Some of my European friends visited India last year and we met. I was eager and waiting to hear every detail about their brief stay in India. As we ran through photo slides of Rajasthan, Delhi and Mumbai, I heard everyone say "India is magnificent". A little later, small irritations surfaced: from why "people stare" to the "so persistent beggars" and the "unbearable traffic" and the "lack of pubs".
It was New Year’s time when my friends were in Delhi and it had not been easy for them to find a pub. They could not imagine spending their time in any other place if not at a pub, over a drink. "Why are there no pubs?" they asked me. "We take everyone home", I said. They didn’t believe me. "India is a warm country, people don’t drink" I said. They still couldn’t see how.
A scholar on Asia once told me, "India is cut off from the rest of the world". The reason he said that was because there were no pubs in Bangalore, unless one went up north (from my very south Bangalore neighbourhood). For all that talk of respecting cultures, very well-meaning and benevolent people found it difficult to understand that there is no pub culture here. A judgment that lurked behind their disbelief was asking me "So, where do people meet and discuss things? Where do people conduct their intellectual lives? If not in coffee houses and pubs? Maybe Indians don’t have an intellectual life! Indians, in any case, don’t understand the public-private divide!"
Another time, a Nigerian friend, in his earnestness to conform or maybe sound cool, asked me if I "went out" and the conversation turned to India and I said I never "went out" (to pubs, to share a drink) in India. At that, he opened up and shared with me, things about the pressure "to go out" instead of the traditional ways of being that involved dance and music in very different settings in Africa.
I had little opportunity to go to a pub for many years. But I told myself "one must know these things, just in case" and purposefully went to one some years ago.
My European friends definitely shared a craze for going out in the night. It almost seemed childish to me-an urge to resist a day-night routine that I, too, had nurtured as a kid. But going out, and to pubs constituted an important part of the social life of a lot of people in the west. While in India, they were upset that there was no public transport till midnight to bring them back from one. I tried to reason by saying "India is poor, millions of us starve, and public transport till midnight would be such a waste of money. People only want to get home as quickly as possible, eat and get to bed".
I cannot forget how an Indian friend who had lived in Europe for many years, once said to me in great disapproval that "People here have no idea how to live. They stay out late at night on weekends and come in drowsily on Monday mornings to work and their entire week is one soggy tale because of this, with one thing upsetting the other".
Zoom back in on India, and what we saw recently was a markedly different scene.
Let’s keep aside the Ram Sene and the call for ‘respecting the rule of law’. Both these groups have not exactly understood how to conduct a conversation with each other; they have not put in the intellectual labour required. But, what is, indeed, clear is that there is an ‘imagined modernity’ that everybody wants a share of or is responding to. And as scholar Mary E John rightly says, this ‘imagined modernity’ is more egalitarian than any modernity that is to be found anywhere at all.
I surely had not expected to see, when I arrived at the airport of a city in the heart of Europe a couple of years ago, a billboard that literally said "…is a modern city, Welcome." They probably forgot to add "We have pubs open all nights."