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Intimations of India

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

India: the very name still means exotic in the West. Pearls, elephants, and Raj—as well as disease, famine, and the poor. My purpose for being here has little to do with either of these extremes. A Westerner, I have come to give lectures at universities—institutions Western in origin, long-since become Indian. Am I an outsider to this country or am I simply doing my job in a new place? I am to speak in English, a European language that is certainly not a foreign language here, even if spoken by a tiny minority of the population. (The one aspect of Indian civilization that nearly every author I have read mentions is its syncretic nature, the way India subdues invaders by assimilating them, englobing them like an amoeba.) How to react to what I see, how to interpret in this place that may be both familiar and strange? Like anyone else, I think, I will simply have to keep my eyes and ears open, ask questions, and stab at generalizations as best I can. Though it is a sort of blindman’s buff, the process has its own exhilaration.

It seems as part of an unquiet dream that I find myself here, having arrived at the Bombay airport in the wee hours of the morning, my sleep torn by time change, the endless drab airport overexposed in florescent light. On the way down to the end of Bombay’s Colaba peninsula, we careen around empty and yellow-lit corners on which, though it is now the middle of the night, wilt a few forlorn soldiers. Because of terrorists and the troubles in Kashmir, says the driver. We pass what seem to be whole sleeping cities of squatters’ dwellings, makeshift tents made of piles of rags. Later, in the daylight hours, I see tangle-haired women squatting over fires, nursing children, and carrying on with their lives.

Finally we are a on main street. Beyond, we see a curving line of lights along the water: Queen’s Necklace, the driver tells me, Marine Drive. This corniche road, I know, has another Indian name as well. Yet, I am to find, the attachment to the old British names is strong. The next day I visit the Prince of Wales museum—a triumph of Indo-Saracenic architecture, all onion domes and Moorish arches; in Trivandrum, the University where I am to speak is across from the Victoria Jubilee Hall; in Madras, the main thoroughfare is still referred to by its old name, Mount Road, despite having a more modern Indian one which no one uses. Then I am being handed out of the car at the Taj Mahal Hotel—a grand Victorian monument that all visitors seem to remember fondly—by a Sikh doorman in a turban and greeted by beautiful women in saris clicking across the marble floor in high-heeled sandals.

The next morning, dragging myself from bed into the semi-darkness of the beige-walled room, I open my curtains to a breathtaking view of the harbor and the Arabian Sea, invisible in darkness the night before and dotted with ferries. When I leave my room (the stationery having assured me that this is “The Most Prestigious Address in India”), the contrast between the air conditioning and the steambath in the three-storied open courtyard outside is so strong that my glasses immediately fog up. After breakfast (I could be anywhere in the world in this buffet room; indeed I wonder for a minute if I am not still back at the American hotel in Frankfurt) I head towards the Gateway of India, a huge sandstone arch commemorating a 1911 visit by King George. I am looking for the departure point of the boats to Elephanta Island, one of my “must-see” tourist destinations during this initial weekend. I have been told that during the monsoons— such as it now is—the boat service is interrupted, and I am eager to take advantage of a clear day. I need not really look since I am immediately accosted, as I hurry across the square, by one of the ferrys’ captains who, spotting a tourist, takes me in hand and sells me a ticket for a boat he is anxious to get underway.

Among the earliest monuments of Hindu civilization to come to Western consciousness, I have read in John Keay’s fascinating India Discovered, are the temples on the island in Bombay’s harbor that the British baptised Elephanta, after the huge stone elephant found there now in the Victoria Garden. (This is not too far from the huge towers where the Parsis, Indians of Persian descent and worshippers of the fire god Zoroaster, expose their dead bodies to be picked clean by vultures: The Towers of Silence, they are called in eerie folk poetry.) The local name for the island, however, is quite different: Garapuri.

The boat, though chugging along at a good speed, takes an hour to reach its destination. I pass the time looking at the nearby island covered with oil refineries, at the Bombay skyline receding in the haze behind us, and at the people. A boy and girl near the bow hold hands and whisper: I am to see relatively little of such different-sex pairs in the next weeks, far more common being two men linked by a pinky or an arm as in Arab countries or the south of Italy. The group of young men in sandals who comprise most of the small group of passengers becomes excited when a helicopter bearing the insignia of the police hovers overhead, spraying us with droplets from the water its blades are stirring up. Finally, its play over, it flies off to another ferry that is steaming back to the city and dogs this one for a while. Good sport, everyone seems to feel; clearly they are disappointed when it leaves.

I disembark from the large boat onto a smaller one which takes us to the slippery pier. Realizing the inevitability of choosing a guide—this is not tourist season; the guides are many and the tourists few—I allow a barefoot man wearing a shirt and dhoti, whose English I can mostly understand, to take me on. After agreeing on a price, he immediately proves his worth by fending off other comers.

My guide talks as we walk up the steep path on this verdant island: normally he works in the rice paddies, but the rains are slow this year. This is supposed to be monsoon season, but no one knows where the monsoon has gone. The reservoirs are dangerously low; people have begun to fear for their crops. Later my university friends assure me that there is no danger of actual famine—in recent years the government has erected silos of emergency grain rations and dotted them throughout the country. On the other hand, they say, malnutrition is endemic; hygiene standards in the villages are lamentable. Even in the large hotels one does not drink the water that comes from the tap: in every room there are flasks of drinking water on the table. My guide has grown up on Elephanta and later points down to a fishing village on the coastline: home, he says.

The Great Cave—not a cave but a temple carved out of living rock, consisting of hallways with multiple pillars from around which the stone has simply been removed—is eerie with filtered light and reflections from the tank that is part of the temple, serving as a reservoir of rainwater for the local people. This temple is considerably more complex than the others on the island, and contains—I have read—some of the finest sculpture in India, as for example the huge bas-relief bust of Shiva in his three faces of creator, destroyer, and preserver: the imposing Shiva Mahesamurti that towers out of the semi-darkness over the mortals before it. Many of the guardian figures on the cell-like lingam shrine in the center of the hallway are missing parts and even entire bottom halves; the Portuguese, I had heard, used this hall for target practice.

My guide bows before the lingam in the shrine, the smooth rounded post that is the phallic symbol of Shiva, glistening black with oil and topped with a handful of rather touching wildflowers. To one side I hear the chattering of monkeys who, when I leave the temple, scamper across my path, the babies clinging to the fur on their mothers’ underbellies. The guide shows me the level the water in the tank should normally have reached; a chute of corrugated aluminum guides what rain there is towards the collection tank. As I leave the island for the boat I buy postcards in faded colors on spongy cardboard; clearly my guide is disappointed that I have not bought more from the row of trinket and refreshment sellers that make a guantlet of the path down to the pier.

The next day at this time I am at the Crawford Market, Bombay’s central market, looking for something that, I discover, does not exist in India: curry powder. This, it turns out, is an invention of the West, an amalgam of other spices that I buy in plastic bags, along with a tiny box with a garish picture of the goddess Lakshmi containing exactly one gram of dark yellow shreds of saffron. I am too late in the day to see much in that portion of this great overstructure devoted to the slaughter and carving of meat; it is already afternoon and all that is left when I stick my head in the shadowy concrete hall are bloody slabs and crows swarming over piles of bones. The butchers, who have been up since the middle of the night, are taking a nap on the ground. Later in traffic my taxi nearly runs over a man trundling a wheelbarrow full of bloody haunches and thighs that he has undoubtedly bought here, one of the army of middlemen who transform wholesale to retail. He looks neither right nor left, merely pushing his barrow in front of the oncoming cars and motorbike-rickshaws and assuming, as most pedestrians clearly do in this country, that he will simply be avoided. It works for the cows, after all, that wander and lie at will, even in the middle of the busiest highways—why not for humans? I think of how his bloody wares are surely absorbing all of the choking fumes of the diesel and kerosene-run rickshaws; he disappears from sight onto a pedestrian island that he shares, for a brief moment, with two sleeping cows and one sleeping man.

Indeed, the streets of Indian cities are an adventure in themselves, and I soon learn to cower in the back of my taxi and hope for the best. The situation is especially bad in the older town centers, such as in the heart of Hyderabad’s Charminar district, where Muslim women swathed in black swirl around roadside vendors of flowers, bananas and apples, and bangle bracelets. Pedestrians walk at their own speed, usually across the flow, bullock carts poke along and change course at will, rickshaws dodge in and out, cars barrel at each other headlong in passing the slower-moving objects, swerving out of the way by microseconds. The result is like films of the cells in the bloodstream: hundreds of particles hurtling forwards at breakneck speeds down a narrow causeway. In my time in India, nonetheless, I am to see only a single accident, and this does not seem to have been fatal. I leave thinking that the same laws of physics cannot apply here, or that these so-sturdy Ambassadors and Premiers are made not of iron but of rubber, and bounce rather than crash.

The assault on the senses does not neglect the aural. Each of the mufflerless three-wheeler rickshaws that darts in front of my taxis in four cities bears the injunction “Please sound horn,” or simply the less polite “Sound Horn” or the step-by-step version, “Horn OK Go.” I am at first puzzled by what seems this positive invitation to brouhaha, and ask my taxi driver what it means. He explains to me that before passing, other drivers are to sound horns so that the rickshaw knows to move over. This is reasonable, I think, but I am to discover that the result is a continuous cacophany of motor horns, to the point where drivers honk, it seems, to reassure themselves of their own existence: on almost empty highways (no highway is completely deserted: people walk, cows wander in the most empty of places) drivers keep up what seems a constant conversation with the trees and other cars, even acknowledging bumps in the road with a friendly honk or two.

The air in the meat section of Crawford Market is heavy, and I am not sorry to withdraw from this darkened butchers’ barrio smelling of blood and the stickiness of death. The vegetable and fruit wings of the great arched iron arcade are more aesthetic, full of the fragrances of piled mangos and guavas, the mounds of apples from the Himalayas that I have been so surprised to see. I had even bought a bag of apples on my way through Germany, thinking they would make good travel food and reflecting that I would surely not see their like again for weeks. The apple season is quite brief, I was told, even in the mountains—and was somehow consoled. In the flower stalls men twist jasmine into garlands for statues of the gods, and for women’s hair: many times in the ensuing weeks I violate the norms of propriety by edging up to women to smell the snowwhite flowers twisted in their black hair, though in fact I need not get so close: the smell of these heady flowers is so penetrating that their introduction into even a large room is immediately detectable. One night I place in a saucer of water a few jasmine flowers I have collected, and awake to a pile of wilted petals and a plate full of odorous liquid.

The walkways of the Crawford Market are chaos, but somehow appealingly so—perhaps because I am at least six inches higher than virtually anyone else here. Men carrying packets of fruit on their heads bump and criss-cross, hurrying by on the straw and mud that covers the flooring. In the stalls, beneath the counters where men lie stretched out sleeping, are sub-tenants sitting crosslegged on the ground, at the level of my ankles but well out of harm’s way: largely flower-stringers, usually women with their children, working away just inches away from a forest of legs and feet.

In exiting, I fight off beggars, or rather, ignore them. This, I discover, is the way Indians do it: how often will I hear friends say with no little justice, accompanying me along city streets, “You can’t give to them all”? At intersections, armies of ragged boys descend on cars—here the playthings of the rich—to smear at their windshields with rags in hopes of a few paises. “It just encourages them to leave school,” my friends will say, somewhat apologetically, as they roll up the windows.


No one goes to India for the first time without presuppositions: in this, as in other things that I am to discover, India is like America. One of my images was armies of beggars. Yet in fact, this has not turned out to be the case. To be sure, at the obvious tourist places, people curved into strange shapes— the spider-shaped cripple at Mahabalipuram on the Ray of Rengal a week later, for example, walking with two arms and two legs on the ground—come up hopefully, plying their own strangely mundane trade with each group of visitors, combining a freak show for which one pays with a request for alms. Women sit at the gateways of temples and mosques, holding out their hands at ankle-level, and the dark-skinned tribal children in the south approach one outside of airports and train stations. (India has numerous members of native tribes who escape the caste system completely, being even outside of the comfortingly certain designation of Untouchability; nowadays they are called Scheduled Tribes, as the former Untouchables are called Scheduled Castes.)

Expecting the hoardes of ragged little boys and girls who surround the white-skinned foreigner in Egypt or central Africa, I am impressed by the fact that people here seem largely to go about their business, however rudimentary that may be, and leave others alone. Or is this simply evidence of the waxing hard-heartedness of increasingly capitalistic India, in process of “liberalizing” its markets and opening to the West? The ongoing financial scandal, in fact, is a huge investment fraud with a “big bull” named Mehta: I think of the American equivalent from the 80’s and feel right at home, though friends shake their heads over the detrimental effect on investor confidence in a stock market only just now beginning to pick up steam.

Still, it is the great gulf between rich and poor that strikes the casual visitor to India. The poor are evident: there are the tangle-haired children of the squatters in Rombay’s slums, the peasant wading knee-deep in mud through his tiny rice paddy behind the plow pulled by a bullock that I see in the surreal landscape outside of Hyderabad near the University, strewn with huge boulders. Nearby, in Hyderabad—and again in Kerala, on the Malabar Coast—I see what seem the lowest of the low: those people, largely women, who squat all day by the side of the road to reduce huge chunks of these same boulders to fist-sized rocks which another person beside them reduces to even smaller rocks; tapping and tapping away with tiny hammers, or with other rocks. At least they are not in the sun: each rock-tapping station has propped over it and leaning on a stick a huge palm leaf that provides shade. Then, of course, there are the sweepers—men and women bent over the hand brooms made of palm spines whom I see neatening the dirt courtyards of houses as well as in city offices—and the latrine-emptiers, formerly a job only for Untouchables.

While I am in India, a Scheduled Caste or former Untouchable politician is elected to the largely ceremonial position of vice-president: India has what is surely the most extensive program of legally mandated “affirmative action” for its downtrodden of any country in the world, and this with carefully calibrated quotas for university slots and in government for members of what are sometimes called “backward castes.” In America, I reflect, a country with similar problems, the very mention of quotas spells death for any politician accused of it. “Caste?”—my Brahmin friends in Hyderabad say in response to my question as to whether caste is still widely talked about—”people talk only of caste. Even when they don’t talk of caste they’re talking of caste.”

And indeed the question of caste clearly looms large. Determined to ameliorate the worst excesses of the caste system—a determination which began in Gandhi’s program to remove the Untouchables, whom he called Harijan, (“Children of God”), from their status as outcasts—newly independent India established preferential quotas, originally intended only for ten years. Each ten years since independence, however, these have been renewed. Many Brahmins, I am to discover, routinely grumble that the educational system is going to pot because the universities must admit so many Scheduled Caste students (my American ears have heard arguments like this before). Others, friends tell me, tend to feel guilty nowadays over the privilege they have enjoyed for millenia—being a Rrahmin, like being a straight white male in America, is no longer “in.” An editorial in the Hindu during my stay analyzes the caste system as a good idea originally based on merit and assuming individual mobility, that somehow ossified and became a system of birth. No one publically defends this system anymore in the Republic of India; nonetheless it seems to define a good many aspects of life here.

Marriage, for instance. I spend one whole Sunday morning reading the wedding advertisements in the Times of India. All are inserted by parents looking for a bride or a groom for their marriageable son or daughter; most specify caste, sub-caste, and community as well as linguistic group. (English and Hindi are the two official national languages, but Hindi fluency is limited to a band in the North that includes Delhi: in each city I stayed I was in the center of another regional language—respectively Marathi, Urdu, Telugu, and Malay-alam, part of which goes to explain why English, despite public bad-mouthing by some liberal politicians, is in India to stay.) Such a great number of the advertisements carry the assurance that the prospective bride is “convent-educated” that later I ask University friends if Christians had in fact the monopoly on education: no, they assure me, though there are convent schools—in a wedding advertisement this meant only that the young person in question was fluent in English.

Arranged marriages, I am told, are still the norm in the upper and lower classes in India, and still prevalent even in the middle class, where Western-style love-marriages have made the greatest inroads. (India boasts a middle class nearly equal in size to the entire population of the United States, I read at one point, though, that it represents less than a fourth of the overall population of the country here. Of course middle class in India, I am to discover, means something different than in the United States or Western Europe as far as creature amentities go.) Hand in hand with the arranged marriage goes the dowry. Until recently, the problem of “accidental” burning to death of brides whose dowries remained unpaid was a great cause for concern. Now the law has been changed to put the burden of proof on the husband in cases where the wife dies in the first years of marriage—a clear violation of constitutional rights, some of my friends pointed out to me, with a presupposition of guilt rather than of innocence.

Virtually all of these marriage advertisements, I was interested to see, specify skin tone in the spouse-to-be. Indeed, this is a society that is fully as conscious of skin color as the one I have left behind, and one where the obsession is far more honestly acknowledged. “Wheaten” is the most desirable complexion, which is to say light-skinned, though I am told it matters more for women than for men that they be light. For girls, “dark” is a term of opprobium, though in a world of people in shades of brown, no one knows how the children will come out.

Indeed, I am perversely fascinated to find that the beauty ideal of this society is men and women who look like Southern Italians, or perhaps Lebanese. The garish, hand-painted and three-dimensional movie billboards in Bombay and Madras uniformly show people who would be at home on the streets of Rome. (India has the largest movie industry in the world in all the local languages; though my intellectual friends repeatedly criticize the quality of these films, their sheer number and variety seemed to me impressive when compared to an American system that allows only the extremes of Hollywood blockbusters and low-budget independent films.) So too magazines like Society and Cine-Blitz that I buy along with India Today in the hotel bookshop (one of the cover stories in the former: “Shower Power: Don’t be a Drip this Monsoon”), full of full-lipped “wheaten” beauties of both sexes.

It is some comfort to my overwrought liberal American racial sensibility to realize that this preference for light skin pre-dated the Europeans by millenia, being brought into a dark-skinned country by the fair-skinned Aryan invaders from the north, who introduced Hinduism and the caste system to the native Dravidians—who were pushed southward, as well as being relegated to the lowest rungs of this system. India, I suggest to friends later as I ruminate on all of the various influences that have fed into it, seems like an onion: take away the layers of successive invasions—Aryan, Moslem, Rritish—and nothing is left. They chuckle appreciatively, and allow as I may be right.

In addition to the divisions within Hinduism, there is the animosity that separates Hindu from Moslem: the newspapers are full of the ongoing negotions regarding the Ayodhya mosque, built centuries ago by the Moghul emperor Rabar on what Hindus have apparently rather recently decided is the birthplace of Rama, hero of the semi-religious epic Ramay-ana and one of the avatars of Vishnu. Hindu agitation is demanding the destruction of the mosque and the erection of a temple; cooler heads, such as that of an editorial writer in The Hindu, are asking for a little education in comparative religion and a sharing of the site. Later, after the riots, I reflect that this education never came. Nor, I think, would a little education be amiss to bridge the increasingly gaping gaps in American society.


India, I realize, is a fragmented society—like, increasingly, the one I have left behind. The Partition that broke off Muslim Pakistan from secular but overwhelmingly Hindu India at Independence seems to be still felt as a wound by many Indians today. Pakistan is India’s greatest military rival and foe. Hindu friends complain, with the acrimony which only sport can evoke, that Indian Muslims routinely cheer Pakistan in intra-subcontinental cricket matches; later, in Madras, my driver curves through a residential quarter of impressive villas behind walls dripping bougainvillea and informs me that all of these opulent houses belong to “Muslim smugglers.”

Christians are a tiny minority, though this religion, like so many others, seems to have adapted well to India, and even flourished. After all, as the Indians like to point out, parts of India were Christianized long before Britain. The statues of the Virgin in roadside shrines are no less brilliantly painted than those of Shiva and Parvati or the elephant-headed Ganesh who is so beloved in India [Headline in the Times of India: “Ganesh Idols Flood Bombay,” on an exhibition and sale of thousands of statues of Shiva’s more popular son]; the flowers draped around the neck of the Virgin are the same as those offered to Lakshmi; indeed Hinduism’s equivalent of the infant Jesus is the Infant Krishna—another of the avatars of Vishnu, usually shown with His mother. (Krishna is also worshipped in a form more alien to Western sensibilities, namely not as a sexless child, but as a super-virile lover of a thousand milkmaids, or gopis, who provide one of the recurring motifs of Hindu art; Krishna himself is usually painted blue, and frequently plays a flute.)

I was interested to see, in the (originally Portuguese) Cathedral of San Tome in Madras—where, according to doctrine, the remains of the Apostle Thomas, reputedly martyred on a hill outside the city now near the airport, are interred under the altar—the same strings of lights that decorate Hindu idols hanging before the statues. Here too the Christian faithful remove their shoes before entering, as do all visitors to temples and mosques. Here at San Tome as well the walkways outside are covered with the same intricate designs in rice flour that I have seen outside Hindu temples, and Christ is flanked on the altar by a pair of peacocks indistinguishable from those sacred to Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort, that I have seen in the great temple in Mylapore. India is indeed a syncretic land.

Another church: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Fort St. George, Madras. Madras was one of the first British settlements in the 17th century, and administration was from within the moated neo-classical precincts of the fort, now far to the north of the city. I tell the taxi driver simply Fort St. George, and passing the Gandhiji statue on the beach, soon find myself in front of a gorgeous cluster of 18th-century Georgian buildings, a whole small city with a museum, a church, and a military parade ground. Now it houses the state government of Tamil Nadu; only the museum (room on deserted room of faded regimental flags, stray pieces of French porcelain, and mediocre paintings of governors of Madras) and St. Mary’s church can be visited. The latter turns out to be a charming Christopher-Wren-like church, still the principal Anglican church in Madras and, as a plaque at the gate tells the visitor, the oldest Anglican church east of Suez.

Its shaded churchyard is paved solid with tombstones of men and women whose life stories are told briefly or fully in flowing, 18th-century script: businessmen here outside in the early years, mostly, and their wives and children, many of whom died young. So too the walls of the spare church inside: here changing fashions of death can be charted as 18th-century skulls give way to the broken columns and the drooping willows of the Victorian era, and businessmen and their wives become rare among the 25-year-old lieutenants who lost their lives to cholera and are mourned by the members of their company. I think of a similar church I have seen in Mombasa, on the Kenya coast, which is touching for the same reasons, and where similar plaques commemorate those who died, too young and far from home, in the cause of Empire. Here in St. Mary’s, so the guidebooks insist for the benefit of visiting Americans, was married one Elihu Yale, governor of Madras, later founder of the University that bears his name. Scuffing away the leaves from a slab, I meditate on Death that comes for all, tan or brown, young or old—death the great leveler of earthly differences.

Differences which are—I think it many times each day during my time in India—extreme in this society. For situated above both the vast mass of the faceless poor and the aspiring middle class—a middle class that works in filthy warren-like offices, commutes hours to work on overcrowded trains, and lives in tiny city apartments with peeling walls and cockroaches where the cold water and electricity go off for hours at a time—is the tiny group of the very rich. And in India, the rich live very well indeed—better than in the West, I would say. For wealth here, in a country with close to 900 million citizens and many people looking for jobs, means servants. It is only in the West that, armed with our solitary machines bought by our immense collective wealth, we bake and vacuum, mow and wash by ourselves and for ourselves. Though I try to tell myself that the rich are the almost infinitesimal minority in this country, the beginning of my visit at the (Indian-built) Taj and my subsequent, if intermit-tant, stays in Indian-owned luxury hotels across South India make it difficult for me to convince myself of this fact.

A friend remarks that well-to-do Bombayites treat the Taj, with its lounges, its pool, and its rows of luxury shops, like their private club. Indeed, the lobby and lounges are full of women in gold-embroidred saris (priced, I discover, at well over half a year’s salary of a middle-class functionary), dripping ropes of pearls and with diamonds spraying from their ear lobes. One night a wedding reception is letting out as I ascend the stairs up the four sides of the huge square interior courtyard at the Taj’s center: I pause by the room festooned with garlands of jasmine and roses to admire the beautiful people exiting from it covered in jewels and gold, the children of Tata (buses and heavy industry) and Bajaj (electronics and motor scooters) who make up contemporary India’s version of rajas and ranis.

Not that the real maharajas and ranis have totally disappeared, though they have gone underground. Their titles officially abolished under Indira Gandhi, their states since independence merely part of the Indian Union, they nonetheless continue to designate the oldest son maharaja (“great ruler”), continue to marry their daughters off to the sons of other princes, and continue to lead their international, cafe-society-type lives. In Bombay I am invited to dinner by American diplomats; they tell me that the man in the other couple is the younger son of a maharaja; his wife is herself a princess. I wonder how to address him; my embarrassment is allayed at the introductions: call me Shiv, he enjoins. I do so, and find myself talking with an urbane, graying man in athletic middle age, who combines moose hunting in Alaska with conservation efforts for a particular kind of lion native to his family’s state.

Dinner is at a club in the outskirts of Bombay, all teak and whirring fans and armchairs. After the meal—a cosmopolitan mixture of veg and non-veg, Indian and Continental—we tour the rooms, overflowing with evidently well-to-do Indians lounging in wicker chairs. My hostess shows us the golf course, dark now at night but, she says, a verdant oasis of calm in a chaotic city during the day. We tour the ballroom, now deserted. She points out as well the naked lightbulbs and observes that her pressure on the club to buy real chandeliers has been fruitless. I know where they could get them, I tell her: in the Thieves’ (Chor) Razaar.

For after going to Crawford Market that afternoon, I have drifted over to the Chor Razaar, with its row on row of tiny shops full of the detritus of a century and a half of foreign rule. The shops are largely deserted, with the shopkeepers turning on the lights over the shelves when I arrive and turning them off when I leave. Some specialize: one, for example, in functioning Grammophones with trumpets; Italians like them, the proprietor—an albino—tells me. Some stores stock more purely functional objects: springs, or rat traps; these shops I avoid. It is the shops that are more indiscriminate that fascinate me, those with shelves upon dusty shelves of bric-a-brac left by foreigners, the siftings of a vanished civilization that have come to rest here in the backs of these shops.

Most touching for me—is it the newly-born daughter I have had to leave in order to come here?—are the children’s toys of a century ago, as well as the more recent ones from the 20’s and 30’s. The children to whom they once belonged have long since grown up; probably most of them, by now, are dead. Yet the objects that once loomed so large in their childish lives are still here in India, abandoned and left behind, both the children and their world gone, these dented toys now sold as curiosities. My feeling for these things, I think, is more than the nostalgia that grips the wanderer in the Parisian flea market at the Porte de Clingancourt; it is stronger than that, for a past more remote—almost archeolog-ical in nature, as if the objects unearthed in Pompeii were to be found not in museums, but instead in Neapolitan shops, available for purchase.

Among piles of eyeglasses and broken pen-knives are impossibly racist Victorian money boxes in the shape of torsos whose arms put pennies into the mouths of bug-eyed blackamoors, whose pupils loll in pleasure; they are tin push-toys of buses, Bombay to Poona they say on their front: behind the wheel is a Sikh driver, prim British matrons in painted profile wearing hats fill the windows, shepherding little boys such as the ones who undoubtedly lorded it over their ayahs and terrorized the punkha-wallah while they played with these toys. And, as I explain to my American hostess at the club that evening, in several stores I have seen the carefully-wrapped arms and disassembled clusters of dusty crystal chandeliers, useless now save as grotesques. Too bad, I feel, that someone could not be deputized to go out and buy them for the club, restoring them to something like their rightful venue.


It is in Hyderabad, the last of the princely states to join the Indian Union and never part of British India, with its black-shrouded women and the feel of the Muslim state it was, that the British influence seems to have been weakest. Outside of Hyderabad I visit the remains of Golconda, the center of a great empire that, between the 16th and 17th centuries, ruled a region that extended north to Bengal, the source of the Kohinoor diamond as well as many other world-famous jewels, and a name still synonymous in many minds both with the barbaric splendor of India, as with vanished greatness. I go with an Indian friend and colleague, a professor of English literature, who is hosting me in Hyderabad. First we stop off at the stately tombs of the kingdom’s rulers, the Qutub Shas, located nearby: smaller versions of Agra’s aristocratic Taj Mahal, these too are great onion domes with look-outs and Moorish arches, mauseleums built to house tombs. Some have been restored, with their stucco replaced. Many others are wrecks, plants growing from their broken brickwork, dwelling places for dogs. A restoration effort is underway, my friend explains, but lacks money.

Refore the largest and best-preserved of these tombs, a film is being shot. Identically-clad chorus boys and girls in black shirts do a line dance for the cameras while technicians set off colored smoke-bombs. My friend tells me that all plots in contemporary Telugu films—such as this will be—are excuses to end in a break dance. From afar we see the walls and citadel of Golconda.

When we enter my friend is impelled to speak of Shelley’s Ozymandias. And indeed, it is impossible to see this great ruin save through the eyes of the European Romantics, moved to melancholy before the signs of vanished Oriental majesty. We stand on the uppermost point, the citadel, with the remains of an open-air throne room that gives us—and gave the Shah—a view of the surrounding countryside for miles around. The corners smell of urine. Relow us are the ruins of what we have been told are pleasure gardens, harems, baths. We descend, and find ourselves once again on the extremely bad road leading to town: the holes in the macadam I am told, are the result of faulty contractor’s work that in turn is the result of corruption. Indeed, during the night it rains and this stretch of the road is turned to a lake. The next day we must take a detour that adds half an hour to our drive between town and university.

Am I wrong to see a vestige of the splendor amid want that must have been the life of these military rulers (ultimately deposed by other, yet stronger military rulers from farther north), in the fact that, in this country where so many people suffer from malnutrition, the well-to-do consider it beneficial to the health to ingest silver and gold? Pounded into breath-thin sheets of foil, it is applied to the tops of a rich toffee-like candy that is cut into elongated diamond shapes and eaten as finger food. Of course metals are good for the digestion, even Western-educated friends assure me. What of copper and iron? To me, with my adolescent-era fillings, eating this candy seemed like chewing on aluminum foil, and I reached eagerly for the coffee in the airy apartment of the dance teacher where I spent the afternoon watching Bharata Natyam, the south Indian form of dancing for women that originated in the temples, and that frequently tells stories where the dancer impersonates dozens of characters, differentiating them through expression and gesture.

Yet another place where the British influence seems thin is the holy city of Kanchipuram, inland from Madras—perhaps thinnest of all in places like the great Vishnu temple there whose centerpiece is a mango tree. After taking off my shoes, which to my amazement I find, on exiting, untouched, I follow my guide along darkened hallways and before glowing statues of the god (such statues I will later see being paraded, at dusk, through choked city streets to the sound of pipes); it is cleaning time and people are vigorously throwing pails of water on dusty shrines. The water runs off black onto the floor and I am glad I have taken off my socks as well.

The idols are dressed in silks and jewels, like statues of the infant Jesus or the Virgin in French cathedrals. In a courtyard, we make the circuit of the mango tree, a gnarled giant on which are perched tiny doll’s bedframes made of what seems balsa wood to which small infant-like shapes are tied: these are thanksgiving offerings, it is explained to me, from previously barren women who have conceived after making this circuit. In another shrine, priests ask the god for his protection of me—I have told them my name is Bruce and this is repeated to the god; I receive some of the idol’s flowers around my neck and a spot of sacred ash on my forehead as well as a packet of powder to take home. Then, inevitably, I am asked for money; the priest quickly makes clear that he wants twice what I have offered.

In a courtyard cage in this vast, dark temple we pass the huge wooden painted figures of gods and goddesses that are paraded in the streets at festival times. Now, shut away in this enclosed space like the floats from Macy’s Christmas parade stored in their hangar (and just as garishly colored) their smiles seem frightening: I feel like a child lost in a world of painted toys that have swelled to nightmare proportions. It is with relief that I emerge from the temple to watch pilgrims taking ritual baths in the great square tank, like a private geometrical lake flanked by descending steps, then look on as the tame temple elephant is put through its paces for visitors.

And then once again the Rombay airport—huge families outside milling around to bid goodbye to a single member, a snaking line of people with piles and piles of luggage, a momentary hush as a popular singer sweeps through—I have to ask who he is. Rack in Germany for a day before continuing on to Washington, German friends comment on the sudden influx, into hitherto uniformly middle-class white German society, of Eastern Europeans and Third World people who beg on the streetcorners. We are sitting at an outdoor cafe in Frankfurt near dinner time: during the course of our drinks we are serenaded by a Romanian with a harmonica who holds his cup at the end of his song, approached by a gypsy woman who wants to read our palms for a suitable hand-out, and offered roses by a North African-looking girl in return for a fee that is never specified. At a nearby fountain, three clearly German winos hold court, like the homeless men who sleep on the subway vents near the Kennedy Center in Washington where I sometimes park my car.

All is integrating, my friends say. We are becoming a First World in the middle of a Third World—like you in the States.

Or, I add mentally, all of us in the West like India—even if not necessarily in the same proportions of poor to rich. After all, I reflect, with a recent visit to New York in mind, Rombay isn’t the only city in the world where urchins smear your car window in the hopes of getting a few coins in return.

Who in America can feel untouched by the spector of India’s divisions after the multi-racial nature of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, especially when considered in tandem with the Indian riots of six to eight months later? Who with any knowledge of the Indian situation can read Andrew Hacker’s recent discouraging book on black-white relations in America without thinking of the Brahmins and the Untouchables ? Who among those who have been to the subcontinent can hear the vague and airy American debate about “quotas” for the equivalent of America’s “Scheduled Castes” without thinking of the much more drastic strides the Indian government has taken to redress the balance of power? Not, at any rate, I. Nor, I fear, given the breakdown of the wall between Western and Eastern Europe, the disappearance of the Second World, and the increasing mixture of Third into First, will any country in the West be immune for much longer to the acrimony and divisions of the Indian political situation, its startling mixture of contrasts, of special interest groups, and of hitherto marginalized groups clambering for and increasingly receiving power—or to India’s institutionalized corruption that everyone complains about and no one knows how to combat.

In 1954, the year of my birth, Denis de Rougement (author of Love in the Western World) could end a similar meditation on a visit to India entitled “Looking for India”—one that started, like this one, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, at that time cooled only by the fans that now hang motionless from the ceilings as relics of an earlier age, and apparently staffed with many more servants bringing tea than are in fashion today— with this conclusion: “The West has problems, India is problems.” Now, four decades later, the distinction between the two seems less clear, and the similarities more frighten-ingly, as well as fascinatingly, obvious.


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