When she was a child under the British Raj, her parents hid rebels in their home and risked their lives for independence. Gita Mehta remembers the culture of fearlessness that made her who she is.It was three o'clock in the morning and my mother was still dancing at the Roshanara club in Delhi when her labor pains began. She was rushed to the hospital, and I was born an hour later.
Holding me in her arms, my godmother demanded that I be named Joan of Arc. She was a revolutionary, you see, like many of the other young people dancing that dawn. Styling themselves freedom fighters, frequently forced to go underground for their political activities against the British Empire, when they were not in jail they spent an inordinate amount of time dancing the rumba, the tango, and the fox-trot, and hoping the British departure from India was imminent.
My parents lived in New Delhi, the brand-new capital designed by Lutyens for a British Empire destined to last forever, but in barely 20 years the empire was already looking rocky, and my parents were providing sanctuary to so many Indian nationalists on the dodge from the police that an elite of freedom fighters across the subcontinent knew my parents' home as Absconders' Paradise.
On the morning I was born, a consensus of opinion in Absconders' Paradise held that Joan of Arc lacked an Indian resonance. And so I was named Gita, or "song." As in Song of Freedom, you understand, because it was the 1940s, and it seemed freedom was finally at hand. Their choice of name showed a premature optimism. Exactly three weeks later six armed constables arrived at Absconders' Paradise, manacled my father, and took him off to jail.
The handcuffs had to do with the pistols. A decade of Gandhian nonviolence had not dislodged the British from India. These ardent young nationalists, mostly still in their 20s and impatient for freedom, had acquired arms from sympathetic nationalist officers in the Indian army against the day when they might have to die on their feet rather than live on their knees. Indeed, a few years earlier my father's first cousin, a nineteen-year-old poet who had led the raid on the British Armory at Chittagong, died on the steps of the Armory in a volley of bullets rather than surrender, unaware that his wounded younger brother had already been captured.
As the handcuffs were placed on my father, he instructed my mother, under the guise of taking farewell, to get rid of the arms. Otherwise it was a certainty that Father would find himself sharing a cell with his unfortunate cousin in the dreaded penal colony of Kala Pani - the island of Black Water, one of the distant mass of Andaman Islands where only the most dangerous prisoners were incarcerated, and where conditions had been so unspeakable that half of the 60-odd prisoners who shared my uncle's life sentence, when he was deported at the age of fourteen, ended up committing suicide in their cells.
Getting rid of the arms posed a problem for my mother. Tutored in the seclusion of the women's quarters by a succession of women including a Scottish governess, my mother received a traditional education ensuring that she could turn a competent watercolor of the lakes of her native Kashmir. Play the odd rage on the sitar. Show familiarity with the allusions of classical Sanskrit, or recite Persian quatrains. But she lacked certain modern skills.
Early in their marriage, my father set about correcting this inadequacy. Displaying a nice sense of priority, and ignoring the considerable difference in their heights, he first taught my mother ballroom dancing. Then he taught her to play bridge. Then he put her on a bicycle, pushed it until she pedaled well enough to retain her balance, and deserted her. She cycled
For almost four years my mother followed my father from jail to jail, dragging two infants with her halfway around Delhi before she had the courage to dismount, but her one lesson made her a cyclist.
Father, who was an air ace, now decided Mother should learn how to fly an airplane, and at the moment of his incarceration she was proving a demon at the controls of a Tiger Moth. But the ability to drive an automobile - so desperately required at that critical moment - was a skill in which Mother lacked proficiency. As yet, Father had taught Mother only how to reverse the two-seater Sunbeam Talbot convertible out of the long drive that connected Absconders' Paradise with the outside world.
Nonetheless, as soon as Father was frog-marched away, Mother chucked the pistols and rounds of ammunition into pillowcases, got into the Sunbeam Talbot, and gamely reversed out of the gates as far down the road as she could go. Leaving the motor running, she leaped out of the car, tossed the pillowcases into a ditch beyond a darkened pavement, reversed into a U-turn, and returned home, where, uncharacteristically, there were no revolutionaries to keep an eye on two small children bawling for attention, my one-year-old elder brother and myself.
The next day Mother discovered she had decanted the pistols outside the walled compound of the chief inspector of police. Fortunately, even in that moment of high melodrama, my mother, with the miserliness of the good housewife had been careful not to use her monogrammed linen, and the connection between the arms and Absconders' Paradise was never established.
As it happens, only a few months earlier Father had been handsomely complimented, even decorated, by the Vicereine of India for the large number of British civilians he had evacuated from Burma in the teeth of the Japanese advance during World War II. Landing in impossible terrain, making sortie after sortie accompanied only by an engineer, jettisoning fuel to accommodate even more women and children on the packed aircraft, Father had generally displayed that daredevilry that is later recognized as heroism but at the time is only the natural conduct of young men larking about with life and death.
Sentimentality is an early casualty of nationalist struggles. Father saw no paradox in keeping pistols for future use against the British even as he was risking his own life to save British lives. Equally, the British saw no paradox in jailing a man as a terrorist whom they had only recently lauded as a savior.
The task of living with these ironies fell to my mother. For almost four years she followed my father from jail to jail, dragging two infants with her. Smuggling letters into jail, sometimes in the soles of my brother's shoes, although my brother, with the self-importance of small children, sometimes insisted on showing the jailers his hiding place, thus lengthening Father's prison term.
After two years she deposited us in a convent in the hills so she could better concentrate on trying to curtail Father's increasingly hair-raising attempts at escape. Until that blessed moment when he broke his arm in several places and she prevailed upon a revolutionary doctor to personally set the arm. Upright. For months Father was frozen in the posture of a policeman stopping traffic because Mother feared her husband's height and his hell-raising temperament would make him an easy target for recapture and deportation.
Meanwhile Father was using his jail years to improve his cooking and his chess game, and to hatch schemes for destroying the British Empire. The plot dearest to his heart required him to become a textile magnate. Apparently textile factories used the same dyes and chemicals that were required for the manufacture of currency. Father was convinced that within six months of his release he could flood the subcontinent in such a tidal wave of counterfeit currency it would drown the British Raj.
Many years later, when India had been an independent country so long it was difficult to even imagine a British Empire, I telephoned my parents from Europe to say I was expecting a child. They were enthusiastic in their congratulations and demanded that I return to India for the birth. But of the long conversation, I only remember the succinct observation "Then at least we will have lived to see our first grandchild born on Indian soil."
That remark made me realize for the first time that my husband and myself had not been born citizens of a free India.
In an attempt to understand what it felt like on a day-to- day basis to be a colonized people, I asked my mother, "What is your worst memory of living under British rule?"
"My worst memory?"
My mother considered her answer for so long I thought she was sifting through memories too painful to express. My father's imprisonment; herself running from one official to another trying to gain his release; sending her children off when they were still babies to live in boarding schools; deciding which of so many humiliating expediences had been the most humiliating.
Finally she said, "When I was sixteen years old I remember walking down the railway platform with my father's oldest retainer to board a train to Lahore. Suddenly an Englishwoman sitting in a railway carriage put her hand through the window and pulled off the old man's turban. I was horrified that she could so casually insult such a dignified old man! I stood there thinking of the filthiest abuse I knew in English. Then I shouted up at her, 'How dare you? You old hag!' "
"Did the police come for you?" I asked.
"Police? What are you talking about? This Englishwoman looked at me through the train window. She had red hair. And she said, 'My dear, one day you will be an old hag, too.' That is my worst memory of the British Raj." So I asked my father what his worst memory of the Raj had been. I expected him to tell me of his school days when an irate police sergeant, for no particular reason except perhaps the heat, had smashed a truncheon on his head, splitting his scalp in a five-inch gash. Or similar experiences, not so much for the pain inflicted as for the impotence of not being able to respond. Or at the very least, the months he had spent in solitary confinement.
Instead, Father said, "Once I was asked to fly a British colonel and his adjutant to the North West Frontier. As I was climbing into the cockpit he said very loudly, 'My God! I'm not going up in an airplane flown by a bloody native!' Of course, he didn't have any option. So I landed in a field about a hundred miles from Quetta, the hottest place in India during the summer. The colonel was sweating and abusing the natives, his face getting redder and redder in the sun. While his adjutant nodded obediently, I got back into the cockpit, told him to find someone who wasn't a bloody native to fly him, and took off, leaving him to walk to Quetta."
Over the years I have found no amount of wheedling can get my parents or their associates to talk about their suffering. They will speak passionately about the suffering of others. But the injustices they personally endured are simply brushed aside as part of the necessary price of becoming citizens of a free India. And whenever they talk about those years of nationalist
struggle they only joke and tell funny stories, as if it were bliss in that dawn to be alive but to be young were very heaven.
And perhaps it was. The nationalist movement broke so many of the shibboleths that constrained conventional Indian society. Women raised as my mother had been could never have hoped to live with such ease among so many extraordinary young men and women in an atmosphere of such excitement. It wasn't just the airplanes, the pistols, the deadly games of hide-and-seek with the police, the unchaperoned socializing between men and women. Their desire for freedom propelled them out of the confines of their sheltered lives and society's notions of respectable behavior into unknown worlds where they were forced to discover their own strengths.
For instance, my godmother was from a well-known Hindu family from Eastern India, but she had broken iron convention by marrying a prominent nationalist who was a Muslim from Northern India. Her mentor, modern India's greatest modern leader, Sarojini Naidu - who called Mahatma Gandhi Mickey Mouse and who was herself described by Gandhi's biographer Robert Payne as "exuberant, earthy, irreverent, improbable . . . one of those women who make the world glad" - had already shocked Indian sensibilities by marrying beneath her own high caste. Such women were fearless, whether they were on the barricades or bearding the king emperor in his palace or leading marches against mounted police. Later that same fearlessness would take them into the middle of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in the most crowded Indian cities during the partition of the subcontinent into the two nations of India and Pakistan, where, unarmed and unaccompanied, they would attempt to stop the killings through sheer force of will.
It is a fearlessness I find hard to understand today. Their courage did not seem to be inspired by self-aggrandizement or ideological dogma or religious fervor - those certainties that usually fuel suicidal actions - and sometimes I wonder if they did indeed possess what Mahatma Gandhi called a kind of moral force.
In fact, the most interesting evolution in independent India is the change from individual fearlessness in the face of social and political injustice to craven courting of those who possess social and political power. The names of those who genuinely fought for freedom have been progressively excised from our history.
Instead, we have been bored to tears by overbearing leaders who have claimed that they are India and, even worse, that India is them. And their sons. And their sons' sons, yea even unto nausea. And there has been too little fearlessness in defying them.
It is a surprise when things are otherwise. I once called on a senior bureaucrat whose office was only three doors down from the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was already quite loopy and entertained a genuine conviction that her family owned India. Naturally, her intense obsession with an imagined inheritance had given rise to an equally intense paranoia with those who might deny it, and consequently her administration was colored with many examples of tale-carrying, of ambitious courtiers reporting lies about their colleagues, and all the other spy-versus-spy paraphernalia of the would-be despot. Wont to harangue the citizenry in public speeches with such lines as "Remember! My father gave you freedom!" Mrs. Gandhi did not take lightly government officers with an independent turn of mind.
So I was astonished to hear this senior bureaucrat expressing his exasperation with the prime minister in such terms as dynastic and paranoid without a hint of self-consciousness.
"Should you be talking quite so loudly about the prime minister in this way?" I inquired with some admiration. "After all, she does employ you."
"She doesn't bloody employ me!" he snarled. "The people of India employ me. Don't you ever forget it. This is my damned soil."
Such bad humor is enough to make you want to cling to your Indian passport for another 50 years of freedom.
At least that was the thought that recently crossed my mind when an immigration officer at New Delhi airport enquired how long I had been resident out of India.
At my reply, he stared in disbelief. "And after all these years, you are still carrying an Indian passport, Madam? May I ask why?"
It was an occasion to be blunt. But I was in a land where ladies don't swear. So I couldn't bring myself to snarl, "Because this is my damned soil. And don't you ever forget it!"
Excerpted from Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, by Gita Mehta, to be published in May by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Copyright @ 1997 by