With Obama Visit, The Indian Woman Comes of Age Globally

30/01/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
Indian police women take part in a full dress rehearsal ahead of a Republic Day parade in Srinagar, India, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. U.S. President Barack Obama will be the chief guest during this year's in New Delhi's parade which will be held on Jan. 26. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)

So much was said, so much was promised, and so much was suggested during President Barack Obama's just-concluded visit to Delhi that it's hard to imagine what else could have been packed into a mere 60 hours on the ground in Asia 6,600 miles from Washington.

The TV channels in India buzzed with his supposedly deepening friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Pundits waxed eloquent about Mr. Obama's oratorical flourish, and others seemed won over by Mr. Modi's attention to serial sartorialism. Everyone applauded their joint appearances at public ceremonies that sparkled with colour and pageantry.

As for me, I have only one take from the American President's visit:

"The Indian Woman" has finally received international recognition for what she always has been: the keeper of our values, the indispensable building block of our society, the bearer of our emotional burdens, the transmitter of our sensibilities, the embodiment of physical and intellectual strength, the repository of ancient wisdom and natural knowledge, and, always, the giver of eternal love. India's future lies, more than ever, in the hands of its women.

That's what makes me optimistic, and not what politicians promise.

When I heard Mr. Obama speak about Indian women and their potential, and when I heard Mr. Modi spell out his development plans for India in which women would have an increased role, I thought of my own mother.

Some years ago, during a particularly turbulent time of social tensions in India, I wrote about my mother's commitment to tolerance and understanding in a country of 16 major languages, 875 dialects, and scores of religions and faiths. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that my mother's life captured the contradictions and capabilities of India.

There's a major square in South Mumbai - a busy intersection, really - that mirrors the open, secular and trusting society that India has always been.

In and around the square, there are small haberdasheries run by Hindus and groceries owned by Muslims; there's a Parsi fire temple; there's a Catholic church; there's a theatre that exhibits brash foreign films, and another one that features Bollywood fare. There are tiny eateries that offer everything from samosas to sandwiches. There are cobblers parked on pavements; there are tailors perched on the patios of dilapidated but crowded tenements, and there are bookstores and magazine kiosks.

This square, like many others across this metropolis of nearly 20 million people, is a microcosm of Mumbai, India's commercial capital and its most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse city. I like to think that this square is Mumbai's crossroads; I even like to think that this square is India's crossroads.

I like to think these things not only because the square - called "chowk" in the Marathi language that's widely spoken in Mumbai - is named after my late mother, Professor Charusheela Gupte. She was a Marathi and Sanskrit scholar, a writer, and a social activist who championed the cause of literacy for dispossessed children and of economic empowerment for women, particularly in slums and in the rural regions surrounding Mumbai.

During her long lifetime, she witnessed the transformation of India from a colony of the British Raj to an independent democracy. She spoke up for people who had no voice in public discourse, nor the means to speak truth to power, not even the opportunity to advance beyond subsistence. She spoke from her heart because she herself had risen from poverty to reach the highest levels of intellectual and social attainment.

My mother and father both passed away three decades ago, an eternity. But I like to think that the square named in her honour by a grateful city still resonates with the spirit that animated her life - the spirit of openness, secular and trust that resides in the hearts of most Indians, regardless of their faith or ethnicity.

She and my late father, Balkrishna Gupte - a lawyer and banker - gave me the gift of a privileged upbringing, a gift that flowed from their sweat and sacrifices. My own privilege has been that of seeing a wider world where technology has brought societies closer; my misfortune has been that this world is more cynical, more competitive, more terrifying and more unforgiving than the one parents inhabited.

It is not that communalism and ethnic friction were nonexistent during my parents' lifetime. But the global clash of civilisations, and the venom and hatred that are concomitant today, simply didn't exist in the world that they knew. They would have been saddened by the clash, and even though they were both informed and knowing citizens - and certainly not naïve - I know they would have been surprised by the events of the three decades since their demise.

I've lived a different life from them, to be sure. In my own journalistic career spanning five decades and virtually every continent, I have been a witness to that clash. The soundtrack of my childhood was the cacophony of myriad lilting languages; the visuals were those of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians and Jews and Parsis and Buddhists greeting one another warmly during their feasts and festivals, and in everyday life, too; and where the ambitions of my youth were predicated on cooperation, not confrontation.

The age of social and political confrontation is here now, perhaps irreversibly so. I fear that there may even be communal violence, undertaken in the dubious cause of vengeance. Who knows?

But this much I know: India will always be an open and secular and trusting society. It may be forced to become a more wary one on account of the exigencies of our time, and indeed the culture of laxity concerning matters such as security that make India so vulnerable is going to have to be injected with more discipline and stricter measures to ensure public safety.

Those are technical issues, however. All nations need to protect themselves in their self-interest. But I talk here about matters of the heart, of an enduring spirit that embraces everyone, regardless of covenant and communion and community. I speak in the hope that our mutual suspicions will be lessened, I speak in the hope that our rhetoric of blame will be softened, I speak in the hope that Indians never abandon the essential elements that have characterised our vast land for millennia - tolerance and understanding.

I speak in the language that Charusheela and Balkrishna Gupte spoke in their time, in the language they would still have spoken despite the drama that's shredding the fabric of Mumbai's society. I am their son, and I like to think that their spirit lives in me. I like to think that it is a universal spirit, that its essence is no less true today than it was in their much simpler time.

My parents believed - as do Barack Obama and Narendra Modi - that while people may have been born to different cultures, the bonds of the soul join them ineluctably.

I subscribe to the belief that India's women are the natural standard bearers of an ancient society's determination to transform itself into a modern nation.

I subscribe to that belief with all the passion I can muster, and I invite everybody to share it, now more than ever before.

More On This Topic