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40 years in Eternal India

December 19, 2014 10:47 IST

Often when I meet a new Indian friend, who is not aware of my background, he exclaims: "So many years in India! but why, why? I can't understand! My dream is to go to the States or Europe and you are living in 'this' country!"

Claude Arpi, who was born a Frenchman, looks back on his 40 years in India.

Forty Years is a long time!

On December 20, 1974, after more than two-and-a-half months on the road, travelling from Paris to South India, crossing Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I arrived in Auroville, near Pondicherry.

What a journey!

Since then, I have adopted Bharat as my home and Bharat adopted me (I hope).

Often when I meet a new Indian friend, who is not aware of my background, he exclaims: "So many years in India! but why, why? I can't understand! My dream is to go to the States or Europe and you are living in 'this' country!"

I appear to them a strange creature, going against the tide (indeed, it was against the tide in 1974!).

His next question is: "What do you find in 'this' country? It is dirty, hundreds of millions are poor, nothing works, please explain, I want to understand."

It is not an easy proposition to explain what attracted me to India and why I have stayed here all these years. An easy answer could be: Karma (bad karma to my questioning new friend, good to me).

It is true that in Asia, this word can explained many things. It is a very practical concept which elucidates happenings that cannot be understood otherwise.

Claude Arpi in a bus, some 40 years ago.

Image: Claude Arpi on a bus in north India, some 40 years ago.

Some 42 years ago, when I first visited India, it was probably my karma to encounter smiling Tibetans on Himalayan roads! In Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, I met their leader, the Dalai Lama and I began to understand something that I had not grasped so far: The refugees had lost their material wealth, their family and their country, but they had not lost the deeper human qualities called peace of mind or compassion; their leader was the living example of these qualities.

That is one of the reasons why I decided to settle down in India.

I had also come across the writings of Sri Aurobindo, the Great Rishi, who fought hard for the Nation's Purna Swaraj from the British ('The most dangerous man we have to reckon with,' wrote Lord Minto) and later from his room in Pondicherry, for a new step in the Evolution of Mankind.

Just like 40 years ago, his words continue to echo in my mind: '(Don't) let worldly prudence whisper too closely in thy ear; for it is the hour of the unexpected.'

Claude Arpi on his way to India some 40 years ago.

Image: Claude Arpi on his way to India, some 40 years ago.



In 1974, I left France because these words resonated in me, despite the often frustrating slow motion of the Elephant.

Of course, there are many, many things that I don't like in India. Several years ago, I wrote for Rediff.com, The 10 things I hate in India. Some readers commented, 'Go back to France, if you don't like India.'

They missed the point.

Retrospectively, one of the darkest times for me was when the government trumpeted 'India is Shining!' There was, of course, some truth in the slogan, but so many aspects of 'Incredible India' still belonged to the middle ages: Child marriage, rape, corruption, filth, to cite a few. How can one show only one side of the coin while neglecting the rest?

During these 40 years, one great moment has been when the present prime minister decided to 'Sweep India.' Narendra Modi dared to tell tens of thousands of NRIs assembled at the Madison Square Garden in New York: 'Yes, India is dirty, but we shall all clean India together.' We all can imagine what India would be if it was spot clean like Switzerland. It would be incredible!

Only when India tackles evils like babudom, bigotry, casteism, lack of innovative spirit, etc (I could name many more), will the nation find her true place in the concert of the nations.

Though many things have to change in the land of Bharat, some remain the same. Take the principle of 'seniority' which prevents the emergence of merit and of a greater dynamism.

Isn't it ironic that the US Senate just confirmed Dr Vivek Murthy, a person of Indian origin, as US Surgeon General. At 37, Dr Murthy will be the youngest surgeon general, and the first of Indian-American descent. Could this happen to India?

Here, we have witnessed generals going to court to affirm their 'rights' to promotion, just because they are a couple of weeks older than luckier colleagues. What nonsense!

I remember telling an Indian Air Force officer that General Denis Mercier, the present French chief of the air staff, has reached the top at the age of 53. When my friend asked: 'How did he make it?' I answered: 'Because he was found to be suitable for the job.' His reply was: 'But in India, that it would be very dangerous, politicians would nominate their friend for the top slots, imagine the consequences.' This has to change.
A scene from India, a country with infinite possibilities, says Claude Arpi.

Image: A scene from India, a country with infinite possibilities, says Claude Arpi.

Politicians -- who, let us not forget it, are elected by The People of India -- need to put the Nation's interests before theirs. The old trend to think of one's pocket first has to go.

Observing the political scene for decades, I have time and again noticed that the Electors are no fools, but they need alternatives. Once they have it, they will not cast their votes on empty promises anymore.

Ditto for corruption. The electorate is able to recognise between 'corrupt' and honest politicians. The last election brought some hope that things can be different. Let us cross our fingers.

India, 40 years ago, like today's India, is a land of possibilities. Despite a bloated bureaucracy and the 'chalta hai' attitude, if you really want to realise something (and if you are tenacious enough), you can fulfill your dream.

In my own case, how could a dentist (that was my profession!), become a writer and political analyst? In France or in America, no doubt I would have remained what I was trained for, to pull out teeth, for the rest of my life.

In the early 1970s, before settling in the South, I extensively travelled in the Himalayas. I remember staying a week or so in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. I was the only tourist in the then peaceful mountain village. There was no hotel, no travel agency, no guide; I used to sleep on a charpoy, eating tasty momos from Tibetan refugees, who were not yet rich.

The tiny village was an oasis of peace surrounded by high peaks and although the inhabitants, local paharis or Tibetans, were poor, they knew the meaning of hospitality; they were content, to use a Buddhist term (santosham).

Today, after being put on the tourism world map, Manali is a different world. Is it progress? Are we losing the Himalayas?

I also remember staying for several days in a tiny Himalayan village, with just a Rs 100 note. As nobody had change for the amount, I was provided free lodging and boarding till the day I could 'break' my note and pay my debts. Trust was a way of life. I am not sure if it is still so.

Whatever the way India has evolved, I believe it is ultimately for the good. Personally, I have never thought for a second to return to my native douce (sweet) France, though I am proud to have taken birth in the land of Joan of Arc, Napoleon and Descartes (Cartesianism would sometimes not be bad for India).

Forty years down the line, I am content with my life in India, these words of Sri Aurobindo continue to accompany me: India of the ages is not dead nor has she spoken her last creative word; she lives and has still something to do for herself and the human peoples.

It is Eternal India which called me here long ago.

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