Sunday, November 11, 2007

A heritage worth preserving

I often marvel at the fact that today's young Indians who were born in the 1990s and later will have grown up in a radically different environment compared to my contemporaries or our earlier generation (it is true for urban Indians, at least). The differences are marked as much in access to physically manifest things - 24 hour cable, cell phones, internet - as in the understanding of their own place in the world.

I was born in the 70s and, like the rest of my generation, had a 'socialist childhood' in a manner of speaking. Growing up, I used to read about the then-prevalent license raj but never really understood its full significance or thought it had any bearing at all on my life...not until a decade later when the consequences of dismantling the raj were becoming apparent. Indeed, I feel rather fortunate to have been at the right stage of life when the change was happening; I was neither too young to not understand it nor too old to feel left out.

However, the anachronist in me sometimes feel sad at the loss of an era. There was a whole way of life associated with living in the supposedly planned economy of Mera Bharat Mahan that none of my younger co-patriots will ever fully comprehend. Aside from milestone historic events during that era which will of course be recorded, there were innumerable irrelevant and subtler aspects of life then (the subaltern history, if you will) that will forever be lost. For better or worse, a particular way of life is heritage for three generations of post-independence Indians, and that is the only heritage they have. As a newer and freer life slowly erodes society's earlier avatar, both the agreeable and disagreeable aspects of it, I wonder :Who will tell the story of the past that I have lived?

I always feel unsettled by the idea of untold stories, especially when the stories are of a collective, not individual, past. That is one reason why I have great respect for certain authors who take great pains to render the life and times around them to the smallest details, allowing the ordinary rather than the extraordinary to live on forever. It is thanks to these greats that I have been able to live, without leaving my armchair, in P L Deshpande's Pune, in Marquez's fantasized Colombia, in Sholokhov's Don river valley, and in Faulkner's Mississippi.

An untold story is history denied, and there is adequate recognition of this in politics and academics, evident in the fortunes spent on documenting the specific histories of various communities, for instance, of the Jews, Armenians, Cambodians, or the Sikhs.

In the same vein, I may some day launch a Socialist Heritage Project, which will document life under the benevolent raj, every little mushy or bizarre detail. Here are some placeholders for study areas:

Waiting lists (for telephones, scooters, houses, loans, everything)
State media (choosing between Doordarshan and nothing)
Ration cards (still around, but no longer as potent)
Gold regulation, gold biscuits and smugglers (stuff of legends)
Careers (only to be made with PSUs or the government)

You may find the idea funny, but don't laugh yet. Who knows, one day there might be a endowed Chair for India's Socialist Heritage Studies at Harvard or somesuch.

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