Monday 13 July 2020

A Partial India - Introduction

In October and November 1986, I went to India for the first time.  It was an important experience,  which I tried to capture as it happened in one of my black travel notebooks, now online as three blog posts.  They are essentially unedited transcriptions of what I wrote as I journeyed.  As such, I hope they possess a certain immediacy and freshness.  But they are also necessarily unstructured, other than by each day's itinerary, rather long, and therefore perhaps rather hard to read.

The experiences of those three weeks were so rich for me I decided to re-work my notes into shorter, more digestible pieces, which together form what I called A Partial India.  Partial, because they obviously captured only a tiny part of the vast land, its people and civilisation; partial, too, because it was born of my gratitude for the experiences India gave me.  

A third of a century later, it describes an India which no longer exists, if it ever did.  Given my inevitable lack of comprehension of India's subtleties during that first journey, perhaps this is the best I can now hope for: that the evident non-existence today of the land I described will make Partial India of mild historical interest to others.

For want of anything better, I organised my memories under arbitrary alphabetical headings, which are as follows:

A is for Agra
B is for Books
C is for Camels
D is for Delhi
E is for English
F is for Fatehpur Sikri
G is for Gandhi
H is for Horns
I is for Incense
J is for Jaipur
K is for Kashmir
L is for Large
M is for Mosques
N is for Nights
O is for Ochre
P is for Poverty
Q is for Queuing
R is for Raj
S is for Shangri-La
T is for Trains
U is for Udaipur
V is for Voyaging
W is for Work
X is for Xenophilia
Y is for Yamuna
Z is for Zenana

Z is for Zenana

India has never been a woman's world. Muslims have routinely locked them away, Buddhists regarded them as one of the snares which bind us again to our fleshy, suffering body, and Hindus seem to have ignored them completely. Hindu goddesses tend to be either beautiful pieces of furniture like Lakshmi, or cruel vamps like Kali. The female pantheon comes across like nothing so much as a bunch of fractious film stars. It is probably no coincidence that it is on the screen - large and small - that Indian women have made their greatest impact.

Wherever you go in India there are cinema hoardings, crude and garish posters which almost invariably depict buxom women in slight undress, either looking helpless - like Lakshmi - or wielding guns and whips as Kali might. And where the women, who are young and lissom, tend to look fraught and hysterical, the heroes - who are at least forty-five and probably wearing a corset - always look calm and suave.

One advantage female film-stars have is that they tend to sing more songs than the men. For this reason they are necessarily indispensable. Often it is the music which makes, indeed, justifies a film, and the power and fame of the unseen singers - who are rarely if ever the screen actresses - is gratifyingly great.

The singing is just as popular on the small screen. But at least on television women have managed to make a more positive contribution. Much of the news, together with many of the programme links, is presented by women. Partly this is due to television's obsessive desire to offer visually attractive images; but it is also an indication of the medium's greater liberalism. The women who appear are clearly very westernised, and speak the perfect English of the Indian intelligentsia.

For women of the lower classes and castes, the prospects are not so good. In the country and smaller towns, a woman's destiny is simply to become married and produce children, and to work. Passing them in the road it is hard to tell whether they are fourteen or forty-four. It is very noticeable that you never see young courting couples; any couple is married: courting as the west knows it seems either non-existent or coyly invisible. Yet being married is a totally public activity, as neutral as any other business. Judging by the advertisements in the daily papers for brides and bridegrooms, which detail the required characteristics of body and background, this is almost what it is.

Indian women seem good for only one thing: dying. The greatest building in India is a monument to a dead wife. While the Rajput warriors donned their saffron wedding robes of martyrdom and rode out of doomed fortresses like Chittorgarh to certain but glorious death, the women inside built huge funeral pyres and committed the mass suicide known as jauhar. And even Mrs Gandhi, perhaps the dominant formative influence on modern India, may one day be best remembered for her murder at the hands of Sikh extremists. Whether in life or through death, Indian women are conspicuous by their absence. For them, Indian history is the history of the zenana, the area in a Muslim household where they were hidden from the world.

A Partial India A to Z

Y is for Yamuna

The great red sandstone forts at Delhi and Agra both lie on the banks of the River Yamuna. At Agra, the riverside battlements offer a splendid vista across the huge waters winding among the blank sandy banks to the distant Taj Mahal. In the Red Fort at Delhi, you are hardly aware the river is there. From place to place India's attitude to water varies so.

Its availability seems to be taken for granted. Which is strange in a nation which receives little rain outside the monsoon. Perhaps the government has been particularly efficient in digging wells. In the countryside, irrigated fields are ablaze with a rich, dark verdancy. In the towns, public gardens are watered endlessly. Especially in Delhi, where the extensive lawns around India Gate and Parliament building are maintained as lushly as any Home Counties gardener could wish. And in the old part of the town, people who live on the streets take turns to bathe at their local standpipe, holding a cloth around themselves like coy holidaymakers changing on a Cornish beach. As they wash themselves in the running water, they make no effort to be frugal. Perhaps such profligacy with free water is the one luxury they can afford.

Rivers have helped shape much of the sub-continent: the Indus gave the land its name, and the Ganges remains a holy symbol. But it is the lakes that are special in India, partly because of their rarity. One of the main attractions of other-worldly Kashmir is its dreaming lakes, typified by Srinagar's Dal Lake. The contrast between the flat dull land of the Indian plains, and this mobile film of water mirroring the encircling mountains and the soft blue of the sky could hardly be greater.

The tranquillity that water engenders has even moved some to create new lakes. The Pichola Lake at Udaipur is a masterpiece of this kind. In its present form, the lake now reaches out to the surrounding soft-contoured hills, like Lake Dal on a more intimate scale. It provides the perfect setting for the palace which occupies Jagniwas island. And its example spurred others to create Lake Fateh Sagar behind it, whose waters answer the complex of lake and reflected land with a further reflection of the whole design like some huge artifice of mirrors.

But the grand ensemble of Udaipur is an exception; Indian architects have mostly been content to use water as a just another decorative element, like an occasional semi-precious stone set as an inlay among the main expanse of marble. For example, the deserted palace at Fatehpur Sikri has a number of small pools with decorative bridges. But water here is no more central to the overall design than the courtyard-sized chessboard nearby, or the small palace built for games of hide-and-seek. For real architectural sensitivity to the magic of water, you must travel to Agra.

The Itmad-ud-Daulah is a modest tomb for the grandfather of the Lady of the Taj. A narrow pool leads the eye naturally to the exquisite pietra dura of the mausoleum, as delicate as lace. The Taj Mahal takes the same idea but realises it on the grandest scale. The long watercourse points like a gleaming arrow to the distant tomb. A marble wraith, it stands silhouetted against the sky, brooding over the slow, silent Yamuna below.

A Partial India A to Z

X is for Xenophilia

For millennia, India has been susceptible to outside influences. First the Greeks, then the Moghuls, the Portuguese and finally the British have all left their distinctive stamp upon various aspects of the country and its life. Perhaps it was a question of politics: the lack of unity among the fragmented Indian states - which were often either squabbling or else sealed off completely - always made them easy prey for invaders. Whatever the reasons, the Indians retain to this day an honest curiosity and openness towards foreigners. And to none more so than to the British.

In part this can be attributed to, hazy nostalgic memories of the Raj. Most Indians have been touched by the British Empire, either directly or through their parents. Even more seem to retain a fond affection for the race, despite the past imperialism, and despite the patronising acts of political clumsiness which British ministers continue to wreak on them. Although the British can be blamed only too easily for the massacres which followed partition, they might also be praised for limiting religious friction so adroitly in the century before. Perhaps it is this, in part, which people recall. In an uncertain world, nothing is treasured so much as the memory of stability.

Attitudes to the British are complicated by the widespread use of English as the language of intellectual debate, of commerce, and of national politics. The very act of speaking English is so freighted with cultural baggage that Indians are almost inevitably impressed when a Briton talks. Particularly since, rightly or wrongly, British English stands as the yardstick of correctness. Any utterance, be it never so banal, strikes the Indian with all the force of wisdom engraved on stone.

But this goodwill is so widespread, and passes so far beyond cynical deference to affluent tourists, that a deeper cause than history or linguistics must be sought. It is not hard to find. Watch Indians dealing with Indians. In the interminable queues, neither the clerk nor the queuer ever seem to lose their placidity; both accept that neither is to blame for delays and problems, and that both are victims. Travel amidst the madness of Delhi's rush hour as rickshaws and bicycles swoop across on-coming traffic: horns are blown continually, but there is rarely any real ill-feeling. Everyone, everywhere, preserves their equanimity.

It is tempting to ascribe this to some profound Hindu passivity, or to the effects of centuries of downtrodden serfdom bleaching out any spark of resistance or protest. The real reason is surely much simpler: the Indians enjoy a natural and deep-dyed good humour. Being pleasant in daily life is one manifestation of it; liking foreigners another.

This makes staying in India a joy. As well as the constant unofficial welcome which is pressed on the visitor, even the hotels manage to convey something of the same spirit. At the best of them - like the Imperial in Delhi - service is raised to something akin to customer beatification. Whether amidst elegant surroundings of old Raj splendour, or enjoying the simple hospitality of a Kashmiri home, the question of who likes whom the more - guest or host - becomes totally and blissfully academic.

A Partial India A to Z

W is for Work

In the towns, in the fields, by the river, on the bustling streets and deserted mountain roads - everywhere in India, there are people constantly at work. It is as if they were intent on offering their own symbolic tableaux of daily life on the sub-continent. Look, they seem to say, existence is just such an unending struggle. Much of India's success in combating problems of poverty and underdevelopment can probably be attributed to this countrywide mobilisation of its workforce.

Yet there is something very odd about work in India. It is true that large numbers of people sitting or standing around idly are rare. But this has been achieved not so much by boosting the total amount of work which needs to be done - as western job creation schemes try to do – but by sharing out what work there is among the whole population. The result is a dilution of activity which affects every sphere of Indian life.

For the visitor, Indian bureaucracy is one of the most striking examples of this built-in redundancy. Most of the work in offices seems to be filling out forms which are then passed on internally before being filed for ever. And everything is in triplicate to employ three times the clerks. Each Job becomes a matter of taking great pains over an essentially trivial and inefficient task.

The same principle of division of labour applies to the shops in towns. Department stores are unknown, even in Delhi and the larger cities of the north. The fragmentation of the pattern of working is manifest in the myriad small shops and stalls of each trade. Throughout a city there may be many tens or even hundreds of these, all selling the same goods.

Along with this reduced scale of endeavour, there goes a corresponding refinement of services. India represents the ultimate in niche markets. In each town there is someone offering every specialised service imaginable. By the side of the road people sell glasses of water; mend bicycle punctures; offer a few lemons or second-hand torches. The constant division of labour down to this almost vanishingly small scale seems possible only because the basic subsistence level is itself so low. Selling something like an apple or two a day is all it takes to live.

Purely manual labour obeys similar laws; everything operates at the level of the smallest physical act. In the country, women and children sift endlessly through fields, tending the land manually. In the towns, public gardens are weeded one plant at a time; grass is watered inch by inch; even gravel roads seem to be laid down stone by stone.

The acme of this dogged, timeless approach is to be found along the only route into Kashmir, a road which clings precariously to the sides of mountain after mountain. Tens of thousands of low stone walls in the form of squat rectangular blocks lie along its outer edge as a safety barrier. The road is in the middle of nowhere; and yet all along its length, as if by some ancient magic, there are the solitary workers, diligently and patiently re-painting the ends and sides of each of the stone blocks white. An eternal and totally characteristic task.

A Partial India A to Z

V is for Voyaging

Transport and communications set the pace of a country, forming its natural heartbeat. In the West, fibre optics and satellite links define the characteristic speed of the nations; the speed of light. With a telephone system so unreliable as to be unusable for long-distance calls, it is transportation which provides the pulse for India's national clock. As a result, the country becomes one defined by voyages.

Paradoxically, the larger distances are closer together in time. The Indian airline system is relatively efficient, and allows you to travel quickly between most major cities. Getting a ticket is another matter; and in any case, the cost for the majority of the population would represent an impossibly high proportion of their annual income. It is as if air travellers moved in a world of their own, untouched by the realities of India. The sealed compartment of the aeroplane voyaging high above the dusty earth is its own metaphor.

At the next level, there are the trains. They form the backbone of the country's transportation system. Indeed, without the extensive railway network, modern India would probably not continue to exist at all. The infrastructure created by the railways is a vital economic resource; without it, the country would slip back into the dark ages. For the network to function even half-way efficiently, it must be managed centrally. Which in its turn requires some form of nationwide organisation, and the existence of a nation. The railways act as the string which holds together the bursting parcel of India.

Trains serve the major cities and towns. Outlying villages rely on buses. Just as the plane is alien to the vast bulk of the population, so the bus is very much of the people. The battered juddering hulks which lumber along dusty roads are the mobile analogues of the ramshackle stalls in the markets, and the patched and poor houses. Like so much at this end of the economic spectrum, buses seem to be held together more by faith than by structural design.

Buses are also found within towns and cities themselves; but as the cities get bigger, the buses become less efficient. Like stranded dinosaurs, they can only look on helplessly as the smaller and more agile beasts weave in and out among them. The new urban mammals take many forms, from familiar ones like taxis, to the stranger centaur-like bicycle rickshaws.

The bulbous-bodied taxis, looking like something out of Britain in the 1950s - which they are - occupy the same place within the city as planes between them. They are relatively luxurious, fast, and prohibitively expensive for most people. The rickshaws are the trains, widely used and ideal for everyday purposes. At the top of the range are the yellow and black moped rickshaws with their reckless drivers and constantly bleating horns, followed by the human-driven bicycle version. And it is the solo bicycle which forms perhaps the commonest method of mechanical transport in India. Everywhere there are numberless shoals of them, swooping in and out of the traffic like minnows. If a symbol of India's modernisation were needed, it would be not the atom bomb but the bike.

A Partial India A to Z