Thursday, November 27, 2014

From ‘An Indian Summer. A Personal Experience of India’ by James Cameron

Why do I come, I wonder; why am I here? For twenty-five years I have been asking, at this first fatigued moment in the steaming heat of the Indian dawn, this first encounter with the opaque evasive velvet official eyes – why must I return to this tormented, confused, corrupt, futile and exasperating place as though I loved it, as though I needed it, as though I had to be forever reminded of its hopelessness and the splendor of its sorrow?
Yet if I ask this question, why then, when I am not there, do I miss it so? Each time I arrive my heart so quickly sinks, yet each time I leave India I know there I something of me I have left behind …… There is no sense to it…..

I was briefly seized by the sudden unreasonable happiness that comes to me with the steamy touch of India in the early hours.

I loitered fretfully at the counter, waiting as one always does for the inspirational phrase that will convey despair without passion; they looked back at us with patient, courteous indifference, hoping we would go away. They had all the time in the world and we had not; they could afford to wait.
In this situation India will always win. There is no purpose in being right if one is powerless. To give way to anger is to surrender…..

Hindu custom requires an obligatory daily bath, and I have never been anywhere in India where it is not manifestly obeyed; in the most wretched and abominable quarters of the city dawn finds the hungry derelicts and street-sleepers lining up at the stand-pipe for the meticulous body-wash ritual. An Indian man or woman has to be lowly indeed not to wear fresh laundered cotton on the body; however exiguous and worn the dhoti or sari may be, it is rarely soiled. Yet Indians of all varieties ……..will promenade through streets of almost indescribable filth and neglect, littered with refuse and debris, gutters adrift with ordure. Picking their way through the muck with a skillfully intuitive indifference, since they do not see it.

The Hillcrest Hotel was, as the airport man had foretold, clearly was not the Taj. Hotels that accept one without reservations at six in the morning rarely are.

If Hindus invented caste, the English invented the Club…… the Raj paid its respects to the most insulting custom of the society it affected to despise, and created Anglo-Saxon Brahminism……

These non-Indians – perhaps because they were non-Indian – the English adopted as their favourite sons, and greatly did the Parsi community prosper thereby…

…..really good South Indian coffee is incomparably the best, just as the bogus coffee to be found in Delhi and the north is unchallengeably the worst.

South Indian domestic servants are grand masters at the art of fiddling about, which is to say of achieving the absolute minimum of accomplishment through the expenditure of the most conspicuous activity. I have seen a bearer swab a table all the way round a single pencil left lying there. This is clearly more difficult and time-consuming than lifting up the pencil, but it also implies greater assiduity and consideration: If the master wants the pencil exactly there, so be it, the few square inches of dust it conceals will be his responsibility, not mine.

…..the wavering khaki figure of the room-sweeper, craving the privilege of entering to flap his cloth with a dedicated lack of purpose around the floor, his attitude simultaneously absent yet anxious, his role to achieve invisibility as befitted his station in lie and yet to demonstrate enough small fuss to justify his job: a delicate duality…He was a sweeper, and his function therefore to be a sweeper, not necessarily effectively to sweep. He fulfilled the role society required of him merely by associating himself as nearly as he could with the dirt in which he dealt; his efficiency was of minor importance.

…I could never walk like an Indian. No European could imitate the extraordinary flexibility and maneuverability 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 love dusk in India more than anything else in the world. ….Half a mile away a herdsman was sitting on a hillside singing quietly to his cows – a long and seemingly formal song, inexpressibly soothing. I knew I should never belong to India, but at these times I came very near to it.

….Jaipur is a somewhat dull city by day, angularly laid out ….Its appearance is at first desolatingly ordinary; only when you realize that its remarkable modernity was laid out by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1728, when London was sixty per cent a slum, does it being to seem admirable. By evening it became enchanting.

Just outside Jaipur lay Amber, the ancient capital, an exquisite place in a stifling gorge. It is possibly one of the half-dozen finest ruins in the world.

….the United States is one solid mass produced society to an extent India can never be; in India one is not driving through a country but a continent, the invisible frontiers here are truly ethnic dividing-lines – here the beards will be cut otherwise, the saris tied differently, the languages incomprehensible to each other three hundred miles apart.

….Gandhi …..had to be butchered to stop him becoming the conscience of India. He would indeed have been a terrible embarrassment today.

…General Dyer took ninety Gurkha and Baluchi mercenary soldiers to that densely crowded square and coldly fired 1605 rounds into their unarmed bodies, killing 379 and wounding more than a thousand. ……In Britain the sum of £26,000 was subscribed as a testimonial to General Dyer’s devoted gallantry …..I am eternally surprised that the Indians can ever forgive us. They do so of course because, unlike the Irish, they forget.

We had come to Madras, which we both love, although it is hard to say why….Madras has not the second-hand self-importance of new Delhi not the hysterical ugliness of Bombay, it is a million miles from the despairing horrors of Calcutta. It is an agreeable, rather boring place; it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town.

…how offensive to a cultivated Indian an object like the Taj Mahal….can be…. Indeed it has style. Nevertheless it is a monument erected by an occupation force, a foreign gesture in a foreign taste …..It is the arrogant expression of conquerors who believed (as did Sir Osbert Sitwell in the 1940s) that Hindu art and architecture was repulsive, greasy and vulgar, and who set about destroying every major Hindu temple they could get their hands on. They were vandals, albeit they built the Taj Mahal…..the expression of the Islamic ubermenschen. The beauty of the Taj Mahal makes some Indians want to be sick.

….when the British took over India….they learned about India from the Nawabs and the Nabobs. The language they learned was a variant of Persian, not Sanskrit, let alone Tamil or Telugu. It was one more aspect of a theory I have long developed: the peculiar affinity of the English ruling class with Islam. It expressed itself in generations of British favour to Muslims in India at the expense of Hindus; in the Middle East in tacit preference for Arabs against Jews, and for much the same reasons: Hindus, like Hebrews, tended to be clever and even literate, and certainly argumentative, while Muslims shared many of the deep-seated characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon elite – an intuitive resentment of culture, an amicable contempt for women, a proclivity for riding about on horses, a pleasure in discipline, a covert hemophilia…… One of the Indians’ problems in this regard is of course the fact that Islamic art, being aseptic and austere, is far more generally acceptable than classic Hindu art, which is voluptuous and sensual and at its best most explicitly sexual …..Representations of the Taj Mahal travel the world on picture-postcards; accurate photographs of the carvings of Khajuraho would be seized by the Customs.

The urban awfulness of Calcutta has become a cliché of such dimensions that one flinches from even trying to say more about it, with such lasting and eloquent disgust has every aspect of this appalling place been described since Kipling called it ‘the city of dreadful night.’

The inhuman cruelty of Calcutta defiles the normal language of odium…. Its paradoxes are a platitude….. In Calcutta most people are debris, and only too clearly know that they will never be anything else. ….India is a country of beggars; nowhere but in Calcutta is there beggary of such a ubiquitous, various, ever-present and inescapable kind.

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