On my seventh birthday, my grandfather sat me down on his knee and informed me that I was a truly lucky child. I assumed the subsequent unveiling of a truly spectacular present. But there was only a long pause.
He patted my head finally, and went on to explain that I was truly lucky, not because I was born in independent India (well, duh!) but because bothmy parents were also born in independent India. That made me a second-generation independent Indian, a clean-slate future-facing Indian, one whose responsibilities to the nation were untinged by shadows of slavery, the very long shadows that he, like other Indians his age, for instance, had inherited from his parents and grandparents, and subsequently wrestled to the ground.
It was the early nineties. India was stepping out of its heretofore familiar economic path and entering the (brave?) new world of liberalisation. I had no idea of all this, though. I was concerned about cake.
My grandfather looked out the window and fell silent.
I squinted in the sun, trying to imagine all these ancestors and the long fuzzy shadows of the past – and failed spectacularly.
This little episode had been tucked away in the old suitcase where I keep memories of my grandparents all mixed up with childhood diaries and the odd bit of tinsel or toy, and came tumbling out, a fully formed portrait of an afternoon in May, when I encountered these words in Shashi Tharoor’s Preface to his masterly An Era of Darkness:
“The British Raj is scarcely ancient history. It is part of the memories of people still alive. According to a recent UN Population Division report, the number of Indians over the age of eighty is six million: British rule was an inescapable part of their childhoods. If you add to their number, their first-generation descendants, Indians in their fifties and sixties, whose parents would have told them stories about their experiences of the Raj, the numbers with an intimate knowledge of the period would swell to over 100 million Indians...
Still, I write as an Indian of 2016 about the India of two centuries ago and less, animated by a sense of belonging morally and geographically to the land that was once so tragically oppressed by the Raj. India is my country, and in that sense my outrage is personal. But I seek nothing from history – only an account of itself.”
My father’s father – sometime-freedom-fighter, sometime-vagrant, mining engineer, inventor of a new technique in controlled blasting in the deep interiors of Jharkhand well before it was demonstrated in the West, financial profligate, sufferer for decades from the horrifying lung disorder that affects all mining men – would have been ninety in 2017. As I read An Era of Darkness, feeling alternately hot and cold (for this is what the book will do to you), I could almost feel him, and my other grandparents, and their parents – whom I can now imagine better, a gallery of ancestors in fact – jostling in my head, poring over the pages along with me, though not all of them would have read in English, adding commentary and questions and an anecdote or two of their own.
While Tharoor has been a writer of both fiction and non-fiction over the years, winning both critical acclaim and popular success, the genesis of this book in particular is rather odd. You see, it all began with a speech.
In May 2015, Tharoor won the Oxford Union Debate for his side, on the proposition “Britain Owes Reparations to her Former Colonies”, with a characteristically impassioned and precisely argued speech. After that, he left England “pleased enough, but without giving the proceedings a second thought.” However, a couple of months later, once the speech was posted online, it took on an almost surreal afterlife, not only going viral across various social media platforms and causing many a storm in chai cups across the sub-continent and Britain, but also managed to unite, in India, the old and the young, the radical and the conservative, and most uniquely, the ever-estranged political left, right, and centre of our country in unequivocal approbation.
The college student does not want to know if the MEA has started engaging with Tony Abbott’s administration. Why would a fisherman care about the country’s relationship with SAARC? Or a housewife about India’s strategic objectives in Africa? Unless the man happens to be running a small business in Siliguri.Or the student is looking to pursue graduate school in Australia. Or the fisherman’s family lives in constant fear of accidentally entering someone else’s territorial waters and facing dire consequences. Even the housewife, juggling bills for fuel and food, is not left untouched by it all.
Shashi Tharoor’s most recent book, Pax Indica, explains why foreign policy matters for a country like India, and outlines how it could very well be a powerful instrument for her own domestic transformation. Beautifully written, Pax Indicais evocative of an engaging and exciting conversation which, while dotted with tongue-in-cheek anecdotes, misses neither the historical context nor the intricacies of the topic at hand.
In fact, it is important to point out the shades which the author has painted the work in. While Tharoor remains a celebrated scholar in the international relations space, this is not an academic work, but is instead meant to be read and understood by a plethora of readers, from the non-fiction aficionado high-scholar to the geopolitically-inclined enthusiasts. Another interesting amalgamation is that of Tharoor the former UN Under-Secretary General and Tharoor the MP for Thiruvananthapuram, both of whom can be seen and heard.
Pax Indica opens a window to the inner workings of the MEA and other domestic stakeholders in India’s dialogue with the rest of the world. The book also examines these links with different partners in some detail as well. The strategic approach taken by India, especially during the Nehruvian era, is showcased and reflected upon, and helps trace an outline of India’s identity and unique position in the world as a thought leader and as an emblem for self-righteousness and peaceful coexistence.
India’s unique challenges in grasping contemporary matters of flaunting soft power and public diplomacy are also discussed. It is extremely disconcerting for Tharoor as it is for the reader to see the persistence of infrastructural and logistical challenges plaguing India’s foreign policy, such as the understaffed diplomatic corps, the lack of structure, coordination, and personnel planning, and the absence of informed public debates, although the latter has seen some initiative in recent years.
Particularly noteworthy is the chapter on the complexities of living in ‘A Tough Neighbourhood’. India’s leviathan bulk and the sensitivity by which it is obliged to handle matters in the South Asian region make it the proverbial elephant in the room not only in terms of magnitude, but also due to the sheer awkwardness of conduct. Tharoor also laments the decline of the north-eastern states of India, which had a higher per capita income than most of the rest of the nation in 1947, but have since been “the stepchildren of India’s development,” cut-off from the heartland and suffering as a result of poor integration with Bangladesh.
The north-east comes up once again, as Tharoor demonstrates his central thesis that foreign policy, while focused outward, can bring much benefit to domestic populaces. The region can in fact, be thought of to be occupying prime real estate due to its significance not just for international relations but for commerce and tourism. Indeed, the north-east of India can act as a bridge for south Asian integration, linking two economically rich expanses of the continent. The wealth of the region in terms of biodiversity, cultural diversity, energy and mineral resources, and the human resource potential, is vast and waiting to be developed and tapped. India’s ‘Look East’ policy, can thus only be fully appreciated if the seven sisters states, each of whom has a long international border, are developed and revamped to avail of the economic consequences of our new-found kinship.
The book ends with a reminder of this nation’s sovereignty and independence of thought, and calls for realisation of a grand strategy involving a multi-aligned approach and playing a leadership role in shaping of the new world order. This leadership role is not about domination or superpower politics, but rather about a sense of responsibility in instilling global cooperation. A sense of peace that India can bring to the world. Pax Indica.
Shrey Goyal is based in New Delhi, and is the editor for MInd: The Mensa India magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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