Thursday, August 26, 2004

An Indian Summer (extracts)

There were so many new pleasures in those early days. Everything was of course pain-pleasure; there is no happiness in India without regret, but of this I was barely aware when for the first time I came to Delhi and found, as better men have found, no room at the inn, or at least not in the Imperial. Instead I bestowed myself in Old Delhi, in the Cecil – and the Cecil cushioned me sweetly from everything of truth. My room opened onto a courtyard almost filled with a pool in which the waterlilies grew and from which at night the fine fat frogs sent out their uxurious honking which so maddens some people but which to me is a most satisfying sound, the deep onkh-onkh which is that of the Tibetan horns on the Himalayan passes, and of the fat frogs in a Delhi pond.

But before night fell I would walk into town by the Kashmiri Gate, or down towards the Jumna River; it mattered little to me, everything was new and everything was wonderful. There was a time they called the cow-dust hour. The term came from the villages, as everything in India does, but here, walking along the Ridge, anywhere around the perimeter of the Delhi walls, it just meant the vague blue haze through a hundred trees, the smoke of a thousand evening mealtime fires, a thousand Indian wives crouching over chapattis and dhal on mudbrick stoves, the scent of the burning fuel-dung, the spectral cawing of the crows, homeward bound like us all. It was preposterously romanticized and possibly even dishonest, but it was my first knowledge of India and it never left my mind. (p. 89)


As a young learner of journalism in the India of the 40s, I was zealous enough to feel inadequate without some means of talking to and understanding those about me. I bought an elaborate book called Hindustani Self-Taught, and spent long hours in its study. I worked up a hesitant acquaintance with the simpler clichés. If I wanted a bath at seven I could bring myself to say: “Ham sat baje guram gusal maingte hain.” If I wanted a message delivered I said: “Chithi lejao aur jawab lao.” When repeated often enough and loudly enough, and if I waved an envelope in my hand and gestured urgently towards the street, the phrase worked wonders; the chaprassi would nod eagerly and say: “Okay, sahib want letter taken.”

I felt as one always does in a new country the need to go a little farther than this and to be able to articulate the few courtesies that might indicate, at the least, goodwill. My phrase-book, however, suffered from the incurable complaint of all phrasebooks designed for communication between masters and servant: it was unable to think otherwise than in brusque and peremptory commands. “Keep quiet. Come here. Go away. Cook more quickly and more better the tiffin. Wash more. Wake up. Stand still. Bring me instantly tea/coffee/whisky-soda/ammunition/good shirts/vinegar. Do not lie to me. Go. Stay. Withdraw.”

There was no tense but the imperative, no mood but the irascible. The work had been ‘Specially Composed for Visiting Persons and Allied Officers’ by a Mr H. Achmed Ismail. There was a daunting section on ‘The Engagement of Body-Servants’: “Look sharp. Come tomorrow. Shut the door. What is your pay? It is too much. I shall pay you far less. Put on the fan. Put off the fan. If you break crockeries I shall cut your pay. You feign sickness. You are indeed dirty, make clean yourself. You are underdone. You are too old, too young. I shall engage another bearer.”

Even in the ‘Sickness’ section Mr Ismail maintained an impatient, choleric manner. “The bowel is distracted. The tongue is hairy. I demand my teeth to be drawn.” The personality of the embittered Mr Ismail permeated the book as with a wry satisfaction he put into the master’s hands every assistance to their natural bad manners. (pp. 48-50)


For myself there were times when I became aware of my otherness to the environment, of my personal gracelessness of movement, a well-intentioned clumsiness of gesture, possibly even of thought. Even after twenty-five years of acquaintanceship with the surface mores of the country I am still caught out in somehow clodhopping attitudes. I think I could avoid the grosser solecisms, but I could never walk like an Indian. No European could imitate the extraordinary flexibility and manoeuvrability of the Indian hands. Indians talk with their hands as they dance with their hands. There is none of the Latin shoulder-shrugging, eyebrow-raising, broad-swinging gestures, but a continual rippling of the palms and the fingers, with each nuance moulded out of the air, as though sculpturing syntax out of space.

I was continually learning something. The sari – the most elegant of garments, with an inscrutable architecture: Moni told me of its variants, its subtleties, the imperceptible differences of folding that indicated its wearer’s region.
“What does it mean if the sari falls over the right shoulder?”
“It never in any circumstances does. The whole point is not to inconvenience the right arm.”
I pointed out a woman no more than ten feet away whose sari fell over her right shoulder.
“Well. Must be a left-handed woman.”

The situation was familiar to me. On my very first visit so ling ago I had been taken by a dedicated and bird-minded Old Hand through a relentless course of domestic fauna.
“Look quickly – the ring-necked parakeet. The speck in the sky is a white-back vulture; they eat Parsis. This peacock, very holy indeed, it represents the Lord Krishna – not this particular one, of course, it belongs to the hotel.” He flung a stick at the sacred fowl which rushed away screeching venomously. “Now here’s an absorbing sight – those little birds there; they are called the Seven Sisters. They are never to be seen except in groups of exactly seven.
“I can only see five.”
“Strange. It must be a curious mutation.”
In years to come I was to observe the Seven Sisters birds in every grouping and combination from two to twelve, snapping and disputing with each other like ill-tempered old women. To the experts they are always curious mutations. So much in India is. (p.57)

(taken from James Cameron’s “An Indian Summer”, Penguin Books, London: 1974)