New Internationalist

New times, new battles in India and beyond

Women's rights solidarity march in India [Related Image]
Women in rural Kanchipuram brave the rain on a women's rights solidarity march, March 2008. MacKay Savage under a Creative Commons Licence

I grew up in the 1970s, in Calcutta – now Kolkata. I was bombarded with new ideas and alien concepts.

That meant being plunged from a conservative Catholic convent, and a practically Victorian society and mindset, to a world where I listened to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Ravi Shankar, Pink Floyd, protest music and Karl Marx. Not necessarily in that order, of course. But mind-blowing, back then.  Communist schoolteachers explained that the UN was morally bankrupt for doing nothing against apartheid. And that the young Bengali middle-class university students then being systematically massacred by the police as Naxalites, were heroes fighting for justice for the poor. They were battling a corrupt, feudal system, our commie teachers taught us. It was a bewildering time. But it forced us to question the status quo, as well as the opposition.

I understood the anger. Yet I wondered how the murder of a poor policeman, leaving behind a penniless family, could achieve justice for the poor in general or anyone in particular. I remember the shocked silence in our little Sanskrit tutorial as our kind, gentle teacher recounted with sadness how her neighbour, a Bengali grandmother, distributed sweets when a police officer was brutally hacked to pieces in an adjoining lane. The old matriarch’s beloved grandson had been killed in a police ‘encounter’, Mrs Sengupta told us. The air, even in an average, lower-middle-class neighbourhood, was full of hatred and anger.

Many of us considered dropping out of university in the 1970s. It seemed as though the entire education system was futile and pointless, irrelevant to us and irrelevant to our times. It was a time of great confusion. There was political turmoil. The first Communist government was voted into power in West Bengal when I was in school. I remember the consternation in Christian circles at the advent of the first ‘godless’ government. Yet the Catholic intelligentsia, the Jesuit priests who sometimes taught us, pointed out that Liberation Theology found little dissonance between Communism and Christianity. Karl Marx got his ideas from the gospel, the more radical priests insisted. Christ was really the first Communist!

Whatever. It was an exciting time to grow up. There was always lively discussion. Debate about politics, religion, existentialism, the social order. The sexual revolution was a direct result of the stifling hypocritical society of the 1940s and 1950s. We debated hypocrisy and morality endlessly.

There are parallels in society today. Often, when I hear young people talking, I feel a bit blasé.  Been there, done that. As a generation we took pride in being less consumerist. That’s a bit more difficult in these times of expensive smartphones and incessant new computers to be used and discarded practically every year. I find fewer middle-class young people appear to care about injustice to adivasis or dalits. But then, they’ll join a gay rights march. Or a transgender protest. Or ‘like’ the Save the Tiger campaign online. I was impressed at the number of young folks who joined the anti-corruption movement in major Indian cities. They gave time and tweets. They sat in protest, braving the blazing Delhi heat. So there is hope. Protests take different forms and every generation responds differently to the crises and issues of their time.   

And yes, the fact that my first grandchild is due to arrive set me off into a contemplative reverie. What kind of a world are we living in, someone asked. And should one bring kids into a world like this? I suppose the answer to that is that it’s an eternal question, posed by philosophers thousands of years ago. Angst is good. But Dylan didn’t invent The times they are a changin’. He only wrote the lyrics. Life will go on. And hope springs eternal, no matter what. 

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  1. #1 Ludwig Pesch 01 Aug 14

    Delightful reading, the kind of insights I was hoping for ever since revisiting Kolkata in recent years in search of Tagore's footprints in culture and society - and here, for a change, I delight in your snapshot of an era much closer to my own first involvement with Indian culture: the 1970s.
    In hindsight it looks and feels like a rollercoaster right. But so will the present appear to the after-next batch sooner or later.
    The optimistic tone will surely also boost fellow NewInt-readers' determination to keep looking at India from all angles. And seeing developments in other societies - our own - from your perspective, more optimistically. Your grandchild will be a beneficiary of the same spirit.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. #2 chandrika sen shrma 01 Aug 14

    Mari - this brings back so many memories - so much nostalgia! Thanks for bringing it back in such a thoughtful and sensitive manner! Such great news about your grandchild. Congratulations!!

  3. #3 mari 01 Aug 14

    Thanks Ludwig for yr comment.

    Yes Kolkata was a big part of growing up and I was lucky to be was so alive, politically, so much awareness

    And Tagore in original is so moving..I think I was profoundly affected by the poem ’He mor durbhaga desh, jader korecho apman, apmane hote hobe tader shobaar shomman...

    it was part of the West Bengal Boards class 9 syllabus..for 15 year olds..had a lasting impact


  4. #4 Josette 01 Aug 14

    Congratulations,Mari,for the first grand child arriving! Do enjoy it.
    Surely the young generation has different priorities values from us, but many are also very idealistic and often putting themselves at the service of others. Let's trust them - they are different from us, but times have also changed!Let's all keep hope and work for a better world.

  5. #5 Merlyn Brito 01 Aug 14

    Dear Mari,
    Having already entered the grandmother avatar myself I can understand where your thoughts are coming from.Your description of our growing years and the ethos of Calcutta during the 70's brings back many happy memories.'The City of Joy' was real for us and our commitment to change and justice was admirable.I remember attending a seminar on the parallels between Marxism & Christianity as well partaking in stimulating discussions which changed my world view forever.It was a great time to be young and alive.
    Today much has changed materialistically but the same issues remain and today's generation will tackle them in its own way.We now belong to the group of 'elders' whose life experiences help us to see, analyze & recommend. I think we can still contribute by reading, writing, doing and praying as the older generation has always done through the ages. The circle of life comes around slowly but surely.
    Thank you for bringing back the memories!

  6. #6 priya thomas 02 Aug 14

    we all embrace new ideas with euphoria -today Bengal is disenchanted with the communist party-the naxalites are creating havoc in chattisgarh, orissa and the neighbouring states-but nonetheless I think the politically aware growing up in the cal of the 70's and 80's definitely evince some socialistic traits which helps create a more egalitarian surrounding-so something good does emerge from all things novel-lets hope todays youngsters manage to become better human beings despite the novelties in technology-reading the newspapers the scene appears bleak but like you said mari there is always hope-only hope

  7. #7 SGT 03 Aug 14

    Its difficult to know whether one should feel despair for the future of the world or still continue to feel hopeful. The near monolithic rise of a capital intensive, profit driven, consumerist culture gobbling up the planet's natural resources at an alarming rate, the rampant increase in violence across the globe, the rise of fundamentalism irrespective of religion, and wondering whether Thatcher was prophetic when she said there is no society only individuals makes one despair. But when we see how much connected we are thanks to technology - where its possible for the voice of oppressed people in the remotest corner to be heard across the globe (even if it rarely happens at least it is possible), when we see young people concerned and so much more well informed than we were a generation ago, when we see the growing acceptance (however slowly) of human beings who have been ostracised since time memorial since they didn't fit into patterns considered ’normal’, when.... so much to make one hope.

    I am of the glass-is-half-full-kind and I refuse to despair. And am full of admiration for the younger generation. But often I do wish they would move away a bit more from their laptops, i phones, tablets, and look up and around and realise that there is so much to social change than mouse-click-activism.

  8. #8 Jerome 04 Aug 14

    Thanks for your evocative piece!

    Many parallels with my own life as well, having grown up in Calcutta in the 70s and 80s.

    At least we tried to change the world, and instead changed ourselves, which is no small consolation.


  9. #9 Anu 04 Aug 14

    As always,enjoyed reading your blog, Mari.

    What I really liked was the absence of cynicism and a complete dismissal of the younger generation. Instead you have recognised the efforts of the older and younger generations fairly and are optimistic and hopeful!

  10. #10 Francesco 05 Aug 14

    I still have nightmares about the Naxalites banging at the school gate, tearing up exam papers etc.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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