Monday, August 29, 2016

Nicholas Dawes - Home is Away - India in 3 years and 3 centuries

Around me in the newsroom, in the 9pm television brawl, and on social media, I can hear hurt, insistent, voices reaching back to the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, or the accession of 1947, and out across the border to Pakistan and the breeding grounds of extremist terror, searching for a narrative to redeem the violence of the state. Answering them is Kashmiri rage shaded with despair, and the small, vigorous, chorus of Indian opinion counseling a political solution... 

The same conversations play out wherever the crisis at the geographical margins of the country, or among its marginalised, confronts the democratic centre with contradictions that cannot be sustained: over caste, over sexuality, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or a broken penal code... 

I won’t be plucking any swimmers from these currents, but it is in their tug toward justice, and in the terror of the breach, that India feels the most like home.

My first political argument with my paternal grandfather was about India. It was 1983, and I was 11 years old. It has taken me more than 30 years to trace the roots of that half-forgotten conversation in a gloomy living room, where an impossibly intricate walnut table from Kashmir stood in one corner, and faded photographs of men in uniform hung on the wall. I loved that table, I used to run my fingers over the tiny, perfectly regular flowers that stood in relief on its dark surface, and the leaves that flared from its borders. “It took a year to carve”, my grandmother would say, at once completely believable and beyond comprehension.

Some foreigners come to India to find themselves, seeking a stage set for the drama of their self-discovery. I didn’t. I also didn’t come to tap a “vast market”, to arbitrage costs, or to report India’s story for a global audience. Instead I came to do the work I love, at an important Indian media company focussed on making better sense of a hugely complex and dynamic news environment for Indian audiences. My own biography, I insisted to myself, would not feature. In fact I would avoid talking, or even thinking too much, about it, and I made no real effort to seek darshan of my family history.

But I grew up under the shadow of empire, and live in an age of fraught globalism, both born in the India trade, and if there is one cliche about this place that survives living here, it’s that you can’t escape your past, even as you rush headlong into the future. As I prepare to leave India this week, I no longer want to. In 1983 South Africa’s struggle against apartheid was finding new, and newly powerful forms. The United Democratic Front, which led unprecedented domestic resistance, was born. The state, meanwhile, took violent repression to new levels with PW Botha’s securocrats firmly in control of the country.

It must have been in the spring of that year that my father took me to see Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi at the Golden Acre Mall in central Cape Town. I remember the newness of the multiplex, smaller screens, velour seats, a lavish concession stand, and the slightly heightened atmosphere of a special trip into town. But mostly I remember a few flashes of imagery: Ben Kingsley’s young lawyer, slightly too handsome for the part, on the platform at Pietermaritzburg station, passes being set on fire in Johannesburg, General Reginald Dyer’s troops jogging through the alley to Jallianwala Bagh, and the well filling up with bodies as their guns stuttered.

In Cape Town, in 1983, this was clearly a film about South Africa just as much as it was about India, even to an 11-year-old. It was thrilling to watch. And so when next I saw my grandfather - my grandfather who had a picture of himself as a kurta-pyjama clad teenager in Peshawar hanging above his desk, who practised yoga daily, and who loathed South Africa’s ruling Nationalist Party so much he had modified a fishing-rod to turn down the volume on his Sony Trinitron when cabinet ministers spoke - I asked, “Have you seen Gandhi?”

“I don’t watch horror movies”, he curtly replied. The tone of the discussion deteriorated from there until he ended it with half-an-anecdote: “When my uncle, your two-greats uncle, drowned rescuing an Indian man, 10 000 coolies went to his funeral”.

I now realise that he probably used coolie in the Indian sense, labourer, rather than in its racist South African sense, as a slur for people of Indian descent, but it was a moment of both clarity and extreme discomfort, not just because I loved and admired my grandfather, but because I began to understand how English-speaking South Africans like me, just as much as the Afrikaners we had been taught casually to blame for Apartheid, were heirs to a globalised system of racism.

The strand of my ancestry I know most about is a long line of soldiers in India. They were ducking Tipu Sultan’s rockets in the 18th Century, patrolling the Arabian Gulf with the Bombay Royal Marine in the 19th, and enforcing the fragile peace around the Khyber pass in the early 20th. I was taught to identify with them, but until that argument in 1983, it had never really occurred to me what their history meant for my own place in the world. And for some reason, I had never heard the story of my “two-greats” uncle, and I didn’t until decades later, when my father began to dig into the archives.

In June 1909 Nicholas Bernard Dawes was appointed by the Maharaja of Mysore to officiate as Chief Engineer and Secretary to the princely state until a suitable Indian candidate could be found to take over on a permanent basis. He had perhaps established his claim through the work he had done as Deputy Chief Engineer, writing what we would now call a business case for a major new dam on the Cauvery. Revenue earned from selling power to Coimbatore and Madras, as well as the Kolar gold fields, he argued, would eventually fund the construction of a huge irrigation network. “The state will then be the owner of a property free of all charges except Rs 8 lakhs for maintenance and bringing in a revenue of Rs. 60 lakhs per annum and this on an original borrowed capital of Rs 175 lakhs”… 
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