Published by Outlook Magazine on 2004-08-23
My journey back home to the land of my birth has taken me 37 years. Here I am in New Delhi now, representing a large and influential newspaper, The Straits Times of Singapore, and writing for an international audience about the country where I was born and raised. I am a foreign correspondent in my own backyard. It's a strange and exhilarating feeling to be interpreting India at this point in time for readers abroad. It's the particular privilege of a journalist to know that a big cohort of people gets its understanding of a country because of your reporting and analysis.
This is an utterly new India that I've come back to. It's an ineluctable principle of demography that a country's population doubles every 35 years; this means that when I left my native Bombay for the United States in 1967, there were less than half the 1.1 billion people we now have in India. It's a sobering realization that while India has grown younger - the median age is 23.4 years today - I have become older. I - like others of my generation - could scarcely have imagined back in the Sixties that India would ever be well on its way to becoming a global economic superpower.
Superpower? India? Despite the continuing poverty and political venality? Yes, I believe so. Some of my friends like Rahul Singh and Prem Shankar Jha - both accomplished writers - tell me that my enthusiasm may be misplaced, that my views are that of the converted re-discoverer. That may well be the case. But it's hard to see the growth of consumerism and communications, and not be impressed. The India I left three decades ago was a despairing nation of shortages, food insecurity and political chaos. And while the politics of today - in India, as in many other democracies - remains turbulent, the widespread sense of hopelessness that I was accustomed to during my early youth has yielded to a tangible new ethos of accomplishment.
India, at long last, has become a competitor in the global bazaar; it has become a serious player. It no longer has to plead to be taken seriously because of confusing notions like nonalignment and socialism; it's no longer ridiculed in the chancelleries of the industrialised nations. It may have been late in entering that special club of economically powerful nations, but India has certainly arrived. Consider this: on the basis of purchasing power parity, India is already the world's fourth strongest country, after the United States, China and Japan. Consider this, too: if India sustains an annual economic growth rate of 6 to 7 percent over the next decade, it will overtake Japan in sheer economic might.
Coming to live in this capital city, I'm keenly aware that I've been given the opportunity to re-discover India. Who are all these smart young people in the fashion industry, in hotels, in telecommunications, in financial services, in publishing, in the print and electronic media? What explains their drive and energy? What sort of India are they shaping? Do they think of larger notions like nation building? Or are they far too absorbed in carving their own career and in being part of the acquisitive society - better homes, flashier cars, memberships in toney clubs, foreign vacations?
I've also been given the opportunity to re-discover the incredibly fascinating women of India. Women have, for far too long, been India's most underrated and underused assets. What a pity, what inexcusable neglect of talent that could have accelerated India's economic and social development. I truly believe that women are far more evolved than men, not just in India but also in virtually every culture around the world. It's the fundamental insecurity of men concerning sexuality and intelligence that makes them want to retard the progress of their womenfolk.
Need evidence of how sparkling and accomplished the women of Delhi are, how brimming with ideas, how filled with verve and vitality? Look no further than Mandira Wirk, the young fashion designer; Ritu Dhawan, Vinny Narang and Ruchika Sharma of the hotel industry; Barkha Dutt of television; Radhika Jha, the novelist; Radhika Shrinagesh and Mamta Singhania of the art world; Ambika Shukla, who cares for animals with a special passion; Sandhya Mulchandani, who's translating huge Sanskrit treatises, and who's already produced seminal works on eroticism in ancient India; Vandana Singh, who's as canny a businesswoman as any male entrepreneur; Sonya Philip, the educator who's starting a school for children with learning disabilities; Supriya Mukherji, who works in grassroots development for the dispossessed; Amrit Dhillon and Kaamna Prasad, the writers; Anu Kapoor, the public-relations maestro; Kiran Kapoor, the publisher.
They are all highly ambitious women, but what strikes me most of all is their modesty and good will. I have named them because I've gotten to meet them in my short time thus far here and have been dazzled by their accomplishments. But surely there are scores more of such youthful women in Delhi who are contributing on a daily basis to strengthening not only their own professions but also the dynamics of their society. It is women like these in whom resides the hope of India - which is why India needs to invest more in educating the girl-child. An educated girl-child will inevitably grow up to become a responsible citizen; that's been proven in country after country - only in India do we mostly treat our women as chattel.
That's bound to change as the nation as a whole is pushed by a more enlightened new generation into keeping up with the sensibilities of India's women. Still, I am saddened by the time and opportunities that we have lost in tapping into their brightness and soul. One recent day, I went for a taxi ride around Delhi to look at monuments and statues. I was struck by how green the city is, and how moving its monuments are. But there were hardly any memorials to women who contributed to India's independence and progress.
So I am home again. What a long, strange journey it has been, one that's taken me to nearly every country in the world as a journalist. I have met the titans of our times, and I have shared meals with peasants in distant hovels. I have witnessed wars; I've been shot at while covering conflicts, and followed by little men in little cars in societies where strangers aren't welcome. I've been ushered into palaces by potentates, and thrown out of dismal places by dictators who measured their achievements by the number of opponents they eliminated. I've seen the drama of development as former colonies struggled to become modern societies. I've seen politicians get fat with kickbacks, and I've seen local officials accept bribes in the cause of economic progress. I've had the real privilege of seeing the world as it is, and then being able to tell that story the way I saw it.
But as I move around Delhi these warm summer days, I often say to myself that the greatest privilege of all is being able to come home again. The idea of home is central to all human beings, in every culture. Every wandering soul needs that home to come back to. I left India a long time ago, I wandered around the world, sampling its pleasures and experiencing its pains, and now I am back home again. It's a different home, of course, because times do change and so do people and their ways. But it's home nevertheless, it's my home, and I'm here after a very long journey.
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist