In the Middle of the Journey
Coming from a small island -- Trinidad is no bigger than Goa -- I had always been fascinated by size. To see the wide river, the high mountain, to take the twenty-four-hour train journey: these were some of the delights the outside world offered. But now after six months in India my fascination with the big is tinged with disquiet. For here is a vastness beyond imagination, a sky so wide and deep that sunsets cannot be taken in at a glance but have to be studied section by section, a landscape made monotonous by its size and frightening by its very simplicity and its special quality of exhaustion: poor choked crops in small crooked fields, under-sized people, under-nourished animals, crumbling villages and towns which, even while they develop, have an air of decay. Dawn comes, night falls; railway stations, undistinguishable one from the other, their name-boards cunningly concealed, are arrived at and departed from, abrupt and puzzling interludes of populousness and noise; and still the journey goes on, until the vastness, ceasing to have a meaning, becomes insupportable, and from this endless repetition of exhaustion and decay one wishes to escape.
To state this is to state the obvious. But in India the obvious is overwhelming, and often during these past six months I have known moments of near-hysteria, when I have wished to forget India, when I have escaped to the first-class waiting-room or sleeper not so much for privacy and comfort as for protection, to shut out the sight of the thin bodies prostrate on railway platforms, the starved dogs licking the food-leaves clean, and to shut out the whine of the playfully assaulted dog. Such a moment I knew in Bombay, on the day of my arrival, when I felt India only as an assault on the senses. Such a moment I knew five months later, at Jammu, where the simple, frightening geography of the country becomes plain -- to the north the hills, rising in range after ascending range; to the south, beyond the temple spires, the plains whose vastness, already experienced, excited only unease.
Yet between these recurring moments there have been so many others, when fear and impatience have been replaced by enthusiasm and delight, when the town, explored beyond what one sees from the train, reveals that the air of exhaustion is only apparent, that in India, more than in any other country I have visited, things are happening. To hear the sounds of hammer on metal in a small Punjab town, to visit a chemical plant in Hyderabad where much of the equipment is Indian-designed and manufactured, is to realize that one is in the middle of an industrial revolution, in which, perhaps because of faulty publicity, one had never really seriously believed. To see the new housing colonies in towns all over India was to realize that, separate from the talk of India's ancient culture (which invariably has me reaching for my lathi), the Indian aesthetic sense has revived and is now capable of creating, out of materials which are international, something which is essentially Indian. (India's ancient culture, defiantly paraded, has made the Ashoka Hotel one of New Delhi's most ridiculous buildings, outmatched in absurdity only by the Pakistan High Commission, which defiantly asserts the Faith.)
I have been to unpublicized villages, semi-developed and undeveloped. And where before I would have sensed only despair, now I feel that the despair lies more with the observer than the people. I have learned to see beyond the dirt and the recumbent figures on string beds, and to look for the signs of improvement and hope, however faint: the brick-topped road, covered though it might be with filth; the rice planted in rows and not scattered broadcast; the degree of ease with which the villager faces the official or the visitor. For such small things I have learned to look: over the months my eye has been adjusted.
Yet always the obvious is overwhelming. One is a traveller and as soon as the dread of a particular district has been lessened by familiarity, it is time to move on again, through vast tracts which will never become familiar, which will sadden; and the urge to escape will return.
Yet in so many ways the size of the country is only a physical fact. For, perhaps because of the very size, Indians appear to feel the need to categorize minutely, delimit, to reduce to manageable proportions.
"Where do you come from?" It is the Indian question, and to people who think in terms of the village, the district, the province, the community, the caste, my answer that I am a Trinidadian is only puzzling.
"But you look Indian."
"Well, I am Indian. But we have been living for several generations in Trinidad."
"But you look Indian."
Three or four times a day the dialogue occurs, and now I often abandon explanation. "I am a Mexican, really."
"Ah." Great satisfaction. Pause. "What do you do?"
"Journalism or books?"
"Westerns, crime, romance? How many books do you write a year? How much do you make?"
So now I invent: "I am a teacher."
"What are your qualifications?"
"I am a B.A."
"Only a B.A.? What do you teach?"
"Chemistry. And a little history."
"How interesting!" said the man on the Pathankot-Srinagar bus. "I am a teacher of chemistry too."
He was sitting across the aisle from me, and several hours remained of our journey.
In this vast land of India it is necessary to explain yourself, to define your function and status in the universe. It is very difficult.
If I thought in terms of race or community, this experience of India would surely have dispelled it. An Indian, I have never before been in streets where everyone is Indian, where I blend unremarkably into the crowd. This has been curiously deflating, for all my life I have expected some recognition of my difference; and it is only in India that I have recognized how necessary this stimulus is to me, how conditioned I have been by the multi-racial society of Trinidad and then by my life as an outsider in England. To be a member of a minority community has always seemed to me attractive. To be one of four hundred and thirty-nine million Indians is terrifying.
A colonial, in the double sense of one who had grown up in a Crown colony and one who had been cut off from the metropolis, be it either England or India, I came to India expecting to find metropolitan attitudes. I had imagined that in some ways the largeness of the land would be reflected in the attitudes of the people. I have found, as I have said, the psychology of the cell and the hive. And I have been surprised by similarities. In India, as in tiny Trinidad, I have found the feeling that the metropolis is elsewhere, in Europe or America. Where I had expected largeness, rootedness and confidence, I have found all the colonial attitudes of self-distrust.
"I am craze phor phoreign," the wife of a too-successful contractor said. And this craze extended from foreign food to German sanitary fittings to a possible European wife for her son, who sought to establish his claim further by announcing at the lunch table, "Oh, by the way, did I tell you we spend three thousand rupees a month?"
"You are a tourist, you don't know," the chemistry teacher on the Srinagar bus said. "But this is a terrible country. Give me a chance and I leave it tomorrow."
For among a certain class of Indians, usually more prosperous than their fellows, there is a passionate urge to explain to the visitor that they must not be considered part of poor, dirty India, that their values and standards are higher, and they live perpetually outraged by the country which gives them their livelihood. For them the second-rate foreign product, either people or manufactures, is preferable to the Indian. They suggest that for them, as much as for the European "technician," India is only a country to be temporarily exploited. How strange to find, in free India, this attitude of the conqueror, this attitude of plundering -- a frenzied attitude, as though the opportunity might at any moment be withdrawn -- in those very people to whom the developing society has given so many opportunities.
This attitude of plundering is that of the immigrant colonial society. It has bred, as in Trinidad, the pathetic philistinism of the renonÌ?ant (an excellent French word that describes the native who renounces his own culture and strives towards the French). And in India this philistinism, a blending of the vulgarity of East and West -- those sad dance floors, those sad "Western" cabarets, those transistor radios tuned to Radio Ceylon, those Don Juans with leather jackets or check tweed jackets -- is peculiarly frightening. A certain glamour attaches to this philistinism, as glamour attaches to those Indians who, after two or three years in a foreign country, proclaim that they are neither of the East nor of the West.
The observer, it must be confessed, seldom sees the difficulty. The contractor's wife, so anxious to demonstrate her Westernness, regularly consulted her astrologer and made daily trips to the temple to ensure the continuance of her good fortune. The schoolteacher, who complained with feeling about the indiscipline and crudity of Indians, proceeded, as soon as we got to the bus station at Srinagar, to change his clothes in public.
The Trinidadian, whatever his race, is a genuine colonial. The Indian, whatever his claim, is rooted in India. But while the Trinidadian, a colonial, strives towards the metropolitan, the Indian of whom I have been speaking, metropolitan by virtue of the uniqueness of his country, its achievements in the past and its manifold achievements in the last decade or so, is striving towards the colonial.
Where one had expected pride, then, one finds the spirit of plunder. Where one had expected the metropolitan one finds the colonial. Where one had expected largeness one finds narrowness. Goa, scarcely liberated, is the subject of an unseemly inter-State squabble. Fifteen years after Independence the politician as national leader appears to have been replaced by the politician as village headman (a type I had thought peculiar to the colonial Indian community of Trinidad, for whom politics was a game where little more than PWD contracts was at stake). To the village headman India is only a multiplicity of villages. So that the vision of India as a great country appears to be something imposed from without and the vastness of the country turns out to be oddly fraudulent.
Yet there remains a concept of India -- as what? Something more than the urban middle class, the politicians, the industrialists, the separate villages. Neither this nor that, we are so often told, is the "real" India. And how well one begins to understand why this word is used! Perhaps India is only a word, a mystical idea that embraces all those vast plains and rivers through which the train moves, all those anonymous figures asleep on railway platforms and the footpaths of Bombay, all those poor fields and stunted animals, all this exhausted plundered land. Perhaps it is this, this vastness which no one can ever get to know: India as an ache, for which one has a great tenderness, but from which at length one always wishes to separate oneself.
Jamshed into Jimmy
"You've come to Calcutta at the wrong time," the publisher said. "I very much fear that the dear old city is slipping into bourgeois respectability almost without a fight."
"Didn't they burn a tram the other day?" I asked.
"True. But that was the first tram for five years."
And really I had expected more from Calcutta, the "nightmare experience" of Mr. Nehru, the "pestilential behemoth" of a recent, near-hysterical American writer, a city which, designed for two million people, today accommodates more than six million on its pavements and in its bastees, in conditions which unmanned the World Bank Mission of 1960 and sent it away to write what the Economic Weekly of Bombay described as a "strikingly human document."
Like every newspaper-reader, I knew Calcutta as the city of tram-burners and students who regularly "clashed" with the police. A brief news item in The Times in 1954 had hinted memorably at its labour troubles: some disgruntled workers had tossed their manager into the furnace. And during my time in India I had been following the doings of its Congress-controlled Corporation, which, from the progressive nationalist citadel of the twenties, has decayed into what students of Indian affairs consider the most openly corrupt of India's multitudinous corrupt public bodies: half the Corporation's five hundred and fifty vehicles disabled, many of them stripped of saleable parts, repair mechanics hampered, accounts four years in arrears, every obstacle put in the way of "interference" by State Government, New Delhi and a despairing Ford Foundation.
At every level I found that Calcutta enjoyed a fabulous reputation. The Bengali was insufferably arrogant ("The pan-seller doesn't so much as look at you if you don't talk to him in Bengali"); the Bengali was lazy; the pavements were dyed red with betel-juice and the main park was littered with used sanitary towels ("very untidy people," had been the comment of the South Indian novelist). And even in Bombay, the seat of gastro-enteritis, they spoke of Calcutta's inadequate (thirteen out of twenty-two Corporation tubewells not working) and tainted water supply with terror.
I had therefore expected much. And Howrah station was promising. The railway officials were more than usually non-committal and lethargic; the cigarette-seller didn't look at me; and in the station restaurant a smiling waiter drew my attention to a partly depilated rat that was wandering languidly about the tiled floor. But nothing had prepared me for the red-brick city on the other bank of the river which, if one could ignore the crowds, the stalls, the rickshaw-pullers and the squatting pissers, suggested, not a tropical or Eastern city, but central Birmingham. Nothing had prepared me for the Maidan, tree-dotted, now in the early evening blurred with mist and suggesting Hyde Park, with Chowringhee as a brighter Oxford Street. And nothing had prepared me for the sight of General Cariappa in the Maidan, dark-suited, English-erect, addressing a small relaxed crowd on the Chinese invasion in Sandhurst-accented Hindustani, while the trams, battleship-grey, with wedge-shaped snouts, nosed through the traffic at a steady eight miles an hour, the celebrated Calcutta tram, ponderous and vulnerable, bulging at entrances and exits with white-clad office workers, the neon lights beyond the Maidan gay in the mist: the invitations to espresso bars, cabarets, air travel. Here, unexpectedly and for the first time in India, one was in the midst of the big city, the recognizable metropolis, with street names -- Elgin, Allenby, Park, Lindsay -- that seemed oddly at variance with the brisk crowds, incongruity that deepened as the mist thickened to smog and as, travelling out to the suburbs, one saw the factory chimneys smoking among the palm trees.
And where in that bright heart, forgetting the pissers, were the piles of filth and refuse I had been told about, and the sanitary towels? In fact, as the publisher said, I had come to Calcutta at the wrong time. The city had recently been subjected to a brief and frenzied clean-up by the "volunteers" of the new Chief Minister of Bengal; it had been hoped that this would fill the Corporation's professionals with "enthusiasm." An "Operation Bull" had sought to clear the main streets of bulls which the devout Hindu releases into central Calcutta to service the holy cow. The idea was that the cows would follow the bulls. As it turned out, the cows had stayed; the bulls were returning. And no inhabitant of Calcutta doubted that with the withdrawal of the volunteers, and with so many things in India suspended because of the Emergency -- suspension and prohibition being the administration's current substitute for action -- the filth too would return. But for the moment some of the unfamiliar gloss remained.
All the four main cities in India were developed by the British, but none has so British a stamp as Calcutta. Lutyens's New Delhi is a disaster, a mock-imperial joke, neither British nor Indian, a city built for parades rather than people, and today given a correctly grotesque scale by the noisy little scooter-rickshaws that scurry about its long avenues and endless roundabouts. Madras, though possessing in Fort St. George one of the finest complexes of eighteenth-century British architecture outside Britain, is elsewhere lazily colonial. Bombay owes much to its Parsi community, enterprising, civic-minded, culturally ambiguous; the hysterical American already quoted speaks of Bombay's "bandbox architecture," and indeed this city, the best-run in India, is cosmopolitan to the point of characterlessness. Calcutta alone appears to have been created in the image of England, the British here falling, unusually, into the imperialist practice of the French and the Portuguese. And what has resulted in Calcutta is a grandeur more rooted than that of New Delhi: "the city of palaces" they called Calcutta, the palaces, Indian or British, built in a style which might best be described as Calcutta Corinthian: Calcutta, for long the capital of British India, the second city of the British Empire.
In India the confrontation of East and West was nowhere more violent than in Calcutta, and two buildings, both now regarded as monuments, speak of this violence: the Mullick Palace and the Victoria Memorial. Decaying now, with servants cooking in the marble galleries, the Mullick Palace still looks like a film set. It is dominated by tall Corinthian columns; Italian fountains play in the grounds; its excessively chandeliered marble rooms are crowded out with the clutter of a hundred nineteenth-century European antique shops, this dusty plaster cast of a Greek nymph hiding that faded, unmemorable painting of red-coated soldiers repulsing some native attack. In the courtyard four marble figures represent the major continents; and on the lower floor the monumental statue of a youthful Queen Victoria makes a big room small. None of the dusty treasures of the Mullick Palace is Indian, save perhaps for a portrait of the collector: the original Bengali babu, anxious to prove to the supercilious European his appreciation of European culture. And on the Maidan stands the Victoria Memorial, Curzon's answer to the Taj Mahal, as studiedly derivative as the Mullick Palace, here recalling the Taj, there recalling the Salute. "Passing through the Queen's vestibule into the Queen's Hall under the dome," says Murray's Handbook, which characteristically gives twice as much space to this Raj Taj as to the Kailasa Temple at Ellora,
one sees the dignified statue of Queen Victoria at the age when she ascended the throne (the work of Sir Thomas Brock RA); this gives the keynote to the whole edifice.
Yet out of this confrontation there emerged something new in India, an explosive mixture of East and West, a unique culture which, however despised by the non-Calcutta Bengali as jumped-up and camp-following, gave Indian nationalism many of its prophets and heroes. The Bengali will tell you that British officials were urged to treat the South Indian as a slave, the Punjabi as a friend, and the Bengali as an enemy. But when the Bengali tells you this he is speaking as of lost glories, for today, with Independence and the partition of Bengal (in Calcutta the words are synonymous), the heart has gone out of Calcutta. It is a city without a hinterland, a dying city. Even the Hooghly is silting up, and everyone agrees that Calcutta has ceased to grow economically, however much it might spread physically. Though there are endearing vestiges of the Mullick Palace mentality in, say, the literary criticism of Professor Sadhan Kumar Ghosh (compassionately dealt with in the New Statesman by Malcolm Muggeridge), Calcutta is exhausted, its people withdrawn. It has Satyajit Ray, the film director; it has in Sunil Janah a photographer of world stature; Bengali typography, nervously elegant, is perhaps the best in India. But the glory lies in the past, in Tagore, in Bankim Chandra Chatterji, in the terrorists, in Subhas Chandra Bose. (1962 was a good year for the Bose legend: one libel action brought by a member of the family against an Englishwoman, and another reported reappearance, this time as a sadhu in the Himalayas.)
Calcutta remains what it always has been through growth, creative disorder, quiescence. It is still, despite the strong challenge of Bombay, India's principal commercial city, and the element of Calcutta culture which might be said to be dominant is that represented by the business buildings of Dalhousie Square and the squat business houses of Imperial Tobacco and Metal Box on Chowringhee. There in air-conditioned offices may be found the young Indian business executives, the box-wallahs, the new Indian Ì©lite. A generation ago such positions would not have been acceptable to any Indian of birth; and he almost certainly would not have been accepted. But the Indian genius for compromise is no less than that of the British. The box-wallah culture of Calcutta is of a peculiar richness, and if it has not yet been explored by Indian writers this is because they have been too busy plagiarizing, or writing harrowing stories about young girls drifting into prostitution to pay the family's medical bills and stories about young girls, poor or pretty, who inexplicably die. This culture, though of Calcutta, is not necessarily Bengali. Commerce is controlled by the British and increasingly since Independence by the Marwaris -- it is almost with pride that the Bengali tells you there is no Bengali businessman worth the name. The Marwaris are Indian but are spoken of throughout India as a community even more alien than the British: the feeling against them in Calcutta is something you can cut with a knife. No one of standing wishes to be directly employed by the Marwaris. The conditions are not as good as those offered by the British who are reputable; in the public mind Marwari businessmen are associated with black-marketing and speculation. No one who works for the Marwaris can therefore properly be considered a box-wallah -- your true box-wallah works only for the best British firms. ("Tell me," they were asked at Imperial Tobacco, "was that very large painting of the Queen put up especially for the Queen's visit?" "No," was the box-wallah reply. "It is always there.")
No one in Calcutta is sure of the origin of the word box-wallah. It has been suggested that it comes from the street pedlar's box; but in Calcutta the word has too grand and restricted a significance, and it seems to me more likely to have been derived from the Anglo-Indian office-box of which Kipling speaks so feelingly in Something of Myself. Perhaps the office-box, like the solar topee (still worn with mournful defiance by those ICS officers who despair of further promotion), was a symbol of authority; and though the symbols have changed, the authority has been transferred and persists.
The Calcutta box-wallah comes of a good family, ICS, Army or big business; he might even have princely connections. He has been educated at an Indian or English public school and at one of the two English universities, whose accent, through all the encircling hazards of Indian intonation, he rigidly maintains. When he joins his firm his first name is changed. The Indian name of Anand, for example, might become Andy; Dhandeva will become Danny, Firdaus Freddy, Jamshed Jimmy. Where the Indian name cannot be adapted, the box-wallah will most usually be known as Bunty. It is a condition of Bunty's employment that he play golf; and on every golf course he can be seen with an equally unhappy Andy, both enduring the London-prescribed mixture of business and pleasure.
Bunty will of course marry well, and he knows it will be counted in his favour if he contracts a mixed marriage; if, say, as a Punjabi Hindu he marries a Bengali Muslim or a Bombay Parsi. Bunty and his wife will live in one of the company's luxury flats; they will be called Daddy and Mummy by their two English-speaking children. Their furnishings will show a happy blend of East and West (Indian ceramics are just coming in). So too will their food (Indian lunch followed by Western-style dinner), their books, their records (difficult classical Indian, European chamber music) and their pictures (North Indian miniatures, Ganymed reproductions of Van Gogh).
Freed of one set of caste rules, Bunty and his wife will adopt another. If his office has soft furnishings he will know how to keep his distance from Andy, whose furnishings are hard; and to introduce Andy, who shares an air-conditioned office with Freddy, into the home of Bunty, who has an office to himself, is to commit a blunder. His new caste imposes new rituals on Bunty. Every Friday he will have lunch at Firpo's on Chowringhee, and the afternoon-long jollity will mark the end of the week's work. In the days of the British this Friday lunch at Firpo's celebrated the departure of the mail-boat for England. Such letters as Bunty sends to England go now by air, but Bunty is conscious of tradition.
It is impossible to write of Bunty without making him appear ridiculous. But Bunty is the first slanderer of his group; and enough has been said to show how admirable, in the Indian context, he is. Where physical effort is regarded as a degradation and thick layers of fat are still to many the marks of prosperity, Bunty plays golf and swims. Where elections are won on communal campaigns, Bunty marries out of his community. Bunty is intelligent and well-read; like most educated Indians, he talks well; though he has abandoned the social obligations of the Indian joint family, he is generous and hospitable; he supports the arts. Not least of his virtues is that he keeps a spotless lavatory. East and West blend easily in him. For him, who has grown up in an independent India, Westernization is not the issue it was to his grandfather and even his father. He carries no chip on his shoulder; he does not feel the need to talk to the visitor about India's ancient culture.
Occasionally, very occasionally, the calm is disturbed. "These damned English!" Bunty exclaims. "When are they going to learn that 1947 really happened?" The words are like an echo from the Mullick Palace. But it is a passing mood. Soon Bunty will be out on the golf course with Andy. And golf is a game they both now love.
1963From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Writer and the World by V. S. Naipaul; Edited with an Introduction by Pankaj Mishra. Copyright © 2002 by V. S. Naipaul. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.