A Gash in the World

Chapter 9         Fact and Feeling

 

“I’ll be down in a minute,” Harold said.

The bellboy lifted Harold’s suitcase and backed out the door. Harold cast a last lingering look around the room. The poignant combination of light and wood left him with a dull ache. He traced a finger along a chair’s arm and wondered when he might find the time to come again to Nirana, and whether it would be more peaceful the next time. Sighing, he picked up his burgundy briefcase, in which he’d carefully packed the Sahityashastra.

Bob was already waiting at the cab, and Mrs. Gupta was instructing the bellboy. As Harold emerged into the open air, he glanced wistfully at the observation tower, still only half-complete, as part of the restoration was still under way. The events of the last couple of days had jolted everyone into the harsh present where decisions must be made and actions taken. The world of Nirana was about to recede from him, a place of nooks and crannies, towers and turrets, winding stairs and terraced levels. Harold tipped the bellboy and thanked him.

“Mrs. Gupta, I’ve had a very restful time, despite the tumult,” Harold said.

“I really hope so. I’m sorry about what happened, and I do hope we’ll see you again,” Mrs. Gupta said.

“I’m sure you will.” Harold smiled.

Harold turned to Bob, and they both climbed into the car, a dark blue Contessa, and waved to Mrs. Gupta. She waved back as they descended down the sloping pathway into the flat plains.

“This is a rough road,” Bob said. “Even when we move to the highway, it doesn’t get much better. It’s full of potholes.”

“I know. Indian roads aren’t the best in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are close to being the worst in the world!” Harold said.

“Harold, tell me about the book that you and Mrs. Gupta were talking about in the dining room. You’ve whetted my curiosity.”

“It’s an ancient tome called the Sahityashastra, written in the third century by Bharata, one of the greatest intellectuals of all time. Many writers paid glowing tributes to it through history, but it was believed to be lost after the eleventh century. David Jones, an Englishman, found it in the nineteenth century, but drowned with the copies he had found. Then the priest of the Ranipur temple showed me a copy that had been in the temple for God knows how long. As far as I know, this is the only copy around today.”

“But what is it about?” Bob asked.

“I have only just started reading it. But I know a little of its background from the writings of others. It’s a philosophical treatise that explores the connections among literature, religion, and state. I don’t yet know what these connections are, but they could be volatile. Many writers considered Bharata’s book heretical. I am especially curious about the impact it may have on current politics.”

The car segued onto the narrow highway as they continued talking.

“If the book is as important as you say it is, and if it is relevant to contemporary affairs, shouldn’t we really pass it on to the U.S. Government? It really is their domain. The Embassy could handle the transfer if you like. I myself could relieve you of the trouble,” Bob said officiously.

They passed a small cluster of trees that formed an arch over the road in an otherwise even expanse. They paused to enjoy the fleeting protection from the afternoon sun.

“Come on, Bob, be serious. Read CIA for U.S. Government. Do you know what the CIA has been doing to India for the last several decades? They have been trying to destabilize it to establish their own geopolitical equation in the subcontinent. And you want me to give the book to them?”

“The CIA’s role in India has been blown out of all proportion. Besides, today it’s a shadow of its former self. You can’t think it could do any serious damage, do you?” Bob said.

“It’s possible,” Harold said. “There is good reason to think that the end of the Cold War won’t affect the pattern of conflict in the subcontinent. That will continue as before. And that will force the CIA to play its old role.”

An hour had elapsed and they were pushing into Haryana now, swerving to avoid the potholes. The road teemed with trucks delivering all kinds of goods, from electrical motors to apples. On both sides of the road stretched green fields, ripe for the kharif harvest that had begun a few weeks ago.

“How long have you been in India, Bob?” Harold asked.

“Two years. I have one more year here. Then it’s Vienna,” Bob said.

“Have you enjoyed your stay here?” Harold asked.

“There are many things I can’t take. The poverty, for instance. But otherwise I quite enjoy it. I’m into old furniture and there’s a lot of neat stuff to be found here. And it’s affordable,” Bob said.

“I like the old furniture too.”

“I find tourists a real nuisance.”

“When foreign tourists come here, they usually only see what they consider the exotic dimensions of the country. In fact, everything, even the most ordinary thing, becomes exotic to some extent. And travel companies exacerbate the problem because they are forced to market everything in these terms.”

They both fell silent until the car soon curved into the driveway of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel.

 

 

……

 

 

After a brief rest, Harold dressed for the evening at the Pals’. The dinner was set for eight, which meant he could arrive by nine, knowing Indian practices as he did. He had met the Pals at one of his lectures on Buddhist art and architecture two years ago. After the talk, they had introduced themselves, expressing keen interest in rasa theory and its variants through history. This was his second visit to their home.

They lived in Vasant Vihar in a spacious house with white marble floors, tastefully decorated though a trifle opulent. Mrs. Pal was an amateur painter and many of her works adorned the walls. The couple also owned paintings by other contemporary artists, especially two by Agarwal. The living room was a large white square with Persian carpets strewn about. There were many artifacts like brass lamps and earthenware in the room, contrasting the stark white of the marble. A winding stairway curved up to other wings of the house. When Harold entered, there were already about fifteen people in the living room, scattered in different corners and groups, creating a hum of conversation.

A waiter was circulating with whiskey, soft drinks, and juice. Mr. Pal strode over and invited him in. Harold felt a strange prickly anxiety as he meandered through the crowd to get a drink. He asked a waiter behind a bar for a gin and tonic. As he joined a couple of conversations, he sensed the presence of something sinister. He quickly moved to another group, but he was still asked the same rote questions, a polite but firm interrogation of why he was in India. He sensed he had transgressed in some way. Or was he becoming unnecessarily paranoid? He couldn’t say.

He spotted Gautam Bose. With a sigh of relief he approached Gautam’s group. Gautam nodded to him, but he was also aloof and distant. He avoided Harold’s eyes and prevented him from talking to him alone. Now he felt that he was not welcome. Partly in exasperation and partly out of an incipient uneasiness, he turned toward Mr. Pal, who was immersed in conversation with two other men.

“But the idealism of ancient Indian art is reflected in the idealism of much modern Indian art. Abstract figuration dominates both, so there isn’t as sharp a break between the two as you are suggesting, unless you go solely by the visual evidence,” Mr. Pal said. “Harold, have you met Nitin and Raj? Dr. Stone is an Indologist at Harvard. We should ask him his opinion.”

But Raj cut in with a question of his own. “Dr. Stone, what are you doing in India at this time?”

Harold searched Mr. Pal’s face for a clue, but it remained innocent and impassive. He didn’t know if he was imagining it all or it was real. Most likely, part of it was true and the rest was his imagination. He forced himself to break out of it and glanced at his watch. Two hours had passed since he‘d arrived. About thirty people were milling about in the room by now. Dinner was about to be served.

Suddenly, Gautam broke away from his group and walked over.

“So we meet again. I hope you will come to my film in Bombay, so we will get yet another opportunity to chat,” Gautam said.

They made small conversation for a while and then withdrew to the dining room. Some of the guests had already helped themselves to the spread on the table. Harold was hungry and the food, especially the vegetable jalfrezie, looked delicious, but he slipped out quietly and hailed a cab instead. The night air was cool, freeing up the constricted world inside. He wondered at the strange atmosphere at the Pals’. For a moment he considered the possibility that it had something to do with the book, because that was the most prominent thing in his mind. But he didn’t pursue that thought.

 

 

……

 

 

The next morning, Harold was up early. He had a busy day ahead, and his flight to Bombay left at five in the evening. He phoned the Sahitya Kendra at ten to schedule an appointment with Dr. Varma, its head. He had met Dr. Varma at some conferences, but didn’t know him well. He managed to secure an early appointment.

The Sahitya Kendra was a government institution, the foremost organization in the country dealing with Indian literature. Its many ongoing projects included compiling an English language comprehensive encyclopedia of select Indian literature from ancient to modern times. It would cover all Indian languages, not just Sanskrit and Hindi. It was estimated that it would eventually grow to about fifty volumes.

At a quarter past noon Harold found himself in front of a three-story house on Rajpur Road that had been converted into the offices of the Sahitya Kendra. Dr. Varma’s office was located on the ground floor, as he had an injured leg and used a walking stick. The paint was peeling off the building walls, giving them a stale and worn air.

Harold mounted the steps and introduced himself to the receptionist. He was asked to wait and told that Dr. Varma would see him presently. At ten minutes to one Dr. Varma stepped out with a bespectacled gentleman who was obviously German. He waved to him and then approached Harold.

“Doctor Stone, how are you? I’m sorry to keep you waiting. Let’s go inside. What can I do for you?” Dr. Varma limped with his stick as he spoke.

Once ensconced inside Dr. Varma’s office, Harold told him about his discovery of the Sahityashastra. He brought out the volume from his briefcase and laid it on his desk. Dr. Varma listened carefully and then inspected the book. A full five minutes must have ticked away before Dr. Varma spoke.

“So what would you like me to do with this?” he asked in a dull, flat tone.

There was no trace of emotion or excitement in his voice. Harold was amazed. Here he was presenting him with the find of the decade if not the century, and Dr. Varma was asking him what he’d like done with it.

“I thought perhaps you could have it translated. I don’t mind doing it myself, but I thought I should discuss it with you first. I think it would take about a year.”

“You have done well to bring it here, but as you know we have many projects at the Sahitya Kendra. You’re aware of our encyclopedia project, I am sure. Something like that takes up practically all our meager staff. We would gladly take it on, but I cannot say when we would get to it. Why don’t you leave it with me, in any case?” Dr. Varma offered.

“I would hate to see it buried under a lot of other work. Maybe I should try to find another avenue for it. Besides, I cannot leave it with you as yet. I still have to finish reading it. You know, there’s something odd about…” Harold’s voice trailed off.

“You were saying?” Dr. Varma prompted.

“No, I changed my mind. I was just thinking aloud. Indiscriminately, to be sure.”

“Let me give you some advice. Why do you want to bother with the Sahityashastra? Bharata’s Natyashastra and other writings are already known. What good would one more volume do? There are so many more important tasks for people like you. Some of Abhinanda’s dramas need to be translated and we are looking for a translator. Would you like to do it?”

“Thanks,” Harold said, “but I have my own project on Indian architecture to complete. But I wish you luck. I look forward to the encyclopedia.”

Dr. Varma changed the subject. “How was the Indology Congress in Grindelwald? I couldn’t attend this year.”

“Not bad. There was an excellent paper by Chaturvedi, ‘The Convexity of Form at Khajuraho,’ as well as one by Madan Singh, ‘New Insights into the Atharva Veda.’ Beyond these two, it was the usual fare, nothing earthshaking,” Harold said. “Oh, there was also some reporting on developments of my work on rasa theories, especially the reader-response strand. It seems people continue to be interested in this dimension because it permits application of rasa theory beyond Indian literature and art. There is also, of course, the interest in the actual mechanism of rasa.”

“Sounds very interesting. I think your work on rasa was very good,” Dr. Varma said. “Well, I have a lunch meeting and I’m already late for it. Let me know if you change your mind about translating Abhinanda. We need scholars like you.”

Harold left the office stunned. Dr. Varma hobbled with him to the door, the picture of propriety. Was this just the usual Indian bureaucracy he’d witnessed or was there something peculiar about Dr. Varma’s behavior? Harold was tempted to discard the first possibility. He couldn’t imagine someone of Dr. Varma’s stature behaving like that.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold hated flying. He had never quite mastered the sequence of procedures at the airport and always got confused. At least there were no checkpoints requiring passports on domestic flights. One less document to worry about.

This was the first time he was flying Jet Air, again on Chaturvedi’s recommendation. He was pleasantly surprised to find attractive young women staffing the check-in counter. Baggage checks, boarding pass, bookshop, security: the bookshop was an essential part of Harold’s routine because he always arrived early for flights and had spare time.

The small shop was crowded with people browsing through a wide array of books. He squeezed his way along the racks and tables, glancing at new editions of “The Kama Sutra” and copies of “A Brief History of Time.” He heard the announcement for his flight. At the security desk, another young girl from Jet Air directed him to identify his baggage just outside the terminal. After a while, he was in the plane, in executive class. He managed to travel business class on his independent income, but he still felt that twentieth century modes of air travel were primitive at best. You were basically herded together like sheep, compressed into tiny cabins with little space to move or stretch. Even in first class one suffered these indignities.

He sat down in seat 3A, by the window. Fortunately, there was no one next to him so he could spread out more easily. Another smiling hostess approached.

“Would you like a drink, sir?” she asked. “It’s a special lime drink.”

Harold nodded. “Thanks.”

Where did Jet Air find all these pretty girls—dark-skinned, sharp-featured, speaking in smart Westernized accents? Harold fished around for some magazines and leafed through India Today. There was a write-up on a big party the billionaire Seth was going to throw on his cruise ship. He’d invited over a thousand people.

It was ten past five and passengers were still streaming in. The plane finally lifted off at five-thirty, late by half an hour. The pilot apologized for the delay and announced that they would land at seven-fifteen instead of seven o’clock.

Harold decided to return to the Sahityashastra. The murder of the priest still troubled him, as did the disturbing experiences in Delhi. He figured his best bet was to race on ahead with the Sahityashastra. He was looking forward to Bombay, a city full of paradoxes that he had visited so many times he had lost count. Chaturvedi (he was never addressed by his first name) and KP (as Oswal was called) would surely serve as good antidotes to the mystifying encounters in Delhi.

He read without interruption all through the flight, denying himself even the inevitable medhu vada the hostess offered. As the plane descended towards Bombay, Harold summarized what he had read. He had now finished the second step of the argument.

Harold bore in mind what he had read of the first step as he reviewed the second. In the first, the revolutionizing force of rational agency had been added to the triad of literature, religion, and the state.

Bharata continued the deconstruction. Now he must transform the triad into action, using the concept of rationality he had introduced in the first part. In itself this was a radical step. Religion, state, and literature were all transmuted into action, converted from institutions into religious actions, state actions, and literary actions.

From this large collection of actions, Bharata identified certain groups as minimal. Minimalist religion, a minimalist state, and minimalist literature were thus established as possible choices for rational agents.

It was likely, Harold figured, that Bharata would later try to show that these minimal choices were the best. Harold marveled at Bharata’s ability to tie together diverse ideas into a compelling unified structure.

Harold looked down at Bombay through a curtain of rain as he thought about the second step. The light was fading, and the rain impeded a clear view of the ground. He wondered how pilots managed in such conditions. He could see a dense mass of colorless buildings amid occasional patches of green. A lake came into sight. The rain rendered the topography distant and romantic, refracting his picture of Bombay.

He tucked the Sahityashastra back in his briefcase. Before long, they were arcing to approach the runway.

 

 

……

 

 

Bombay held many memories for Harold. Once a graceful city of wider spaces and muted sounds, he had seen it surrender to a different, discordant spirit over the years. On his first trip with his wife, when he was still a student researching his dissertation, he had been overcome by the warmth of the people he met, entranced by their cadenced accents, their intelligence, their enterprise, their ready laughter and wit. He had witnessed an incipient capitalism freed of the British, but still with some of their appurtenances that lingered on, not least the Indians’ facility with English. Now this capitalism had become brash, vulgar, but no less vibrant, and it was joined by a vicious, malevolent communalism, full of violence and hatred. What had once been a harmonious fusing of the material and the spiritual had now been twisted into something aberrant and ugly.

He could remember the warm October day in 1967 when Bombay was still not as crowded with people and traffic as it was to become thirty years later. You could drive across the city in just under an hour. It was then a simpler city and in many ways a nicer city, with less corrupt politics, less strident media, and with a greater sense of community and humanity. It had some of the virtues of a small town despite its status as the commercial hub of India. It was even then the object of dreams and an attractor of vast flows of people from all over the country that had city planners worried and thinking about a twin city, a ‘new’ Bombay that could accommodate and grow with this influx. Of course, this decline brought with it all the complexity, all the growth, all the opportunity that comes with the scale the city had realized in recent years, and perhaps, Harold thought, it is better to speak of qualitative change in the very fiber of the city rather than decline, which always betrays an empty nostalgia and conservatism for which this fast-paced world has little patience.

Over ten million people now teemed across the narrow sliver that jutted into the Arabian Sea, filtering into the middle classes, all entering or consolidating their positions in the pother of buying and selling, supplying and demanding, consuming and producing. The restaurants and shops of the city were full as money circulated, flowing sumptuously through the arteries of the city.

Over ten million stories unfolded every day. There was Mohan Rao the clerk, Amina the glasscutter’s wife, Miss Pinto the schoolteacher, Rustom the pilot, Berg the import-export businessman, Anita the corporate manager, all of whom he had run into on his various trips. In some way, everyone seemed connected. Even when Bombay fought, it remained coupled, at least until recently. Durkheim’s organic solidarity rather than Marx’s class-divided consciousness provided the apt model at the lowest level, the level of everyday life.

A mathematician would have called Bombay a connected set, a collection as of one piece, he mused. Sadly, the cosmopolitan air of the fifties and sixties had given way, in the eighties and nineties, to a divided ethic. But the underlying links had not been completely eroded, only rendered invisible in the harsh glare of unrepentant violence.

Bombay was a city that habitually preferred the useful to the beautiful and often demanded, as de Tocqueville once wrote of democracies, that the beautiful be useful. This made the city a jungle of pragmatically shaped concrete, skyscrapers and all, its neo-Gothic British architecture its only visual relief. Its roads funneled traffic down their irregular routes, forcing cars into more lanes than were meant to be.

Bombay was a palimpsest formed by Bhimdev, the Sultans of Gujarat, the Portuguese, the British, independent India, with the Kolis interleaving through all the layers. Ptolemy had mentioned the islands of Bombay as Heptanesia as far back as the second century, roughly the time of Bharata.

The sheer scale of Bombay, its pulse and beat, provided a density, a moral presence that couldn’t be ignored. It bred a tension between freedom and limitation, desire and restraint. The metropolis engendered a public realm of the social imagination, a shared space of discovery and invention and transformation.

The rain pelted down on the canopied stairway as Harold stepped out of the plane and boarded the bus for the terminal. At the baggage claim, he retrieved his suitcase and elbowed his way through the crowds to a cab. He wiped his wet forehead with a handkerchief as he got in and asked the cabbie to drive him to the Taj Mahal Hotel. As they plowed through the slow traffic, Bombay seemed busier than he remembered it from his trip last year—its colors grayer and more somber, its mood darker and edgier. The intensity of the rain diminished as they approached the hotel. A message from Frank of Publish or Perish was waiting for him at the reception counter. He soon found himself in a plush room overlooking the sea. He planned to stay there for a week before moving into the university apartment Chaturvedi had reserved for him.

The rain cocooned the city; it was probably the last rain of the season.

 

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