Were you as surprised as I was to hear the ringing cheers when the Pakistanis walked into Jawaharlal Nehru stadium that balmy Sunday? My personal roar-o-meter recorded the Pakistanis at number two, behind India — obviously — but ahead of England and Sri Lanka.
I wasn't the only one. Every newspaper (including this one) seemed surprised by the gracious welcome to the Pakistanis. So were the Pakistanis.
The roar lasted about ten seconds, but it was enough to tell us that things in modern, excitable, instant-media-driven India are often not, what they seem; that perceptions are, often, not reality; that we don't listen enough to the voices on our streets, and if we occasionally do, we do not hear them.
What were the other perceptions dispelled that night when we heard these elemental voices coalescing into roars and (sometimes) boos?
First, that the Games were headed for failure. Rarely has India witnessed an opening ceremony that imaginatively captured her energy, chaos and diversity. Yes, a successful start has not ensured a glitch-free Games, and we must never forget the shameful run-up, but we were convinced even the ceremony would fail.
Second, that Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was one of the villains. Her voters recognised the tireless, last-minute work she put in to clean up the mess. When they heard the roar for her, some puzzled visitors asked, "Is she a rock star?"
Third, that we were becoming a Bollywood-driven, cricket-obsessed monoculture, incapable of appreciating or even recognising our own traditions. We may still be that — perhaps we loved the tamasha more than anything else. But as the ceremony wore on, the crowds applauded the wrestlers, boxers and archers and the internet was abuzz with chatter about traditions, from classical Manipuri dance to Kerala's Mohiniattam.
Less than a week before the grand opening ceremony, the world was writing off India, and we were writing off ourselves. As for the Pakistanis, were we not supposed to hate them now like we never had at any point in our turbulent history? Like so many of us, I didn't hear the voices from the street, probably because I never talked to them.
Perceptions in emerging India often emerge from the fringes of society, from self-serving ‘leaders' acquainted with mass manipulation. These perceptions make it to India's mainstream by riding the swirling current of the 24x7 media. These media keep India alert and vibrant but they, increasingly, also mistake or misinterpret here-and-now emotions as wider facts.
Once these perceptions go mainstream, there are enough screamers, shouters, cynics and abusers — especially on the internet and some news channels — who feed off each other, make rational argument impossible. We indulge these people because provocation and hysteria tap into our vast reservoirs of emotion. In doing so, we drown out voices of reason. We know those voices are out there. Hear the voices.
Nehru stadium isn't the only instance where we heard the voices directly, where the clear light of reason shone through the neon.
The latest edition of India's Got Talent, a television show that attracts singers, dancers and sundry hopefuls, voted as India's best not the usual Bollywood-inspired groups from ‘mainland' India but the Shillong Chamber Choir from Meghalaya. Their perfect harmonies and vocal energy, honed by years at church services, propelled them into the national spotlight, never mind that they sang Abba (and, oh, some Hindi songs as well). The enraptured audience and judges heard those soaring voices. The choir took its place under a national spotlight that, according to perception, had no place for them. The choir was astonished. So was I.
On a more serious matter, the perception now peddled by many on the Hindu fringes is that India wants a temple in Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid once stood. They talk, rightly, of the national mood for reconciliation but cleverly avoid any mention of a mosque. I won't get into the tortured issue of the judgement itself, but one reason why Muslim sorrow and anger is growing is because this particular perception of reconciliation is, at best, insincere and, at worst, duplicitous. This is not the reconciliation India wants. If it were, the people who demand a temple and nothing else would be running our country. Hear the voices.
If you can hear the voices on the street, you can stop those on the fringes from taking over our minds. The latest example, as ever, comes from Mumbai, where the Senas threaten to stop the television show Bigg Boss because it's selected two Pakistanis, a female actor and a drag queen.
I hope the network, Colors, does not cave in to these preposterous, self-serving perceptions, as the Mumbai University did last week. Its officials cravenly dropped Such a Long Journey, a book by Rohinton Mistry, all because someone from the Shiv Sena's student wing suddenly decided that some passages were "anti-Sena". The book was nominated for the Booker prize in 1990 and was on the syllabus for 20 years. Mumbai's students do not want the ban. Hear the voices.
Fake perceptions allow hate to creep into the bone marrow of Indian society, a cancer that won't easily be cured. These perceptions impair reality and restrain the national spirit from accommodation.
How do we sift perception from fact? It's not difficult, really. Indians are great talkers. We like to lecture, preach and gossip. Hearing what others have to say is not a national strength. Let's make it so. Start asking questions. Listen to the answers. Hear the voices. You may be surprised.