A Gash in the World

Chapter 7            The Presence of the Past 

 

On this lazy morning, Harold put down his copy of “Ayodhya and Beyond” on the wooden table beside him. He sprawled back in his ornate medieval chair, took a deep breath, and viewed the restored room reflectively. Restoration, he thought, was basically extrapolation. You were given a fragment of the entity, and you had to construct the rest in harmony with the fragment. The windows, doors and lintels, the chairs and tables, and the beds all possessed this unified character. The windows contained jalis, the doors were decorated with carved panels, and the chairs and tables and beds carried carved work on them too, each curve echoing the other curves on other pieces of furniture, tying them to one another in an abstract intercourse of wooden patterns across the room. And yet, none of it was oppressive, or even opulent. Its charm lay in its being understated, unpolished, quiet. It belonged to a long minimalist tradition in India. Obviously, the room lacked a fireplace to provide a unique focal point, as in the Middle Ages in Europe. The white lime room was multi-focal, like the multi-perspective miniatures of Mewar. There was no symmetrical arrangement of furnishings, and no play of light and shadow, for the light that filtered through the small windows was dim and reticent. Despite this, perhaps because of it, this apparently gloomy interior evoked an extraordinary sense of intimacy.

A fort-palace built in the fifteenth century, Nirana had been transformed into a small resort hotel of just thirty rooms, situated on two landscaped acres of land. The Aravalli hills flanked one side of the resort. Around Nirana it was green and brown and smelt of dry earth. Nirana was located two hours from Delhi, in Rajasthan, and many thought it the perfect place for a weekend retreat. Many embassies and firms in Delhi held their meetings there. Chaturvedi had suggested it to Harold. After the conference in Grindelwald, where he had chaired three sessions, he had needed the rest.

The style of the fort-palace was Rajasthani as influenced by Sultanate architecture. It had proved difficult to restore completely, and required some degree of renovation. But the new parts had been imaginatively done, imitating the style of the fort-palace, without breaking the character of the original. The architects had not allowed themselves the liberty of commentary. They had been fairly literal, erasing their own position in history. But, Harold noted, restoration is complicated enough without ideology.

Nirana was divided broadly into two parts, the zenana or women’s quarters, and the mardana or men’s quarters. Harold could tell that his room was in the zenana by the intricately carved jali screens on the windows. The mardana had a Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audience, where the men once gathered in the presence of the king, and which was now just an open court, a modern space for reflection and transition. Narrow labyrinthine corridors linked the rooms to prevent an enemy from advancing in anything but single file. The approach to the fort-palace was steep and long.

Harold rose from his chair, his legs stiff and heavy, and paced in his room, mainly to shake off the numbness. He’d been sitting for a long time. His bare feet felt comfortable as he padded across the Kotah stone. He walked over to a window and looked out on a carpet of lush green grass. It seemed as if Nirana was the only habitation for miles. He wondered vaguely how the garrison had gotten its supplies. When his stomach growled, he decided it was time for lunch.

His room opened onto a corridor that overlooked a courtyard on one side and an undersized terrace on the other. He admired the multiple levels: they provided varied perspectives of the architecture from different angles, like different readings. At the end of the corridor a stairway led to another room and down to the quad. Harold could see Mrs. Gupta in the courtyard giving instructions to a waiter. It reminded him of one of de Chirico’s surreal canvases. She was facing him, so he waved, and she waved back. She was the hostess of Nirana, in her fifties, a widow, and immensely loquacious. Harold headed down the steps, following its turns, and found himself in the square. Arched niches covered the walls and an open stairway rose to the rooftop. Straight ahead a red cloth was draped over a brown bench. The open dining room lay adjacent to the courtyard; a few guests had already clustered around tables, picking at plates of cauliflower, dal, and rice. It was around noon and Harold was famished. Mrs. Gupta was still busy with the waiter, so he walked into the dining room, nodded to the smattering of people there, and sat down at a corner table.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Gupta strode into the dining room, and after a couple of light rounds of conversation with some of the other guests, she appeared at his table.

“Good morning!” Harold said cheerfully.

“Good morning to you, Professor!” Mrs. Gupta said. “Did you sleep well? I was intrigued to learn last night that you were an Indologist. Do you plan to go on any excursions while you are in India?”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m going to work with a Professor Chaturvedi in Bombay on some research,” Harold said. “I’m afraid we’ll be cloistered in a little office somewhere in the university.”

Mrs. Gupta said, “That sounds intense. But I have planned a short field trip just for you.”

“Have you really? Thank you! I was hoping to find something to do later in the afternoon.”

“There is a lovely village about two miles from here called Ranipur which has a very interesting temple devoted to Rama. I think you will also enjoy seeing the village itself. If you like, Suresh, my nephew, could take you there in his car. I have already talked to him about it and he has agreed.”

Harold said, “That’s excellent! You think of everything. I would love to go.”

“I will tell Suresh to knock on your door at three-thirty. Does that suit you?” Mrs. Gupta asked.

“Oh yes, three-thirty is fine. I shall be ready by then,” Harold said.

“That’s settled then. Do try some of the cauliflower. I hear it’s very good,” Mrs. Gupta said, and with a smile turned toward another table.

 

 

……

 

 

Yusuf Ali, a prominent lawyer from Bombay, came over to Harold’s table. Ali wore horn-rimmed Polo glasses; the nub of a pipe stuck out of his breast pocket. He sported moccasins without socks and had on a white linen shirt with gray cotton pants, looking urbane and relaxed. He had met Harold on Friday evening at the reception for the guests. “May I join you, Doctor Stone?” he asked.

“Of course,” Harold said. “How are you this morning?”

“Fine,” Yusuf said. “Mrs. Ali has decided to skip lunch today. I am not one for skipping meals myself.”

“The food is excellent. The chef knows what he is doing.”

“Have you been here before, Doctor Stone?”

“Please call me Harold. This is my first visit. I find it quite fascinating. Do you also see a hint of the surreal in this medieval setting? What makes it especially interesting is that it obviously doesn’t conform to most Western surreal images, and there’s no real tradition of Indian surrealism either,” Harold said, bemused.

“This is my second visit. We were here two years ago. A great deal more has been restored since we were last here. And they haven’t finished it yet. What you say suggests irony because a restoration tries to reproduce the real after all. What do you say, Harold?”

“There is nothing in the concept of restoration that precludes a little aesthetic displacement, a little fiction as it were,” Harold said. “It is the architects’ way of saying you can’t reproduce reality. Like Borges’s Pierre Menard, you know. Even if you copy reality exactly, it becomes something different.”

Yusuf nodded. “Good point. The thing about the architecture that stands out for me is the fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements. Maybe I’m being an idealist after what happened recently, but I like to think of India the way it used to be, the way the architecture of this place portrays it to be, united, interwoven strands of Hindu and Muslim tradition. Nirana could have been an apt metaphor for the country: a work in progress. But perhaps it was not meant to be,” Yusuf said resignedly.

“Were you in Bombay at the time of the riots?” Harold asked.

“No, my wife and I were in London at the time. It was a painful time for the city. It was torn apart.” Yusuf paused as he recollected those events. “There have been riots before, as you know—we have a long history of religious violence. What is different now, what has changed since the eighties, is a growing ideological divide in the country. People seem to identify more with their religious views than with their other affiliations. Bombay used to be very different.”

Harold nodded as Yusuf continued. “What we need is an intellectually progressive and analytically astute leadership that is sensitive to religious matters without being submissive to them. We have to take a twentieth century point of view. We need to be rational rather than be led by emotionalism. Otherwise we will forever remain entangled in this mess.”

There was a lull in the conversation as they ate their food. A waiter, Jai Mirdha, tall and dignified with a thick moustache, who had been at Nirana since it opened, halted by their table and refilled their glasses. They glanced up at him and thanked him.

“The cauliflower really is good,” Harold said to him.

“Thank you. It comes fresh from the village nearby,” Jai said and smiled. He gave a slight nod and left.

“I find Nirana a bit isolated, except perhaps for the village the waiter mentioned. It’s about two miles from here. I hear it’s quite interesting. Mrs. Gupta has arranged a bit of an outing for me to see it and a temple there,” Harold said.

“Yes, I’ve been. It’s not a bad temple, architecturally. I think you’ll find the trip worthwhile. You’re in Indian Studies, aren’t you?” Yusuf asked.

“Yes, I’m a specialist in theater and architecture. I teach at Harvard. It’s been over thirty years since I started off as an Indologist,” Harold said. “And you, Yusuf, what kind of law do you practice?”

“My firm does everything, more or less, but my own specialization is corporate law. I help companies in negotiations with foreign companies, especially to establish joint ventures, strategic alliances, and the like. This is a booming area these days. Businesswise, it’s an exciting time,” Yusuf said. “I studied at your university, at Harvard Law School.”

“Oh, really. Then you know Cambridge,” Harold said. “I went to Berkeley, and started at Harvard as an assistant professor. I’ve been there since 1968.”

“I was in Cambridge from 1967 to 1970. Heady years, weren’t they?” Yusuf reminisced.

“Yes, especially at Berkeley, believe me. It’s very different today. I think we made some mistakes back then, especially the rejection of a rational approach to things. Emotionalism was one of the problems there too, just like with India today.”

“I had a great time. Is the Oxford Ale House still around? I haven’t been to Harvard in ages.”

“Yes, it’s still there. But the Square is very different now because they’ve closed off Mass Ave. I suppose things are more convenient this way, but I miss the old space,” Harold said. “You should come and visit some time.”

“I suppose I should. Our lives are so shaken these days, I don’t know what to do or where to turn. Maybe a change would do us some good, especially to familiar territory like Boston,” Yusuf said.

The two men ate with a renewed appetite, boosted by discovering the connection to Harvard. They exchanged cards and promised to meet in Bombay upon their return.

More people lingered in the dining room now. The previous evening’s reception had helped to acquaint people with one another. A light hum of conversation spread around the room. The aromas from the buffet wafted up in the air. Most of the guests came from Bombay and Delhi. The dining room had no windows, just open arches, and a light breeze blew in from the west, leavening the intense sun overhead. The bare courtyard ached under the sunlight, but the dining room was cool and comfortable.

 

 

……

 

 

After lunch, Harold ambled back to his room, pausing along the terraces for their views of the hills in the distance. Back in his room he flopped down on his bed for a nap.

He was awakened by some light knocks on the door. Groaning, he got up and rubbed his eyes, then glanced at his watch. Half past three already? He strode to the door and opened it. A young man in his late twenties stood there, framed by the doorway, wearing a bright yellow shirt and white trousers. His hair was tousled, giving his face an air of bravado.

He flashed a bright smile and said, “I’m Suresh. Mrs. Gupta asked me to see you at three-thirty. I hope I haven’t disturbed you.”

“No, not at all. Pleased to meet you. I’m Harold. I’m looking forward to our trip.”

“Yes, of course,” Suresh said. “I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. The temple is still active, though it’s supposed to be much older, and is used by the village folk. I took another visitor like you last year, and he really enjoyed it.”

“I’m sure I will too. Do come in and have a seat. I’ll be ready in a jiffy.” With that, Harold freshened up and changed his shirt, while Suresh fidgeted on a chair near the door.

Soon they were ensconced in Suresh’s red Maruti, heading down the road that sloped out of Nirana.

“What do you do, Suresh?” Harold asked.

“I’m doing a PhD in Economics at the University of Jaipur. I’m also a business consultant—in fact, Nirana is one of my clients. I’m from Jaipur and much of my business is there,” Suresh said.

“That’s impressive. How long have you been doing this? You look very young.”

“I’m twenty-nine, sir. Jaipur is developing fast and new businesses are opening every day. That is good for consultants like me,” Suresh said with a grin, glimpsing at Harold.

The road was bumpy and full of stones. Harold recalled the poem “Jejuri” written some thirty years ago, with words arranged in undulating lines to convey the experience of traveling on uneven village roads.

They made a slow turn and Suresh said, “May I ask what you do? Are you also involved in business?”

“I’m afraid not, Suresh. I’m an Indologist. I’m especially interested in ancient theater and architecture,” Harold said.

“Where do you teach?”

“At Harvard in the Indian Studies department,” Harold said.

“I must admit I don’t know much about ancient India,” Suresh said.

“India has a great civilization, one that is wide and deep. I wish Indians themselves would take a greater interest in these things. Perhaps it’s a consequence of colonization,” Harold said.

 “What you say is true. Our government should be more responsible, our universities should be more responsible. But you know, it isn’t just colonization. Sometimes I think we don’t have the right feelings, that is all. Otherwise we could easily do what Japan did in the last decade.”

“Perhaps a major economic transformation is going on right now, one that should be viewed over a long period of as much as fifty years. After all, you did mention the pace of growth in Jaipur. There will be ups and downs but on the whole there will be substantial growth, more than in the last fifty years. Of course, India has a large population and it will be a while before any economic change brings about a change in everyone’s lives. But at least many cities will develop. It’s a pity foreign investment is being resisted by some powerful political groups,” Harold wagged a finger to emphasize his point.

“They are people who think India will be affected adversely by the new consumerism. I think they’re wrong. I think these things for the kitchen and house are very important for a modern identity, for India to really enter the twenty-first century.”

Harold nodded his head, considering for a moment. “I think you’re right. Modernity probably has as much to do with domestic appliances and the infrastructure of everyday life as anything else. These things change the individual’s consciousness.”

“There is also the fear that we will get the worst of Western culture.”

Harold laughed. “That’s a real problem. But it is going to be there no matter what you do. Of course, some of these influences have nothing to do with Western culture as such, they merely have a Western form. They are inevitable parts of any modernizing culture, but they are unfortunately coming to India partly in a Western garb. Take individualism, for instance. Increasing individualism of a utilitarian kind seems to go together with modernity.”

“Maybe, but what about Japan?” Suresh asked searchingly.

“Even Japan shows greater individualism today than it did in the eighties,” Harold said.

Harold noticed, looming in the distance, a scattering of huts.

Suresh said, “We’re almost there. Ranipur is about two hundred years old, or so I’m told. The temple is much older, I believe, as old as Nirana. There are two main streets running north-south and two paths running east-west. A little like a mandala with nine zones.”

“From here it looks like a nucleated village, one with houses in the center surrounded by fields on the outside,” Harold said. “Anthropologists have long debated whether Indian villages were like static self-sufficient republics or like dynamic units embedded within larger complexes. Marx and Gandhi both believed the former, but when one considers economics, marriage, and religion, the village unit is far from self-contained.”

Suresh drove his van into the village from the south on one of its main streets, threaded past pakka houses, kachha houses, both big and small.

Suresh said, “There are many different castes living here, over ten. There must easily be over two thousand people in the village. I know the village chief, the chief of the panchayat, a little bit.”

“What sorts of things grow here?” Harold asked.

“Lots. Wheat and millet and pulses and sugarcane and green vegetables. The kharif harvest is going on right now.”

They arrived at the temple, which stood on the eastern side of the village. They descended from the van and Harold scanned the plaza. Although not a religious man, he was nevertheless moved by religious things, like the simple stone temple before him. It belonged roughly to the thirteenth century, older than Nirana.

“You know, temples don’t resemble the world; they symbolize it. They render, make visible, make palpable the world of truth, going beyond the world of the senses, the world of appearance. Their images often confound our expectations and stir us out of this world of illusion and suffering and transport us to a world of reality and joy,” Harold said, a trifle wistfully.

He studied the shikhara at the back, its axis representing Mount Meru and its ascent the progression of enlightenment. He circled around the temple examining the carved panels on the temple walls. He spotted episodes from the Ramayana—the fight between the monkeys and Rama’s enemies and the building of the bridge to the mythical island of Lanka. In itself, this was odd. Generally, the earlier focus on narrative compositions had given way to an emphasis on single figure elements by the medieval period, each an integral part of a larger whole, a shift from diachrony to synchrony. Here, the narrative form remained undisturbed, mixed in with self-contained figures, both together contributing to the harmony of the whole. None of the figures, whether in the narrative panels or otherwise, could properly be said to be naturalistic. Geometric shapes and linear outlines defined their contours.

Then the topmost panel caught Harold’s eye: although hard to see clearly, it unmistakably showed Rama in two guises, one as a mortal king and the other as God, the two forms separated by a clear carved line. Both figures were simple, even minimalist. Astounded, Harold didn’t know what to make of it. The line that demarcated the two figures triggered various associations in his mind, but he couldn’t place it. It troubled him. He had never seen anything like it before, had never imagined it could exist. What did it mean?

After his circumambulation, Harold suggested to Suresh that they go inside. All Indian temples involve the same movement from light to darkness, from visual complexity to visual simplicity as one makes the transition from outside to the sanctuary inside. As they stepped through the door, into the confined mandapa, they saw in the half-light the outlines of two men sitting cross-legged in silent prayer. A woman stood with a child in her arms. And a priest was reading a holy book by candlelight. The atmosphere in the chamber was still and quiet, almost ominous. Harold glanced at the walls and then headed for the sanctuary. He joined his hands in greeting as the priest looked up. Suresh helped interpret the conversation.

“Namaste,” Harold said.

“Namaste. What can I do for you?” the priest inquired.

“We saw an extraordinary frieze outside depicting the separation of the religious and royal spheres of life. Do you know anything about it?” Harold asked.

“You noticed that. The temple is very old, so it is difficult to say what the artist’s intention might have been. I think you’re right—he was probably trying to separate religion from kingship. A most unusual idea…but I don’t know for sure. It has also puzzled me.”

 “Professor Stone is an expert on ancient India. He was very keen to see your temple,” Suresh told the priest.

“Are there any other unusual signs or carvings?” Harold queried.

“Hmm. Nothing comes to mind immediately,” the priest puckered his eyelids in recollection. “Wait! There may be something. Let me show it to you.” The priest ducked inside the sanctuary and reappeared with a bundle in his hands. “What do you make of this?”

Harold brushed the dust off the bundle and carefully opened the red, musty cloth. From its weight, he could tell that it was a book. Finally, the wrapping was off, and in his hands lay an old volume. It appeared to be very old—older than a hundred years. Although its brown cover was torn in places, it seemed to be in good shape. His hands trembling, Harold opened it. It was the Sahityashastra.

 

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