Wednesday, July 8, 2009

From ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’ by Paul Theroux

Memory is a ghost train too. Ages later, you still ponder the beautiful face you once glimpsed in a distant country. Or the sight of a noble tree, or a country road, or a happy table in a café……….or the sound of a train at night, striking that precise musical note of train whistles, a diminished third, into the darkness, as you lie in the train, moving through the world as travelers do, ‘inside the whale’.

We crossed a river with a tragic name. One day in July ninety years ago, where the soft rain fell on the lovely meadows and low hills, in sight of the distant spires of Amiens on one side of the train and the small town of Peronne on the other, the valley of this river, the Somme, had been an amphitheatre of pure horror. On that first day of battle, 60,000 British soldiers were killed, plodding slowly because of the 60 pound packs on their backs. They advanced into German machine gun fire, the largest number of soldiers killed on one day in British history. In the four months of this bloodbath, the first battle of the Somme, which ended in November 1916, more than one million soldiers were killed – British 420,000: French 194,000; German 440,000. And to no purpose. Nothing was gained, neither land nor any military advantage, nor even a lesson in the futility of war

…… is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet. It was also my experience that one of the worst aspects of travelling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living – indeed, the rich usually complained of being poor.

Welcome to India and the proof that Borges once wrote, ‘India is larger than the world.’…………the country was no different from what I had seen three decades before. This prospect delighted me. It was a relief, the mildly orchestrated free-for-all of India – something of a madhouse with a touch of anarchy, yes, but an asylum in which strangers are welcome, even inquisitorial ones like me; where anything is possible, the weather is often pleasant, and the spicy food clears your sinuses. Most of India embodies Blake’s dictum that ‘Energy is eternal delight.’ All you need is a strong stomach, a little money and a tolerance for crowds. And a way of lifting your gaze upward and moving on, so that you don’t see the foreground – in India the foreground is generally horrific.

Acceptance is not an Indian trait. In India no one takes no for an answer: policemen are jeered at, authority exists to be defied, walls are erected to be defaced, and everyone is talking, often in English

Yet the country still ran, in its clunky fashion, all its mends and patches showing, and what looked like chaos in India was actually a kind of order, like furious atoms spinning

‘My aim is good service,’ he said.

It could have sounded like a cliché, but it didn’t. It was serious and sincere, and it touched me coming from this old driver who had a book and a newspaper on the front seat of his car, and who lived at the periphery of journalism, who kept up with the news. This was part of the pleasure I felt being back in India again, where everyone seemed overqualified for whatever job they were doing. Though their talk could be maddening and their demands exasperating, I loved the fluency of Indians. The crowds of people seemed worse than ever, but I was pleased to be back in the Indian stew.

The clutter and dusty pillars and uncomfortable chairs in an Indian office are no indication of its effectiveness. Out of the chaos of receipt books, carbon paper, flickering computers and fat files tied with faded ribbon arise decisiveness and clear results, even if you cant read the writing and your fingers are smudged with ink from handling them.

‘It is capacious,’ Vicky said. Another of the pleasures of India is hearing such words in casual conversation.

That evening, as if on cue, an American woman entered the lobby of my hotel with her husband, and I stepped aside to let them pass. They had just returned from a sightseeing tour of Delhi…….and the sight of many Indians who had not shared in the country’s economic miracle. Another reminder that travelling in India is not for the faint of heart, the woman’s eyes were red from weeping, and she was sniffling, dabbing at her puffy eyes. She glanced tearfully at me, then looked away, muttering, ‘I don’t care. I’m not going out tomorrow.’ Then, half actress, half sincere, but certainly upset: ‘Walter, it breaks my heart to see those people living like that.’

……….the placid and procrastinating Sinhalese were a reminder of how frenzied and loquacious the Indians had been, forever vexed and talkative

No one was fat. No one was poor. No one was badly dressed. But many Singaporeans had (so it seemed to me) the half-devil, half-child look of having been infantilized and overprotected by their unstoppably manipulative government. The entirety of Singapore’s leadership was personified by the grouchy, hard-to-please Lee Kwan Yew.

………..Singaporeans personalities reflect that of the only leader most of them have ever known, and as a result are notably abrasive, abrupt, thin-skinned, unsmiling, rude, puritanical, bossy, selfish and unspiritual. Because they cant criticize the government, they criticize each other or pick on foreigners. And in this hanging and flogging society, they openly spank their children.

………….Singaporeans are intensely aware of their living like lab rats in this huge social experiment. It seems to make them melancholic and self-conscious and defensive.

Travelling in Vietnam for an American was a lesson in humility. They had lost two million civilians and a million soldiers, and we had lost more than 58,000 men and women. They did not talk about it on a personal level, at least not in a blaming way. It was not you, they said, it was your government

The grey sprawl of Tokyo was an intimidating version of the future………….Glittering concrete slabs dwarfed crowds of purposeful people beetling back and forth, arms close to their sides, as though they’d received the same memo: Walk fast and look worried……….Bright lights but no warmth, very tidy, more a machine than a city…….

………When city-slicker utopians praise their cities I want to laugh. They whoop about museums and dinner parties, the manic diversions, the zoos, the energy of the streets, and how they can buy a pizza at three in the morning. I love to hear them competing: my big city is better than your big city! They never mention the awful crowds, the foul air, the rackety noise, the marks of weakness, marks of woe, or how a big city is never dark and never silent. And they roost like tiny featherless birds in the confinement of their high apartments, always peering down at the pavement, able to get around only by riding in the smelling back seat of a slow taxi driven by a cranky cabbie.

Tokyo was like that, a twinkling wonderland of dignified vulgarity that defeated my imagination.

………..a woman on a stool leaned at the window and beckoned to me – a prostitute, still alert and willing in the early morning. She represented a new Russian tendency: having been relieved of the burden of unsmiling dogma, they seemed restlessly preoccupied with the worst excesses of the West, not just the flesh, but money and crime, the joyless greed and promiscuity I had seen in the new China too.

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