An Ambiguous Journey To The City
By Ashis Nandy
Oxford University Press
Ashis Nandy, as usual, is quixotic, proactive and brilliant. In this expanded version of his 1997 Jerusalem lectures, he explores the mythical journey of the modern Indian between the village and the city. The magic of the city has always beckoned the Indian villager. It offers freedom from the bondage of caste and hierarchical authority and a life of reason, removed from the "primordial passions" of the village. A landless Dalit, seeking escape from the grind and the violence of the caste system, has good reasons to value its impersonal melting pot.
In the past, villagers used to travel to the city as pilgrims and acquired a certain status when they returned after visiting the city of god. The 19th century colonial economy saw the emergence of the presidency town. It exercised a different sort of pull on the village and reduced the importance of the old colonial cities. It also created a new divide of language and manners between city dwellers and their country cousins.
Mahatma Gandhi turned the tide in favour of the village in the 20th century. He offered up to the urban Indian imagination a nostalgic picture of an idyllic, self-sufficient village. Satyajit Ray followed it up with Pather Panchali, a masterpiece of the "village of the mind". M.N. Srinivas, the social scientist, revealed fresh emotional bonds with The Remembered Village. And Raj Kapoor turned Bombay's streets into a friendly village neighbourhood. More recently, Saeed Mirza brought the village into the urban slum in Nukkad.
Despite this, Nandy concludes that the village is no longer a living presence in mainstream Indian intellectual life. Today, it's only "a statistic" and the urban Indian has lost his ability to reconnect with the shared village of the imagination.
Although Indians live mainly in villages, India has never been just a peasant society. The city was always close by in classical times, and the dyadic bond between the two has been an important theme in Sanskrit theatre and the epics. There has always been, I suspect, and will continue to be a search for the right balance between the two for a desirable society. There'll always be mythmakers like Raj Kapoor who will try to reconfigure the village in new terms. n