India- A Portrait

India: A Portrait (2011) by Patrick French

Rating: ★★★★★

India: A Portrait gives a voice to a cross-section of India’s millions, and endeavours to understand the strands of the past through their story. It is a truism that even today, with the many opportunities available, that talented individuals can fail to achieve their potential. This may not be a unique problem for mankind, but for India, somehow what has been achieved, especially since Independence, gives a taste of possibilities yet uncovered.

With the proximity of Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, underlines India’s situation as critical to the tensions and interactions of current global politics. From this perspective alone, apart from the many human, cultural and other reasons, it behoves thoughtful people around the world to make efforts to understand this vast and vital nation.

India possesses a number of physiographic divisions. The northern mountains include the world-famous Himalayas with their snow-capped peaks of towering majesty. Here are found the sources of river systems such as the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. The Great Plains lie south of the Himalayas, fanning out at both ends to include the fertile Ganges delta on the east and the semiarid desert of Rajasthan on the west. The course of the Ganges is one of the earth’s most fertile areas, but it is also the world’s second most densely populated river valley.

Stretching from the Arabian Sea on the west to the Bay of Bengal on the east is the peninsular plateau, known as the Deccan. The western edge is noted for its breath-taking grandeur, awe-inspiring peaks with cascading waterfalls streaming down timeworn channels. A panorama of precipitous valleys filled with a kaleidoscope of colour extends far into the distance. This western ridge feeds three important rivers, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Cauvery..

India is rich in animal life, both wild and domesticated. The rare snow leopard lurks in the Himalayas, whereas the hardworking elephant is found in the forests of the south. In the west, the diminishing Asiatic lion is protected, while the panther is found in almost all forests. The tiger roams most forests of India, though numbers continue to decline, but the vanishing rhinoceros is now found only in the northeast. In various areas, there are varieties of wild antelope, buffalo, dog, hyena, bear, deer and monkey. Among the domesticated animals, water buffalo are bred specially for their milk. Farmers still find the ox indispensable. Donkeys, too, are employed as beasts of burden.

It is important when thinking of India to remember its diversity. It is a country in which there are 15 official languages, over 300 minor languages and some 3,000 dialects. Twenty-four languages have more than one million speakers each. The largest spoken language is Hindi, but this is the mother tongue of only about 40 percent of the population. Often Indians cannot understand each other and frequently use English, the language of commerce and industry, as a link or administrative language. But language is not the only diversity. There are four principal social groupings, what we sometimes call castes, and several thousand sub- categories of the castes. Although predominantly Hindu, the entire world’s major religions are represented in India. Ethnic differences also abound. This mosaic is culturally extraordinary. It is a source of divisiveness in a nation where particular loyalties have a deep meaning, both spiritually and physically. Given this diversity, it is remarkable that India has remained and grown, and continues to grow, as one nation.

Hinduism is India’s oldest surviving religion. It prevailed here when Persia’s empire extended to India in the sixth century BC. Other indigenous religions are Buddhism and Jainism, both of which began about the sixth century BC. Later, in the fifteenth century of our Common Era, Sikhism was founded. About 10 percent of the populace are Muslims, who first invaded India in the eighth century AD. The country’s leaders used to boast that while India was materially poor it was a spiritually rich. Even the Beatles went to India to seek guidance from the Maharishi.India today is not a paradise. It is afflicted by widespread injustice, civil violence, and authoritarian trends. Still, it is one of the few Third World countries where democracy in any form has survived continuously. There has never been a military coup in India.

The country suffered from such severe foreign exchange shortage that to go abroad you had to get a form approved by the government and you were allowed only £3 (4.4 euros; $6) in foreign exchange. Such was the scarcity in the country that there was a Guest Control Order which meant you could not invite more than fifty people for a meal – at weddings all you may get was a thin slice of ice cream. Government newsreels exhorted people not to over eat or waste food. India today could not be more different. Poverty is still there, 80% of the population live on 20 rupees (25p) a day, according to a survey, but a large well off group has also emerged. Some 250 million are reckoned to be very well off, many of them very rich.

Modern India can also be said to be an interaction between two worlds: the cities of India, where 20 percent of the population live, and rural India, where about 600,000 villages contain the rest of the population. Urban India is the India of modern industry, national politics and foreign policy, government planning, the national media, the major universities, business, the armed forces, science and technology. Its best products are frequently as good as the best in the world, its orientation is cosmopolitan. Rural India is the India of age-old patterns where tradition is the principal dynamic of society, where outsiders come and go but life continues, often without much change. When the two Indias mesh effectively, India is a success, as in the expansion of education, the reduction of illiteracy, the extension of the average lifespan, the introduction of some basic health care, the sustenance of a democratic political system. When they do not connect effectively, India is in trouble, as with population control and unemployment. For the nation to realize its considerable potential, the linkage between those two Indias has to be expanded and strengthened.

The final feature we must remember is that poverty, spirituality and modernity mix and coexist in India, without the paradoxical implications which a Western perspective suggests. It is the essence of Indian spirituality which enables even the most deprived to endure poverty and it is modernity which provides the prospect of improvement.

It is this spirit, a composite of many small individual visions and inspirations, which characterizes modern India and offers the best hope for the nation and its people.

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