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At the gateway of India

There are good reasons not to describe India as 60 years old, but 60 years young — a certain amount of youthfulness has been injected in our aging body, writes Khushwant Singh.
By Khushwant Singh | None
UPDATED ON AUG 11, 2007 12:21 AM IST

Next week we celebrate our 60th birthday as an independent nation. There are good reasons not to describe India as 60 years old, but 60 years young — a certain amount of youthfulness has been injected in our aging body. We are in better health than ever before.

We have just elected a Hindu-Maharashtrian as our first lady President and a scholarly Muslim ex-diplomat as our Vice President. Despite dire forecasts made by the silly tribe of astrologers, the Sonia-Manmohan led coalition remains firmly in the saddle and almost certain to last its full term. And seeing the fractured state of the BJP, and other like-minded parties, it also has a fair chance to win the next general election. It can make plans for the coming decade.

Our country’s top priority for rapid development is to increase its electric power potential by means other than the use of fossil fuels like wood, coal, gas, petrol and diesel (mostly imported at heavy cost) and generation from hydro-electric plants by erecting dams on rivers. America’s willingness to supply us the wherewithal of nuclear energy is a landmark agreement that could give us all the electric power we need for civilian use: lighting our homes, running trains, factories, tubewells and battery-operated vehicles which will save our cities from pollution.

We could build a thousand more electric crematoriums in large towns and forbid the use of wood to cremate the dead — or persuade people to bury their dead that will in return be of agricultural use after five years; or bury them in the sea in coastal areas. We would thus save our forests from destruction. It needs nothing more than the will to do so.

We have yet to explore solar and wind energy potential. In countries like Israel, every home has a solar panel on its rooftop that provides all the heat they require for cooking and controlling temperatures indoors. Others have wind energy that provides both electricity as well as drawing water from wells. The capital outlay for both is within means of local institutions like panchayats or municipalities. All it requires is leadership and the will to do so.

Our big cities have become unliveable; our roads are clogged with traffic and polluted by their emissions; they are accident prone, time-destroying, noisy, peace-destroying and crime-ridden. I don’t know what can be done to improve the quality of urban life. All I do is periodically escape to the hills during summers.

Another item on my list of grievances is the lethargic pace at which our judicial system works. If it takes 10 years or more to bring a criminal to justice, there is something rotten about it. Our jails are crammed with men and women charged with crimes. Can’t we fix a minimum limit to criminal cases? It should not be difficult if we have the will to do so.

There remains one last item that has always been a priority on my list of grievances. Isn’t it time to convert the slogan: Hum do hamaarey do into a reality? All it needs is the will to do so.

So let us raise a toast to Bharat Mata and make a birthday resolution: “Long live Ma and give us the strength to make our dreams come true.”

Pride and Envy

When somebody we don’t know achieves success, we marvel at the achievement. When somebody close to you does the same, you take pride in being close to him but that pride is tinged with envy.

It is human nature. In my case it was my niece Gita’s husband Nayan Chanda whose book won him plaudits in American journals before it was launched in India. Though I said, “Good show Nayan: More power to your pen,” I also asked myself, “Why was it him and not me?”

Nayan Chanda was a topper in Jadhavpur University and went to Sorbonne (Paris) to study French and research on China. Gita was there to learn the language. They fell in love and got engaged. Besides his mother tongue Bengali and English, Nayan learnt to speak French and a smattering of Mandarin. Gita, besides Punjabi, Hindi and English, learnt to speak French — and Bengali.

Back home they got married, blessed by parents of both. Nayan got a job with Far Eastern & Asian Review in Hong Kong and became its first non-white editor. He also represented The Asian Wall Street Journal. They travelled extensively in far-eastern countries and wrote about them.

He is currently teaching in Yale University, along with his wife. They have two sons, both tall and strapping. The elder is engaged to a Malayali Christian girl. The younger one cannot make up his mind whether to be a turbaned, bearded Sardar or remain a bhadralog, Americanised Bengla Babu.

Bound Together (Penguin, Viking) is Nayan Chanda’s second or third book. Its theme is spelt out in its subtitle: How traders, preachers, adventures and warriors shaped globalisation. It is about how the human race setting out from Africa, spread over the globe and assumed different features, colours, language, faiths and eating habits.

Intermingling has been a historical and a continuous process; everyone’s influenced others they came in contact with.

Thus coffee first grown in Ethopia or Arabia is now drunk in every country in different ways. How hunting for spices brought European traders to India and have become essential ingredients of every cuisine.

The story of the potato (not mentioned by Chanda) is equally dramatic. It was unknown till the 17th century, but today its an important item of food for the world over. It is believed that at first there was resistance in England. The then English slang word for it was Spud: Society for the Prevention of Unhygienic Diet. The subject has not been explored before; Chanda does it with a lively, informative style. It is not surprising he has received so much praise. It fills me with pride — and a little envy.

Vibrating condom

Minister says it is not for pleasure
But only a family planning measure:
You can look
At the Kama Sutra book,
But don’t copy from that treasure.

(Contributed by Prabha Vaidya, Mumbai)

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