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India: Paradise Lost

We are like a zoo,” the melancholy middle-class lady said in Delhi. “Perhaps we should charge.”

She lived in India: I was a visitor. She intended a rebuke, possibly an insult, but it was easy to let it pass. India was like a zoo because India was poor and cruel and had lost its way. These were things about India that, with the Emergency, she had just discovered; and they were more than intellectual discoveries. Once—like other middle-class people, like other people secure in their caste world—she might have been able to detach herself from the mess of India; now she felt she was going down with it.

Her husband was connected with the opposition; his career was suddenly jeopardized; he lived in fear of arrest. In the pre-Emergency days—when the students were rioting, the unions were striking, and it seemed possible to get rid of Mrs. Gandhi’s government and give India a fresh start—he had been a figure. Now all his political boldness had turned to hysteria. Action had ceased to be possible; the revolution at whose head he thought he was marching had vanished, leaving him exposed.

Thousands of us will surround her house to prevent her going out or receiving visitors. We’ll camp there night and day shouting to her to resign. Even if the police arrest us, beat us up, slaughter us. How many can they slaughter? And what will they do with the corpses?” This was what old Mr. Desai, a famous Gandhian and once deputy prime minister, had promised a foreign interviewer. But then, just a few hours later, Mr. Desai had been arrested, no doubt to his own surprise (“I prefer to believe that before committing such a monstrosity Mrs. Gandhi would commit suicide,” he had told the interviewer, unwittingly showing up the vanity and shoddiness of his Gandhian posture). And there had been no uprising, no corpses in front of Mrs. Gandhi’s house in New Delhi.

Jaya Prakash Narayan, the most respected opposition leader, had been wiser. In his last public speech, in New Delhi, the evening before his arrest, he asked the students in his audience: “Will you go to classes or to prison?” “Prison!” they had replied. And he had said, “Let us see.” And the students, when the time came, had done nothing; they had become part of the great peace of the Emergency.

The revolution had turned out to be no revolution. And India, which only a few weeks before had seemed capable of renewed Gandhian fervor, had become like a zoo. The sad lady sat forward on her chair, knees apart below the wrappings of her sari, and looked down at the floor, shaking her head slowly from side to side, as though contemplating the depth of the Indian tragedy; while her husband, speaking above the traffic noise that came through the open windows, offered visions of the repression to come.

He extended his personal anxieties to the country: he foresaw that the British-built “garden city” of New Delhi, now inherited by the Indian rulers of India, would soon be barricaded against the poor and guarded by machine guns. I thought he was exaggerating, but he said that the expulsion of the poor had already begun. A squatter’s settlement in the Diplomatic Enclave had been leveled, and people and their possessions thrown out in the rain.

Many weeks later this municipal event was to appear in a London newspaper as hot news from the new India: the overthrow of socialism, the beginning of the assault on the poor: Indian events given a South American interpretation, and thereby made easier for everyone. The report was to catch the very hysteria with which the news had been given to me. But I remembered, that evening in Delhi, that such expulsions of illegal squatters were not new. In 1962, at the time of my first visit to the Indian capital, while Mr. Nehru still ruled, a similar kind of settlement had been bulldozed in the middle-class Defence Colony area. For days the collapsed brown-black spread of thatch and sacking and mud had remained beside the highway—it was as though the people who had lived there had been snuffed out, blown away. There had been a photograph in the newspaper; but not many people came to watch; there had been no outcry.

But that was in 1962, the last year of Mr. Nehru as father figure, the last year of post-Independence glory for the Indian middle class, when (until the Chinese war blew away the fantasy) India seemed to have made it, and Independence was still seen mainly as a matter of personal dignity, an Indian voice abroad, “Indianization” at home, a new kind of job, a managership, an appointment in the new diplomatic service, a new glamour, a conscious display of national costume and “culture.”

The lady who in 1975 was so sad, contemplating the tragedy of India, resenting visitors as voyeurs, would in those days have dismissed the subject of Indian poverty; she would have spoken—as middle-class ladies did then—of the happiness of the poor (greater than the happiness of others), their manners, their dignity, the way they kept their hovels clean; she would have contrasted the Indian poor with the unspeakable slum-dwellers of foreign countries. Times had changed. “Indianization” no longer meant a redistribution of jobs, a sharing out of the British legacy. It was the slogan of an opposition party, a populist-religious appeal to Hindus, a word of threat to minorities, part of the intellectual confusion, the new insecurity, the blind dredging up of dormant fantasies and obsessions, the great enraged stirring from below.

The lady looked down at the floor and, while her husband walked about and talked, she shook her head slowly, saying “Mmmm.” In that position her cheeks drooped; and they aged her, adding to her air of melancholy. She knew a family in the demolished settlement. Poor people, simple people. The man had come down to Delhi from the hills. He had found a job and built his little house on this piece of land. He had brought down his wife, and they had since had four children. He was only thirty. But, poor fellow, what other pleasures did he have? He didn’t have TV. He had brought down his brother as well, and the brother had brought down his wife, and they had begun to have their own children. Now that life had been smashed. They had all been thrown out in the rain. In the rain: the government couldn’t even wait until the monsoon was over.

But had they really been thrown out just like that? Hadn’t they been given notice of some sort? Yes, a year’s notice. But what could poor people do? It was also true that those who had registered at that time had been given building plots of their own somewhere else. But what did poor people know about registering? Who was there to help them? And, besides, the new plots were ten miles away. How would people get to work? Buses? Yes, there were buses, but I didn’t know the Delhi bus service. It was all melancholy and terrible, especially for the family she knew. Who were they? The man worked for her; he was her servant. She had lost her servant; he had lost his job.

It had taken some time to pull the story out, through the lady’s melancholy and her husband’s hysteria; and neither the lady nor her husband seemed to understand how depressing it was for a visitor, at a time of a real crisis, to have this personal loss (not yet an established loss: the servant could have got a bicycle) presented as an aspect of the national tragedy.

I come upon people, both men and women, who seem to enjoy being illtreated by others. It is an emotional luxury for them to dwell on and speak about their grievances and wallow in self-pity. Among such people conversation means relating what they suffer at the hands of official superiors or inferiors, relatives near or distant.” This is what the seventy-nine-year-old Bengali writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, wrote in 1970, in To Live or Not to Live, a handbook for Indians on “living happily with others.” Chaudhuri, beating his own way out of the thicket of Indian attitudes, believes that Indians do not live, that they live “unsoundly,” to no purpose. “Do we live at all? This would seem an absurd question, for none of us commit suicide, though, to be honest, I would confess that I have come to feel that a large majority of the persons I know should do so, because I cannot see any point in their remaining alive.”

It was the effect on me of that Delhi evening. I had gone to that apartment expecting ideas, discussion. I had found no ideas, only obsessions; no discussion, only disingenuous complaint, and an invitation to the wallow, the sweet surrender to tragedy.

The traffic noise came through the windows and I had to strain to hear what was being said. The lights were very dim and I had to strain to see. It was a government apartment in a suburb far from the central “garden city” of New Delhi. It hadn’t been easy to find because, like many places in the suburbs of New Delhi, where streets can be nameless, it had a number rather than a guiding address. And it was numbered like a civil service file, and had that quality of being worn and much handled and about to be passed on. Our host, a civil servant, high in the service but embittered, connected with a department which was without the resources to do what its name suggested, had very soon detached himself from us. He left his plain wife and bespectacled adolescent son—old error, new hope—to sit with us while, standing in gloomy corners, shielding his prey of the evening from our sight, like an animal eating in secret, he worried and importuned a minor—and exceedingly stupid—provincial politician. The ambition was like despair; it shrieked more than the hysteria of the opposition man who feared arrest and the wallow of the woman who had lost her servant.

My taxi driver that evening was a Sikh. He had been a sportsman in his time and still had the sportsman’s presence. He knew foreign countries by the sportsmen they produced, and he spoke English well; he was a diligent reader of the newspapers. He owned his taxi and had a place in the taxi-rank of the hotel. I thought he was better off than most people in India. But his thoughts were of migration. He wanted to go to one of the Arab Gulf states. He had paid a large sum of money to a middleman, a “contractor.” His papers were almost in order now, he said; all he was waiting for, from the contractor, was his “no objection” certificate. Yet the thought of the large sum he had paid to the contractor worried him. He spoke like a man who knew he had waited too long and had begun to fear that he had been cheated.

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