Months ahead of the general election in India, friends in Sri Lanka would eagerly ask me: “So, do you think Narendra Modi will come back?” As someone following the polls only through media coverage in India — some shrill and some sane — there was little I could say that they may not have already known. I did not predict the number of seats the BJP would win or speculate much on how Tamil Nadu might vote. It was not just difficult, it was impossible to sit across the Palk Strait and attempt astute readings.
As avid news trackers, these friends are often disappointed that I have nothing “latest” to add. In fact, often they are the ones alerting me to news breaking in India, or to political analysis that they think offers nuance.
This sort of eagerness hit me harder during the string of Assembly elections in 2018, when they wanted State-specific updates and, worse, trends comparing past results. I found it hard to keep up.
I have noticed over the last few years that their interest or familiarity isn’t confined to Indian politics.
I’ve got a range of useful pointers from my Sri Lankan friends on lesser known bookshops, quiet cafes and reasonably priced handloom outlets in different Indian cities. I have also received YouTube links — for instance, to a Farida Khanum ghazal, a brilliant rendition by a ‘super singer’ contestant, and a newly released cover version of an Ilaiyaraja classic.
One day I got really lucky; I was treated to home-cooked pav bhaji that my friend made virtually from scratch, following a recipe from a big cookery book with glazed pages that lay on his kitchen counter. “I didn’t get coriander leaves to put on top,” he said apologetically.
Cricket buffs bring another degree of intensity to this India acquaintance. It isn’t just about Virat Kohli’s last innings. They want to discuss lapses in team selection and BCCI controversies. I know the World Cup has begun, but there is little else I can bring to the table on this subject. I do even worse with Ranveer Singh fashion updates. Often, I wonder if Sri Lankans know more about India than Indians perhaps know about Sri Lanka.
And then there’s another dimension to this that gets tricky. After a significant development in Sri Lankan politics — be it elections or a political crisis like last year’s — some keen analysts of politics and policy invariably ask, “What is India thinking?” They mean the Indian state and mostly the government of the day. “Do you’all support him?” some quiz me on India’s position on a political leader. “Can’t you’all push?” they ask about New Delhi possibly pressuring Sri Lankan polity on delivering on the promised, but much-delayed constitutional reform.
In an extension of this line of thinking, I have even been credited for an Indian government-backed development project. At a recent background briefing with a Colombo-based diplomat, a civil society member was arguing passionately that all that friendly countries do must not be viewed through the geopolitical lens. He spoke of “India’s good intentions” in Sri Lanka, pointing to its big housing scheme in the Tamil-majority north and hill country.
Suddenly turning towards me, he said: “You have built 50,000 houses in the north, no?” I had to break it to him: “No, I haven’t built a single house.