Wednesday, July 8, 2009

From ‘An American Witness to India’s Partition’ by Phillips Talbot

Meanwhile the bomb explosions continue in London. Most of my acquaintances comment, “Oh, it’s just the Irish again,” and go about their business. And still the Empire carries on. [from a letter written in 1939]




……….he [Gandhi] replied with a warm appreciation of Jesus’s religion. “But I do not mix up Christianity with many missionaries I have known,” he added, amplifying his comment with an uncompromising disparagement of the mission system.




……..[from a letter written in 1941]……on many sides in India today one hears that Gandhi is through, finished. That his era is past……..his old magic wont work anymore………..True it is that in many ways he seems old-fashioned. A surprising number of his ideas………….can be traced to reading he did in early youth. His judgements of people and institutions are highly colored by his prewar experiences in South Africa……..many youthful nationalists have gnashed their teeth at the moderation he has forced upon them……Plenty of people say they would like other leadership. But there is no individual who can command the loyalty and following of so many of the 400 million people of India as Gandhi, and everyone recognizes the fact.




……..[from a letter written in 1941]……To understand the position of Muslims in India, one must remember that their upper crust is the smashed former Mughal aristocracy of the country, and the great bulk of them are descendants of converts from the lower castes of Hinduism. The ex-rulers did not take kindly to the new order. They refused to learn the English language and the non-Persian sciences, they avoided participation in the new government long after Hindus recognized from where the cake was going to come, they held back from the modernization of their life, mental equipment, and outlook. The low-caste converts, like many Indian Christians drawn from the same levels, had no education and were not fitted to take places of leadership. The result has naturally been an academically-backward community. Because they couldn’t get their share of government posts in open competition, Muslims have had to have special places reserved for them. Whenever any new benefit was desired, they have had to ask it as a favour.

This position has bound Muslims together in a common defensive spirit of inferiority, the same feeling on a larger scale unites the whole Indian nation in respect to the British.




……..[from a letter written in March, 1947]……it is clear that the war finally took the profit out of imperialism. The re-establishment of British authority in India would have taken prodigious effort, especially as the “steel framework” of administration was badly rusted out. The weary, nearly bankrupt British victors found no taste for such a task. On the Indian side, the two-generation-old nationalist movement had risen to a new pitch as a result of the economic, social and political influences that grew out of the war. Great changes were inevitable.




…………..the first 100 days of partition would see 10 million citizens uprooted, and close to half a million killed or murdered




……..Even in political matters members of the Congress high command, his [Gandhi’s] closest allies for 30 years, sometimes disagree with the old man……………..But still they go to him……….to obtain guidance in their major problems…………Gandhi remains their guru – their teacher and counseller.

The reason is not far to seek. Wrapped in a loincloth with, perhaps, a wet cloth over his head when the weather is hot, the little man can still sense India’s pulse more keenly than most of his fellows. “The heart of India is in her villages,” he repeats constantly. And there he is most at home.

……………For Gandhi this should be a time of great rejoicing. After a lifetime’s struggle, he has seen the end of British rule. Yet he emerges as a tragic figure. He fought for freedom, and got partition. He taught nonviolence, and lived to see the bloodiest, grossest human slaughter in India’s recent history.

“This much I certainly believe,” he said……………”that August 15 should be no day for rejoicing, whilst the minorities contemplate the day with a heavy heart.”




……..[from a letter written in December, 1947]……Pakistan may be subject to bad administration and many other ills, but probably any ministry can popularize itself, at least for some years, by standing up to India. Indeed, one of the greatest dangers to Pakistan is that excited Muslim citizens may drive the country to suicide by too much aggressiveness against Indians




When about 12 million people fled from their homes during the 1947 post-partition massacres, Pakistan claims to have had to provide for more than a million beyond what it lost. But a heavy proportion of the incoming Muslims were peasants and artisans who had owned little wealth in India, while many of the Hindus and Sikhs who left Pakistan were merchants, bankers, landlords and professional men. The Indian government estimates that its nationals left behind property worth almost 10 times what Muslims forsook in India………If accepted by Pakistan, I suppose that this would stand as the largest international debt in the world.




Northern India received perhaps a million fewer refugees than Pakistan had to cope with, but it had less evacuee land on which to settle them. This was because Sikhs and Hindus fleeing from Pakistan were generally more prosperous and therefore owned more land, than the Muslim artisans and peasants who left India.




……..[from a letter written in February, 1950]……A number of Indians approve of adult franchise. Whatever it may mean in bringing illiterates into parliament and in debasing the level of political life, they argue, it is almost certain to intensify the pressures against caste and creed distinctions. If you have to depend on a hundred outcastes or Muslims for votes, you cannot indefinitely depress them between elections. Also it is felt that a broader political base, no matter how rustic, will put new vitality and challenge into politics and be the means by competition of bringing forward a new crop of vigorous men.

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




……..luxury 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.