Acceptance appears to be the best and worst part of its national character.
Night of the Scorpion by Nissim Ezekiel (1965)
I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison - flash
of diabolic tail in the dark room -
he risked the rain again.
The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the sun-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every movement that the scorpion made
his poison moved in Mother's blood, they said.
May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of all evil
balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother in the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours,
more insects, and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through,
groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist,
trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites
to tame the poison with an incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.
My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.
I’m in love with the country and would sooner write about her than anything else … I shall find heat and smells and oils and spices, and puffs of temple incense, and sweat and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable.
Since my arrival three long hours ago, I had been introduced to three Indian national games – the telephone, the driving, and the bartering. I fell into the civilized, Western arms of the Oberoi Hotel shamefully close to tears.
…..from Flowers of Emptiness by Sally Belfrage (1981)
The first view of urban India is surely the worst in the world. It can never again be so shocking; once could never again survive the repetition of its first assault on the senses. The degradation and the hopeless hordes are so beyond the worst expectations that there is no armour, no protection possible.
….from Exile by R.Parthasarathy (1977)
The city reels under the heavy load
of smoke. Its rickety legs break
wind, pneumatically, of course
in the press of traffic.
The sun burns to cigarette ash.
Clouds hiccough, burp
From too much fume. Birds, too,
struggle, pressing thin feathers
against the glass of air.
I am through with the city.
No better than ghettos, the suburbs.
There, language is a noise,
and streets unwind like cobras
from a basket. A cow stands
in the middle combing the traffic.
A cloud unfurls, scarves in the evening
I loosen the knot in my throat,
and set off towards the sea.
The last sun comes hurtling at me.
Sand turns gold in my hand.
Boats squiggle on the water.
Cautiously, masts sniff at the wind,
wipe off the odour
of land with clean sails
….from Portrait of India by Ved Mehta (1970)
In my head, images of Calcutta surface like suppressed nightmares rising to haunt the conscious mind. A leprous beggar drags himself through a crowded Calcutta bazaar; his face is ulcerated, his hands are mutilated, and his lungs and vocal cords are so damaged that his plea for alms is little more than a croaking sob; the people, themselves thin and sickly-looking, shrink back to make way for him, their faces showing the dread of contagion. If there were any consolation in the belief commonly held among the well-off that since Calcutta’s poor live like animals their pain is less than human, the crying leper destroys that belief and leaves me with no consolation whatever.
It is urban India that appals, the city, where the contrast of the luxurious and the desolate have unavoidably to be sampled in one breath.
The countryside exerts different pressures…..
The Mahratta Ghats by Alun Lewis (1944)
The valleys crack and burn, the exhausted plains
Sink their black teeth into the horny veins
Straggling the hill’s red thighs, the bleating goats
- Dry bents and bitter thistles in their throats -
Thread the loose rocks by immemorial tracks.
Dark peasants drag the sun upon their backs.
….leaving England in February 1852….
by Field-Marshal Earl Roberts
The metalled highway ended at Meerut, and I had to perform the remainder of my journey to Peshawar, a distance of six hundred miles, in a palankin, or doolie.
The manner of travelling was tedious in the extreme. Starting after dinner, the victim was carried throughout the night by eight men, divided into reliefs of four. The whole of the eight were changed at stages averaging from ten to twelve miles apart. The baggage was also carried by coolies, who kept up an incessant chatter, and the procession was lighted on its way by a torch-bearer, whose torch consisted of bits of rag tied round the end of a stick, upon which he continually poured the most malodorous of oils. If the palankin-bearers were very good, they shuffled along at the rate of about three miles an hour, and if there were no delays, forty or forty-five miles could be accomplished before it became necessary to seek shelter from the sun, in one of the dak-bungalows, or rest-houses erected by Government at convenient intervals along the principal routes. In these bungalows, a bath could be obtained, and sorely it was needed after a journey of thirteen or fourteen hours at a level of only a few inches above an exceedingly dusty road. Even the longest journey must come to an end at last, and early in November I reached Peshawar.
Tribulations of Twashtri from Indian Stories
By F. W. Bain…
In the beginning, when Twashtri came to the creation of women, he found he had exhausted his materials in the making of man, and that no solid elements were left. In this dilemma, after profound meditation, he did as follows. He took the rotundity of the moon, and the curves of the creepers, and the clinging of tendrils, and the trembling of grass, and the tenderness of the reed, and the bloom of flowers, and the lightness of leaves, and the tapering of the elephant’s trunk, and the glances of deer, and the clustering of rows of bees, and the joyous gaiety of sunbeams, and the weeping of clouds, and the fickleness of the winds, and the timidity of the hare, and the vanity of the peacock, and the softness of the parrot’s bosom, and the hardness of adamant, and the sweetness of honey, and the cruelty of the tiger, and the warm glow of the fire, and the coldness of snow, and the chattering of jays, and the cooing of the Kokila, and the hypocrisy of the crane, and the fidelity of the chakrawaka; and compounding all these together he made woman, and gave her to man.
…..from Purchas his Pilgrims by Samuel Purchas (1619)….
Agra and Fatepore are two very great Cities, either of them much greater than London, and very populous. Between Agra and Fatepore are twelve miles, and all the way is a Market of victuals and other things….
On my last night in Udaipur, I paid a farewell visit to the Shreejagdeesh Temple…..It was a lackadaisical, interminable affair; people wandering in and praying for a bit, making pooja, joining in the Jagdeesh hymn….This absence of restriction – which I, as a product of a rule-book civilization, tend to find unsettling – has, of course, a positive aspect. It allows a mind to develop, which, in embracing everything as a manifestation of God, is not disturbed by contradictions which offend us. Hinduism does not compartmentalize in the way we do. Everything seems related.
…..I do envy the simple ease of access to spiritual joy that I witnessed in this temple. That’s why I used to go back there. I was captivated by the proximity of body and soul, of the natural and the sophisticated, and I sensed the power of this intriguing combination.
I think it explained why I was so often – rather unusually for me – so close to tears in India: it opened me up. It removed the necessity for habitual, strict self-control, and made the normally protected emotional areas more available. This very Indian union of the unaffected and the civilized will, I suspect, always elude and therefore always intrigue the English.
…from The Soul of India by Amaury de Riencourt (1950)
Great and enduring empires are the result of circumstances rather than of men’s conscious will. They just happen because of historical necessity, because countries fall to pieces owing to internal circumstances and because outsiders are often compelled, often against their own wishes, to pick up the pieces. They endure because of the tacit acquiescence of the conquered and last only so long as this acquiescence lasts. With very few exceptions the Indian population had long ago lost all interest in politics, leaving warfare to professional soldiers and statesmanship and diplomacy to the Caesarian rulers who fought each other ruthlessly. Mostly self-governing through their caste and village-councils, they accepted more or less meekly the rulers which fate decreed for them, many of whom were low-caste adventurers who were willing to soil their hands in the dirty world of politics. They had accepted for hundreds of years the rule of alien Muslims and, except for sporadic rebellions had merely tried to tighten the bonds knitting their society together and let the Muslims rule as they pleased. And this attitude did not change when the Europeans arrived on the scene.
That one involvement brings on another and so on ad infinitum, was soon proved by the fact that the British had to extend their sway further and further beyond the frontiers of India proper for the sheer sake of protecting their existing possessions.
……the power of India. I believe India’s so-called spiritual powers are very much to do with discoveries of self-knowledge.
This country can be all things to all people; as Kipling writes, ‘India is the one place in the world where a man can do as he pleases and nobody asks why.’ The reputation India has acquired as a spiritual home in itself helps people who are searching for one; their minds are open before they even get there. It can provide an apparently uncluttered, simple way of life; there are fewer distractions; things work more slowly; there is more space, and above all, there is time. If you can find time to think, you can find yourself.
Thinking about sense-objects
Will attach you to sense-objects;
Grow attached and you become addicted;
Thwart your addiction, it turns to anger;
Be angry and you confuse your mind;
Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience;
Forget experience, you lose discrimination;
Lose discrimination, and you miss life’s only purpose.
- Bhagavad Gita (c. 500 BC)