Critical Digressions: Twilight in Delhi

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Last month, we packed our bags and headed to Delhi. We flew on a cheap ticket, got in at an ungodly hour, bleary-eyed but excited. Indira Gandhi International airport is typically third-world, featuring ramshackle transit busses, greasy walls, dull immigration officials, who, because we hail from across the border, gravely told us to fill out extra paperwork. Outside, we dryly smoked a Dunhill, spent close to an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the parking lot, traversed the dark swaths of the city by car, and slept at dawn. In the afternoon, wide-eyed, we headed out.

This was our first time in India. We thought we’d be a foreigner in a foreign land but were immediately struck by the obvious, or not so obvious: from the anemic flow of water in taps to the quality of light in winter, India is like Pakistan, familiar territory, terra cognita; the flora, colors, topography, architecture, traffic and beggars, suggested that we had been here before. Delhi seemed like a larger, sometimes grander version of Lahore.

Republic_day Touring the city on rickshaw, we rattled past the very impressive Rashtrapati Bhawan, the old Viceregal Palace, where preparations for Republic Day were underway. Here, where Lord Mountbatten once determined the fate of the Subcontinent, we now observed posters featuring the visiting Saudi head-of-state, King Abdullah; police with semiautomatics trolling the wide boulevards as the odd monkey scurried by; stands and seating and portable toilets busily being set up for the throngs that would in days observe artifacts of Indian martial identity: ballistic missiles named after the gods Agni and Prithvi, as wells as Russian-built T-90 tanks. On TV later, we also watched colorful folk dancers and elephants participate in the festivities. Strangely, save the animals, it was all familiar, the sort of display we have often seen on the wide boulevards of Islamabad on Independence Day. Although we would have liked to stroll around, our rickshaw-wallah advised us against it.

Qutb_minar Next we stopped at the Qutb Minar, the awesome two-hundred-and-forty foot tower constructed in 1199 to commemorate the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan by the Turk Qutbuddin Aibak. A testament to Indo-Islamic syncretism, the tower ostensibly shares the muscular aesthetic of many of the Hindu temples we have visited in and around Karachi but upon closer inspection, is adorned by Arabic script. Interestingly, we happened upon a secret carving of the elephant-god Ganesh on a foundation stone in the north wall of the complex (a must-see). As we ambled about, we were beckoned by a waving middle-aged woman seated reading a newspaper in one of the cupolas. Hand extended, she declaimed: “Photo!” We immediately complied, handing over our camera. She then meticulously documented our visit, taking pictures of us from different angles, framed by different arches, the Qutb Minar sometimes in the background, now on our left, now on our right. We were quite touched by her sense of duty to the solitary ambling tourist which, we figured, had something to do with native pride, patriotism. Having depleted most of our roll, she returned the camera and extending her hand again, said, “Tip please!” Parting with a ten rupee note, we thought, “Hand ho gaya.” On the way out, we mentioned the incident to another tourist who said, “She took me for a hundred.”

Finally, we headed to the Mughal Jamia Masjid, a smaller, duller version of the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore. We muttered some secular prayers in the courtyard then scaled one its minarets. After a vertiginous five-minute climb, we were suddenly upon Delhi; the city spread before us in twilight. And the flat skyline, the Shahi Mohalla, the adjacent squat neighborhoods, the bustle of humanity, reminded us of surveying Lahore from the Minar-e-Pakistan. We felt dizzy and elated and at that moment, claimed the city, and country.

013_14aIndia’s similarity to Pakistan extends further than the glance of the tourist. Both countries are fundamentally similar in significant ways, an obvious, even mundane observation but one mostly neglected in the media, academia, and popular discourse, within and without the Subcontinent. The edifices and detritus that we happened upon are testaments to a common past defined by competing religious, cultural and colonial heritages, repectively: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh; Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Assamese, Kashmiri, Pashtun, Balouchi, Sindhi; British, French, Portuguese. Many assume that in this common past there is the suggestion of common ground, of the Subcontinent functioning as a cohesive political entity. The vast area, however, has functioned only thrice as such: under the legendary Ashoka circa 273 BCE, under the Mughal Aurganzeb three hundred years ago, and most recently under the British. Regional aspirations have been the rule rather than the exception throughout history. The creation of the modern states of India and  Pakistan is testament to this historical momentum, of competing visions and ideas grating against each other, centralized state structure on one side, federalism on the other. And this dynamic may shape and reshape the Subcontinent in the future as it has for millennia.

That we share a common history is not an interesting claim. What is interesting, or rather, peculiar, is that in recent history, India and Pakistan have rarely occupied the same space in discourse. The only notable academics that have made a syncretic effort are the Harvard professor Sugata Bose and the Tufts professor, Ayesha Jalal. In Modern South Asia they note that they

“…aim at breaching the spatial and temporal divide which that moment has come to represent in the domain of scholarship. Despite a much longer shared history, marked as much by commonalities as differences, post-colonial India and Pakistan have been for the most part treated as two starkly antithetical entities. Only a few comparative analysts have risked trespassing across arbitrary frontiers demarcated at the time of partition, preferring to operate within the contours of independent statehood, even when these fly in the face of overlapping developments…Such scholarly deference to the boundaries of post-colonial nation-states in the subcontinent is matched by the attitude of Indian and Pakistani border patrols…”

Regionalism and other varieties of centripetalism continue to inform both states. In a rare article comparing the two countries, The Economist, notes

“India…sometimes wonders whether it really is one nation. Many of its 25 states are big enough and different enough from each other to be large countries in their own right. Bids by various regions for more autonomy were accommodated (most of the time), bought off or suppressed by the Indian government with varying degrees of finesse. Clashes of caste, class and creed periodically undermine order, if not India’s territorial integrity. India is pocked with small wars, from the tribal insurgencies of the north-east to the caste wars of Bihar, where upper-caste private armies slaughter dalits (formerly known as untouchables), and Naxalite (Maoist) militias murder landlords in return.”

Interestingly both countries – one with democratic credentials and one with sporadic and spotty democracy – resort to the army when regionalism threatens. The Pakistani army has crushed movements for autonomy in Sindh and Balouchistan while the Indian army has crushed those in Kashmir, Punjab, and Assam. Both countries also invariably accuse each other of aggravating these movements when in every case, regional anxieties are local matters. For instance, the present phase of the independence movement in Kashmir – which the wonderfully erudite Pankaj Mishra has examined in a series of articles on Kashmir in the New York Review of Books – can be traced to a single bullet fired by an Indian soldier into a peaceful student demonstration in early 1990.

Both countries share the same parliamentary system of government (and the same archaic bureaucratic apparatus), a legacy of our shared colonial past. During our trip, the uneasy relationship between the center and periphery was highlighted by the Buta Singh episode: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came under attack for not sacking the controversial governor of Bihar who had been indicted by the Supreme Court for a “politically motivated report recommending Central rule in the state.” Other debates taking place in the parliament seemed familiarly silly: elected public officials arguing about the fate of Sourav Ganguly, the captain of the Indian cricket team (and the fact that Musharraf has managed to resist American pressure to vote against Iran in the IAEA when Manmohan had not.) Similarly, in Pakistan, a strident and ineffectual committee was convened last year to examine the functioning of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

We also share an unfortunate feature of the postcolonial nation state: systematic corruption amongst the political class. Pakistan’s corrupt politicians – Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, in particular – are infamous but in recent memory, at least one major scandal has rocked every India administration: the Bofors arms deal involved $30 million in kickbacks and implicated Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi himself; the $138 million sugar contracts scam in 1996 implicated another Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao; the screwy deregulation of the telecom sector under communications minister Sukh Ram; the dramatic “Operation Duryodhana” which featured eleven members of parliament caught in tape taking bribes for the release of development funds; and most recently, the Volker report on the Oil-for-Food scandal brought down the External Affairs minister, Natwar Singh. A BBC reporter observed, “Corruption pervades nearly every aspect of Indian life. Even mundane procedures such as applying for a driving license, school and university admission, and getting a telephone connected often need to be accompanied by a pay-off to an official to speed up the procedure.” Familiar indeed.

OlddelhiNot everything is familiar though. In the shadow of the mosque, we dined at Karim’s, a much celebrated restaurant: National Geographic called it a “magic little restaurant”; BBC raved about it; and various Indian newspapers employ only hyperbole to describe it: “every time [sic] on the menu is a celebration of special mughlai cuisine that fed and probably enslaved the Royals to their cooks, who in turn have been making parallel history by making their ways into people’s hearts through their stomachs.” We trembled with anticipation reading these elegies displayed in cutouts on the walls. As a discerning culinary tourist, we ordered three very different items: Jahangiri chicken, chicken liver, and paya, or goat trotters. Tragically, ladies and gentlemen, we were disappointed. The chicken had no kick, the liver was served soupy, and the paya was doused with haldi. In fact, save one exception (the rather amazing Kakori kebob in Lucknow), over the course of our jaunt we realized that Northern India cuisine doesn’t quite compare with Pakistani cuisine: you can’t go wrong in Pakistan whether you eat paya in the Lahore’s Shahi Mohalla, tak-a-tak in Chandi Chowk, or nihari on Burns Road in Karachi.

Subway_ridersAfter dinner, we strolled through the Shahi Mohalla with an uneasy stomach. Unlike the Lahore’s Shahi Mohalla, the neighborhood does not features beautifully frayed (and restored) havelis, harmonium music, the tintinnabulation of ghungroo, but money exchanges for Pakistani currency, small restaurants, dim stalls, and a decidedly troubled bustle. We purchased a Jinnah hat, searched (and found) Razia Sultana’s forgotten grave, and then amid the squalor, happened upon the bright entrance to a subway station. As if entering the security gate at an airport, we passed through a metal detector while armed guards inspected our camera. Once inside, we were quite taken; Delhi’s spanking new subway system is very impressive indeed; Pakistan does not have anything like it. We descended underground via escalators as a young couple looked on, marveling at the march of technology, then followed, hesitantly, one foot at a time; riding the escalator was for them an act of supreme balance. We got off the train during an exodus and found ourselves at Connaught Place. Reminiscent of Mall Road or Liberty, Connaught Place is a vibrant market planned around a large roundabout. We purchased a saffron-colored T from the Lacoste shop to celebrate our Indian excursion, and then sat outside chewing on spiced yam, observing the Indian middle class.

Indian’s middle class is definitely larger than Pakistan’s although its size and purchasing power (or even moderntity) is disputable. Writing in The Hindu, novelist and columnist Shashi Tharoor writes,

“Whenever I hear foreigners talking about the Indian ‘middle class,’ I wonder what they mean…Conventional wisdom is that this middle class is some 300 million strong…and together with the very rich…has both the purchasing power and inclinations of the American middle class…Today’s economic mythology sees this new Indian middle class as ripe for international consumer goods…[but] manufacturers, I hear have been dismayed by the weak response of the market…the Indian middle class is not quite it’s cracked up to be.”

Tharoor scrutinizes the numbers citing a somewhat dated economic survey, perhaps, not be the best way of going about this sort of analysis. But if, say, mobile-phone users can be thought to be a proxy for the middle and upper classes, then as of 2005, combined, India’s middle and upper middle class number 60 million. (Back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that 5 in 100 people own mobile sets in India in comparison to 10 in 100 in Pakistan, 29 in 100 in China, and 47 in 100 in Brazil.)

Jama_with_jinnah_hat_saffron_tLater that night, clad in our newly acquired Jinnah hat and saffron Lacoste T, we met a friend at a chi-chi bar called Shalom (which of course reminded us of the Karachi nightclub, Virgo Legacy). At four hundred rupees a cocktail, Shalom was outside the purview of the middle class. The dimly lit room had an exposed finish and was populated by fifteen, perhaps twenty people huddled around small tables. The crowd was young, affluent, and the music loud and loungy. We ordered a couple of very tasty Mojitos. A recent law-school graduate informed us with edgy pride that she is becoming a corporate lawyer to contribute to India’s GDP. Our conversation turned to the modern veneer of Delhi. We were told that bars such as Shalom have sprung up within the last couple of years. On the table besides us, we heard a rake coo to a Caucasian, perhaps another tourist, “You could be anywhere in the world in here.”

India’s recent spurt of economic growth after the “lost nineties,” the anemic 3% “Hindu rate of growth” that characterized the eighties, and its previous experiments with socialism has inspired many with certain confidence. The celebratory mood permeated the celebratory articles by New York Times reporter Amy Waldman late last year. South Asia Bureau editor of the BBC avers, “The new mood is summed up and also being shaped by the country’s Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. His book The Argumentative Indian encourages the liberal middle class to reclaim pride in their country and culture from the worst of the Hindu nationalists who hijacked them in the 1990s.” Sen’s wonderful project is a function of this turn-of-the-century mood. Arguably, then, The Argumentative Indian could not have been produced in the eighties (when Naipaul found India to be a Wounded Civilization, a step up, we suppose, from An Area of Darkness).

Across the border there is also a celebratory mood. Vishaka Desai, the President of the Asia Society in New York, observed, “I think there is a level of confidence because of the economic takeoff of Pakistan…I also think people feel that in the last five-six years, since Musharraf has come to power, there is a moderation that has taken place. Where it seemed before that it was going in the direction of more Islamisation, it is quite different and is something we should respect.” Last month, the stock market crossed the 10,000 rupee mark, a few weeks before India’s managed the same. Shaukat Aziz’s macroeconomic stabilization has resulted not only in a skyrocketing stock exchange but 8.3% GDP growth in 2005 (7% in 2004). In turn, cheap credit has flooded the market, availed of by the middle class (who are estimated at 30 million) who have purchased cars and houses with loans for the first time in decades. The newly economically enfranchised middle class has clamored for schooling, an interesting demand push phenomenon. Harvard economics Professor Asim Khwaja has documented the explosion in private school growth in the last few years in a surprising report. Manifestly, economic growth, whether in India or Pakistan, has real social (and political) implications. Fareed Zakaria astutely notes, “Compare Pakistan today—growing at 8 percent a year—with General Zia’s country, and you can see why, for all the noise, fundamentalism there is waning.”

A dated issue of The Economist (a few months before Musharraf took power and before the present Congress administration) posed the following question:

“Secular, democratic India v sectarian, coup-prone Pakistan: no question, surely, which would win a political beauty contest? Set India’s $30 billion of foreign-exchange reserves against Pakistan’s near-bankruptcy, India’s world-class software engineers against Pakistan’s outdated cotton mills, and awarding the economic prize looks just as easy. Yet the comparison is not as lopsided as it seems at first. Travellers to are often surprised to find its people looking more prosperous than Indians. Pakistan’s income per head is indeed higher than India’s, even leaving aside the giant black-market economy. Pakistan also appears to be a more equal society, even though most members of parliament still belong to the landed elite. India may boast that democracy has churned the social make-up of its political class, yet the caste system, despite half a century of deliberate erosion, still blights Indian society. In Pakistan, you would not see a scene witnessed by your correspondent on a railway platform in: a small, dark-skinned man being shooed off a bench by a corpulent, lighter-hued woman as though he were a stray dog. As for Pakistan’s fabled lawlessness, Delhi’s murder rate last year was roughly the same as Karachi’s.” 

Of course, India is roughly seven times Pakistan’s size by population; its economy is three times Pakistan’s; and its labor force has an edge in magnitude and education. The million man strong BPO industry may be small in a nation of a billion but a million remains a large number, and its skill-set is noteworthy; and since Y2K, a number of these BPO shops – Wipro and Infosys, in particular – have become international players. Moreover, India’s democratic tradition and institutional infrastructure might prove to sustain future growth more effectively and evenly than in Pakistan.

A few drinks into the evening, we wondered, why did we expect India to be any different? We then remembered back to December 2003, when a large contingent from Bombay arrived in Karachi to attend the Kara Film Festival. The first such a delegation to cross the border in a very long time, our guests  – including the charming film director Mahesh Bhatt and his beautiful daughter, Pooja – were not only blown away by their reception but by Karachi’s cultural and nightlife, and infrastructure. At the rollicking closing party at a warehouse in Korangi, an Indian confided to us after a few drinks that he thought that “women here are veiled and men have beards. That’s what the newspapers say.”

While we were in India, we had the misfortune having the Times of India delivered to us daily. Every day the newspaper ran a front page article on Pakistan – not China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, but Pakistan. And the headlines were rarely newsworthy. We don’t think that any English-language Pakistani paper fetishizes India like the Times. When we had asked a friend what the deal was, he told us that we should read The Hindu, which is published in the South; the establishment resides in Northern India.

Of course, the news bulletins the state run Pakistani channel, PTV, for example, features damning reportage on Kashmir. The state run news channels, PTV or Indian Doordarshan, also represent another problem: newscasters speak languages that sound foreign, made-up, because the Indian state machinery has worked hard at Sanskritizing Urdu, while official Urdu in Pakistan has become increasingly Persianized and Arabisized. The establishments of both countries have put great effort in defining us as each other’s “Other”; put simply, being Indian means not being Pakistani and being Pakistani means not being Indian.

The state also selectively excavates history: whereas many Pakistani textbooks commence with the Indus Valley Civilization and jump to the Muslim conquest of Sind by the teenager, Bin Qasim, ignoring the preceding Hindu dynasties and Buddhist civilization, many Indian textbooks feature the fictional “Indus-Saraswati civilization” and exclude the fact that Mahatama Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist. Rewriting Indian history has become not just a cottage industry but a serious endeavor and matter. Although such revision is associated with the previous administration of the fundamentalist BJP, we were unsettled to learn from the intrepid weekly, Tehelka, that Macalester professor James Laine’s work on Shivaji has been banned in Maharastra. And we were shocked to learn that state issued textbooks in Gujrat praise Hitler and the “internal achievements of Nazism”! Of course, the curricula of Pakistani madrassas (attended by about 1% of Pakistanis), are also horribly and ludicrously retrograde; the Hindu is often the enemy. Indeed, “The Idea of India in the Popular Pakistani Imagination” and the “The Idea of Pakistan in the Popular Indian Imagination” could make for fascinating doctoral theses.

A_veritable_classicMercifully, the youth in either country watches Indus Music and MTV Asia, not the state-run television channels. We speak the same language because we watch Indian movies (our favorites being, Amar, Akbar, Anthony, Tridev, Yashwant, Lagaan, and Saathyia) and listen to Pakistani music (music shops in Delhi are stocked with CDs of Junoon, Noori, Fuzon, Strings, and Hadiqa). We, the generation, generations removed from Partition, travel light; we don’t carry much baggage. A sense of the familiar, not nostalgia, informs our sentiments. We want to move on. In Twilight in Delhi, one of the first novels in English from the Subcontinent (the first being Mulk Raj Anand‘s Untouchable), the great Ahmed Ali depicted the decline of old Delhi. Like millions of others including our family, Ali fled India at Partition for Pakistan. During twilight in Delhi, however, we had a different vision than Ali; one of a common past and future, of the celebration of commonality. That’s why it’s our generation that will breach the divide. We returned home that night, slept easily, anticipating the morning after.

Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
Literary Pugilists, Underground Men
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Beyond Winter in Karachi (or the Argumentative Pakistani)
Dispatch from Karachi
Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)
And, the original Critical Digression