Okay, I accept it. I’ll even admit it if I must — though I will continue to sulk. Yes, physically and in terms of species I am female and a human. But poetically, I’m a man and a mouse. If this sounds cryptic, let me direct you to the late Scottish poet Rabbie Burns and his badly misquoted, but well known line, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley.”
It’s a line that encapsulates all of life’s frustrations — no matter how firm your plans are, something always goes wrong — but since Burns only referred to mice and men I thought that, as a human and a woman, I was safe. But look what happened. My plans for the holiday I’m on have ganged aft agley and how.
Given that I’m a generally law-abiding person with a particular reverence for the law of gravity, there were just three things I’d planned for this holiday. 1. Lie down. 2. Read. And 3. (a happy compromise between plans 1 and 2) Lie down and read. Nothing could go wrong with that, I figured. I’d get a few bed sores, maybe. There’d be a certain lack of exercise, perhaps. (Though, given the size of the books I have with me, weight-lifting is part of my vacation.) But otherwise, I thought, all would proceed as planned.
In a word, ha! Far from lying down, reading and lying down and reading, I’ve spent all my holiday so far sitting up (thus defying the law of gravity) or pacing about with a frown on my face (thus not only defying the law of gravity again, but also breaking the law of holidays which prefers smiles to frowns), trying to put together an enormous jigsaw puzzle. This is no ordinary jigsaw puzzle. In fact, it isn’t even a puzzle yet — just a possibility that I hope and pray never happens. It’s a jigsaw of the map of India that could well emerge if all the regional, linguistic, religious and sectarian chauvinists — the same people who aim to make up the governments whose job it is to uphold our Constitution — had their way.
If I feel Rabbie Burns-ed by this on my holiday, I can’t even begin to imagine how the thousands of people who were chauvinistic about India up to 1947 would feel. Though I do get an idea when I read Nayantara Sahgal’s books, recently reissued by two publishing houses.
A niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sahgal takes us right into the heart of the freedom movement in Prison and Chocolate Cake, her memoir of growing up in a family that spent enormous amounts of time in jail for daring to demand a free India, and explores the beginnings of our disillusionment with our leaders and administrators in her gripping novels, Storm in Chandigarh and A Situation in New Delhi.
I’d love to get on to Sahgal No 4, now languishing on my bedside table, but unfortunately I can’t just now — unless the chauvinists’ plans gang aft agley themselves.