Passages to India

Passages to India

In the early 1920s, E.M.


In the early 1920s, E.M. Forster was in India, engaged as the secretary to a royal personage, a minor Maharajah, whom he called “the Prince of Muddlers, even among Indian muddlers.” In a manuscript dating to that period, Forster writes about guiltily confessing to his employer–His Highness, or H.H., as he is called in the text–that he had “tried to have carnal intercourse with one of the coolies.”

The Indian nobleman was unfazed and felt quite assured when he learned that Forster had not “copulated” with the boy. He advised the writer to put all worry out of his mind. H.H. then added: “Only always come to me when you are in difficulties like this. I would have found you someone reliable among the hereditary servants and you could have had him quietly in your room–yes, yes, it’s true I don’t encourage those people, but it’s entirely different in your case, and you must not masturbate–that’s awful.”

When Forster left India, he suggested the name of a friend, J.R. Ackerley, for his job. The Maharajah acquiesced, although he had desired “a secretary who was exactly like Olaf, a character in H. Rider Haggard’s The Wanderer’s Necklace, and had even written to Haggard for help.” We are offered this last bit of engaging literary detail in Eliot Weinberger’s sympathetic introduction to Hindoo Holiday, the book that Ackerley wrote from the journal he kept in India.

Hindoo Holiday was published in 1932 and has now been republished as a part of New York Review Books’ Classics series. It is presented to us as it was written, a journal, its entries coinciding with the writer’s five-month stay in Chhatarpur. (In the book, Ackerley changed Chhatarpur to Chhokrapur; the latter would translate loosely as “City of Boys.”) Ackerley’s diary entries are a delightful mixture of nearly novelistic observations about a small group of characters that surround the Englishman in the small Indian town. There is the hilariously eccentric Maharajah, the Maharajah’s Dewan, Ackerley’s Hindustani instructor, Abdul, several Britishers whom Ackerley pillories, and two youths, Narayan and Sharma. Even the book’s obvious datedness–the double “o” in the title being an immediate giveaway–becomes a part of its charm.

Ackerley’s writing is strewn with wildly comic observations. Unlike Forster’s obsessive, even oppressive, adventures with sex in India, Ackerley’s physical encounters share very little of that air of “conscious racial superiority which Anglo-Indians exhale.” Forster, for instance, noted in his journal: “What relation beyond carnality could one establish with such people? He hadn’t even the initiative to cut my throat.” Ackerley is unable to occupy this position with any seriousness. For him, a kiss doesn’t carry the white man’s burden, although it might offer a quick, unanxious glimpse of cultural difference. Here is Ackerley’s account of his conversation with the young vegetarian Narayan while they are out on a walk:

And in the dark roadway, overshadowed by trees, he put up his face and kissed me on the cheek. I returned his kiss; but he at once drew back, crying out:
      “Not the mouth! You eat meat! You eat meat!”
      “Yes, and I will eat you in a minute,” I said, and kissed him on the lips again, and this time he did not draw away.

This isn’t a portrait of the gentler face of imperialism. Instead, Hindoo Holiday is a witty travelogue, endearingly free of any pretense and condescension. It presents ordinary Indians as complex interlocutors in the colonial drama, and while they are often contradictory, they also remain wholly individual. Even Ackerley’s anthropological gaze, which is never willfully distorting, is rich and charged with a delicate frisson. At one point, he explains the popular myth behind the four-tier Hindu caste system: “The Brahmans are the Lips of God; the Kshatriyas the Arms; the Vaishyas the Loins; and the Sudras the Feet. I believe that Rabindranath Tagore in one of his poems says: ‘How can I worship my God better than by kissing His Feet?'”

Radical and original as this picture might be in the Indian context, in its shadow lurks another, seemingly more distant, meaning–it is an attempt, at once heroic and pathetic, to justify sex across classes. We see shades of Forster’s Maurice. We see Oxbridge homosexuals, the history of the Oscar Wilde trial and the Sodomy Laws still fresh in their minds, finding a flawed fulfillment in the colonies. Even at its best, it could not have been an experience unembittered with all kinds of inequalities. It is to Ackerley’s credit that this book neither gives in to that bitterness nor seeks to hide behind reassuring inequalities. Thus, without being explicitly political, Ackerley offers a politics, especially a politics that eschews escape through either an easy acceptance or the imposition of guilt.

One of my earliest lessons in guilt was imparted in childhood through the story of the death of Mahatma Gandhi’s father. Gandhi was only 16 then, married to Kasturba, who was pregnant at that time. He notes in his autobiography that although he loved to nurse his father as he lay on his deathbed, his “mind was hovering about the bedroom.”

Late one night, Gandhi was massaging his father’s legs when his uncle came in to relieve him. Gandhi writes that he was tired and went to his room: “My wife, poor thing, was asleep. But how could she sleep when I was there? I woke her up.” A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was a servant. Gandhi’s father had died.

“I saw that…animal passion had… blinded me,” Gandhi wrote. The “shame of my carnal desire,” he added, “is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget.”

In Pankaj Mishra’s debut novel, The Romantics, the young narrator, Samar, receives a telegram: your father seriously ill. come soon. His thoughts, however, are elsewhere. He has been looking forward to hearing from his friend Catherine, a French visitor to India, with whom he has had his first sexual, perhaps even emotional, experience.

Mishra’s novel is based, for the most part, in Benares on the banks of the river Ganges. Samar is a bookish Brahman, a self-conscious provincial living alone and attempting to acquire an education. His friendship with two European women–apart from Catherine, there is Samar’s neighbor who is literally called Miss West–sets into process a drama of discovery and change.

A few years ago, in Mishra’s well-received travelogue, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, we read of a woman in Benares named Sarah, soon bound for study in Chicago. She told Mishra: “I haven’t met a single young white woman in Benares who has not been molested…. The difference between a man’s and a woman’s experience of Benares is the difference between day and night.” In The Romantics, neither Miss West nor Catherine speaks of such threat or fear. There is no evocation either of what Salman Rushdie has called “white society’s fear of the darkie.” As the novel is set in the eighties, before the new vulgarity had taken root, the romance in its pages comes without that particular pain that Sarah spoke of so bitterly. Hence also, perhaps, the title.

The meeting of the East and the West as a narrative of romance is not new territory: E.M. Forster, and lesser lights like M.M. Kaye and Paul Scott, have also presented the colonial encounter as a romance, at times failed, at other times forced. More important, writers from the other side of the colonial divide have come to prominence in recent decades through their own, perhaps more contested, portrayals. Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was an early classic of this genre; Assia Djebar’s Fantasia is a complex, more contemporary, exploration of love and betrayal in the engagement of East and West.

Mishra’s novel inscribes its difference less in relationship to those postcolonial writers than it does with respect to recent Indian fiction in English. If much of cosmopolitan Indian writing has valorized the immigrant and the foreign land, then The Romantics is a celebration of the home and its forgotten world. What is remarkable is that this is unlike the nostalgic home of much of expatriate Indian writing. Instead of the bustling, bursting metropolis, we have the carefully drawn pictures of a few linked lives in India’s small towns.

Mishra’s writing is appealing because even in a small-town milieu you find the details of a complex dialogue with the West. The deliberate pursuit of Western literature by a provincial student, carrying from his past the influences of his fast-eroding Brahmanic world, is only one of those details, but it is among the richest and most rewarding. To read Mishra on that theme, as with Naipaul, who is a clear influence here, means confronting the vivid energies of an imagination that is often shut off from the world but never closed to it.

This is the book’s real romance. Samar’s reading of Western literature opens a new world to him. Thus, it comes to be that Flaubert’s Sentimental Education–“an account of an ambitious provincial’s tryst with metropolitan glamor and disillusion”–offers satisfaction to our protagonist. More strikingly, the story also touches Samar’s friend Rajesh, a well-read Brahman who has joined the ranks of the lumpen. We are with Samar and Rajesh inside a grimy second-class compartment of a train running on a narrow-gauge line between Benares and Allahabad, and Rajesh says about Flaubert’s book: “It’s the story of my life.” Years later Samar learns that Rajesh is a contract killer. Rajesh writes him a letter–as direct, honest and disillusioned a testament as any–and he quotes Faiz: “This is not that long-looked-for break of day/Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades/set out.”

When the new comes bursting in, the novel comes to an end. Samar was happy with Flaubert, but he won’t accept satellite TV. Mishra, mature about the drama of the self, remains almost quiescent about the new capitalism. The Brechtian maxim–“Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones”–is not heeded here. The literary humanism that binds this novel cannot go beyond expressing dismay at the new Benares, with its crowd of other tourists, some from the West and others from India’s newly minted middle class, flocking to the new, concrete-and-glass hotels. Samar loses his passion for literature and retreats from the world. Rajesh is on the run. Catherine is gone and Miss West is leaving behind the India of free-market reforms.

Forget Flaubert. Make way for World Bank Lit.

In David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Lula (Laura Dern) is driving a car, changing stations on the radio, while Sailor (Nicolas Cage) sleeps in the back seat. The pair are on their way to California. The news on the radio opens a highway of blood and gore. First, we hear about open-heart surgeries, then multiple murders by a recent divorcée, then an item about a man in court who had sex with a corpse. Finally, a voice with a BBC accent takes us to Benares. The state authorities released 500 turtles into the waters of the Ganges in order to reduce human pollution, and now they plan to put in crocodiles to devour floating corpses.

Lula is disgusted. She locates another station, which is playing a song that makes the lovers kick their legs in the air and embrace each other with joy. Ah, the romantics….

India and Pakistan, by going nuclear in 1998, might have provided occasion for Lula to change the station once again. But Booker Prize-winner Arundhati Roy’s response to the Indian nuclear test, an essay titled “The End of Imagination,” forcefully delivers the unromatic image of a single world both responsible for and doomed by the nuclear madness. That essay, first published in the West in The Nation [September 28, 1998], serves as the introduction to a new collection, India: A Mosaic. The other pieces were all published earlier in the pages of The New York Review of Books.

Roy expresses her bafflement at the peculiar meeting of East and West in the applause over the bomb in the streets of India. The ultranationalist young men who were celebrating India’s nuclear bomb and simultaneously emptying crates of Coke and Pepsi into public drains are asked by Roy: “Coke is Western culture, but the nuclear bomb is an old Indian tradition?”

In the concluding article of the volume, Pankaj Mishra observes that in the new, nuclear India, populism is going to extract a grave cost from the most vulnerable. He writes that “the poor may find that the small portions of bread that occasionally went with the circuses have become even smaller.”

Clearly, the essays by Roy and Mishra on India’s nuclearization, serving as the volume’s bookends, emphasize the importance of that event and hence of India as a subject of attention. Other essays in the collection–Ian Buruma’s report on Chandigarh and Lucknow, Christopher de Bellaigue’s brief but hard-hitting and informative account of Bombay, Roderick MacFarquhar’s look back at the partition riots of 1947 even as India celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of independence in 1997–all touch upon India’s right-wing turn with the rise to prominence of the Bharatiya Janata Party. As it was the BJP government that was responsible for the nuclear tests, this attention to the growth of sectarian ideologies is in sync with the above-mentioned articles by Roy and Mishra.

On the last page of his essay on nuclear India, Mishra writes of the pundits and psephologists discussing the 1998 parliamentary elections. “For days and nights on end,” he says, “they discussed events and personalities about whom the most accurate thing one could say was that they would soon be overtaken by events and personalities equally inconsequential.” This comment raises a point about the volume as a whole: If the quick flow of events and elections has made some of the essays already appear a bit outdated, what role does India play in the global imagination so as to justify this volume?

It is said that the great Brazilian poet, Joâo Cabral de Melo Neto, had reached a dead end as a poet “until he happened to read one day that life expectancy in his native Recife was even lower than India.” The result was his marvelous The Dog Without Feathers, a turn away from symbolism to poetry with social value.

A similar, related impulse might be at work in the publication of India: A Mosaic. One of the essays in the volume, written by Amartya Sen and focusing on Tagore, attests to the complex and progressive response that writers in India have made to the legacies of colonialism as well as to India’s troubled modernity. As in the case of Tagore, this response has also often been against the dominant expectations of the West.

Arundhati Roy’s recent arrest in protest of a dam project, and her frank and open denunciation of both the Indian government and the World Bank, emblematizes that sophisticated stance. A collection like India: A Mosaic can be considered a tribute to it.

In the larger world, of course, this picture changes a bit. The same year that Roy sold millions of copies of The God of Small Things, another Indian, called Sabeer Bhatia, the inventor of Hotmail, made $400 million from the sale of the e-mail service to Microsoft. Most of the yearly H1-B visas granted by the US government go to Indian software programmers. It is the software writers from India rather than the fiction writers who are wired to the circuits of global production. In this scenario, regardless of all intentions, the publication of a book like Hindoo Holiday or India: A Mosaic, or even The Romantics, is more likely to fill the needs of a holiday at the beach or a transcontinental flight. This, too, is a part of the unsentimental education that World Bank Literature has to offer us.

Lately, an Indian software mogul, Azim Premji, with a personal net worth of more than $9 billion, opined that the United States is hurting itself with “too much liberal-arts education.” I guess we ought to consider ourselves well warned.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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