India is always a challenge to one's emotional honesty. In truth, I suspect, the shock felt in the West at the assassination of Indira Gandhi has more to do with the eternal pathos of her struggling nation than with any great affection for her person -- the public one, anyway.

Perhaps the daughter of Jawaharial Nehru, India's almost hereditary ruler for so many years, was as warm and gracious as Margaret Thatcher implied when she said, quite earnestly, "I shall miss her very, very much."

But whatever her charms, Gandhi carefully concealed them behind that long face she customarily put on when reminding her Western hosts (often at opulent state dinners) of their neglected duty to humanity.

My own vivid sense of what it was like to live under her rule was unpleasant. Less than decade ago, refugee Indian journalists were offering hair-raising personal accounts of her ruthless personal rule. In the brutal period of emergency authority, in the campaign of forced sterilization directed by her late son, she eclipsed the excesses of the Raj.

She also seemed to possess that peculiarly Indian hypocrisy about power politics. She could speak with assured indignation about the arms race while nursing her own little nuclear persuader to intimidate Pakistan.

In short, it would not be hard to draw a list of Indira Gandhi's defects, from the Western point of view. And in this respect she resembled her nation. Perhaps she merely did what had to be done to survive, and that included even the bloody assault on the Sikh extremists at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

In spite of all the inconsistencies, India's secret weapon -- and hers -- for dealing with the West has been the capacity to arouse a bad conscience. That gift has survived all the vicious sectarian disputes that have long threatened to show the Indian nation a sham, a fiction, a make-believe nationality which would someday explode into scores of linguistic, racial and religious segments.

That a fatal, incurable devisiveness was the inmate nature of India was Winston Churchill's view, and the reason why be obstinately opposed independence. He held it not only wrong-headed but criminally irresponsible to leave this combustable people to its countless feuds and strains. And often -- in the slaughters of independence, or over Kashmir, or in the Bangladesh secession from seceded Pakistan, or in the Sikh movement -- it seemed that Churchill's fears might be vindicated.

Yet so far it has been the spontaneous combustion that didn't happen.

There is evidently something both mysterious and magnificent in India's tensile strength, something in the will and character of the Indian masses that has made it possible -- so far -- to tread the brink of disintegration without quote tumbling headlong over it.

As I muse once again on India and its mourning masses, I find myself embarrassed, as usual, by the casual reaction to India. If mine is typical, we in the West teeter between a patronizing affection and contempt, between admiration and repugnance. This has been much the character of Western contemplation from the first, running back into the literature of British India as well.

More than a glimmer of this ambivalence could be sensed, recently, when Richard Attenborough's epic movie "Gandhi" was playing. So much was written about the Mahatma's weird habits, his unlikely tests of sexual abstinence with young female bedmates, his preoccupation with privies, and the like. In him, as in India, the majesty of character and accomplishment was easy to overlook.

Perhaps our Western confusion of feelings about Indian is as natural as India's obvious ambivalence about the West. Here again, thrusting its tragedies and tortures at us, in this improbable jumble of 1,700 tongues, dozens of castes, hundreds of sects, butchers and pacifists, Gurkhas and mahatamas, beggars and scolds -- a disorderly anthill with a strange dignity.

Also real, and also worth recalling, is India's vast and inescapable accomplishment. Alone of the great mass-states of Asia or Africa, India is, within limits, free, democratic, individualist, capable of feeding her millions of mouths. It may be a prosaic miracle in some ways, but it shames our impatience and condescension.