Other Indias

Walter Nash

  • Ice-Candy-Man by Bapsi Sidhwa
    Heinemann, 277 pp, £11.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 434 70230 7
  • Mistaken Identity by Nayantara Sahgal
    Heinemann, 194 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 434 66612 2
  • Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai
    Heinemann, 230 pp, £10.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 434 18636 8

For my parents, it was the strangulated crackle of the old gramophone tenor forlornly wailing ‘Pale hands I loved’; for me, it was Kim and lives of the Bengal Lancers; and for my sisters possibly a dream of the launder ed memsahib decorously cantering out of the fort, to be abducted in devastating dark-eyed dumbshow by someone like Rudolph Valentino. It was poignant and dashing and very romantic, but I think we must have guessed that India was not really like that. Nor, I dare say, was it very like some recent televisual fantasies, done in stuporcolour and best brown shoe stain, of a shimmering and turbaned place, cooled only by the tutelary presence of Saint Peggy Ashcroft. These may be our preferred Indias, the Indias of spice and hokum, but they are a far, mendacious cry from the country modern Indian writers want to tell us about.

Bapsi Sidhwa tells of a time and place of civil unrest, of wrecked friendships and betrayals of trust, of the sullen moods and sudden violence of sectarianism, of a moral wilderness redeemed only by the courageous good sense and pragmatic decency of a few individuals. The description might seem to fit any number of turbulent places in a world where false godliness grins at real hatred: but the place is the city of Lahore, and the time is the traumatic period of the partition of India. Events are seen through the eyes of a spirited, imaginative, polio-stricken girl, the cosseted child of a middle-class Parsee family. Lenny has an ayah, a nanny, of whom she is inordinately fond, and Ayah has followers, attracted by her well-rounded Punjabi personality. Among these admirers she holds court, in the local park as well as in the kitchen and garden of her employers’ house. Thus Lenny becomes the friend and pet of Masseur (who massages), of Ice-Candy-Man (who sells popsicles), of Imam Din (who cooks and polygamises), of Hari (a gardener), of Sher Singh (a zookeeper), of Sharbat Khan (a knife-grinder) – all of them rich personalities in their own right, and all, for the purposes of the story, representative of the religious and ethnic mix, Hindu and Sikh and Muslim, of India before partition.

This amiable knockabout company is one of Lenny’s educational worlds. The other is the sphere of her Parsee family and their acquaintances: of Godmother and Slavesister, of Electric Aunt, of her furious little flingaround brother Adi, of Cousin (who is engaged in the discovery of his penis), of her doctor, the gruff Col. Bharucha, and of eminences like Mr Bankwalla (a rich wallah who works in a bank). Lenny as storyteller impartially distributes among all these personages proper names (Col. Bharucha), kinship or household designations (Godmother, Ayah), and the nicknames of her own invention (Electric Aunt, Ice-Candy-Man), without respect to the status or narrative centrality of the characters she describes: indeed, the more peripheral characters tend to be those who are properly named, while some of those nearer to the centre of the girl’s life bear through the entire tale only the names her affection and personal interest has given them. This is true to the spirit of childhood, but it also related to a sub-text of the story, the theme of difference and divisiveness. Proper names tell of origins; proper names help to divide Hindu from Muslim from Parsee; but how can we guess at the ethnic differences between Masseur and Ice-Candy-Man? The child looks at a community of persons undifferentiated in her view by the adult categories of religion, caste and origin; the child also sees everything in the immediacy of now, and consequently narrates in the present tense – another thematically convenient device, since it tends to eliminate one of the chores of sequential narrative, the task of ascribing effects to causes. Lenny’s is not a historical account; it is the blink of the eye – watch the birdie – trapping this unaccountable moment, and then another, and then just one more.

The moments trace the surrender of innocence, the delighted or affrighted skipping, through comedies and nightmares of incomprehensible events, from jumping joy and unquestioning love towards the beginnings of a wary recognition of the world as a place where love is dangerous and joy can abruptly go lame. The first half of the book is exuberantly sunny, smiling at childhood’s puzzlements (‘Why don’t hospitals have flushing bed-pans built into the beds?’), chuckling over its customary bumfun, fartfrolic and squealery-feelery – a little of which, it must be said, will do for now, thank you. But the mood gradually darkens as friend turns against friend, the comradely circle is broken, and terrible things happen. Ayah’s rule, the rule of love, is assaulted and besmirched; Masseur, a good and gentle man, is butchered and his remains are flung into the gutter in a gunny sack; Ice-Candy-Man, at first such an amusing figure, a fellow who does naughty things with his toes, turns Judas’ evidence, becomes a lost soul, corrupted by events that expose him to a temptation he cannot resist; and as old grievances are recalled, old scores settled, the civil strife everywhere threatens to destroy fragile illusions of decency and humanity. But Lahore will live through this and survive in Pakistan; and Pakistan will live through this and survive as one of the nations of the subcontinent; and the British, those pale, peripheral presences, symbolised by Lenny’s tutor, Mrs Pen, will simply fade out of the reckoning: ‘The whiff of Mrs Pen enlightens me. It teaches me the biology of spent cells and ageing bodies – and insinuates history into my subconscious ... of things past and of the British Raj ... of human frailties and vulnerabilities – of spent passion and lingering yearnings. Whereas a whiff of Ayah carries the dark purity of creation, Mrs Pen smells of memories.’ Pale hands nobody loved – where are you now?

For the actors in Nayantara Sahgal’s Mistaken Identity, the agonies of Partition have yet to be: nevertheless, the story anticipates them. This is an elegant, adroitly constructed, mordantly witty book, in which the general image and particular manifestation of our glamorous Raj is a garrulously over-tenanted prison cell. The year is 1929, a nervous year for the colonial government and magistracy, who fear the contagions of Bolshevism and the preposterous doctrines of the fellow Gandhi with his salt marches and his absurdly subversive spinning-wheel. Not a good year (if years Count in such matters) to find yourself in jail on a charge of conspiracy against the King Emperor, but that is why Bhushan Singh is there – Bhushan Singh, poet, playboy, wit, man-about-Bombay, a decidedly apolitical, blazer-and-cigarette-case son of an Indian: the son, in fact, of a petty raja, a talukdar empowered by the British to rack rents with a big stick and loyally organise tiger hunts. There is no less likely candidate for imprisonment, and yet this weary and pampered worldling is re moved one night from the train on which he is travelling glumly home to his native Vijaygarh, and incarcerated for many a long month. He has been arrested for the wrong crime: just one of the story’s mistaken identities.

The other occupants of Bhushan’s cell are an elderly supporter of the Congress movement, three robustly red trade-unionists, and a 19-year-old vagrant boy who becomes a kind of son to this jailbird family. The company is oddly assorted, but that, of course, is Sahgal’s intention: the characters she has gathered in misfortune are a cross-section of social and political India. In this assembly Bhushan, who has the entrée to smart society in Bombay and Beverly Hills, is a stark misfit: a privileged scion of the minor aristocracy, a man who can persuade the jailer to supply him with a chemical toilet, here sharing his fleas and his hungers with a bunch of democratic derelicts who, scorning the high seat, squat to stool in the ancient fashion of their land. The toilet posture is a significant detail, as the final discriminator: ultimately the world divides into the Seated and the Hunkered.

The hostility which Bhushan might have reason to fear is not shown by his fellow prisoners, who are, however, intensely curious about his life and hard times. It seems that they have no lives of their own to savour; they have been too busy with hopefulness and politics to have acquired anything as luxurious as a personal history. Not that they are colourless: on the contrary, they are a spirited and charmingly eccentric bunch, bright with the comic innocence of the desperately sincere. Compared with them, Bhushan is daubed with cynical wordliness – for which reason, perhaps, they find him fascinating. Good will and the instinct for self-preservation therefore commend to him a role which he likens to that of Scheherazade, a teller of distracting tales. It is a role of which both he and they tire, as prison life gradually becomes the only real life, but his habit of ruminating on the past necessarily continues. Necessarily, because in the structure of the novel the cell is the point of relational time, the temporal base of the narrative’s ‘inner’ action, from which recurrent flash backs take us to past time and the ‘outer’ action of the story. Gradually it emerges that the one significant force in the otherwise directionless life of this Hindu raja’s son has been his passion for a Muslim girl, the daughter of a humble Inspector of Schools – a passion which has set him distractedly drifting about the world, a passion which has caused him to commit the crime for which he is not imprisoned, but for which he is doing penance.

Much of Bhushan’s penitential experience consists of learning to feel for his humble, ridiculous, heroic companions, his fellow-countrymen. He is obliged to abandon the posture of the flâneur, the elegantly neutral observer. He sides with the underdog. He takes part in a hunger strike and is beaten up when he joins in a protest against the brutality Of the prison guards. The most moving episodes in the book are the descriptions of how when Bhaiji, the old Congress wallah, is sick, Bhushan cradles him in his arms until he can sleep; and how on the night of his death it is Bhushan who keeps vigil over him. Bhushan is chastened by fierce sympathies. His wit becomes the saeva indignatio of one who has seen the righteous forsaken:

It strikes me that those who have had military control of the world – the Muslims, the Christians – don’t care for rival blueprints. Heaven had better be their heaven. Never say to one of these, ‘All gods are one; men call them by different names.’ They will impale you on their ignorant stares, snarl infidel, and attack. Winners can’t live and let live. Their ongoing jihads, crusades, and inquisitions are evidence of that. And history has few sights in its showcase as gory as jihad against crusade. It takes the wide philosophical gaze of the defeated to allow each man his own paradise. Let’s drink to the losers, judge, and to the rainbow harvest of defeat.

The losers? What, no Kim? No Bengal lancers? Yet Bhushan also survives, and is allowed (because we could not bear it otherwise) to complete his broken journey, to go home to his native state, and to begin a redemptory, wiser, more purposeful life.

But Baumgartner, poor Hugo Baumgartner, a master-loser, a comprehensively world-losing wandering Jew, will never find his way home, home to Berlin and Gemütlichkeit and his sweet, sad Mutti. Baumgartner is inescapably a denizen (the only word that fits) of Bombay, and how he comes to be there is the story Anita Desai chooses to tell in a book that puts to shame all the little epithets and pert clichés that praise may offer. Baumgartner’s Bombay is complex in event but simple in plot. There are no eddies in the narrative, no tricks of concealment and sudden surprises; from the first pages it is clear that Baumgartner has come down in the world he is out of, and that what we are to witness is the tale of his decline. Born in Berlin, of Jewish parents, Hugo enjoys a protected, mother-smothered child-hood in a bürgerlich house: Dürer’s hands on the wall, leatherbound Goethe on the book shelf, on the table the ashtray in the form of a Prussian helmet, in the corner the rubber tree. His confident father, a furniture dealer, enjoys beer and Strauss in the Sunday-best park, and an occasional day at the races; his demure Mutti loves her piano, and poetry, and plants, and her little poppet, But the Nazis care for none of these things, and when they come to power, in Hugo’s youth, his wanderings start. His father dies, the emporium passes into other hands, Hugo becomes an employee, living with Mutti in pathetically reduced circumstances, and presently is sent out to India, ostensibly to act as the firm’s agent, but in fact to get him out of the way. Thus begins the poignantly unending separation of always-mother and evermore child, of Mi and Mäuschen.

At first Baumgartner is tolerably happy in India – if the blinding astonishment of an in comprehensible place is happiness – and even makes friends, notably with raucously affectionate Lotte, another Weltbummler and instant loser, a cabaret singer in raddled exile from her own past. But the outbreak of war brings Hugo to an internment camp where, as a German and yet a Jew among those who are only German, he feels more deeply than before the pain of his displacement and hopelessness.

For a while after his release he is happy in Bombay, where he picks up the threads of business life, becomes an Indian citizen, meets Lotte again, and is richly befriended by one Chimanlal, his partner in the extraordinary venture of owning a racehorse, and a winning one at that. But when Chimanlal dies, his son coldly rejects Hugo, and Baumgartner’s Bombay becomes the slum of rags and stenches, of sweat and gaudy noise, where a shambling old man lives malodorously among his cats and memories. It is now that he meets one more displaced person, a young German drug-mystic and ashram-tramp, to whom he is grumblingly obliged to offer the shelter of his room. It is a fatal error; for the sake of the silver cups that are Baumgartner’s one reminder of his triumphant days as a race-horse owner, the young man stabs him to death as he sleeps. His neighbours find Hugo’s body, sprawled among a fall-out of letters and postcards, treasured remembrances of unreachable, long-silent Mutti.

What no outline of the story can do is convey any impression of the novel’s power to surprise and delight with its writerly skill, and to cajole the reader repeatedly into moral reflections that in some parts of the book seem to beckon between sentences, like alleys temptingly glimpsed from an exciting thoroughfare. It is a narrative of classic structure; the foreground action occupies one day – just as long as it might take a steady reader to read it – and the rich material of recalled incident, covering the events of many years, is introduced with utter plausibility into the account of Hugo’s customary errands and encounters. Only once does Desai’s patient craft lapse into a banal convention: when we are to learn something of Lotte’s past life and marital difficulties, she is allowed to tell Hugo what Hugo can fairly be presumed to know already. Lotte, however, serves brilliantly and poignantly as the framing character who is seen at the beginning and end of the story – Hugo’s closest friend, his compatriot and fellow derelict – in affronted grief reading the postcards from Mutti, ‘as if they provided her with clues to a puzzle, a meaning to the meaningless’.

Within this careful design there are sumptuous essays in poetic and stylistic variation. The long chapter describing Hugo’s childhood goes by in a dreaming instant, because its narrative is wonderfully intercalated with German nursery rhymes that both punctuate and in pathos comment upon the action. When Baumgartner entertains his murderous guest in the poor room that is the ultimate wreckage and fortress of his life, the youth’s fantasies of his travels in India are presented as a catalogue of recitals, coloured views scribbled with drug-poesy:

In Mathura he had done the parikrama, walked barefoot from temple to temple, bathed in the ponds, drunk from the wells, sung and danced the Krishna songs. At Holi, he and the pilgrims had pelted each other with coloured powders and coloured waters, till they were pink and indigo and purple. They had drunk opium in milk, eaten opium in sweets, smoked opium in drugs.

  ‘So much drugs – what it will do to you?’

  ‘It will make me – ach, great, and happy and great!’

Thus India, that takes in all who wish to be taken in, patiently accommodates yet another invader with yet another delusion. And in all of the book it is India that speaks on page after page in passage upon passage of entrancing description, the insulted, burdened land, the crowds, the teeming babble of tongues, the arid, khaki land, the bone-dry land, the fierce green humid land, the land that encloses the crowds and the characters and at last cancels all images of the individual personality. I am bound to ask myself if this is not a preferred India like ail the rest, conceived in one reader’s privileged fancy – but I do not think so.