It’s 60 years today since India was born as an independent nation, and 60 years and one day since Pakistan was. The history of the divided subcontinent has been a troubled one—to say the least—which is perhaps why our latest web exclusive has, for me, a double poignancy. It is taken from the writings of Horace Alexander (1889-1989), one of a group of English Quakers closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi. Alexander spent the day of independence itself with the Mahatma in a group that contained Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and that brought an all-too-brief peace to one of India’s most religiously divided regions. In his words, we see both the fierce hopefulness that attended the birth of the largest democracy in history, and the awareness that its triumphs and failures would be the fruits of struggling self-mastery rather than sudden miracles.
Alexander’s writing also reminds me of another great Quaker who made his life in India (and there have been several)—Laurie Baker, who died in April this year. Also a friend of Gandhi, Baker embodied much that is finest about India as a home of authentically popular idealism—an architect by training as well as a missionary, he designed hundreds of buildings that attempted to combine simplicity and affordability with a sensitivity to local environments. A resident of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala for much of his life, his creations include one of my favourite of all Indian buildings—a humble coffee house near the bus station that serves delicious, inexpensive food and drink, within which I have passed more time than almost any other public space in southern India.