I can’t dodge it any more. It is time to look reality in the eye.
The year 2000 is nearly over, and a new millennium has definitely dawned. Hello, I am an Indian and I love India.
I dream of a great India, the Queen of her Millennium. I want my country to be a winner and a leader, head and shoulders above others; an occasional consolation bronze at trials of national strength and spirit isn’t good enough for my country. I want its people, all of them, to be strong and thriving, proud, free and peaceful, creating, imagining and fashioning themselves, understanding, respecting, resolving, and expanding boundaries of person and community.
It feels a little foolish for me to be saying this out so publicly. It is, the voice in my head tells me, not very sensible or realistic to think such thoughts, dream such dreams, talk such talk. I am but one citizen, with a career and family to mind, and a living to make. India is a mess of problems and troubles, each and together deep and daunting. There are people who have made it their business to think about the course of India and her people and all their ills. They must know better, and I should mind my own business; it does not pay to be such a busybody.
But I can’t stop thinking and dreaming of India. Even more, I mustn’t stop. For India is in the body of my soul; by denying the India in me, I would be denying my own self. If the meaning of life and liberty is the right to be free in the soul, then, living in freedom is tantamount to keeping India lodged in the imagination, openly and shamelessly. If I push India away, I can neither live free nor can I mind my appointed business.
Yet it is a battle for us to imagine India in its own millennium, in its fearless fullness. We feel deeply-founded barriers of despair that blockade what should be our own free territory of the mind. We have suspended belief in the fundamental eternal reality of India, and turned away in secret shame from the hearthstone of our own souls. We have vacated our property that is India and now cringe in fear that we will live and die in this new millennium and our country will never amount to anything in its own right, not really.
Where angels have feared to tread in their might, fools and knaves will rush in and occupy. So it is with the territory of the imaginations of a billion souls that is India. The India of our imaginations has been occupied and laid to waste not by proud conquerors but by sneak thieves who exploit our ashamed absence from our own territory. All sorts of riff-raff hold sway over our territory, from robbers and brigands to cavorting enemies that would brazenly deny the very existence and reality of the India that is our collective soul.
The occupiers thrive, and our shame mutates into a dispiriting fear that yields in tribute to the selfsame canaille. We rush hither and yon, frantically seeking a magic talisman to cure our fear or a knight-errant to liberate our territory for us. Having ceded away our birthright to imagine our India, we watch helplessly as our character slips from us in turn. Stupidity, wickedness and cowardice all blend into one another in a horror show that threatens to never end. One day we aver that we have found the problem, there are too many Muslims or Christians or Hindus, we need only beat down and tame their imaginations and the nation will gain back what it has given up.
The next day, we nod acquiescently and hide in our shells while rank brigands and murderous terrorists demand, and receive, the right to rob and kill the people with impunity. All the while, we grin embarassedly and shrug while millions defecate into the shrinking water table, toxic effluvia kill Indians by the thousand like so many flies, buses plunge into gorges every day, and children go without nurture of body or mind. In our anxiety we invest with the messianic mantle even ordinary competence, dull and corrupt though it might be at its core. We jockey and maneuver for petty geopolitical advantage, set off atomic bombs, and beg the world to permit us a minor satrapy if nothing else.
Oh, how grievously we have betrayed ourselves and our India! And how deeply we feel our betrayal! Drawing rooms and newspaper columns are pitiless in handing out punishment, we miss no opportunity to put ourselves and India down. The Left declares sinful all that India ever was, and decrees perennial paralyzing guilt but no salvation; the Right embodies our deep self-contempt by constructing foolish and vicious national narratives whose self-evident mendacity mocks at any hopes of redemption. The Center fails to hold. In the bitter night of the soul, the Judas Tree beckons.
Still, when we step on the shores of home, we know India to be a thing of ultimate love and forgiveness. We step out into its night air, muggy and smelling vaguely of shit, but it does not seem to matter; India’s embrace of its children is unconditional and all-forgiving. And it is this embrace that pulls us back from the brink of total despair and the ultimate, deepest betrayal, that of love freely given. We still avert our eyes in shame from ourselves and India, or scold or affect an uncaring callousness, but at least in rare moments we cannot help succumbing to the liberation of India’s love. And imagination is paroled for a little while.
And so it happens that we allow ourselves to commit random acts of righteousness and charity and love of India, and let our imaginations dream and delight in the possibilities of India’s millennium for a little while. We raise our voices now and again when the cacophony of the politicians, bureaucrats, and sundry official and non-official tormentors of the people and various enemies foreign and domestic, all gets to be too, too much; in those brief moments we believe in the possibility of our imprisoned imaginations being free to go home again, and repossess India.
But the doors, it seems, open only briefly and secretly for our imaginations. We quickly shoo our imaginations back into their corners, and carry on in the real world, a world in which India is not supposed to matter. Home, for our imaginations, remains a brief glimpse now and then. And the usurpers of India and tormentors of her people like our timorousness just fine. Let us gain a measure of objectivity, leading to courage, about our own predicament as Indians and human beings, and their occupation of our imaginations would come to a swift end.
Just imagine yourself running into an artist or literateur who tells a celebratory tale of India truthfully, objectively and convincingly, and makes you see that what you thought of as a unique Indian predicament arising from a unique Indian guilt is in fact a human predicament, naught to be ashamed of. Or imagine meeting an activist who fights social ills tooth and nail but has unabashed pride in being Indian. There is powerful liberating magic in such encounters with the creative arts and with dedicated self-sacrifice; when such magic is founded on a bedrock of objectivity and love for India, the smoke and mirrors with which the unwholesome undesired tenants of our Indian imaginations have enforced their occupation vanish, and our paralyzing shame at our Indianness gives way before an imagination that begins to make itself at home in India.
An imagination that is free and at home is the font of creation; with it, man constructs an empire of the mind which he then positions in the real world by marshaling the elements. Out of imagination arise innovation, labor is imagination empowered. And wealth is the shared collective reward of a community of imaginations that respect and value one another.
A nation is built in the imagination by binding free imaginations in a community with the glue of commonality; a grand nation like India in the new millennium is built by bridging the differences between multiple communities of free imaginations. The keys to the reconciliation are respect, compassion and a righteousness that has always informed India and accounts for the quadrillions of slaughters that never took place over the centuries, despite profound differences in the way neighbors imagined themselves and their Indias.
Such righteousness would also mean a deeply-felt national self-knowledge and conviction that faces and overcomes challenges with confidence. When enemies threaten in Kashmir, an India free and strong in the imagination would fight back with vigor and prevail, not so much due to a competition for possession of physical territory, but rather because the aggressor’s twisted imagination bars the honoring differences and respecting freedoms, thus constituting an assault on the pluralistic values that hold our imaginations together and make us all Indians.
But, integral to that struggle in Kashmir would also be a commitment to struggle against religious intolerance that would deny the freedom to imagine oneself, and against the tormenting of citizens by officials, for that is an assault on imaginations that want to be free, just as much as the enemy assault on Kashmir. When Indian imaginations are free, there would be no carping that national reform would have to wait till Kashmir is sorted out; instead we would all instinctively understand that these are different fronts of the same war; such understanding would render India well-nigh invincible.
How would we distinguish a self-confident, righteous Indian imagination from the imagination of imperialism? Because a free Indian imagination would be founded on respect, compassion and principled bridging of differences, invading foreign territory of the mind to impose India on them would be alien to our free imaginations. Simultaneously, the ability of our imaginations to bridge differences implies that India would be an attractive model for communities worldwide that seek to balance their freedom with the benefits of belonging to a larger community.
On the face of it, experiencing and exercising free imagination would appear to be a privilege, and hence we could slide back into that Slough of Despond in which a few elite controlled the collective imagination. If that were to happen, the new millennium for India would be just like the old millennia in which a small elite controlled and shaped the imagination, with the result that the national territory of the mind, void of the freshets of free and variegated people’s imaginations, putrefied and fell victim to colonizing occupiers.
For India’s millennium to be really new and its own, it is vital to take to our collective hearts the lessons of history, and commit to freeing and empowering all of the nation’s minds to imagine themselves as humans and Indians. The challenge of India’s millennium would be to put this new into practice with a degree of commitment and purity never before seen in any time or place.
Can we really build an economy in which all the people are free to imagine all the time? It would take time, but it is possible. We live in a consumer economy that is driven by people exchanging the fruits of their labor for goods and services which are not essential in themselves, but rather become required because of a complex overall dependency between the goods and services of the overall economy. At its best, the consumer economy, in the form of advertising, vends imaginations to one another: given that all cars of a particular class are more or less functionally the same, a consumer is offered the product of the aesthetic imagination of a particular car designer, by appealing to the former’s imagination through advertising. If successful, the appeal causes the consumer’s imagination to motivate his labor in exchange for a close association with the product of the car designer’s imagination and labor.
This principle could be applied to conceive of a complex, open-ended economic community of Indians trading in the products of their free imaginations. If this were all, such an economy would not be too different from the present capitalist consumer economy, albeit with a less regimented flavor. That of course would be desirable indeed, but what makes an imagination economy unique as well as feasible is the observation that the principle of trading in imagination can be applied recursively to enterprises of the imagination that aim to produce solutions to the problem of how to evolve towards a millennium of universal and free imaginations that are empowered by labor. This would be in contrast to the present concept of think-tanks whose labor is compensated by a tax on society as a whole. The imaginers in an imagination economy would be funded by investment of other imaginers in the eventual outcome of the imaginations, whether such outcome be tangible goods or ideas that could eventually result in tangible goods.
For example, consider a hypothetical experimental project that seeks to understand if and how slum-dwellers in an Indian city can solve problems affecting their immediate lives by the application of a modest amount of computer technology that is imaginatively adapted to an initial understanding of the problem. Such a project would be different from others firstly in its focus on decentralized problem-solving; secondly, it could be funded by a coalition of global slum communities that have a direct interest in the result of the experiment.
This is not a novel concept; such projects and funding models are under way as I write this, for example in Mahabubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh. That is exactly the point. As the new millennium finally settles in, it is time for us Indians to make the inner journey to shed our despair and cynicism about India and realize that India’s new millennium brings with it exciting prospects, not just for creating wealth for the middle classes, but for inventing a whole global community in which the right to free and open imagination is guaranteed to all and is feasible and sustainable.
K.V. Bapa Rao is the founder and head of bzbody.org, a nonprofit global electronic community dedicated to imagining the imagination economy.