How I Met My Inner Patriot in Paris


How I Met My Inner Patriot in Paris

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Thirteen years ago, Shah Rukh Khan redefined the very idea of patriotism with Swades by essaying the role of a savvy engineer settled in the United States of America (at NASA, no less), who gives it all up for a country which is imperfect in very many ways: The roads aren’t wide enough for his caravan, phones can’t connect to a cellular network, and day-to-day life in its rural hinterlands is meaninglessly entangled in a web of caste. But, as the film progresses, SRK’s Mohan Bhargav eventually ends up finding deep-rooted love for this country, and embraces it as his own. His patriotism is headstrong, but it is also an acquired taste – a result, and sum of his criticism toward his motherland’s inherent flaws, its visible weaknesses, and its many failings.

In a way, Mohan Bhargav’s critique of India represents the world view shared by most Indians like me, who can’t stop highlighting India’s inadequacies, its mismanaged priorities, biased politics, lack of governance, and its gloriously narrow societal mindsets. When it comes to India, we’re convinced that it’s paradoxical to ever come to a place of acceptance like Mohan Bhargav. It’s assumed that we’ll perennially co-exist in a state of aspirational escapism, where we’d yearn to be far removed from the country that we’re forced to call our own. I’m no different, and as I found out, the easiest way to do that is by taking a trip abroad.

In fact, this nitpicking becomes all the more incessant when I travel to foreign shores. In the first few days, I can’t help but notice every detail of the aesthetically laid-out cities, exquisite infrastructure, adorable cobbled streets, widespread civic sense. Once I’m done marvelling at their aspirational flawlessness, my brain immediately sets out to compare it to the shitshow back home. It is in these moments that I feel sorry for Mohan Bhargav. Neither do I understand his idealism, nor can I fathom his patriotism. What is it, I wonder, that could inspire Mohan Bhargav to abandon a modern lifestyle for a primitive and rudimentary setting like India? The more I go abroad, the more I wonder what’s it like to live in a country where you don’t walk into garbage, where you don’t have to constantly scan for potholes, and where pedestrians aren’t run over when they cross the road?

I start reminiscing about the tiny little things that India is made up of

However, as the holiday progresses, this wide-eyed hankering surrounded by a semblance of order and the ease with which most people live their lives abroad, begins to change. I begin to inspect their lives at closer quarters. The same cobbled streets – that I once admired – lie vacant as early as 7 pm. The pleasant weather that I gushed over changes and it starts to freeze, and the same landscapes that looked lush in the sun now turn ominous. I can’t help but keep analysing their packed weekends, doing groceries and dusting without any help, the lack of hospitable chatter at the supermarket, and it’s unsettling to see no attendants even at petrol pumps. And after a point, I even resign from my #wanderlust duties, and stop taking pictures because how many pictures can you take of green trees, empty lanes, and clean lakes?

Before I know it, the glitz and glamour of travelling to a foreign country has turned to sober introspection, which then quickly takes the shape of a feeling of gratitude, an acknowledgment of sorts for what I take for granted back home. It’s like opening the Pandora’s box from there on. I start reminiscing about the tiny little things that India is made up of – the overcrowded streets and the incessant commotion, the deformed yet colorful settings, the unpleasant odour, the unbearable honking, the cheap calling rates and data packs, the lack of civility and the informal interactions, the dependency on local swear words, the implicit trust in dealings, the disregard for punctuality, the many needless social obligations, and of course the relentless pursuit of a better life.

Every time this happens when I’m abroad, I promptly label it as casual homesickness. But, I soon realise, as I wait for it to wash away in vain, that this inexplicable pull I feel toward the country, whose worth I perennially refuse to cognise, is something grander. It lies somewhere between homesickness, and an inherent obligation toward my motherland – that perfect, sweet spot of deep fondness and affection. It feels powerful, that sudden, strong affinity for India even if I don’t go around in my country in a caravan, or sing songs praising its beauty.

It’s irrational and inexplicable, and takes a few stages of denial and complaints, to come settle at acceptance.

As it turns out, the most powerful tonic for patriotism is not the national anthem. Instead, it is a return ticket to a foreign country. This brand of patriotism won’t necessarily make you start believing in or justifying your country’s greatness, but it will move you to embrace the way our country works. It took a while for the realisation to dawn upon me that I don’t need my country to be perfect to be patriotic. Maybe loving your country, is like loving your family. It’s irrational and inexplicable, and takes a few stages of denial and complaints, to come settle at acceptance.

Toward the end of Swades, there’s a quietly moving scene: SRK’s Indian-American friend calls him “foolish” for deciding to go back to India and expresses his inability to understand his desire to do so. “If you do not understand what I am going through, you will probably have to visit India to understand what I feel,” SRK tells his friend. I think of this line every time I am abroad, sitting alone at a cafe, missing the embrace and familiarity of the country I grew up in. Everyone has a bit of Mohan Bhargav in themselves. They just haven’t taken a trip and discovered him yet.