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Rupinder Khullar



any years ago I was asked by an old lady in London what India was really like. Intelligent enough to shed the belief, common to her vintage, that India was full of tigers, snake charmers and fakirs, and little else, she had a burning curiosity about the country. Her questions were penetrating, insistent – and almost impossible to answer. What could I tell her about the real India? Was it bewitching, beguiling or bewildering? Was it calamitous, contradictory or convivial? Was it dramatic, dismal or divisive? Could one talk in the same breath of its princes and palaces on the one hand and its poverty on the other, and expect her to understand? I cannot remember now what my answers were but I am sure they were inadequate. India is a country that defied easy description or analysis, a country that cannot be conveniently pigeonholed as being this or that in one’s perception. Indeed, the only truth about India, as someone once said, is that no single statement about the country is wholly true. If it is the general belief that it is hot and steamy, the lie is given to this notion by the key fastnesses of the Himalayas. If there are floods in one part of the country, there is drought in another. If it is an ancient land, it is also a young nation. If it is a land of mystery and spiritualism, the land of yoga and god men, it is also a land of material values and pragmatic realism. “The diversity of India is tremendous,” Jawaharlal Nehru once said. “It is obvious. It lies on the surface and anybody can see it.” And this indeed is the keystone to an understanding and appreciation of India. Such diversity is to be expected even if only on the basis of sheer size. Covering an area of over 3,000,000 sq km with a land frontier of about 15,000 km and a coastline of 5,600 km, India is as much a sub-continent as it is a country. And when one remembers that in size it is about as large as Europe, it is reasonable to expect at least as many differences between one region and another as there are between the various countries of Europe. In fact there are more.

The most obvious differences are to be seen in the lie of the land. As all school children are taught, in physical terms, there are three basic regions, the Himalayas, the Indo-Gangetic plains, and the Deccan plateau. But within this bald and banal framework lies a kaleidoscope of changing scenes, sometimes dramatic in their splendour, at other times arid and dull. From the snowy peaks of the Himalayas or the barren moonscapes of Ladakh, down to the flat, sun scorched plains of north India and then on to the deserts of Rajasthan and the beaches of Goa in the west, Puri in the east or Kovalam in the south, right down to the lush coconut groves of Kerala and the palm fringed coast of Kanyakumari, what strikes one is the tremendous contrasts that appear. Nor is the variety of plant and animal life any less. Unique in the richness of its wildlife, much of which is big game, the great differences in climatic conditions also produce an impressively varied vegetation. However, the forests of India, beautiful though they may be, cover only a quarter of the land. The story of India is primarily that of her people and, more than anywhere else, this is where one sees an intricately patterned mosaic of traditional regions, variegated and often confusing, the diversities between each reflected in race, religion, language, customs, manners and food. Both geography and history have shaped the country and its civilisation, contributing to a heterogeneity that is unparalleled by any other country. To start first with the geography. India has always been a predominantly rural country, with the bulk of the land under cultivation, and the vast majority of the population engaged in tilling the soil. This on the face of it would seem extraordinary in a country where there can be no dependence on the certainty or quantity of rainfall. But it is also a country with some great rivers, including the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra in the north, and the Godavari, Krishna, Mahanadi and 12 13

pp.58-62: A mĂŠlange of people call India home. From Himalayas to the seas spread across the deserts and the Indo Gangetic fertile plains, they bring vibrancy, character and uniqueness to a land as ancient as time itself. 58 59