ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry
The Freedom to Dream: India at 70
Maria LindÃ©n, 49 years old, Stockholm, Sweden
I’m not Indian, I’m a returning visitor, and maybe itÂ´s not my call to write on a theme like “The freedom to dream: India at 70”. After six trips to the almost inconceivably vast and diverse democracy, I have still only scratched the surface. Yet, despite my firangi status, India has let me come close, has let me in on getting to know some of the billions of dreams she harbors. This has inspired me, and I guess, countless of other visitors, to widen our horizons on how to dream.
Seven years ago, I had not yet encountered Indian dreaming. The only elements of India in my life were the Indian restaurant down the street, and an addiction to imported neem soap. Until one night when everything changed.
“Nothing happens unless you know how to dream,” writer Mahasweta Devi, who passed away earlier this year, said in her famous speech in 2006. The night India collided with my life and changed it forever, was also the night when my dream of peaceful streets in my town in northern Europe was shattered. That night in May, India emerged on a street of Stockholm, 5569 km from New Delhi, in the shape of a severely injured stranger I happened to find outside a restaurant. The stranger had been beaten up by two drunk racist football hooligans. I arrived to a scene that passers-by were intent on leaving. There was blood and a dim, cracked English speaking voice saying: “I donÂ´t speak Swedish. I want to go home”. There was me persuading him that hospital was better than home right now, unsure of how far “home” was.
The lilac-scented Stockholm night, one of these when the sun refuses to give way to the night, now also held the smell of blood. The doctors said broken jaw – three fractures. Before the injured stranger was taken away for a seven-hour emergency surgery he handed me a bloodstained card. It read: Sarjeet Singh Ghatwal, Mobile Application Developer.
One month later Mr Singh Ghatwal had recovered enough for a meet up. An unrecognizable man with shoulders pulled backwards, a steel bracelet round his wrist, fresh titanium plates in his jaw and a straw in the pocket greeted me. The straw was for liquid food, doctors order. He said: “Thank you for saving my life. I’m a warrior, and I’m obliged to protect you for the rest of my life.”
My spontaneous reaction was that I was hallucinating (after all I grew up in a country referred to as the world’s most modern, where traditions make us feel awkward and school downplays history). Then I realized I lacked knowledge. A warrior working with telecom. One foot in the future and one foot in ancient tradition. What was ordinary to Sarjeet was a sensational, unusual combination to me. This was the exact moment my dream about India was born. I had to go there. I had to know more.
Whilst saving money for a ticket I did some research by traveling in books. I met white tigers, maximum cities, Calcutta chromosomes, Delhi djinns, nine examples of sacred lives in modern India, breast stories and inheritances of loss. I peered into ideas and dreams stemming from the pens of Arundhati Roy, Khushwant Singh, Zac O’ Yeah, Taslima Nasreen, Tagore to the Jewel in the crown DVD-box and the chak de phattey of bhangra.
Ten months later I stepped out of a plane in Jaipur and thought there must be a fire very close. There was no fire, only Rajasthani heat, 46 degrees Celsius. I realized no book or dream could prepare me for Indian reality.
Six trips later, my dreams are shaped by the warm welcome I experienced everyday in Indian life, the ordinary life that always must go on between people, whatever happens on the political and financial scene. The so-called “little life” that in fact glues together big life itself. People in India have, to my thankfulness, brought me with them into their everyday life. My being a stranger was never an issue. I’ve been invited to the homes of Sikhs, Parses, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, everywhere from a street school with a first generation of non -illiterates studying English, to being a DJ at a royal wedding in Rajasthan. Everywhere people have approached me with a friendly directness I find very Indian asking: Who are you? Why are you here?
In a time when dark forces are on the rise in Europe and USA, forces that want to close borders, dictate culture, build walls, divide human beings into groups and make them hate each other, my dream is that the positive examples of everyday dealing with diversity in the rich Indian culture will continue when India is 80, 90, 100. As long as a new face is not beaten up, or rejected, but a reason for starting a conversation, a meeting, dreams can flow freely between us humans and make us grow. Nothing happens unless you know how to dream.