The last few of a remarkable generation are dying in India. They are the final survivors of an extraordinary group of highly educated men and women, thinkers and activists who were not so much heirs to Gandhi — those idealists were perhaps on a somewhat earlier or a parallel path that merged and then disengaged from that of the more overtly political movers and shakers. These are rather the people who were the young Nehruvians, heirs to the intellectual, more than the spiritual, thought processes of Independence.
Those who still call themselves Gandhians today have a whiff of stylized sanctity about them that places them on a historical shelf with other religious and ideological relics, above the reach of mundane humanity. Not so the last of the great political intelligentsia who saw, understood and disseminated the travails and tragedies, as well as the triumphs, of half-a-century of independent India, and have never hesitated to get their hands dirty well into grand old age.
Those who are dying now, in their nineties or past their century, were the men and women who imbibed the spirit of their parents’ generation, and of independence, with their mothers’ milk. They were a broadly-knit group of clever thinkers, highly-educated men and women. They were the offspring of parents who had, figuratively and philosophically, built Delhi as the new capital of India, evolving or recreating India’s institutions from the British model with greater or lesser success, and finally shrugging off the heavy weight of colonial rule. They were the designers and the architects, both of buildings and of a new society, the people concerned with the new spirit of, and behind, India. The women, strong themselves, were the supporters and advancers of their poorer sisters, and of the arts and crafts that are one of the country’s greatest treasures.
Married to India’s greatest men, or as their siblings, sisters-in-law or daughters, these women were any man’s intellectual equal. Strong-willed, widely-read and experienced, they were able to see and be engaged beyond the immediate purview of government, academia and the status quo. They are the ones who are the mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers now departing, still spirited, from old family houses in Delhi and Calcutta in particular. They are also the widows of army generals or civil servants, from the cool air of military towns in the Himalayan foothills or the Nilgiris in the South.
It is mostly the women who are left, except for a few grand old men like Khushwant Singh, historian, journalist and author, aged 99. Many of them are bored, their brains still active, only to be irritated by the excessive care and attention of family and loyal servants, themselves of a certain age. The annoyance value of younger maids and drivers may at least make it worth waking up for another morning to continue an energizing argument.
That generation too educated its children to be India’s new thinkers and leaders, the men and women who would steer the vast diversity of the nation into the 21st century. In many ways, they succeeded in passing on their message and way of life. That second generation, itself now stretching into old age, has been worthy of its parents in a life of public service to India — ambassadors and academics, top civil servants, writers, artists, economists and opinion-makers, actors, programme-creators, directors and television stars. The second generation has hardly slouched but as it ages, it increasingly stands back from the tangled world of contemporary politics.
In a country where age and experience is still valued, these people are not, in most cases, drawing on their rich experience to criticize or engage any longer with the hurly burly of the dirty world they see outside a comfortable retirement on the golf course or inside a well-walled garden. They cannot bear the tarnishing of the ideal of India or being brushed with its public grime and are neither writing the memoirs nor publishing the letters that others with a less nice sense of rightness are rushing to offer in more or less believable volumes embellished with highly-coloured gossip and hearsay.
Those who are uninvolved insist their health is not up to further labours in spite of the careful diet, the laps in the swimming pool and the endless golf rounds. They wish not to be seen, they will not allow their lives to be made public. They choose to make themselves irrelevant. One cannot help but think that even small dissent from these inhabitants of the new ivory towers would be of value.
We in the Northern world waste experience in favour of youth and instant new ideas. India has great wealth, but it is a tragedy that those who remember the pure intelligent socialism of their parents’ dream for India, as well as the problems of its implementation when actually running a country, have become a non-participatory chorus standing back from the sidelines of systems that today breed no recognizable ideals but rather promote uncaring self-enrichment and strident corruption.
The spirit for the fight has dwindled in a second generation that still privately echoes the beliefs of the intelligentsia behind Independence. They have been worn down by the struggles and stresses of full working lives in the second part of the 20th century and perhaps by a need to do, and be seen to do, the right thing. That is a very different compulsion from the forces that impelled their parents into upheaval and change.
As for the next, the ‘young’ generation now in its thirties and forties, they too have had the best education, many of them outside India. They have struggled with endless foreign examinations on top of rigorous Indian qualifications, the SATs and A levels necessary for foreign university places or for the enabling scholarships once taken up by their clever grandparents. That earlier generation believed that they were privileged as they struggled with the problems of extreme foreignness, inequality and isolation. In a smaller, more travelled and connected world, one must hope that some of the issues which sharpened their youthful determination at Oxbridge colleges or the London School of Economics are reduced.
This third generation is also highly articulate, literate and often the new face of India abroad as part of the great Indian diaspora — the brilliant thinkers and businessmen, the leading lights enriching themselves as well as the culture and coffers of other countries. Of course, many of them are still in India, internationally-connected, still writers and thinkers but also using their heritage, both cerebral and structural, to build successful businesses based on marketing the best of India. The cheap, and not necessarily, cheerful side of manufacture and management under the high socialist canopy has given way to quality and luxury with an essential and desirable Indian twist.
This generation is showing a fabulous India to the rest of the world and pulling up its compatriots in its wake where it can. Few, however, beyond those born into that impossible, security girt and dynastic environment, are ready to risk involvement in the governance of their country. They see the political realm unattractively populated by the hideous cartoon-strip characters that have become instantly recognizable both in it and outside, beside other political caricatures like Silvio Berlusconi and a muscle-flexing Vladimir Putin.
Now, of course, a fourth generation is growing up, more of whom in the scheme of nature are likely to live as long, and even longer, than the great grandparents, who some may just remember when they reach adulthood. By then, those lives and memories will be part of the history of India. This last, of my lifetime at least, generation is growing up in a transformed world and an India so different from one a hundred years ago as to be almost unrecognizable except in areas remote from the big cities. The poor, after all, are still poor, poorer it appears than before in comparison to so much wealth now on show amongst glittery communities for whom pointless conspicuous consumption has become a life statement.
But this is not a piece about the poor but rather about those rich in mind whose aspirations also included the masses, whatever the caste and creed. Their message has been dissipated or, where remembered, seen as impossible against a political background that is also more about personal wealth than public welfare. Will the fourth generation have the time in a busy life to stop and remember what their great grandparents fought for? It is possible. They have a heritage that now includes both mental and monetary wealth to provide the security and the self-confidence needed to look backwards as well as forward. They have the safety net from which to launch change without fear.
The remaining question is whether they will have the will, and there one can only hope. One can hope too that they may go beyond their parents’ aspirations to greater material wealth and look back to their great grandparents’ aspirations for a better country and lifestyle for all. They can re-engage with, and force change in, the governance of the country. They may be the next turning point. They could be the ones who will understand and build on the heritage while cauterizing the horrors of a century or so and three earlier generations. They could be the ones, uncorrupted and incorruptible, who will see India in all its richness of colour and culture rise undimmed by endless scandal. With its huge, essentially-creative and potentially extraordinarily motivated and skilled population India, should be one of the great powers in the next hundred years but not until its feet are cleaned of the present mire.