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Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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Studying in London, political trends in Germany, and the vilification of Meghnad and Kumbhakarna in India

AS A PARENT, it is always difficult to adjust to the fact that your child has grown up and is ready to face the world. The situation confronted me last week when my son left home for London to pursue a higher degree. Of course, the distance is largely notional. I can text him anytime, we can have phone conversations on WhatsApp and he even talks of coming home for the New Year. I can even transfer some money to him quite effortlessly—and legally.

It is such a change from when I left home for London exactly 42 years ago, carting one suitcase and with only £50 in my pocket. Money was so tight that I took a bus from Heathrow to Victoria and then the tube to Paddington. On that rather hot day, I walked the remaining three blocks carting a suitcase that weighed more than the stipulated 20 kg the airline permitted. Till the time I landed myself a rather generous scholarship a year later, I used to literally count my pennies.

Contacting home was also a challenge. There was the blue aerogramme that I looked forward to receiving in my pigeon hole—it took between five to seven days for the mail to arrive. Receiving a call from home invariably involved a great deal of planning. I remember booking reverse charge calls or waiting expectantly on Sunday evenings for a call from home to materialise—once every four weeks. As for money, receiving those little extras—never exceeded £50—always involved complicated arrangements and the benevolence of some NRIs. And we couldn’t really think of coming home for the vacations. When I did, every two years or so, there was always a desperate hunt for bargain tickets sold in what used to be called ‘bucket shops’. The journey often involved long transit waits in shoddy airports in West Asia.

I guess my situation was better than an earlier generation that had to book a passage on a ship and for whom coming home was an unaffordable luxury. No wonder there was a mystique around ‘foreign’ studies. Mercifully, that has gone. It is now an everyday happening.

THERE HAS BEEN a bout of extremely familiar wailing over the emergence of the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) as Germany’s third party with 13 per cent of the vote. Those who only 18 months ago were contrasting German enlightenment with British narrowmindedness are now again talking about the populist wave sweeping across Europe.

The surprise is unwarranted and comes from the echo-chamber belief that ordinary Germans were delighted at Angela Merkel having facilitated the settlement of one million refugees from Syria and Iraq in Europe’s most prosperous country. At that time, the mainstream media went overboard showing visuals of Germans greeting refugees with cups of hot soup and stuffed toys. What they chose not to publicise was the deep undercurrent of both resentment and anxiety among ordinary Germans at this huge and abrupt change in the country’s demographic landscape. The outcome of the election—which the pollsters, yet again, failed to read—is a small reflection of this unease. The AfD was the principal beneficiary of a protest vote. To dub them as crude Nazis is to heap disdain on ordinary Germans.

Looking down on the fears of ordinary people has become a feature of a post-national politics. The belief that only a small, enlightened elite should determine the contours of national existence has become a feature of democratic discourse. We have seen it post-Brexit in the United Kingdom, post-Trump in the United States, and we have seen it after the election of nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary. It goes without saying that we witness it all the time in the disdain of India’s old elite towards Narendra Modi.

IF THERE IS one popular festival I would like to have modified, it is Dussehra. I love the idea of celebrating the victory of good over evil, as epitomised by Lord Rama’s victory over the talented but vain King of Lanka. However , for the life of me, I cannot see any real merit is the ceremonial burning of Kumbhakarna and Meghnad.

Both, to my mind, are tragic figures. They had absolutely no role in the abduction of Sita—the trigger for the war. Kumbhakarna in particular was a harmless man who revelled in his own indolence. Meghnad was a brave warrior. Both fought for their country, right or wrong. They may have been adversaries, but they were honourable men who don’t deserve permanent vilification.

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