I have been reading an article by the British columnist Peter Hitchens, who was in Mumbai recently, headed "How I Caught the Fast Train to the Future (Just)".
It begins promisingly enough. "India is leaving the Third World so fast you can almost see it happening. While the West writes it off and backward and poor, the reality is that its billion people have a booming economy, excellent education and limitless ambition —and they are ready to take over the world."
Nothing wrong with that. It’s accurate and flattering. But then, almost as if his readers would not take this observation seriously unless Hitchens first confirmed some of their long-term preconceptions, Hitchens embarks on a few observations about India’s poverty "with the power to turn the stomach." He writes: "In Bombay I saw a tiny abandoned child grinning as he ate human excrement in the street. . . Yes, there was a dead rat lying in the street opposite my air-conditioned hotel. But, as I shall explain, this blatant squalor is in some important ways a sign of hope. And as heartbreaking as the tiny, filthy beggars are, they are not a true indication of the new civilisation which is growing here in the world’s largest free country."
Hitchens goes on to say that in the long run India will own the 22nd century. He thinks it is entirely possible that India could reduce the West, "in its complacent pride, to museum states where the grandchildren of those complacent citizens "will scurry after Indian and Chinese tourists in London, Berlin, Rome and Paris, offering to shine their shoes and wheedling for a handful of coins."
Well, I suppose it is possible but one wonders what impelled Hitchens to try to frighten his readers with the spectre of an unstoppable India swapping places with his "complacent" West. The answer lies in the tone of his columns. He writes like a grumpy old man, angry at everything around him, convinced that the past was best, that today’s Britain is going to the dogs, and that the future is bleak. A change then, to turn to a new book by Christopher Kremmer, and Australian journalist. Kremmer went to Delhi as a young reporter in 1990, stayed for eight years and then returned in 2004 for another go because he believes --like Hitchens —that what is happening in India will affect all of our lives in the 21st century.
It certainly affected his. He decided that India was one of the world’s great civilisations. He married an Indian woman and he had really odd experience which provided him with the title for this charming, book. He learnt that the descendants of Mahatma Gandhi had won a court battle for possession of an urn containing his ashes, which had been locked in a bank vault for almost half a century, and they were planning to scatter them into the Ganges. Kremmer went along to watch. The breeze blew the wrong way and a cloud of the ashes descended on him. He noticed a strange metallic taste in his mouth and a peppery sensation in his nose. "Suddenly, shockingly, I realised that I was inhaling the Mahatma."
Kremmer saw this as a symbol of his new life in India, but truth be told, he was already as much Indian as any Westerner can ever be, fascinated by the country’s size, the number of its people, its contradictions, its spirituality, its beauty, its terror, its charm and its murderous violence. At the beginning, India had struck him as one of the weirdest countries in the world. Then one day he woke up feeling absolutely at home there. He found the country "contagiously spiritual". "One day you find you have purchased an idol of Ganesh —just because he’s such a cute god —and installed it in your home. Next you begin felicitating all your Indian friends on the occasion of their religious festivals, from Eid to Holi to Guru Nanak’s birthday. India’s spiritual promiscuity has seduced you." Two views of India then. Which is right? I prefer Kremmer’s. But perhaps both are.
Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and columnist based in London
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