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The national body

If one part of the country is described as the head, what do you call the other parts? And the metaphor may not go down well in certain parts, Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:29 IST

It was an early morning call. The caller said, “We are organising an event, a purely scientific one with archaeological and anthropological features, on the great treasures and antiquities of Kashmir, to be called the ‘Crown of India’.” It was an erudite, earnest voice, wanting to know if it would be possible for the organisers to meet me “for five minutes” — that very Indian metaphor for optimistic open-endedness. I asked if they wanted to do so to invite me to that event. He said that was indeed the case, “… as a chief guest or something.”

I thanked the gentleman sincerely, but pleaded inability. I said I was stretched for time. Stretched for time? It is impossible for anyone, particularly an active person like my caller, to visualise that progressively regressive redundancy, namely, a pensioner being pre-occupied. He didn’t persist after a point and I gratefully returned the receiver to the phone’s cuddle.

The call started a train of thoughts within me as well, passive thoughts, ruminations, untied to action. And these thoughts included several things I could in all honesty — and prolixity — have as well told my caller. Except that he would then certainly have said, “Why don’t you make these very ideas the theme of your speech?” ‘Crown of India?’

A crown is an adornment, and like all ornaments, nothing except in relation to the wearer. And all ornaments are man-made objects, shaped, designed for something other than and beyond themselves, for another’s head, wrist, neck, finger, ankle or toe.

Would the people of Jammu and Kashmir want their state to be regarded as one of those ornaments ? After all, until not so long ago, a proud Dogra in Jammu might feel, were they not a Crown in themselves, with a maharaja, not some glorified zamindar or a ‘mere’ raja, governing them with little let and no hindrance from Delhi, not to speak of London ?

Would a Ladakhi, on that moonscape in the rain shadow of Tibet, with vast grey and brown mountains towering above, not feel that Ladakh merits and indeed has a crown of its own, in fact not one but two, directly overhead — the Himalaya and the Karakoram?

And as to the emerald Vale of Kashmir, with a fluid sapphire in the Jhelum and with gold shimmering on its autumnal chinar, would there be any interest among its people in being or becoming a crown that another head wears , even if it be India’s ?

More than any country I can think of, India’s geographical shape and structure lend themselves to being described in anthropomorphic terms. Late 19th and early 20th century depictions of ‘Bharat Mata’ with Kashmir as the capitellum and tresses flowing down from that apex in the shape of rivers and her ‘arms’ extending along the eastern and western Himalaya were part of nationalist lore, legend and literature. Little clay figurines in that shape and spirit were treasured in many a nationalist home. And they undoubtedly had a certain appeal to them, instilling in the people of India a sense of destiny. Other more figurative portrayals had the glowing head of this national personification of a mother goddess placed over Kashmir, her left arm resting over a lion (whose head and mane snuggled into Rajasthan and Gujarat), her left hand holding aloft a two-sectioned flag around Nepal, her feet resting somewhere over the present Tamil Nadu. By a leap of patriotic maximalism, the present day Afghanistan , Pakistan and Bangladesh (of course), Nepal and Myanmar fell into that capacious embrace.

Metaphors work that much and no more. And there are hazards in anatomical portrayals of subjects that do not belong to biology and zoology. More specifically, there are dangers in imparting physiognomic names and descriptions to parts of a map. The risk need not be detailed. Suffice it to say that if one part of India is described as the ‘head’ or the ‘crown’, there have to be other parts of the country that correspond to other humanly limbs and adornments appropriate to those. And those may not be flattered by the analogy.

The ‘Crown of India’ nomenclature for a programme around Kashmiri antiquities reminded me of an episode of some 30 years ago. I was working then in Kandy, Sri Lanka, as a First Secretary in our diplomatic mission there. President Sanjiva Reddy was coming on a State visit and was to spend a couple of days in the hill town as well. The little community of persons of Indian origin in Kandy decided to present a welcome address to him. For some reason the prime mover of that touching gesture consulted me on the wording of this address. My eyes froze on a sentence that welcomed President Reddy to the emerald island which was described as ‘India’s pendant’.

‘My dear friends’, I told the generous group, ‘I appreciate your spirit but no Lankan is going to like that line and besides, why should this country be described in terms of an Indian coordinate and that as an addendum to it?’ They did not, I think, quite agree, but out of deference to me, deleted the line.

Abanindranath Tagore, the poet’s nephew has memorably painted ‘Bharat Mata’. He has not transposed ‘her’ onto a geopolitical map of India. His most stunning work, in my view, is the ‘Last Moments of Shah Jehan’ in which the stricken and deposed Emperor is shown looking wistfully at the Taj Mahal. He has also done rather less-known paintings in an integrated series inspired by Kashmir. One of these is ‘Shah Jehan by the Shalimar’ — an inky blue-and-white affair in which the white-robed and white-bearded emperor is shown holding a white lotus against the night sky. Abanindranath does not call Kashmir an ornament. His paintings ornament her. And what a difference that makes.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor The views expressed by the author are personal.