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Opinion | An Indian heartbreak

  • These days my feelings about India can be best described by using the very intimate analogy of a heartbreak
  • There’s anger, hate, bravado, lies everywhere, and, underneath it all, the metallic smell of fear

Bharti Kher’s fibreglass sculpture, ‘An Absence Of Assignable Cause’ (2007).
Bharti Kher’s fibreglass sculpture, ‘An Absence Of Assignable Cause’ (2007).

These days my feelings about India can best be described by using the very intimate analogy of a heartbreak. I wonder if our tortured love story may finally be ending.

I have all the classic symptoms of heartbreak—I am angry, sad and lonely; I feel antisocial and sluggish, reluctant to go anywhere or do anything. I know a part of me has been lost forever.

How will I ever explain who I am and where I came from to anyone else? No other love will smell like red earth on a rainy day or burrow into my nostrils like the salty, fishy air on Marine Drive, that special place where my parents have held hands and walked every evening for 50 years. Is this really how it feels at The End?

Kasme Vaade Pyaar Wafa (think of it as the Indian song take on Alan Patton’s book Cry, The Beloved Country) from 1967’s patriotic blockbuster Upkaar is playing on loop.

Recently, I felt a sense of momentary respite when I visited a shrine that has stood in the middle of the Arabian Sea since 1431, and has been in a longer relationship with India than any of us can ever hope to have. People from all religions and all geographies make the trek to this magical spot. It’s easy to forget India’s lethal flaws here and imagine that everyone feels her familiar blast of love.

For years I have watched my love being unfair to the less privileged and gamely accepted the daily battles of being a woman in this country. I have put up with her misogyny, bigotry and racism, though, as a writer, I have ranted about these aspects often enough. I accepted her flaws because they came with a special, syncretic history of love and an electric personality.

India is that louder-than-life individual everyone gravitates towards in a party for the outrageous quality of her stories and her exceptional storytelling skills. After loving India, it’s impossible to embrace another, right?

I can still feel the confidence with which I answered everyone who asked what I planned to do after I completed my postgraduate degree in the US: “Of course I am coming back home, I can’t imagine being anyplace else." How naive of me.

By the time I came back, around a year after radical Hindus demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, my home had already begun changing. As the country’s highest court now debates the birthplace of a Hindu god, the long-drawn story of the Babri Masjid is finally nearing its climax.

Along the way, I feel like I lost my understanding of what my love, my home represents. Or maybe it’s exactly the opposite—I finally understood what my home stands for and I could no longer ignore her flaws. Either way, our relationship changed irrevocably.

Now I feel that the faster I accept that my country has morphed into something I don’t recognize—like that partner about whom you know nothing despite spending nearly half a century in their embrace—the faster I will know what I need to do next.

Toxic masculinity courses through her rivers and roads; there’s anger, hate, bravado, lies everywhere, and, underneath it all, the metallic smell of fear.

Why just India, the world seems to be powered by the same cocktail of emotions. In The Guardian, columnist George Monbiot offers some common sense tips to fight the haters: “Never get drawn into a shouting match, however offensive the other person might be. Don’t be distracted by attempts to manufacture outrage: bring the conversation back to the topics you want to discuss. We should emulate the calm strength with which Greta Thunberg (teen climate activist) responds to the tidal wave of nastiness she faces."

How much can one fight? It’s so much easier to succumb and announce to everyone: “I have stopped reading the newspapers. There’s too much bad news."

I think wistfully of less complicated liaisons that await me overseas if I do decide to leave the messy remains of this once great love. That’s how many of my fellow citizens have coped with their heartbreak.

Walk away, let go, psychologists advise those who are heartbroken. “Understand that by staying on you are chaining yourself to a corpse. Accept that it is over and you can claim your freedom," says Shyam Bhat in You Will Love Again: A Guide To Healing From Heartbreak.

Bhat says the pain of heartbreak is ultimately a reflection of your capacity to love, and a reality check on what it means to be human. “Far too many people in this world are numb as they go about the daily routine of living.... Because of heartbreak you came face to face with deep questions about yourself and about life.... You stared your psychological demons in the eye, wrestled with your fears and insecurity, until you found your way to the deep and abiding love that is and always will be within you."

But what if the love that fell apart had nothing to do with India but everything to do with Indians? What if enough of us felt this heartbreak, questioned where we were headed and found a way to hold on to the love within us?

What if we were inspired by those who are speaking up around us? Like the Varanasi teenager who gave a speech on Gandhian values. “I want to say that there was no bigger Hindu than Gandhi. But the people of other religions didn’t fear his ‘Hey Ram’ because Gandhi was a symbol of secularism in India." Or the law schools across the country who have launched a legal aid clinic for people excluded from Assam’s National Register of Citizens. Or the students of St Stephen’s College in Delhi who wrote postcards to the prime minister to protest the communication ban in Kashmir.

What if, as Gandhi once appealed, we made our hearts “as broad as the ocean"? What if we could harness all our love to create a safer, more empathetic nation for our children?

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.


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