India: Paradise Lost

“We are like a zoo,” the melancholy middle-class lady said in Delhi. “Perhaps we should charge.”

She lived in India: I was a visitor. She intended a rebuke, possibly an insult, but it was easy to let it pass. India was like a zoo because India was poor and cruel and had lost its way. These were things about India that, with the Emergency, she had just discovered; and they were more than intellectual discoveries. Once—like other middle-class people, like other people secure in their caste world—she might have been able to detach herself from the mess of India; now she felt she was going down with it.

Her husband was connected with the opposition; his career was suddenly jeopardized; he lived in fear of arrest. In the pre-Emergency days—when the students were rioting, the unions were striking, and it seemed possible to get rid of Mrs. Gandhi’s government and give India a fresh start—he had been a figure. Now all his political boldness had turned to hysteria. Action had ceased to be possible; the revolution at whose head he thought he was marching had vanished, leaving him exposed.

“Thousands of us will surround her house to prevent her going out or receiving visitors. We’ll camp there night and day shouting to her to resign. Even if the police arrest us, beat us up, slaughter us. How many can they slaughter? And what will they do with the corpses?” This was what old Mr. Desai, a famous Gandhian and once deputy prime minister, had promised a foreign interviewer. But then, just a few hours later, Mr. Desai had been arrested, no doubt to his own surprise (“I prefer to believe that before committing such a monstrosity Mrs. Gandhi would commit suicide,” he had told the interviewer, unwittingly showing up the vanity and shoddiness of his Gandhian posture). And there had been no uprising, no corpses in front of Mrs. Gandhi’s house in New Delhi.

Jaya Prakash Narayan, the most respected opposition leader, had been wiser. In his last public speech, in New Delhi, the evening before his arrest, he asked the students in his audience: “Will you go to classes or to prison?” “Prison!” they had replied. And he had said, “Let us see.” And the students, when the time came, had done nothing; they had become part of the great peace of the Emergency.

The revolution had turned out to be no revolution. And India, which only a few weeks before had seemed capable of renewed Gandhian fervor, had become like a zoo. The sad lady sat forward on her chair, knees apart below the wrappings of her sari, and looked down at the floor, shaking her head slowly from side to side, as though contemplating the depth of the Indian tragedy; while her husband, speaking above the traffic noise that came through the open windows, offered visions of the repression to come.

He extended his personal anxieties to the country: he foresaw that the British-built “garden city”…

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