A Gash in the World

Chapter 14            The Art of Fundamentalism

 

Harold awoke slowly, images swirling in his head. He lingered in a half-dream, at the center of a Stonehenge-like circle. The images purled and merged with each other, the creative and the destructive. There were no sharp boundaries any more, only eddies of images bathed in an incandescent light. Time itself flattened out as the heat grew. The images began to melt. In a blinding flash of transcendence, Harold jolted awake. He remembered the dream, but it meant nothing to him. It held no order, no intimation of sense.

He climbed out of bed and looked at the clock. It was six p.m. He realized he didn’t have much time. He telephoned the police again to request them to send two policemen to Pal’s home. He learned that Aditya had already been arrested and was in custody. They had begun the difficult task of tracking down Fundamentals, coordinating their actions and sharing information with their counterparts in the U.S.

After making the necessary arrangements, he headed for Vasant Vihar, for Pal’s residence, by cab. It was dark when he arrived. He asked the cab to wait in case he had to leave quickly.

Harold rang the doorbell. Mr. Pal swung open the door.

“What brings you here, Harold?” Pal said in a casual manner.

“What do you think, my friend? I haven’t much time. Tell me about Fundamentals.” Harold sat down on the sofa, facing Pal.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Pal said.

“The police are on their way. There have been too many deaths. They know about Fundamentals.”

“I was Aditya’s boss, as you probably know.”

“Who is your boss?”

“Varma.”

Harold had suspected as much. The way Varma had brushed aside his translation project for the Sahityashastra had planted a doubt in his mind. “Why did you get mixed up in this?”

“Hinduism has suffered many setbacks over the last thousand years. The space it once occupied has shrunk. Its influence in Asia is well known. Even Europe talked about an Oriental Renaissance. The German Romantics looked to India in the way medieval Europe had looked to Greece. And through them, the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita opened even the American Transcendentalists to pre-Christian ideas. The movement for independence in the first half of this century in India also saw a renaissance. There was a flowering of great originality and vigor. But it has dwindled and needs to be rekindled. We want to create a Hindu civilization in the twenty-first century.”

“You already have an Indian civilization in the twentieth century. Not only did Europe look to India in modern times, but early Indian thought, especially the Upanishads, influenced the Greeks, the pre-Socratics, deeply, and through them the entire metaphysical fabric of Western civilization. India gave the West its content just as the West gave India its form. And India influenced England at least as much as England influenced India. India worked itself into its heart the way the colonized always works itself into the heart of the colonizer and changes its unconscious structure. But India is now a far more complex entity than it once was. It is no longer just Hindu. It cannot be. Even the renaissance of the first half of the twentieth century was a complex affair. Hinduism was just one of its many strands. India is no longer even just a religious entity. It is now a liberal state, a modern state in the full sense of the term. Its presence, what you would call its intrusion, has brought about a deep change in the substructure of Indian culture, in its consciousness. Liberalism is an abstract system of values, a meta-system if you like, a system that can accommodate many different systems within it. It goes beyond religion. And it brings new problems with it. These are the problems that you have to grapple with if you want to create a new civilization.”

“Liberalism is an empty system,” Pal said. “It has no social values, values that can bind a society. Its internal pressures are centrifugal forces. Look at what it has wrought in the West. Do you really want such a system for India?”

Harold paused, gazing at the subtleties of the Shah painting on the wall across from him, and then continued, “This is fundamentally an age of contradiction. Spengler summed it up when he said that ‘modern man is Faustic man.’ Liberalism is the first system in history to be an open system. It has no closure. This is the central problem we have to confront. The violent and cataclysmic crises of the twentieth century are all attempts to come to grips with this problem and even your attempt, the attempt of Fundamentals is really about this.”

“Fundamentals wants to recreate the past in the face of the present. Ramrajya was really a social order that provided a kind of anchoring for the human spirit. It provided a house, a kind of closure, even a system of aspirations for man. Liberalism is powerless in the face of this emptiness,” Pal said.

“Science seems to be the only tool we really have, science in the broadest sense of the term, in the sense where it includes art and literature, where it includes even the irrational. It is neither to be apotheosized nor to be supplanted by religion. Science has to be accorded its proper status. That is why Bharata argued for literature as the form of life. That is what he meant. He anticipated this by almost two thousand years. But he lacked an appropriate language for this insight. Literature, like all of science, is man’s search for meaning in the modern world,” Harold said. “And it is a search without the possibility of closure.”

“Many people in the West continue to believe in God despite liberalism.”

“The gods of the West are highly attenuated gods. And this has begun to happen in India, too,” Harold said.

“We want to switch the roles of liberalism and Hinduism. Liberalism can be housed within Hinduism rather than the other way around. After all, Hinduism is also like a meta-system. It houses so many philosophical systems, systems that are very different from each other.”

“Logically, this is a possibility. Indeed, Hinduism, by which I mean the whole complex of religions that developed in India, is perhaps the only religion in the world to have that range and accommodating power. But modernity makes it impossible to go back in time. In a sense, we know too much. We can no longer believe,” Harold said.

“The god of liberalism is the individual. I prefer the abstractions of Hinduism.”

“Man is a finite creature with all the limitations of finitude. This is why liberalism doesn’t necessarily make the individual a god. Many tendencies need to be overcome: idealism, a need for totality, a false individualism that seeks to divorce itself from its social structure. The task becomes difficult because we have no new vocabulary. We are still dominated by old ideas and concepts and this is what we must confront if we are to move towards a new realism. The essence of the irony in our lives today is that we are still asking the old questions.”

“Western liberalism is wiping out non-Western values everywhere,” Pal said.

“Some liberal values are basic human values. They just happened to originate in the West, they are not intrinsically Western. But there are many other values that need to be protected. That is necessary for a truly global civilization to emerge. But fundamentalism is not the answer. Besides, these values, these social practices, these ways of being all have a certain density, a certain resilience. Liberalism cannot really wipe them out, they work themselves into liberalism, indeed they already have. These ancient structures of feeling fuse with modern modes in ways that we can seldom anticipate, ways that always surprise.”

“I guess arguments never convince. They only deepen with each round of the dialectic,” Pal said.

“I guess they don’t.”

The doorbell rang and Pal opened the door to find two policemen outside. Harold shook hands with Pal, expressed his regret, and excused himself. He asked the cab waiting outside to drive him back to the Maurya.

 

 

……

 

 

That night, Harold changed hotels, switching to the Claridges, a smaller establishment. He reflected on the conversation with Pal, thinking it was tragic how the very liberalization that was freeing India from decades of state control was also simultaneously exacerbating the wounds that drove people to fundamentalism. That led critics to condemn liberalization and globalization themselves, rather than the way these forces were being deployed and unleashed. Pal had been articulate, revealing a substantial ideology underlying the madness of fundamentalism. It could in the end only be countered by summoning the modern liberal tradition in political thought originating in the West, starting perhaps with the writings of Hobbes, and going on to Locke and Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill, and culminating, in modern times, with the globalizing twist given to it by Gandhi. There was, however, an important gap in the liberal tradition, he mused, though there were of course isolated glimmerings, especially in Kant. There was a framework for a single state and its civil society, but almost no one had posed the question of what order a system of multiple states and their constituent civil societies might form to create the same freedoms, growing prosperity, and a safety net for all the sovereign states in the system, while maintaining the relative independence of each state. In the end, the world would function peacefully only if there were greater reciprocity between nations and groups.

The next morning, after making similar arrangements again with the police, he proceeded directly to Varma’s Sahitya Kendra, intrigued by the question of who the head of the organization was. Who could that mysterious person be? Was it Varma?

It was a cool day and Delhi seemed busier than usual as he approached the Center in a cab. The hawkers lining the street were setting up their wares and a few urchins were playing cricket by the roadside. As Harold alighted, he heard a boy crying out “Howzzat?” amid cheers from his team, and he mused that that was his own sentiment this brisk morning. He tugged at his blue tweed jacket to straighten it, lingered for a moment to observe the abandon on the young faces in the midst of the litter and debris that lay scattered about, and strode toward the open gate. The color of the cloudless sky was a somber gray.

The white bungalow that housed the Center was brimming with people. The receptionist, handling multiple demands simultaneously, remembered him from his earlier meeting and motioned towards Varma’s door, saying he was available. He walked down the corridor and found Varma’s office. He knocked lightly on the door.

“Come in,” a deep voice said.

Harold nudged open the door and peered in. Varma was hunched over his desk, a pen poised in one hand, and phone in the other. He nodded to Harold and gestured to him to enter.

Varma placed the phone on its cradle, a half-suppressed grimace appearing on his face. “Harold Stone! What can I do for you?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard by now.”

“Let’s be gentlemen, shall we?” Varma said.

Harold sat down in front of him, adjusting the position of the chair on the coir mat covering the floor. “I’ve heard a great deal about your organization in the last few days.”

A peon entered carrying a tray with a cup of tea for Varma and set it down on his desk. “Would you like some tea?” Varma asked, as he leaned forward to inspect his cup. The peon, understanding Varma’s question, waited for Harold’s reply.

“Thanks, no,” Harold said, and Varma waved to the peon, dismissing him.

“Fundamentals is unlike any other organization. We have infiltrated many institutions, and in a short time, it will not matter which ones come to the fore. If you bet on all the horses, your horse is bound to win.” Varma laughed, as he stirred his tea.

“You sound very cynical for someone with your mission.”

“I get that way sometimes in my old age. Things move slowly in India. You know that, too. Of course, this is also part of what we must confront in our program.”

“You sound like you’re very high up in Fundamentals. Are you the head then?”

“No. If you must know, I am informally the number two person in the organization,” Varma said, placing the spoon in the saucer.

“How large is Fundamentals?”

“My guess is we are now about two hundred thousand people. The organization was started by Shankar in 1960 and has been building up slowly. I have been with it for thirty years,” Varma said, a trifle wearily, dropping back in his chair.

“And my last question. Who is this elusive chief?” Harold had begun to form an idea in his head.

Varma paused for a long minute, picked up the tea, and blew across its surface before taking a sip. “He’s in Bombay at the moment,” he started saying, studying his fingernails absently. He swallowed some more, and his face suddenly paled, his lips twisted and quivered, he tried to cry out, but fell wordlessly forward on the desk, the cup falling to the floor and shattering on the mat, spraying Varma’s trousered legs with tea. Harold rushed out and shouted to Varma’s secretary to phone a doctor and the police.

The police, who were on their way to the Sahitya Kendra to arrest Varma, arrived soon after the secretary’s call. Harold described what had happened to the inspector in charge, as the other policemen attended to Varma and searched the premises. The inspector informed Harold of the progress they had made, both in India and the U.S., in tracking down other members of Fundamentals lower down in the organization.

Harold excused himself as the doctor showed up and left the bungalow. The boys were still outside, unaware of what had transpired behind the wall they were playing against. He hailed a cab and returned to his hotel.

He sat for a while in his room, not doing anything. The pace with which events had moved in the last few days had left him a little dazed. He tried to restore his equilibrium, taking deep breaths, forcing his mind to slow down. As he relaxed, he realized he hadn’t much time. He made plans to fly back to Bombay, and began to pack his belongings as he did so. Fortunately, a flight was scheduled to depart in just over an hour. A few phone calls later, he had checked out, and was speeding along to the airport.

He pulled in at the check-in desk just in time, and the crew of Jet Air whisked him through the formalities. Before long, he was safely in his seat, with a pen and paper, his brow furrowed and alert, listing suspects, clues, and intuitions. As the plane soared towards Bombay, Harold was thinking hard, an unexpected calm spreading over him.

He remembered, then, his strange dream. It came to him without effort, a kind of gestalt that fused the swirling images in his mind. In a moment of clarity, he suddenly knew what his dream had been about. The details locked in, and he hummed a nondescript tune. He smiled to himself, remembering similar revelatory occasions in the past, when a puzzle that had resisted his grasp had become clear.

By the time his plane touched down at Bombay, he had worked it all out. When he arrived at his answer, he couldn’t believe himself.

 

 

……

 

 

Filled with a nervous excitement, Harold disembarked, waited impatiently for his luggage, and then drove in a cab to the Taj Mahal Hotel. He strode straight through the crowded lobby to the reception to check in.

Exhausted, he entered his room, tipped the bellboy, and collapsed onto on the bed. He reflected on all that had been transpiring in Bombay over the last few days. The news of recent events was all over. The Sahityashastra had just begun trickling in. He guessed that Asha had brought it about, but he couldn’t imagine how she had managed single-handedly. Such an operation would involve too much planning, too much organizing for one person, especially if you accounted for the translation itself.

As far as Bombay went, he couldn’t have hoped for better himself, even if he had translated the Sahityashastra. His prediction had proven true. The process under way would take some time but it would go through. The division of labor, Asha managing the translation and he pursuing Fundamentals, would work.

That night, he could hear the waves splashing against the ramparts, as in the monsoons. The moon was bright in a deep blue sky of a handful of stars. The ships lay like behemoths, their outlines rendered ghostly in the moonlight.

The uneasy atmosphere outside oozed onto the streets and into the Taj. For once, the hotel was empty, enhancing an air of menace.

Harold ate at the Shamiana, the hotel coffee shop, that night. The long trail had ended. The wait was over. Despite the pervasive ambiguity of the night, Harold was happy. There was a spring to his step.

He didn’t sleep well that night. He dreamt the same dream again—of merging and transcendence, of wholes eclipsing parts, of ancient figures arising from mysterious elements.

Mercifully, the light streaked in the next morning, announcing a calmer day. Harold felt he had to be in good shape for the forthcoming confrontation. He exercised, limbered up for the evening, and stepped out for lunch.

It was three p.m. when he returned after a long walk along the Causeway, ruminating on a medley of things, from the murders in New York, to his experiences in Grindelwald and Nirana and Delhi and Bombay and Lonavala, to the recent conversations he had had with Aditya and Pal and Varma. He rested until four-fifteen. Then he walked across to the motorized boats at the Gateway of India nearby, and had someone ferry him to the Vidhi. The short ride seemed interminable.

When he arrived, there was no one about. He turned into one of the lounges and saw someone dressed as a waiter.

“Where is Seth? Can you take me to him?”

“He’s downstairs in his office,” the man said.

“Let’s go.”

They descended five floors in an elevator, into the bowels of the ship. The man led him to Seth’s office. Harold knocked, then twisted the knob, and entered. Seth was at his desk in a pale green shirt, talking to a man sitting across him with his back to Harold.

“It’s over,” Harold said abruptly as he stepped in.

“What do you mean?” Seth said.

“You’re the head of Fundamentals.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Seth said, summoning his calm.

“I’m sure you don’t.”

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re on my ship. I want you to get off my ship at once.”

“Only if you come with me.” Harold inched closer to the man at Seth’s desk. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I don’t have to say anything,” Seth said. “If you don’t get off in the next minute, I’ll call the police.”

“Call the police,” Harold said, drawing out the strange conversation. “I’d like to have them here.”

The man at the desk who had been silent all along spun around and faced Harold.

“Hello, Harold,” the man said simply.

“Hello, KP,” Harold answered. “I wish I didn’t have to do this.”

“You were talking to KP all this time?” Seth said, relieved.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Harold said. “KP and I go back a long way.”

“You’ve been quite courageous and resourceful, I must say,” KP said.

“When we last met, you said something a little out of character. You have always been a liberal but you said Indian civilization didn’t need trade, it was better off pursuing an independent, autarkic path. You identified contemporary trends towards globalization with miscegenation, a curious word tainted with anachronistic notions of racial purity. Of course, perhaps millions hold these views and many fear globalization and believe it to be a covert form of imperialism. But coming from you, the culture czar of Bombay, who is noted for his liberalism, it was very strange. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. It merely puzzled me. I even remarked you were a consummate politician. And then it all fell into place. I had glanced at some photographs of sculptural details on your desk in your study when I went in to call Allison. At the time, the details didn’t seem to fit. I didn’t know what they were details of. Later I kept having a dream of figures merging into a whole but didn’t know what it meant. Then on the plane to Bombay, when I was thinking about the whole thing, it came to me. They were recent photographs of the frieze at the temple near Nirana. The frieze had disappeared after the priest’s murder. Only someone involved with its disappearance could have had such recent photographs of it. Besides, who else had the power, and the cultural and financial capital, and held the anti-modern views that you revealed? Why’d you do it, KP? You represent much that is good in India. I don’t know when your views hardened so. But despite them, you do have something of the liberal in you. Your Harvard education, your exposure to the West, even your professing liberalism and maintaining your public image have all seeped into you in spite of yourself. We are all moderns even when we resist modernity the most. We cannot escape its language and reality,” Harold paused. “I’d like you to call the police, Seth.”

“Let’s go to the top and wait for them,” Seth said, after he made the phone call.

As the three men stood on the top deck, a seagull sailed by. The sky had acquired a range of deep blues with an orange disk for a sun, all sharp at its rim. The wind knifed into the men. KP studied the water, his hand on the railing. They heard the hum of a motorboat in the distance.

Facing Harold, Seth said, “Who are you? What is all this about?” After KP had been delivered to the authorities, Seth invited Harold downstairs for a drink.

 

Back to Chapter 13         Back to Main Page        Forward to Chapter 15

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