Let us begin at the beginning – not with India as the ‘core’ but rather with the periphery, which will decide the outcome of the Southasian dream. Unless this is done, the dream could well list towards turning into the nightmare of akhand bharat. The idea of Southasia is most palpable not at the manmade political borders, but at the fuzzy natural frontiers. Reach the Khyber Pass, cross the Brahmaputra or ride the waves in a catamaran off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and you will never again question that what lies beyond is a different universe, where dwell people very different from ‘us’. Southasians are obviously not Chinese, Arabs or Malays, nor are they Uzbeks, Persians or Kazakhs. A ‘Londonstani’ in Brickfields is reduced to being a ‘Paki’ or a ‘Bangladeshi’. What does it matter to the white skinheads that the poor bugger may be a ‘multiple-gods-fearing Hindoo’?
If the world without recognises us as a different species, do we have a choice to live and die otherwise? For heaven’s sake, and for those who inhabit Southasia, we need to stop chasing the mirage of ‘regional economic cooperation’ mirage, and stop being content with what we have – the ‘shared heritage, warts and all’. We need to never forget that the much-touted cultural inheritance is actually a very mixed bag, one that not all Southasians share or are even enthusiastic about. Let us honestly admit that Southasians suffer from a kind of multiple-personality disorder. The head is split, and heart forever aching – curse those fragmented memories and fractured perceptions of national interest. No, globalisation has not changed a thing.
However politically incorrect such a statement may be, race and ethnicity do matter, as do religion and social class. Political correctness is not breached when sufiyana qalam from across the border is celebrated in Imperial Delhi (doesn’t the Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya belong to India, along with the Hazarat Garib Nawaz at Ajmer?). The problem begins when illegal Bangladeshi immigrants flock around the visiting baul singer on the India Gate lawns, whirling like Sufi dervishes entranced by visions of ‘that lovely boy from Brindaban’ during a trendy, folksy cultural jamboree. Suspicions and complaints may not be mouthed, but they do continue to lurk long afterwards. Aren’t these the same folk who have sneaked in to act as dangerous ISI pawns to destabilise Mother India and serve as foot soldiers for organised crime?
Why haven’t they been shifted out of the Lutyen’s zone as yet? What business does this indigent foreign fakir have to take the name of our Krishna on his lips? Nazrul geet and rabindra sangeet have not percolated to grassroots baul, and bhatiyali will never recognise border fences or imposed religious divide. The same applies to Nepal. Forgive Indian foolhardiness when we insist that, for a generation or more, Shaivism and Buddhism will prove stronger than imported ideologies – revolutionary or reactionary. It will be a while before Indians begin to recognise the revolutionary (not Maoist) transformation in the ‘landlocked’ country where monarchy has been swept away, yielding to a federal democratic republic. The resumption of the Gorkhaland agitation in West Bengal is bound to raise further uncertainties and apprehensions in Delhi. Much to the regret of ‘sensible’ people, retired generals and diplomats who refuse to fade away, continue to perpetuate dangerous myths, such that, The majority of Nepali immigrants are khukuri-happy kanchas and bahadurs [hapless domestics] who can turn into psychopathic killers in a blink.
Complications continue to bedevil Southasian solidarity. Elderly Punjabis who habitually go into raptures listening to Heer and ghazals rendered by singers from beyond the Wagah border are still left largely unmoved by the music of the east. Likewise, those who are ready to die for ilish maach (hilsa) are quite bewildered by the maudlin nostalgia exhibited by macho men who swear by kababs – tikka, barra, seenkh. Indeed, the speciality of Southasia is that it has not evolved a regional palate. The prescriptions and prohibitions of halal and haram are certainly still in place, but those reared on appam and stew will settle for nothing else. Call it ‘Ceylon’ or rename it ‘Malabar’, the layered paratha has yet to register its presence in North India. South of the Vindhyas, the jalebi is called a jangir, but that is about as far as the inclusive palate goes.
The kurma and biryani of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are not even distantly related to their North Indian cousins. Social anthropologists may continue churning out obtuse tomes or witty op-ed pieces about the mythology of cricket in Southasia, but one cannot get over the feeling that, like the movies, this too has been a great con. Hook the innocent suckers to the opiate, keep pushing the stuff, and then claim that the poor things cannot survive without their daily fix. At the same time, it is worth seriously considering that the large majority of Southasians – those youngsters between 16 and 30 – are apparently immune to these seductions. Their tastes in movies, music, cuisine and costumes are certainly not inherited.
Equally futile is the effort to harp on shared literary sensibilities or aesthetic affinities. Indians no longer dominate Indo-Anglican writing. Who can match the aura of Salman Rushdie or the enchantment of Michael Ondatje? Sure, India has Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy – Booker winners and receivers of record-breaking advances – but has any one of them actually left any significant scratch on the collective Southasian mind? Rushdie may be the only exception here, with his Satanic Verses continuing to wreak havoc without even having been read. Excessive sensitivity has all but stifled freedom of expression. L’affaire Taslima Nasrin is sheer lajja, unalloyed shame for all concerned. When, oh when will we exorcise the ghosts of Partition, the fratricidal wars and stupid skirmishes that have taken place since, and learn to respect the differences accentuated with the passage of time? Brothers can be enemies, but must neighbours remain forever alien, forever suspecting each other of the worst?
Things would be much better if all of us focused on the present, rather than hoisting the glorious but backbreaking baggage of history, or idling away precious time dreaming about a distant future free from strife.
~ Pushpesh Pant, born and raised in the lap of the Himalaya, has lived and taught as a refugee in Delhi for the past four decades. He dreams of Southasia sans manmade borders.