New York Times

Commentary and Opinion from the New York Times.

APRIL 18 ― By various accounts there are five or six Jews left here, but Jew Town, as the area around the almost 450-year-old synagogue is known, hums with activity, and the synagogue itself is a light-filled sanctuary.

I visited it after spending part of a Sunday morning at the Temple of Lord Shiva, where, to the rhythmic beat of God-invoking drums, as incense burned in the half-light and offerings of betel leaf were made, women and men mingled in devotion. They prayed to Shiva, the destroyer of the universe as a precondition for its recreation, and to Ganesh, the lord of beginnings and the remover of obstacles. They dotted their foreheads with reddened turmeric powder. Candles burned, bodies touched, eyes glowed; religion seemed neither forbidding nor austere: an embrace of life in all its facets.

India is ample. Soon to be the most populous country on earth, it is home to close to 1 billion Hindus, some 172 million Muslims and tens of millions of Christians. Cochin is dotted with churches and mosques. Nobody cares too much. There’s room for multiple truths. It is this that makes the country such a source of hope. Whatever the errors of policy, and whatever the occasional flaring of terrible religious violence, as in Gujarat in 2002, the nation’s basic alchemy is good — with or without large-denomination bank notes.

In the end, intangible qualities — the empowerment of women (India has a long way to go), the capacity to place the future over the past and the space afforded for civilized disagreement — are better indicators of the health of a society than economic statistics. They contain an element of mystery. It is difficult to say why Argentina has failed so often, tying itself in the sterile knot of Peronism, given all it has to succeed, or why Vietnam moves beyond millions of dead in its war with the United States to embrace Americans, while areas of the world like the Middle East seem unable to forget a single death or grievance.

Brazil and South Africa have immense problems, but you may count on them to succeed because the fabric of their nationhood is resilient. In a similar way, anyone betting against India over the long term would be foolish. Openness and capaciousness tend to win.

The accommodation of differences depends on an idea of citizenship that transcends religion or ethnicity to create a community based not in the fever of blood or creed but in rights and obligations framed by law.

This is not easy to achieve. Free societies remain the exception. Copts get slaughtered in Egypt on Palm Sunday because they are Christians. The thirst expressed in the Arab Spring for more representative governance and personal agency is frustrated by intolerance. President Bashar Assad of Syria gasses children in an attempt to prolong his family’s almost half-century rule of terror. Old wounds suppurate, discharging grievances sufficient to poison every attempt at conciliation.

Rudyard Kipling wrote: “All good people agree,/And all good people say,/All nice people, like Us, are We/And everyone else is They.” That’s as simple a summary of what the framers of liberal democratic orders are up against as any I know.

Inclusiveness lacks the direct appeal to the gut of the tribal. It’s good, but wan. Nobody prostrates himself or herself for pluralism. Shock and awe get the heart beating more than what Isaiah Berlin called “machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm.” People get bored; they crave authority and a sense of frenzied mission. They want their pharaoh or their czar or their emperor to set a path. Authoritarianism makes a comeback just when everyone had concluded, on the basis of the ravages of the 20th century, that a decent life demands freedom, at least.

Decency does demand that, whatever the games amnesia plays. The wheel turns.

In October 1647, at the height of the English Civil War, Thomas Rainsborough noted that the poorest has as much of a life to live as the “greatest,” and that “every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” These are not new thoughts. The need for freedom is tied to our natures, like the intermittent fever for deliverance through a despot, but it’s stronger and more enduring.

At least India, in its immensity, makes you believe that. It is a place of awe. I spend too much time in parts of the world trapped by smallness. History illuminates; it also imprisons.

My favourite Israeli poet is Yehuda Amichai. In his poem “Tourists,” a guide points to a Roman arch in Jerusalem. Amichai writes: “I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'“

Children eat fruit, not old stones. ― The New York Times

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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