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A FOUR-YEAR wait for a car, no kissing on screen and no drinking without a permit. In the third decade of freedom, India was a land of scarcity, prohibitions and controls.

The Sixties in the West were a decade of revolution, mini-skirts and the Beatles. In India it was a decade when you were constantly told what you could not do and when, for a while, it seemed the very idea of India might not work.

The decade began promisingly with seemingly impossible dreams fulfilled. In August 1960, K. Asif finally released Mughal-e Azam, 15 years after he had started making the movie. A year later, the Indian Army marched into Goa and ejected the Portuguese. For the first time in four hundred years India was free from foreign colonial domination. The country was pictured as an aeroplane poised for economic take-off. Not without significance, 1961 saw the launch of two of India’s leading financial dailies, The Economic Times and The Financial Express.

But soon Plane India stalled so badly on the runway that for a time there were real fears it would collapse – certainly foreign critics wrote it off – and while Armageddon was avoided, the decade ended with much of the high hopes of freedom turned to dust. For me, a Midnight’s Child, this mood change crystallised on the night of January 26 1963.

I grew up in Flora Fountain in the heart of Bombay (as it was then called) and the night of January 26 was always special. That night the major buildings in Bombay would be illuminated. Our house was surrounded by some historic buildings of the city and every January 26 saw thousands from Bombay’s suburbs driving past our flat in open-top lorries to gaze at the illuminations. As they did so they would wave to us shouting, “Bharat zindabad”. But on the night of January 26 1963, there were no illuminations, no lorries, no crowds, just deafening silence. I remember sitting by the window of our flat that night and as I looked at the statue of Flora, I got the feeling she was shedding silent tears for Bharat Mata.

Three months earlier, in October 1962, the Chinese had crushed the Indian Army in the North East Frontier Area (NEFA). For a time it seemed all of eastern India would be lost. Jawaharlal Nehru, in a radio broadcast, very nearly bid Assam goodbye and we were told how shopkeepers in Calcutta were learning Chinese. The Chinese attack on India was so overwhelming that the Cuban missile crisis, which nearly led to a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, hardly made an impression on us.

Republic Day was no longer a day of celebration and the shockwaves of that invasion were felt for the rest of the decade. Not least by us students. The talk of the day was to get the country better prepared militarily and so students were told that they would not be allowed to sit for their graduation examinations unless they underwent three years’ compulsory training in the National Cadet Corps. Eighteen months after the Chinese invasion, we found ourselves being given basic military training. Twice a week we gathered at a maidan near our college to be shouted at by fierce-looking Indian soldiers. I doubt if the Chinese spies lurking in the maidans were much frightened by this budding Indian army. I can recall nothing of military value I learnt, which included a spell in an NCC camp, except that it made me realise that the brave jawans we were asked to hero-worship grew up to become foul-mouthed old soldiers with an inventive vocabulary of swear words.

Our military service was justified on the grounds that this was the price we, the first generation of free Indians, had to pay for freedom. But all around us there were people questioning whether this freedom was worth having. In 1964, V.S. Naipaul, after a year in India, produced An Area of Darkness, his bleak and deeply pessimistic book about India. A year later came Nirad Chaudhuri’s The Continent of Circe, which argued Indians could only regain their place in the world if they realised they were Europeans. While we could dismiss them as anti-indians, Chaudhuri was easily lampooned as our homegrown Brit. All around us we could see much that was wrong with our beloved Bharat.

In the third decade of freedom, India was the land of scarcity – a four-year wait for an Ambassador, 12 years for a Fiat. And of the great P – prohibitions in all kinds of things from no kissing on the screen to no drinking anywhere. My father could drink at home in Bombay only after getting a permit from the Collector of Customs. It was obtained after his doctor certified that for health reasons my father required two pegs of whisky every night. My father also used his friends in the Indian Armed Forces to get around prohibition. On Indian naval ships the Gandhian injunctions against alcohol did not apply, the old British custom of drinking still prevailed and as soon as his naval friends came onshore, my father was off to the Bombay docks.

The other big prohibition was in relation to food with the 1960s seeing a determined effort to change Indian eating habits. Parliament in the 1960s spent much time debating over famine-stalked parts of the land. At our dining tables we were told that we should eat less rice and have more wheat: so cut out the plate of rice for dinner, have chapattis instead.

In West Bengal, the Congress chief minister tried to engineer a more radical change in food habits. Following a tremendous milk shortage, he had the brilliant idea of telling his fellow Bengalis that they should cut down on sweets, most of which were made from milk. The Bengalis were outraged and it made many middle-class Bengalis distrust the Congress and turn to the communists. Whatever else Marx might advocate, he would never target the beloved Bengali rosogolla.

Now this may be one of the stories that have gained more in the retelling but there was no getting round the Guest Control Order which prohibited any meals for more than 50 people. This led to the most curious wedding receptions. Hundreds gathered in elaborately decorated shamianas, the presents were as lavish as ever, but all that the guests got was a thin slice of vanilla ice cream. In many ways, the biggest P of all concerned foreign travel. With the country facing massive foreign exchange shortages you could only travel abroad if a Form P was authorised by the Reserve Bank of India. But even when Form P was approved, the RBI gave you only £3 in foreign exchange. The joke was that it was enough to pay for a peg of whisky on the Air India flight taking you out of India.

With no television, ‘foreign’ was increasingly exotic and the restrictions made us long to leave India. Not an escape but a temporary flight so we could return and make good the deficiencies we saw in a land that we still loved so much.

© Mihir Bose

      

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