The Coexistence of Multiple Realities: My Passage to Many Indias

This piece was written by the Ambassador when he was last the Russian Ambassador to India in 2004. He again is the current Russian Ambassador to India. The piece has been contributed by Maj Gen Vinod Saighal



Technically, I will remain Ambassador for at least a couple of months before my successor arrives and hands over his credentials to the President of India. Soon I will just overfly the invisible Indian border and return home for a new posting. It is essential to remain official and mindful of words and emotions expounded and articulated by a representative of a country so friendly to this great land. As an old standing friend though, I may take some liberty and sound a bit frivolous. But I promise not to say a single word of politics! I first came here exactly on the fateful night of August 9, 1971 when the historic Soviet-Indian Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed. It was a good omen which illumined the rest of my life. Nobody from the Embassy received a 22-year old probationer at the Palam airport – they were all busy with the visit of Andrei Gromyko, the then Soviet Foreign Minister. But even before I stepped on the Indian soil, since 1967 I had already established my intellectual presence here – absorbing Hindi and Urdu, consuming books by hundreds, talking to professors – our gurus, but first and foremost, India was ever present in my dreams and imagination.

Indeed, even at that nascent age as a scholar of India, it dawned on me that it would be wrong to presume that there was one India. There exist several ethereal and material Indias, blending into each other and simultaneously coexisting in time and space, more often peacefully than not, but at times conflicting. I kept coming to India, each time for a higher post in the Embassy, interacting with more and more Indian friends and familiarising myself with ever new facets. Every year during those decades I was attentively putting my ear to the barahmasa song performed by India’s nature. There followed Indian winters, insufficiently refreshing by Russian standards, but still uncomfortable especially for those who do not have a safe shelter. Indian springs, joyful at the start until they transform into a scorching blast furnace of the summer heat. Every time I witnessed the monsoon I felt reborn in a new avatar, thus getting a somatic self-explanation for the theory of reincarnation. Implanting the various shades of the seasons into my soul, experiencing them during North-South and West-East travels, I have to admit – geographically and climatically the vast India is as surprising as her polylingual and polyethnic multiplicity. I was struck by India’s weightless architecture haunted by ghosts and phantoms, rid of history’s yoke. No other country has such palaces with timeless architecture. India’s culture, unlike currencies, is not convertible.

I could not help processing through my soul everything I was associated with – from the Himalayan saga of the Roerichs to the Nehru-Gandhi family’s tragedies and triumphs of Aeschylean or Shakespearean magnitude. My India spoke to me in various languages which, luckily, I could understand – be it the polished English of Indian diplomacy or the “Hinglish” of informal chats, the “Hirdu” of Hollywood movies or the chaste and refined Hindi of Doordarshan. At times, it could be an intellectual discourse or a soporific pravachana, a shriek of pain or boastful self-praise. I listened to all those voices and often wondered whether they belonged to a single whole or to a polyphonic chorus. Not only the voices. Hi-tech luxuries carried on a bullock cart, agricultural revolution and the ancient plough, jhuggis side by side with glittering skyscrapers, haute couture shows watched by shabby dhoti-clad manufacturers of things fashionable, ahimsa ideals and bloody clashes – could all this coexist in a single flacon? Or even within an individual who could imbibe the 21st century ideas and razor-edge technologies, at the same time ready to fight for the identification of an ancient site? Should I call it contrasts or contradictions? Are these features self-excluding? Are there many Indias? It took me time to realise that my India is remindful of a human body with its seats of power and intellect and various indriyas. Sometimes the body is guided by reason and sometimes by mere emotions. It might feel rigid in the morning, become more elastic by daytime, get overexcited by evening, and frustrated by night. It fights its own ups and downs, tides and ebbs, high spirits and the blues. It looks different if observed from various angles, and is familiar and mysterious, gorgeous and shabby, pure and impure, and, eventually, it could be either cherished or ruined. I have visited many other countries, but I reserve this metaphor for India exclusively. Or may be this is one more thing that I have mastered in India — to speak by sidhantas and drishtantas: is it a better way to make oneself clear, or to conceal one’s thoughts? In any case, it is certainly an acquisition to be packed into my diplomatic luggage and carried back.

To go on with the body, it may, like any human one, be healthy or ailing, beautiful or disgusting, may be mistaken about its own state and feel in good shape being at the same time unaware of a terminal ailment that has already taken roots in it. Still, really challenging is that it possesses a soul which generations of scholars have been trying to comprehend and explicate to others. But this soul encompasses such an enormous variety of traits from the heights of virtue to the depths of vice that the moment one feels capable to form some well defined knowledge, an event comes up to the surface that wholly contradicts the previous notion. Myself hailing from the country which, as our classic poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev said, “cannot be understood by reason but can only be believed in”, I have the similar feeling for India though, I must confess, in both cases the strength of reason and belief has been, more than in one case, put under severe test.

How more profound is India’s traditional world, where each stone is a hierophant, a sign of the presence of the sacred in our world. Every sunrise here becomes a cosmogenic drama, every woman – an embodiment of the tantric principle of Shakti whose presence is the source of the world’s very existence, and could be manifested right up to the election Lila. Behind the exterior forms specific only of India there hides the sublime universal paradigm of the traditional conscience which is totally opposite to the modernistic one, at the same time far more vibrant and wholesome. In purely modern phenomena one sees the same movement of the spirit that one can get from traditional doctrines. The craving of human soul for sacral archetypes is unquenchable, and archetypes are easily juxtaposed with new age constructs. The sacral and the profane coexist. Once Russian astronauts told me that from the outer space India resembled a human heart. I wish that the hearts of Russia and India forever beat in unison between themselves and the outside world at large. To paraphrase the great philosopher, Mircea Eliade, have these years made me learn better the magic formulae of this great Indian alchemy? Yes and no. My diplomatic status was both of help and an impediment. It offered and denied me a number of opportunities. Many Indias have escaped my attention. Many voices I was not able to hear and many developments unable to grasp much less to foresee, as India seems to be specially designed by the Vidhata to defy all prognoses and theories, especially in politics – oh no, I’ve promised. My heart remains here but all my Indias will travel back along with me, needing no extra space in the plane. And new ones will appear when I return.

Or is there only one India reinventing, multiplying and reproducing herself many times and each time anew?

Once I heard you weeping…

Timidly. The scent of salty sands

Was strumming the sitar.

Your lamentsmademe love and treasure you,

О India.

And when youwere leaving,

Asoft sirocco burnedmy lips.

It was your kiss,

О India!

Bidding farewell,

You put on laced mantle of waves.

The blessed ocean adorned your hair

With sparks of celestial mystery.

Acoloured shred of memory

Remained inmymind.

I have found you, My Indias!

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