After three years in New Delhi, and a year following the mesmeric Narendra Modi as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, it is time to reflect on some of the surprises that make India such an intriguing place to live.
I was inspired to compile this short and idiosyncratic list by an Indian diplomat who was explaining to me the difficulty of negotiations with Beijing over the contested 4,000km India-China border in the Himalayas during Mr Modi’s talks with President Xi Jinping last week. “These sorts of disputes are not solved in a jiffy,” he said.
Indian English, then, is the first delight, steeped not only in borrowings from Sanskrit and Persian but also in phrases that are falling out of use back home in England.
Bad guys are not criminals but miscreants, and bureaucrats are always promising to “revert next week” or “do the needful”. While visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar one day I was baffled to receive a text message from an airline informing me that my flight had been “preponed” by half an hour. By the time I realised the word was a perfectly logical construction meaning the opposite of “postponed”, I had almost missed my flight.
Less delightful is the penchant for acronyms and the near universal refusal of the newspapers to spell out even the most obscure collection of capital letters. You just have to find out for yourself that a PIO is a Person of Indian Origin; that an FIR is the First Information Report you make when reporting a crime at a police station; and that the AIADMK is the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — the party of Jayalalithaa, the autocratic Tamil leader, who has just won an appeal against a jail sentence on charges of extravagant corruption.
A friend has just drawn to my attention a headline in the Times of India reading “MPs, MLAs fall in OBC ‘creamy layer’, panel says”. It means that the children of parliamentarians and state legislators should not benefit from preferences granted to underprivileged “other backward classes”.
Speaking of language, one of the more bizarre aspects of Indian politics and justice is what I call declarative governance. This is the belief — surely more entrenched than in other democracies — that ordering something to be done is the same as ensuring that it has been done. Every few days, a court in Delhi issues a bold new order to citizens and businesses to stop polluting the Yamuna river. I have a growing pile of these orders on my desk but the river is as filthy as ever, and it is clear that even the energetic Mr Modi is having trouble putting policies into practice.
This touching faith in the power of judicial or executive orders leads to puzzling headlines such as the one I found in The Indian Express last week: “Green tribunal bans illegal slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh”. Presumably if they are illegal, they are already banned.
Another surprise is the contrast between the modern prudishness of religious leaders who see themselves as guardians of morality (“No kissing in public! Dress modestly and stay home at night, women of India!”) and the relaxed attitude of the ancients towards sex and its representation in art. I am not talking only of Islam and Mughal painting, or just the Kama Sutra and the descriptions of vigorous intercourse in the Mahabharata epic. When we visited the 13th century Sun temple in Konark on India’s east coast this month and looked at delicate Hindu carvings of heterosexual acrobatics, gay sex, group sex and bestiality, our embarrassed guide kept whispering in my ear (so that our 15-year-old daughter could not hear): “It’s not religion, sir, it’s just life.”
In the end, you are forced to accept that India is a land of extremes, and to acknowledge the truth of the dictum of Cambridge economist Joan Robinson: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” In Delhi, we shiver in winter when the temperature falls close to freezing and sweat in summer as it approaches 50C. We often read of gruesome rapes and murders. But the most surprising thing of all — in a country of gross inequality between rich and poor and with a population three times the size of Europe’s — is not how violent India is but how peaceful.