When I visited India as a tourist 47 years ago I was told that the population of Delhi was about 3 million. I went there again late in November to do some work. The population now, so far as it can be counted, is 22 million. The contrasts, of splendour with slums, of wealth with poverty, and efficiency with unpredictable improvisation, were as apparent in 2017 as they were in 1970. What had changed, for the worse, was the traffic: there was only one solution for a passenger, Gandhian meditation with eyes shut.
It was my assistant’s first trip to India. I told him that he could not be within 200 miles of Agra without seeing the Taj Mahal. We took Sunday off to do that. The hotel where we were staying was a model of efficiency. The concierge arranged for a car and driver to the Delhi railway station, seats in the special tourists’ carriage of the express to Agra, and a guide and car there. The train, fully occupied, departed and arrived precisely on time each way. Unlike on my previous visit, I saw no one cooking on the station platforms.
Revisiting the country, no matter how briefly, re-enlivened an interest in its history. I have learned many facts in reading Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer. Her book gives an idea of the innumerable complications and contradictions of Indian culture and politics. I knew that before 1947 there were principalities, nominally at least self-governing, to the extent that the local British Resident perceived the ruler’s reign and conduct to be compatible with British interests, but not that there were, until independence and partition more than 500 of them, each of which had entered into a separate agreement with Britain. In some, a Muslim ruled over a large Hindu majority, in others, a Hindu over a Muslim majority, and in several, a Muslim or a Hindu over a population which included many Sikhs and quite a few Parsees, as well as others. The scale of bloodshed on partition was enormous and literally incalculable. Even today the caste system, that is if you are not an untouchable, resists change.
My work included conferences with retired Justices of the Supreme Court of India. I was not surprised that there was much common ground between them and us on the law. Of course there are many autochthonous elements, to use Sir Owen Dixon’s memorable language, (i.e. indigenous) dictated by the requirements of such an extraordinarily diverse country, but as with cricket, the British ideal here of the common law underpins much of their law. Even that great Australian jurist, however, was unable to resolve the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. Perhaps he was not the right person for the job, assuming anyone could be. Dixon was unable to understand why either country would want Kashmir. No one else to my knowledge would have described it as he did, as a miasma of foetid swamps.
Speaking of cricket and British Residents before partition, I was reminded of a story I read many years ago in a periodical that I much enjoyed in my youth, Sporting Life. Ranjitsinhji, who played cricket for England, was a young Indian nobleman expensively educated in England, at the behest no doubt, of the local British Resident. The author of the story claimed that Ranjitsinhji, subsequently a Maharaja, invented the leg glance. As with most batsmen, he had a distaste for the fast rising ball arching towards the upper torso and head. Fluid as the young man’s stroke-making on the off side was, he tended to back away on the leg side. It is said that his coach, by a stake in the pitch and a rope around the ankle of one leg, prevented the young player from moving towards square leg. Cleverly and elegantly Ranjitsinhji moved towards the off side with his free leg, bringing himself inside the ball, and enabling him to glide it down to fine leg. The wristiness of Indian batsmen today lends credibility to the story.
It is futile to attempt to describe the Taj Mahal in any fresh way. There were three things however that occurred to me as I saw it after an interval of almost half a century: its gleaming whiteness and its perfect proportions. The third was a question: what have symmetry and curves done to modern brutalist architects that they should hate them so? Give me the refinement and purity of 16th century Palladian and 17th century Persian any day.
I returned home to the Ashes Tests, the dual citizenship blunders and the Bennelong by-election. By the time of publication, two of these, but not the dual citizenship fiasco, will be over. The only consolation is the vast amusement that we are providing for sophisticated politicians in other countries. Reference to politics prompts a further reflection on India. According to the media there, a reputable American think tank’s poll found that Prime Minister Modi enjoys an approval rating of more than 80 per cent. One of his particular initiatives is to make sanitation and lavatories available and accessible to all. By comparison with his job, the prime-ministership of Australia is a sinecure. The local media have been giving a great deal of attention to Sino-Australian relations. The sheer size of the population of India, its geography, and our many common interests dictate that we pay it a lot more attention than we have in the past.
Ian Callinan is a retired Justice of the High Court of Australia, a novelist and playwright.