Indopakladesh at seventy

Lahore, the city of my early childhood — my romantic city of Kipling’s Kim, and of the Emperor Jahangir (“Seizer of the World”); of Anarkali his courtesan, her tomb, and of the Anarkali Bazaar; of The Mall and long-demolished Nedous; of the zoo, and Saint Lawrence gardens, where the bats flew out at dusk; of Mrs Abassi’s kindergarten (where the Persian alphabet was forced upon me), and Saint Anthony’s school (deadly Latin inflections) — was “ethnically cleansed” some seventy years ago. In my childhood, it was little over a decade since that had happened, and the memories, still fresh in adult minds, were never discussed.

This was, I learnt as I grew, one of the interesting characteristics of adults. They seemed to remember only what they wanted to remember. Yet what they tried to forget could not be forgotten, only gradually sanitized. The phenomenon is not peculiar to Lahore, and the greatest traumatic events of history are “cleansed,” along with their victims, in surprisingly short periods of time. They are fit back into a bottle and labelled: “The Plague”; “The War”; “The Holocaust”; “Partition.” Life becomes easy again, for the survivors; and often, the sins of the fathers are not visited even on the fathers. For they are “the fathers of their nations” now, bejewelled in myth.

Lahore, a city that was half Muslim, and the rest Hindu and Sikh, Catholic Christian, “Liberal,” and even Buddhist, became fully Muslim almost overnight. Those who did not make it through the massacres to the new Indian border near Amritsar, passed across another threshhold. Those who made it through the massacres, the other way, soon occupied all the cheapened real estate. The rail to Delhi, once among the busiest in the world, now ended at a severed bridge.

But life goes on, in a city for which the British left an infrastructure for half a million people, which with patchy repairs now serves ten times as many. With wealth and technology, all the problems will be solved. Human optimism is clear on this point.

“Indopakladesh” is my collective term for the successor states which replaced that extraordinary British compilation: the largest India accumulated since the age of Ashoka. It is, and was to start with, too large for anyone to make sense of. The Subcontinent, as it is also known, already has a population much exceeding China’s (in less than half the area), and roughly equal to that of all Europe (from Atlantic to the Urals) plus North and South America. The Republic of India alone may soon surpass them all.

While the biomass of humans may not exceed that of ants and termites, the people are all buying cars, and the crowding of huge cities, including Lahore, has become impossible to believe even for those who live there. A fertile paradise of nature (perhaps twice China’s arable land, multiplied by tropical climate) has been transformed.

And yet as recently as my youth and early manhood, I was able to travel across a landscape almost empty of mechanical traffic — a landscape of villages not yet electrified, emerging from the dark of night only by the light of the moon and the stars, and spookily silent; with broad regions hardly populated at all. I have not seen rural India in decades; am told by a Bengali friend that I would be impressed by the progress — impressed, and “quite deploring.” It is unlikely I will ever return.

The remarkable variety of the Lahore that was extinguished — before my time — is known to me through books and pictures. The Subcontinent contains more nations than Europe, and nations within each nation; unofficial castes within castes, and very official tribes within tribes. It speaks innumerable languages, so that the alphabets present a carnival to the eyes. Its power to resist “globalization” is formidable. Yet the cities — rather, conurbations — are powerful melting pots within. The tourist today will find very little that has not been tricked up for him; the heat will keep him mostly indoors, where air conditioning seals off all contact with the living past.

From this distance, the receding British Empire is “one with Nineveh and Tyre.” The India they hastily abandoned belongs only to the historians, now; those born into “freedom at midnight” have reached three score and ten. Indopakladesh today looks only to the future, where we can all see the same: a world that has been fully sanitized.