On the second day of 2017, I drove from the colonial hill station of Coonoor to the great old port city of Kochi. Thus began a month of almost continuous travel, in which I took many flights, but also spent long stretches on the road, seeing the land from up on high and from the ground as well. I descended from the mountains to the plains, stayed in large cities and small towns, saw or stopped in numerous villages, and even touched the majestic Indian Ocean.
As a student in school and college, I took long train and bus journeys across India. These were to visit relatives—my parents lived in Dehradun and my grandparents in Bengaluru—to play cricket matches, and to take part in quizzes. Later, as a young researcher, I travelled to hill and forest areas across the country. But once I reached my thirties, my travels within India reduced, while journeys overseas rapidly increased. In recent years the trend has been reversed, and I am once more beginning to know my country. In a lifetime of travel, this month may have been the most intense yet, in which I touched six states of the Republic, two Union Territories, and a neighbouring Republic too.
What did I learn, or re-learn, about my country in the month of January 2017? First, I was acquainted, or re-acquainted, with the astonishing depth of its civilizational history. This was most manifest in architecture. The most beautiful structure I saw was also the oldest—the Brihadiswara temple in Thanjavur, a true wonder of the world, as majestic and magnificent as the Taj Mahal, yet built more than six hundred years before it.
I did not touch Agra in my travels, but I did see some splendid Islamic monuments, among them the Siddi Sayyad mosque in Ahmedabad, an exquisite little jewel, and older than the Taj by some seventy years. And I visited some fine churches—one in the town of Tharagambadi in Tamil Nadu (formerly known as Tranquebar), dates from the early 18th century, and claims to be the oldest Protestant Church in India. A Catholic Church I saw in Fort Kochi (the one where Vasco da Gama was once buried) dates to the early 16th century. I also walked through the old Jewish quarter of Fort Kochi (where the synagogue is now sadly defunct), while, in the museum in Thanjavur, I saw several superb statues of the Buddha.
The anthropologist Verrier Elwin—who originally trained as a theologian—once wrote that ‘through countless voices in the East, heralds of the Incarnation cry out to us through India’s mystics and poets. The Eternal Word is uttered silently in her glorious art and sounds in her songs … . India is a land alive with thoughts of God, and as though dazzled by the profusion of His Witness, she has become the mother of religion’. These words followed me through my travels. The temples in and around Thanjavur and Kumbakonam were thronged with devotees, while the antiquity of the churches and mosques I visited impressed upon me that this is not, and has perhaps never been, a purely ‘Hindu’ country.
The diversity of India is far more than religious and cultural, of course. It is also ecological. The Niligiris, where I began my journey, are characterized by tea plantations and shola forests. Kerala, which I spent a day driving through, is densely populated, the towns and villages blending into one another. There were some forest areas I passed through; remnants of what was once a much more richly wooded state. The prettiest countryside I saw on my travels was in southern Tamil Nadu, where we were mostly off the highway, the narrow roads winding through paddy fields and clumps of bamboo, and with plenty of old growth trees alongside. And at various points I stayed in Bengaluru, Pune, Ahmedabad, and New Delhi, those large, raucous, and over-burdened cities of modern India.
The six states I visited in January 2017 were Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and West Bengal. Each are defined by a distinct language, whose literature and folklore is deeply encoded in the consciousness of the people of the state. On this trip I was struck once more by how strong and robust these state-level identities are, and how bracingly positive they can sometimes (albeit not always) be. In Kerala, I spend two days at the Kochi Biennale, an initiative of Malayali artists, and strongly supported by the State Government (whether ruled by the Congress or the Left Front). The Biennale is rooted in the soil of Kerala, yet gloriously embraces India and the world.
My trip to Pune was also the product of an admirable state-level initiative. Every year, the Maharashtra Foundation, run by successful Marathi-speakers now resident in North America, organizes a function in collaboration with the respected weekly Sadhana, founded in the 1940s by the patriot and social reformer Sane Guruji. At this function, awards are presented to Maharashtrians who have made significant contributions in music, the arts, literature, social work, and social activism. It was an impressive event, honouring real distinction, and attended by a wide cross-section of Punaikars, including many college students. I wish that successful NRIs from other parts of India would be similarly inspired to so constructively reconnect to the writers and reformers of the states they have left behind.
I also encountered regional pride in a more raw form, in Tamil Nadu, where my visit coincided with the protests around the Supreme Court’s ban on Jallikattu. Driving through Salem, our car was stopped by a large crowd of protesters, who had gathered to show solidarity with the movement demanding the reinstatement of Jallikattu. So I was able to see up front what Indians outside Tamil Nadu were viewing on their television screens—namely, how an ancient agrarian ritual had become, for a heady few weeks, the very symbol of Tamil identity.
In 1948, a year after our country became independent, Claude Auchinlek, former Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, wrote to a friend: ‘The Sikhs may try to set up a separate regime. I think they probably will and that will be only a start of a general decentralization and break-up of the idea that India is a country, whereas it is a subcontinent as varied as Europe. The Punjabi is as different from a Madrassi as a Scot is from an Italian. The British tried to consolidate it but achieved nothing permanent. No one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations.’
But we have. The greatness and uniqueness of the Indian experiment is that our Founders refused to define national identity in terms of a shared religion, a single language, or a common enemy. In this we have mostly succeeded. Seventy years after independence, the Punjabi and the Madrasi, and the Bengali and the Maharashtrian, all feel different to from each other, yet part of a shared collective endeavour in living together—for the most part, peaceably.
My travels in January 2017 were always educative, sometimes intriguing, at other times uplifting. And they could be depressing too. The one thing common to all the different States of the Union I visited, the one thing that followed me everywhere, was the plastic bag, its ubiquity overriding the diversity of language, region, religion, and landscape that I otherwise encountered. These bags were littered all across the streets, under trees, in fields, and in many sacred places too. The saddest sight of all was of the great river Kaveri, its bed empty because of drought, yet strewn from bank to bank with plastic bags variously coloured green, yellow, and pink.
The only place where this execresence was missing was the place where I started, Coonoor. Some years ago, a visionary Collector of the Niligirs banned plastic bags in the district. Long after this particular Collector left, the citizens of the Niligits remain committed to the ban’s implementation. It has made these hills even more beautiful and hospitable than they were.
Plastic bags are a disaster on three fronts: aesthetic, environmental, and social. They are ugly, they degrade the soil and the waters, and they displace labour. If replaced by cloth or paper bags they would make India prettier and less polluted, while at the same time generating jobs. It is past time the Union Government issues a country-wide ban on them. No other object despoils and defaces our country as much.