As we were getting ready to leave our lecture-hall in Manchester University many years ago, the secretary of our course came in with an "urgent announcement" that exiting on to Oxford Street would be difficult for the next hour or so as a "huge" demonstration was imminent. My friend and course-mate, a senior police officer from India, enquired how big the demonstration was likely to be and guffawed in astonishment when informed that between 50 to a 100 people were expected to gather. "Is that a demonstration?" he asked with visible incredulity, "that is the average gathering at a bus stop in Delhi every day!"
Our ancestors knew how to make sense of magnitude and take it in their stride... and that has fortunately been passed down the ages to us.
Here in India, large numbers do not faze, for we seemingly reduce their magnitude. For us a 100,000 passes off innocuously as a lakh and a million a mere 10 lakhs. Ten million window-dressed as a crore is not an intimidating number at all; even an illiterate person grasps its value without being overwhelmed by the numerous zeros that follow one. Lately, government budget documents and company audits are appearing in millions and billions instead of lakhs and crores, making those numbers look terribly large. Fortunately, the media continues to report our numerous scams in very manageable tranches of crores, acceptable enough without provoking a revolution, allowing life to carry on as usual.
Our ancestors knew how to absorb and make sense of magnitude and take it in their stride without being intimidated by it and that has fortunately been passed down the ages to us. Britain thought big as a colonial power not the least because it held India and absorbed some of its insouciant approach to size. However, it lost such nonchalance soon after ceasing to hold the subcontinent. This explains why, to our course secretary in Manchester, a demonstration by 50 or a 100 appeared scarily large, and to my friend the Indian police officer laughably small, at worst meriting, as he put it, "no more than a 'mild' lathi-charge," to disperse.
Except China, no other country matches us in population. The religious diversity of India demonstrates the incredible variety of faiths jostling for space in India. It has more Christians than most other countries in the world do and, going by CIA estimates, more Muslims than any other except Indonesia. It is of course home to the world's largest number of Hindus as well as Jains, however minuscule the latter is world-wide. But we are hardly conscious of all this as magnitude is something we take for granted.
Conscious of our size and many diversities, we might learn to weather criticism better from countries that have far fewer people than many of our cities do...
Sri Lanka becoming malaria-free is very big news in our papers but we ought to celebrate our own many achievements, each of which deserves the Noble Peace prize (which was instead awarded to an Indian with a questionable record of saving children from work). The elimination of polio across India hardly merits a comment within our country as it is unsurprisingly ignored by the rest of the world as well. The last cyclone that took thousands of lives happened in Orissa years ago. Since then, early warning systems and mass evacuation have rendered cyclones much less lethal -- Hudud that hit Vishakhapatnam and its surroundings and denuded it of their green cover unsurprisingly killed so few – less than 50.
A walk down Rashtrapathi Bhavan to Vijay Chowk with the massive and overpowering North and South Blocks on either side captures the crowded hugeness of the Indian state exactly as its chief architect had envisioned more than a century ago. Nothing as intimidating as Lutyens' Delhi came up anywhere else in the British Empire only because nowhere else was there a need to impose crushing grandeur to overawe and overwhelm.
It takes size to make sense of size but it also requires an appreciation of diversities of all kinds to figure out something as varied as India. By the time I left government service six years ago at the end of a long 35-year career working across the country, I could make myself reasonably understood in five different languages while several of my less linguistically challenged friends could hold forth in several more. No one from India would see anything extraordinary in this, but such multi-lingual dexterity never fails to astound my foreign friends.
India's variety as much as its magnitude unfailingly astonish. That the country miraculously holds itself together, as Nehru famously observed is because of its "unity in diversity." That unity is very real but it has been around for so long, we seem to hardly notice or be aware of it; but we must. Conscious of our size and the many diversities India holds, we might learn to be less thin skinned and weather criticism better from countries that have far fewer people than many of our cities do and therefore cannot be expected to understand the power of scale. Forgive them we might tell ourselves "for they know not what they do."