Indian friends in West Bengal and Orissa were surprised when I claimed to prefer China to India. These friends, in particular two Muslims, a Hindu and a Kerala Christian, pointed to the long love-hate relationship between my country England and theirs. They reminded me of the predominance of English as the lingua franca of the educated classes. They reminded me, and I had to concur, that many of the greatest writers of English today are Indian. Hard pressed as I already was, they asked, almost in amazement, how I could possibly prefer China with its authoritarian regime of one-party rule to India, the world’s most populous democracy. And of course, they spoke of the search for truth through their many religions as opposed to the materialist atheism of China.
This was no mean debate. I could and did point out that I could prefer an authoritarian government trying to do well for its people to the democratic governments of the United States responsible for killing civilians in fifty or more countries. I pressed home the point that most of the people killed in wars had been killed in the name of religion and that inter-religious strife was never far off in India. I pointed out that Buddhism is still particularly widespread in China while the many Taoists and more than 50 million Christians are at least tolerated. I spoke of my wife’s village in the mountains of Fujian where the government office with its slogans calling for respect for the one child policy and building a socialist countryside is next door to the Buddhist temple. I stated quite categorically that as a humanist, I would happily see all religions consigned to occasional ritualistic party games – like Christmas.
Of the points my friends made ably and sincerely, the one that struck me the most, with my masters’ degree in English literature, was the question of the English language. Yes, it was such a relief to be able to enjoy the cut and thrust of friendly debate with friends in my own language; a pleasure to meet new metaphors and meanings and to listen to a most musical and ingenious version of English. But their constant insistence that this language of English would give them such an advantage over China – I wondered.
I looked first at the literacy rates of the two countries. According to UNESCO’s 2007 statistical report, India has a literacy rate of 61 per cent. Of those who are literate, 60 per cent are males, meaning that illiteracy amongst the female population is extremely high. China has a literacy rate of 90.9 per cent and has just made schooling in rural areas available everywhere, free. India’s rural education system is a disgrace. And of the 61 per cent in India who are literate, what percent speak English well?
We get a figure of approximately 100 million Indians who speak English well. Then compare this to the 300 million Chinese who are studying English today. We will not be seeing many great Chinese writers writing in English, though there are already some, and English will not be in any way a lingua franca within the country. But I doubt that India will profit from any comparative advantage of English as an international business language.
My belief in humanism, my love of my own language, a certain libertarian cast of mind – none of these could really explain why I am more comfortable in China than in India.
To me India is a land of separation, China a land of integration.
Although there is still a preference for male children in China, once a child is born, the girls and boys are near equals. This has not come about for particularly nice reasons but from the realization by the Chinese that they could not feed an ever-growing population and their implementation of their one child policy. The Chinese family invests heavily in this one child, whether male or female, urban or rural; an investment of love but also of money particularly for education. So the Chinese are, overall, far better educated than the Indians and the sexes are far less separate. In China, women are mostly strong individuals; in India, they are second class citizens.
This point was brought home to me just last night when reading a short story called “The Firebird’s Nest”. In a part of India, there is a drought and a previous prince (no longer prince in this time of socialism) brings home a rich American blonde wife in the hope that her magical money making qualities might somehow bring rain. There is the attendant problem that the women tend to spontaneously ignite and burn to death – touched, it is said, by the ‘firebird’.
Then the author writes a paragraph that expresses the origin of my unease in India better than I could myself:
Something frightful has happened here. Some irreversible transformation. Without our noticing its beginnings, so that we did not resist until it was too late, until the new way of things was fixed, there has occurred a terrible, terminal rupture between our men and women.
It is this separation of the sexes, particularly in the largest religions of India, Hinduism and Islam, that makes me particularly uncomfortable in India. Add the separations of religion, castes, ethnic origin; look at the faces of suppressed anger or fatalistic despair; consider the scandal of rural education and understand why one Englishman at least is happier in China than India.
Do not answer me with words about cultural tolerance and respect for all religions. The author of The Firebird’s Nest is Salman Rushdie; he, of Indian origin, who is amongst the greatest living writers of English but dare not set foot in separatist India.
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