernard Shaw in Major Barbara, ‘and I will show you all the petty virtues you hanker for.’ Fair enough. If you and I are both poor and the zamindar is beating me up, you would be a fool to stand up for me; you’d only end up with a broken head as well. I understand that, so I would not expect you to intervene. But what about those of us who have full stomachs? Why don’t we ever speak up? Every week we read of some village where someone drinks water from the wrong well and gets butchered. And that happens not just occasionally, it’s a way of life.
That’s probably as bad, or even worse, than anything the whites in South Africa ever did to the blacks. And yet it goes on all the time – together with bride burning, dowry deaths, and so forth. The standard query: ‘Where were you when…’ thrown at Germans today may well be asked of us a decade or less down the line. How will we respond? I was attending a reception at the Italian Embassy? Or dining at the Taj? Our abysmal indifference to what happens to the Other is what allowed the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, and the 1992 riots in Bombay, and the cold-blooded murder of the Staines family last year. Why don’t we speak up? As Martin Luther King said of the vicious events of his time, and his place: ‘History will not be dismayed by the cacophony of the evil men… but by the silence of the good ones.’
And in these matters, our silence is deafening. Compare this to the UK of some decades ago when the Tory politician Enoch Powell was fulminating against Indians, advocating that they should all be sent home. Who fought and destroyed Powell? The Indians? No. It was the Conservative Party leaders themselves – many of whom probably disliked the presence of Indians as much as he did. But they didn’t want to live in an England where those kinds of statements could be made. So Powell, who was one of the most powerful leaders of the Conservative Party, was isolated, never to be heard of again. Most Maharashtrians I know do not agree with the utterances of Bal Thackeray. Why do none of them come out and say so? All they have to state is: This man does not speak for me. Almost none have shown the courage to say even that little.
Why did Raj and Romesh Thapar show that courage? Why did they launch Seminar? Why did they never hesitate to speak up and be counted? Some might assume it was the confidence that comes from privilege – but this is not true. There are so many others, even more privileged, who do not ever speak up. No, I think it was because they genuinely and fiercely believed in the principles which fuelled India in that first decade of our Independence. A couple of years ago, on a visit to South Africa, I understood a bit about what those heroic years must have been like, with their whole future spread out before them. South Africa is so beautiful. So full of hope. And so fragile. Like India of the 1950s.
For us today, those moments seem long past. In the intervening decades, we have gradually gelled into quite a different kind of society. Quite mundane. Myopic. Even nasty. This is not to say that some things haven’t got better, much better. The telephone system for one. Cable television for another. But that’s exactly it – we seem to be much more motivated by a kind of hedonistic me-ism. And its symptoms – the runaway bmws, the illegal speak-easies – are all around us. In fact, they are increasingly a part of the glamorous life which more and more of us crave.
Look around Mumbai or Delhi today and you will see how ugly we have become. Of course here and there you will find individuals who stand up against this tidal wave of inanity and corruption. (In Delhi, perhaps the last refuge of these other values is the India International Centre, incidentally a place which Romesh brought to life when he took over for a few years as Honorary Director in the ’70s. The IIC has an extraordinary ambience – like a time warp. The women, with their handloom shawls, could be refugees from the Cottage Industries Emporium of the 1950s – and the men look like they are vice chancellors of some mofussil university. It’s the complete opposite – thank God – of those terrible 5-star hotel lobbies in which the city abounds.)
To live simply and unostentatiously is a virtue which is fast dying out in our country. Today we find gleaming marble and polished granite everywhere. Forgotten is the noble dignity of handloom. Perhaps because, unfortunately for us, Gandhiji’s enthusiasm for khadi was a political – and not an aesthetic – position. So it gradually faded away, as its political correctness waned.
This is quite different from what happened in Japan. At the core of their art theory is the concept of wabi sabi. The word wabi means humble. And the Japanese believe that if you can find beauty in a humble material like mud or sand, and I can find beauty only in granite, then your soul is much finer than mine. Sabi is also interesting. It means that as some things get older, they become more beautiful. This is why the Japanese have a special reverence for old pottery, and of course old trees. The concept of wabi sabi, which explains much of the art of Japan (including those incredible moss gardens) is, I believe, universal to mankind. And this is why the hippie revolution, that changed the world in the 1960s, had as its icon that most humble item of clothing: a pair of blue jeans. Suddenly jeans were being worn by everyone, everywhere. (It also explains why old and faded jeans commanded a very much higher premium.)
Closer to home, I remember as a young architect in the 1950s, I loved wearing khadi shirts. Not because it was politically correct, but because it looked terrific. Khadi and handloom both have a visual quality that speaks directly to our 20th century sensibilities – like tantric art. So you don’t have to chose to be either ‘modern’ or to wear handloom (or to collect those sensational tantric ideograms). You can do it all in one holistic gesture.
Today we have descended into a kind of schizophrenia where people feel they have perforce to choose whether they should dress (or decorate their houses) in a way which they call ‘ethnic’, or in a style which they term ‘modern’. This is ridiculous, because India is one of the few places left in the world where you could do both at the same time. In contrast, if a Japanese woman wears a kimono, or an Arab woman wears a burkha, she is signalling that she has conservative values. Not so a sari. Indira Gandhi ran the nation wearing a sari – it didn’t prove she was conservative, nor did it prove (as we later found out) that she was modern. It was just something she wore everyday.
Perhaps the only hero of pre-Independent India who was visual enough to understand these kinds of connections was Rabindranath Tagore. In Shantiniketan he created an extraordinary university where teachers and students sat under the trees. Not just because it was cheaper to do so, but because throughout India (and in much of the rest of Asia as well) it is the mythic image of True Enlightenment. He himself walked around dressed in a kind of maxi, of his own invention! Tagore was really incredible – a true original. Unfortunately he also proved to be one of a kind. It is sad indeed that in today’s India he is all but forgotten.
In closing, I feel I must apologise for the somewhat freewheeling nature of this piece which seeks to suggest the kind of issues that, in the context of today’s India, Seminar could perhaps look at. My only justification is that this really was the kind of conversation one would have had with Raj and Romesh. That is why I loved meeting them – those lunches at Connaught Place and the delicious Punjabi khana at the impromptu dinners at Kautilya Marg. Their’s was an India of ideas. And liberal values.
The range of their enthusiasms was extraordinary – from politics and economics to cinema and theatre, to literature, art and architecture. And they shared it all so generously with their friends. This is why Seminar was so pluralistic in its themes. Some of the first pieces I ever wrote on architecture and urbanism, way before the National Commission on Urbanisation, were at their behest. Even today, there are very few journals, if any, who would publish special issues on the future of our cities, or on low-income housing, or on public transport. But Seminar did this all, and continues to do so, to the eternal credit of its present editors, Malvika and Tejbir Singh.
And to the credit, too, of its extraordinary founders, Raj and Romesh Thapar. Their very names remind one of the India that might have been – and which is now fast disappearing, like the Cheshire cat. Only the smile remains. And that too is gradually fading. Perhaps has already gone?