Beauty’s Idea of India: What a Young Woman in West Bengal Thinks About Her Country

“They must be happy having won the elections but what is it with the gestures they were making to me? I recognise them, they are friends of Majhi’s, our very own TMC leader.”

Idea of India’ as a lived reality that is experienced and articulated. Credit: Reuters

Idea of India’ as a lived reality that is experienced and articulated. Credit: Reuters

On May 21, I spoke on a panel on the ‘Ideas of India’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival in London. The panellists were given the following brief: “Ideas of India have been under intense scrutiny in recent times. The bewildering diversity and plurality of India leads to its articulation through many voices and languages. Prominent writers and thinkers explain their individual perceptions of ‘their’ particular idea of India and what it means”. This is what I said:

I could of course speak about my own idea of India that has been thrown into sharper relief in the twenty-five years of living away from it in Britain, the old colonial power, whose norms of politics, civility, arrogance, humour and justice constantly provoke comparison and greater understanding of my own idea of India.

Instead, I would like to present the ‘idea of India’ as it appears to a young girl called ‘Beauty’ in the village of Chishti in West Bengal – a state I did not grow up in but where I have conducted research for over fifteen years. I first got to know Beauty in 2000 when she was a little girl and I have seen her grow into a young woman. Her mother Noori is a good friend of mine and I have spent many hours in their home. Beauty is Noori’s only child and always played an equal part as the adults in this unusual household composed of her mother, her mother’s sister and her. Here is what she might have said if she had to speak at this panel, presenting her ‘idea of India’ as a lived reality that is experienced and articulated at various registers, rather than as a unitary set of ideals. It is my narrative based on facts:

This morning, as I was waiting at the bus stop, covering my nose to keep out the fumes of the trucks speeding by on the high-road, two young men sped past me on their motorcycle, waving flags of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and shouting. They must be happy having won the elections but what is it with the gestures they were making to me? I recognise them, they are friends of Majhi’s, our very own TMC leader – who I remember caused a scandal in our village because a comrade slapped him in front of his friends for teasing a girl. I was very little then, but I remember Maa talking about it with her sister in hushed tones that the real reason was because Majhi had dared to start a new political party in the village. But now it is Majhi’s turn to lord it over others and the comrade stays away from the village. Is this what they call politics?  Boys beating each other up? I hope Majhi does not turn into a comrade. My mother used to cry with worry as the comrade ruined all marriage prospects for my aunt and interfered to delay my mother’s divorce simply because my mother would not give him unconditional support.  But how could she? He was vile! I don’t know why people keep asking on TV why the Communist Party of India [CPI(M)] lost… if the comrade was from CPI(M), they will never ever win again, at least now I can vote.

Voting is fun though, this was the first time I voted, I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was among the first in the queue on the day and when I got the ink mark on my finger, I felt I had finally, officially, become an adult and everybody in the village looked at me in a different way. The boys seem to be more respectful too – but perhaps only because they wanted me to vote for their party.

I can tell though that the aunties think it is a scandal that I have not married yet. No one, literally no one, gets to 20 and stays unmarried in our village. Gainda, who was only a year older than me in school and was so good in maths, is expecting her second child soon. But whom would I marry? I can’t bear the thought of any of my cousins here or in Tilaboni. They never studied hard, they don’t read the newspapers, they don’t listen to music, and now they are getting new ideas of how we should dress, eat, pray. They now wear white clothes, hitch up their shalwars to show their ankles, grow their beards and are embarrassed by their fathers’ checked sarongs and bare chests. They think their mother’s sari is not modest enough and want them to wear shawls over them. Honestly! Even in the summer! I wear trousers and tops that cover up all of me but that too they consider immodest. Thank goodness I don’t have a brother or father to tell me what to wear.

Shantosh is the only one who smiles at me secretly when he cycles past – I think he approves of it. I am not sure. I can’t talk to him of course, there is no excuse for a conversation. But sometimes he drops off the newspaper after he has finished with it – my mother must have noticed but doesn’t say anything. Shantosh is a Dom, a low caste Hindu, and my mother is very proud of our elite Syed Muslim caste.  And anyway, what would come of it? We couldn’t remain in the village and who knows, if we married we would probably get lynched and then who would look after my mother in her old age? But Shantosh needs to find a job first; he has done his B. Com but there are no jobs and even the daily labour his father used to do in the fields is drying up… no one planted paddy this year because there is no water. The pump has to work for an hour before they get a trickle to emerge – it is too expensive. I read that oil prices have fallen in the world, but why is diesel still so expensive here?! How can we eat? Last year, many people secretly planted poppy to have something to sell but the narcotics people came and burned those crops. Shantosh’s brother and friends used to cycle through the night to go and get heavy bags of stolen coal to sell locally but after six months of that work their bodies are broken and now they just lie at home doing nothing. I am lucky to have got a job in the bank, counting the cash. It is not much of a salary, but at least it means I can get out of the village everyday, have a conversation with someone and pick up special things for my mother. She loves grapes and they are good this year.

I first tasted grapes on Republic Day when I was in school. Every year, our teacher Akhtar master used to take us out on a picnic on Republic Day and we would go to a lovely shady spot not far from the village, with lots of large trees, and salute the Indian flag, sing the national anthem and Akhtar master used to read the Preamble of the Constitution from the English Reader.  We had to listen carefully and Akhtar master explained what the words meant. Our reward was that we could lie on the cool mats, eat grapes and biscuits and play the games that he taught us, away from all the adults. Akhtar master used to say this was the only festival worth celebrating, not as Syeds or Doms, not as Muslims or Hindus, not as boys or girls, but as Indians. As children we learnt that we were India’s future.

Mukulika Banerjee is the Director of the South Asia Centre and author of  ‘Why India Votes’?