“What kind of country is India?” The question was flung at me by a third-generation Indian in Kenya at the millennium’s first Republic Day (January 26) reception hosted by High Commissioner Rajiv Bhatia at India House, Nairobi.

I was startled, not by the question, but because the questioner is a person of Indian origin, and someone who has never visited the country of his forefathers, although he is widely traveled elsewhere in the world and owns a chain of motels in North America.

My impromptu one-sentence response may have seemed curt: “A time-machine gone berserk,” I said. Let me try to elaborate here.

For example, struggling in any major metropolitan center in India to drive through the chaotic, multi-faceted, clogged traffic jams, and looking at the sights and listening to the sounds seems to transport one back in a time-machine gone haywire, as it were.

Nuclear India with missiles and satellites; bullock-cart age India; cyberspace India; north, south, east, west, central; perennially snow-covered mountains and vast deserts; urban India, rural India, highly-developed India, and poor India; a middle class of 30 million, equivalent to the entire American population.

Ancient, medieval, ultra-modern, hope and despair, alienation and pathos, uproar and tranquility, dissent and intrigue, cruelty and compassion, godmen and goons, conflict and compromise, manually-pulled rickshaws and automobile assembly lines, slums and skyscrapers, beggars and multi-billionaires, exploitation and philanthropy, agony and ecstasy.

Despite being erroneously called a Hindu state, secular India has the third largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Bangladesh, the total population of Pakistan being less than the number of Muslims in so-called Hindu state. There is also a large Christian India, Jain India, Sikh India, Parsi India, Buddhist India, and so on.

Like the United States, it’s not a melting pot; it’s the pot in which the ingredients melted long ago into a seemingly strange but cohesive and colorful concoction. It remains a mystery how the vast country of over 1 billion people of diverse cultures, castes and religions and backgrounds keeps ticking in a free-for-all democracy with no holds barred.

Thanks to Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritualization of politics, the democratic institutions are so deeply entrenched that the over-crowded country continues to function smoothly despite frequent hiccups and a succession of prime ministers and ruling parties and coalitions of strange bedfellows.

But it remains a vibrant democracy: a political party or a coalition may be voted out of power but the ponderous system continues to function, the wheels of administration keep grinding, often exasperatingly slowly, yet surely.

How can there be so much orderliness amidst all the disorder; or, more appropriately, the other way around? The answer may lie in the faith Indians intrinsically have through their ancient social and cultural heritage of many hues and colors and creeds.

One person whose name comes readily to mind to answer these questions is Sir V.S. Naipaul, the celebrated author of Indian ancestry from Trinidad. He is a descendant of 19th Century Indian immigrants to the West Indies.

Before his first visit in 1962, India in Naipaul’s imagination was “a most fearful place.” When he visited the country again in 1989, it was to try and understand “a little better” the forces of change at work. To unravel the mysteries that attracted and frightened him.

Naipaul’s insights make him one of the few authors who convincingly and objectively write about a diverse country which defies understanding. As in the case of the Indians in Africa, migration to the New World in the 1880’s had shaken the Indians “out of the immemorial ways of peasant India” and had made them “ambitious;” but in colonial and agricultural Trinidad, during the depression, “there were few opportunities to rise.”

However, there was another India—that of the freedom struggle, of the great names, of the great classical past and emerging future. This had given the emigrants a certain identity. But Naipaul found no meaning in this during his first visit.

In the torrent of India with its huge population, where the threat was of chaos, people needed to hold on to smaller identities. They found stability in and smaller groupings of region, clan, caste and family, as they seemingly do in Africa.

He found such an India in 1962 and could not reconcile with it. Nearly 27 years later, Naipaul again undertook the voyage of discovery to see whether he could reconcile himself to India of the late 1980’s. He traveled all over the country and returned home to write yet another book, India: A Million Mutinies Now.

What he had not understood during his first visit or had taken too much for granted was the extent to which the country had been remade even, “restored to itself, after its own equivalent of the Dark Ages.”

He says: “Independence was worked for by the people more or less at the top; the freedom it brought has worked its way down. People everywhere have ideas now of who they are and what they owe themselves.”

India, “with its layer-below-layer of distress and cruelty, it had to come with a rage and revolt; India was now a country of a million little mutinies.”

The country now has what it did not have 200 years ago; a central will, a central intellect, a national idea. The “mutinies” are also helping to define the strength of the general intellectual life, and the wholeness and humanism of the values to which all Indians now feel they can appeal.

India—the land of a million gods and goddesses, of saints and scoundrels, pride and prejudice, contrasts and contradictions, terrorism and peace crusaders, illiterates and highly-qualified technocrats, miniscule cottage industries and giant industrial conglomerates—the poor rich exponent of world peace at war with itself across the oceans—a country whose people, in centuries gone by, were regarded as rulers of the Indian Ocean, according to documented historical evidence, in The Travels of Marco Polo, and, indeed, in the lesser-known travelogue of that American literary giant, Mark Twain, among others.

Unfortunately, Naipaul never visited Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other South Asian countries. If he had, he may perhaps have made some additional or widely variant observations, particularly about one or two countries though not about their peoples, for they come from the same roots, have the same socio-cultural and historical ethos although they differ significantly in respect of their political institutions.

Somehow, all of these basically non-diverse people in terms of descent are referred to as “Asians” all over the world, whereas, in reality, they should be collectively called South Asians, or better still, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc., like the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Indonesians, even some Russians, and so on.

The label Asian is fundamentally wrong, a colonial legacy.

The people of the Indian subcontinent have made many countries across the world their home, especially the about two million each in the Americas, Africa, and Europe. They have their hopes and fears; they have made contributions to the countries of their adoption; they have to contend with the indigenous majorities’ often negative feelings about them; and their vision of the new millennium in the face of the myths about them in contrast to the reality.

Chander Mehra is an award-winning veteran Indian journalist and author.