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Imagine a bunch of inveterate economists traipsing around every State in India, and in addition to producing four humongous volumes of esoteric data on ‘devolution of funds between the Centre and the States’, the team also churns out a slim volume that is a cross between “An Idiot’s Guide to the Index at the end of Lonely Planet India” and a “Concise Recommendation of Alluring Bucket Lists’. “Those were the Days” is exactly such a ‘manifesto’.
Edited by Ashok K. Lahiri, Former Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, “Those Were The Days” is a compilation of personal experiences of every member of the 15th Finance Commission – and their spouses – as they make a frenzied journey across 28 Indian States, meeting the respective Chief Ministers, Finance Ministers and many stakeholders at the Grass roots level in order to better comprehend the financial position and needs of every State. In this process they also assimilate the cultural mores and societal specificities adorning each State that lends diversity to the Nation. The compilation is a simple, yet sincere deference to the ‘Unity in Diversity’ ethos that is the singular preserve and prestige of this pulsating, throbbing and ever evolving gigantic democracy.
N.K. Singh, the Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission sets the tone and tenor for his colleagues to emulate, by penning the first Chapter of the book, which incidentally, is also the lengthiest. The journey of the Finance Commission began with a tour to the quaint and sparsely populated State of Arunachal Pradesh. With a population of under 14 lakh, Arunachal Pradesh, as explained in a later Chapter by Shikha Dahiya, another member of the Commission, is home to 26 major tribes in addition to more than 100 minor tribes. The State is also a teeming hotbed of indigenous festivals such as the Tawang Festival, the Orange Festival, the Ziro Musical Festival, the Bascon Organic Festival that celebrates tribal arts and the Mechuka Adventure Festival.
N.K. Singh concentrates on the cultural and traditional performances put up by the States for regaling the Finance Commission. With a view to ‘outcompeting’ the other States, the feisty Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, cobbled together at short notice an ensemble of renowned artists, three among which were not even on talking terms with one another! The artists included well-known classical vocalist Rashid Khan, sarod player Tejendra Narayan Majumdar, Bickram Ghosh on the tabla and playback singer Iman Chakraborty.
A few places of interest find repeated mention throughout the book for their sheer magnificence, splendour and even poignancy. The Kohima War Cemetery in Nagaland has the effect of visibly clawing at the emotions of its visitors. A plaque at the entrance to the cemetery reads, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.” Soldiers from India, Australia and the United Kingdom laid down their lives during World War II in the bloody battle of Kohima to reverse the Japanese onslaught.
Naya Raipur is yet another place that comes in for special acclaim. A planned city that would have obtained the wholehearted approval of Le Corbusier even, Naya Raipur comes with a dedicated safari area. This jungle safari is one of the largest of its kind in Asia.
The most interesting Chapter in the book is penned by Shikha Dahiya. Visiting the famed Nathu La Pass, Ms. Dahiya makes her way to the shrine constructed by the Indian Army for one of its martyrs, Baba Harbhajan Singh. Killed in 1965, it is believed that Baba Harbhajan Singh “still protects every soldier on that border and warns them about any attack in advance. The soldiers till date carry out various functions such as providing food believing that he is still alive.”
The Pangong Tso Lake with its Azure Blue in stark contradistinction to the barren brown mountains surrounding it provides a phenomenal perspective of Mother Nature at her wonderous best. Alas this landscape post 2020 has been the site of a sensitive and brutal border clash between the Indian and Chinese armed forces.
The Commission’s travels are also a pilgrimage of sorts. The list of temples visited by the Members, reads like a paean to a phalanx of Gods. The Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the Guruvayur Temple, the Meenakshi Temple, Lord Jagannath at Puri, Lord Balaji at Tirumala, Maa Kaali at Dakshineshwar, Goddess Ganga at the Gangotri temple, the Parashuram Temple on the banks of the Lohit river in east Arunachal Pradesh, Maa Jawalamukhi Mandir in Himachal, the Siddhivinayak Ganpati Mandir in Mumbai, the Kal Bhairav and Kashi Vishwanathji in Varanasi, the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the oldest synagogue in Kerala do not even complete the list.
The wives of the members of the Finance Commission also write liberally about their shopping jaunts. Mrs. Lahiri in fact gives a lesson in the kind of sarees that are available across the length and breadth of the nation.
Lahiri, provides a gastronomical teaser by holding forth on the sheer varieties of bananas that one can sample in God’s Own Country, Kerala, namely, Robusta, Kappa Vazha or Chenkadali, Kadali or Rasakadali, Palayamthodan and Poovan. There is also a specific mention of Nagaland Coffee which is yet to be introduced to other parts of India.
Ashok Lahiri has done a commendable job of stitching together myriad and heterogenous vignettes that capture the fabled diversity of India. While not an authoritative work on various cultures that span the terrain of India, it is nonetheless a very precious insight into the sights sounds and smells of this huge country. An intrepid reader would do well to take the cues and the clues and explore more on her own!
“Those Were The Days” – a satisfying read.