India was the guest of honour for the book fair that returned after a hiatus of two years and I was one of the delegates chosen by the National Book Trust of India to attend the same. As the cultural festivities unfolded, I could not help but wonder whether India is even aware of the immense soft power it can wield across the world.
We have at least six classical languages that boast a literary legacy richer than most European languages. Our dance forms and music are older than Europe and have enjoyed civilisational continuity for thousands of years. The sheer diversity of Indian art is mind-boggling. The culinary diversity and tradition can rival any cuisine in the world.
Our country is overflowing with historical monuments, temples, mosques, mausoleums, churches, forts and palaces. There is no single day in the calendar when some part of our country doesn't indulge in celebrations. We have the most significant film industry in the world. Yet, once we move out of Asia, we are unable to create the impact we deserve.
On this visit, it was not through the eyes of a selfie-obsessed tourist that I saw the cultural capital of Europe. Instead, it was through the eyes of an Indian seeking to answer the paradox of the rich Indian cultural heritage and its relatively minimal impact on the world.
One of the pleasures of Paris for a history enthusiast like me is its fantastic museums. Anyone who has visited Indian museums can immediately feel the difference. It was refreshingly different from the chaotic assembly of random sculptures and antiques, indifferent staff snoring in empty and dusty halls or lovers scribbling their names on Indus Valley Pottery or medieval paintings, that characterise Indian museums and historic sites. Instead, we find a nation proud of its culture and history, professionally displaying its heritage to the visitors.
Compared to most ancient cities in India, Paris has perhaps fewer monuments. Yet, every monument has been restored and preserved without compromising its authenticity. Paris has been destroyed multiple times through frequent revolutions and invasions, and the two world wars were also not kind to this city.
Yet, every time, Parisians have lovingly rebuilt their monuments without compromising the aesthetics and artistic values. The historic Notre Dame Cathedral, immortalised by Victor Hugo in the classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, had burned down a couple of years ago. The restoration work is on, with minute attention to detail.
In my country, I have seen restoration work done in temples that are thousands of years old. There are hardly any attempts to stay true to the aesthetics of the original, and often, it is just a cement patch haphazardly put up to hold the monument together. I have seen ancient murals whitewashed or bathroom tiles installed over thousand-year-old Grand Chola temples.
In Kerala, beautiful ancient temples with exquisite wood carvings are marred with the industrial yard-looking tin roofs erected in the front. The ancient artisans who would have toiled for decades, lovingly over every detail in exquisite artistry on wood and stone, would die of heartbreak if they happened to see these obscene creations done in the name of development.
Who other than us would apply two coats of modern paint of every possible shade over granite sculptures and make the grand temples of antiquity look like a poor replica of Disneyland? France is a country that ferociously guards its secularism and frowns upon any public display of religious symbols.
Yet, the churches of Paris are pleasing to the eye and are maintained spectacularly, while we, who wear religion on our sleeves and every possible part of our body, take no care of our heritage. Our pride is reserved only for social media debates, riot-mongering, hate-peddling and one-upmanship.
On our riverbanks, the human civilisation dawned. Great literary works were born, and there was a time these pioneers traversed the depth of philosophy. The Seine River is the vein of Paris. It throbs with culture, beauty and heritage. They consider the river a river, and we deify our rivers as goddesses and mothers. Yet, we use them as our town sewers.
The French’s pride in their culture, and the efforts they take to preserve their heritage are something we ought to emulate. Has the colonial educational system deceived us into believing in our inferiority? Has it robbed us of our self-esteem?
We can blame the invasions, colonisations and a hundred other things, but after 75 years of Independence, such excuses ring hollow. Every street, every village, every town and city in our country pulses with history, art and culture.
There are more languages in India than people in many European cities. Can we at least teach our next generation about our true heritage and preserve it for humanity? With some effort, we can easily match up the soft power that the West wields and once again reclaim our position under the sun. Maybe the change should start in the schools.
(The writer is author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy and can be contacted at email@example.com)