India: Synthesis and Mimicry

At a dinner party in Delhi, a young foreign academic, describing what was most noticeable about the crowds he had seen in Bombay on his Indian holiday, said with a giggle: “They were doing their ‘potties’ on the street.” He was adding to what his Indian wife had said with mystical gravity: she saw people only having their being. She was middle-class and well connected. He was shallow and brisk and common, enjoying his pickings, swinging happily from branch to low branch in the grove of Academe. But the couple were well matched in an important way. Her Indian blindness to India, with its roots in caste and religion, was like his foreigner’s easy disregard. The combination is not new; it has occurred again and again in the last thousand years of Indian history, the understanding based on Indian misunderstanding; and India has always been the victim.

But this couple lived outside India. They returned from time to time as visitors, and India restored in different ways the self-esteem of each. For other people in that gathering, however, who lived in India and felt the new threat of the millions and all the uncertainties that had come with Independence and growth, India could no longer be taken for granted. The poor had ceased to be background. Another way of looking was felt to be needed, some profounder acknowledgment of the people of the streets.

And this was what was attempted by another young woman, a friend of the couple who lived abroad. The women of Bombay, she said, and she meant the women of the lower castes, wore a certain kind of sari and preferred certain colors; the men wore a special kind of turban. She had lived in Bombay; but, already, she was wrong: it is true that the women dress traditionally, but in Bombay the men for the most part wear trousers and shirt. It was a revealing error: for all her sympathy with the poor, she was still receptive only to caste signals, and was as blind as her friend.

I will tell you about the poor people in Bombay,” she insisted. “They are beautiful. They are more beautiful than the people in this room.” But now she was beginning to lie. She spoke with passion but she didn’t believe what she said. The poor of Bombay are not beautiful, even with their picturesque costumes in low-caste colors. In complexion, features, and physique the poor are distinct from the well-to-do; they are like a race apart, a dwarf race, stunted and slow-witted and made ugly by generations of undernourishment; it will take generations to rehabilitate them. The idea that the poor are beautiful was, with this girl, a borrowed idea. She had converted it into a political attitude, which she was prepared to defend. But it had not sharpened her perception.

New postures in India, attitudes that imply new ways of seeing, often turn out to be a matter of words alone. In their attempts to go beyond the old sentimental abstractions about the poverty of India, and to come to terms with the poor, Indians have to reach outside their civilization, and they are at the mercy then of every kind of imported idea. The intellectual confusion is greater now than in the days of the British, when the world seemed to stand still, the issues were simpler, and it was enough for India to assert its Indianness. The poor were background then. Now they press hard, and have to be taken into account.

From the Indian Express, October 31, 1975:

Education Minister Prabha Rau has urged scientists and technologists to innovate simpler technology so that it does not become exclusive. Mrs Rau was speaking as the chief guest at a seminar on science and integrated rural development…. She lamented the fact that the youth were not interested in science and technology because “it is not only expensive but the exclusive preserve of a few,” and hoped that there would be more “active participation of a larger number of people.”

The speech is not easy to understand—the reporter was clearly baffled by what he heard—but it seems to contain a number of different ideas. There is the idea that the poor should also be educated (Indian students; who are assumed in the speech to be middle-class, are in fact interested in science); there is the idea that development should affect the greatest number; and there is the new, and unrelated, idea about “intermediate technology,” the idea that Indian technology should match Indian resources and take into account the nature of Indian society. The first two ideas are unexceptionable, the third more complex; but, complex or simple, the ideas are so much a matter of words that they have been garbled together—either by the minister or the reporter—into a kind of political manifesto, an expression of concern with the poor.

The poor are almost fashionable. And this idea of intermediate technology has become an aspect of that fashion. The cult in India centers on the bullock cart. The bullock cart is not to be eliminated; after 3,000 or more backward years Indian intermediate technology will now improve the bullock cart. “Do you know,” someone said to me in Delhi, “that the investment in bullock carts is equivalent to the total investment in the railways?” I had always had my doubts about bullock carts; but I didn’t know until then that they were not cheap, were really quite expensive (more expensive than many second-hand cars in England), and that only richer peasants could afford them. It seemed to me a great waste, the kind of waste that poverty perpetuates. But I was glad I didn’t speak, because the man who was giving me these statistics went on: “Now. If we could improve the performance of the bullock cart by 10 percent….”

What did it mean, improving the performance by 10 percent? Greater speed, bigger loads? Were there bigger loads to carry? These were not the questions to ask, though. Intermediate technology had decided that the bullock cart was to be improved. Metal axles, bearings, rubber tires? But wouldn’t that make the carts even more expensive? Wouldn’t it take generations, and a lot of money, to introduce those improvements? And, having got so far, mightn’t it be better to go just a little further and introduce some harmless little engine? Shouldn’t intermediate technology be concentrating on that harmless little engine capable of the short journeys bullock carts usually make?

But no: these were a layman’s fantasies: the bullock was, as it were, central to the bullock-cart problem, as the problem had been defined. The difficulty—for science—was the animal’s inconvenient shape. The bullock wasn’t like the horse; it couldn’t be harnessed properly. The bullock carried a yoke on its neck. This was the practice since the beginning of history, and the time had come for change. This method of yoking was not only inefficient; it also created sores and skin cancer on the bullock’s neck and shortened the animal’s working life. The bullock-cart enthusiast in Delhi told me that a bullock lasted only three years. But this was the exaggeration of enthusiasm; other people told me that bullock lasted ten or eleven years. To improve yoking, much research had to be done on the stresses on the bullock as it lifted and pulled. The most modern techniques of monitoring had to be used; and somewhere in the south there was a bullock which, while apparently only going about its peaceful petty business, was as wired up as any cosmonaut.

I was hoping to have a look at this animal when I got to the south and—India being a land of overenthusiastic report—to check with the scientist who had become the bullock-cart king. But the man himself was out of the country, lecturing; he was in demand abroad. Certain subjects, like poverty and intermediate technology, keep the experts busy. They are harassed by international seminars and conferences and foundation fellowships. The rich countries pay; they dictate the guiding ideas, which are the ideas of the rich about the poor, ideas sometimes about what is good for the poor, and sometimes no more than expressions of alarm. They, the rich countries, even manage now to export their romantic doubts about industrial civilization. These are the doubts that attend every kind of great success; and they are romantic because they contain no wish to undo that success or to lose the fruits of that success. But India interprets these doubts in its own debilitating way, and uses them to reconcile itself to its own failure.

Complex imported ideas; forced through the retort of Indian sensibility, often come out cleansed of content, and harmless; they seem so regularly to lead back, through religion and now science, to the past and nullity: to the spinning wheel, the bullock cart. Intermediate technology should mean a leap ahead, a leap beyond accepted solutions, new ways of perceiving coincident needs and resources. In India it has circled back to something very like the old sentimentality about poverty and the old ways, and has stalled with the bullock cart: a fascinating intellectual adventure for the people concerned, but sterile, divorced from reality and usefulness.

And while, in the south, science seeks to improve the bullock cart, at Ahmedabad in Gujarat, at the new, modern, and expensively equipped National Institute of Design, they are—on a similar “intermediate” principle and as part of the same cult of the poor—designing or redesigning tools for the peasants. Among the finished products in the glass-walled showroom down-stairs was a portable agricultural spraying machine, meant to be carried on the back. The bright yellow plastic casing looked modern enough; but it was hard to know why at Ahmedabad—apart from the anxiety to get the drab thing into bright modern plastic—they had felt the need to redesign this piece of equipment, which on the tea gardens and elsewhere is commonplace and, it might be thought, sufficiently reduced to simplicity. Had something been added? Something had, within the yellow plastic. A heavy motor, which would have crippled the peasant called upon to carry it for any length of time: the peasant who already, in some parts of India, has to judge tools by their weight and, because he has sometimes to carry his plough long distances to his field, prefers a wooden plough to an iron one. My guide acknowledged that the spray was heavy but gave no further explanation.

The spraying machine, however, was of the modern age. Upstairs, a fourth-year student, clearly one of the stars of the Institute, was designing tools for the ancient world. He had a knife-sharpening machine to show; but in what way it differed from other cumbersome knife-sharpening machines I couldn’t tell. His chief interest, though, was in tools for reaping. He disapproved of the sickle for some reason; and he was against the scythe because the cut stalks fell too heavily to the ground. Scythe and sickle were to be replaced by a long-handled tool which looked like a pair of edging shears: roughly made, no doubt because it was for the peasants and had to be kept rough and simple. When placed on the ground the thick metal blades made a small V; but only one blade was movable, and this blade the peasant had to kick against the fixed blade and then—by a means the designer had not yet worked out—retract for the next cut.

As an invention, this seemed to me some centuries behind the reaping machine of ancient Rome (a bullock-pushed tray with a serrated edge); but the designer, who was a townsman, said he had spent a week in the countryside and the peasants had been interested. I said that the tool required the user to stand; Indians preferred to squat while they did certain jobs. He said the people had to be re-educated.

His alternative design absolutely required standing. This was a pair of reaping shoes. At the front of the left shoe was a narrow cutting blade; on the right side of the right shoe was a longer curved blade. So the peasant, advancing through his ripe corn, would kick with his left foot and cut, while, with his right, he would describe a wide arc and cut: a harvest dance. Which, I felt, explained the otherwise mysterious presence of a wheelchair in the showroom downstairs, among the design items—the yellow agricultural spray, the boards with the logos for various firms, the teacups unsteady on too stylishly narrow a base. The wheelchair must have been for peasants: the hand-propelled inner wheel of the chair, if my trial was valid, would bark the invalid’s knuckles against the outer wheel, and the chair itself, when stopped, would tip the invalid forward. Yes, my guide said neutrally, the chair did do that: the invalid had to remember to sit well back.

Yet the chair was in the window as something to show, something designed; and perhaps it was there for no better reason than that it looked modern and imported, proof that India was going ahead. Going ahead downstairs, going piously backward upstairs: India advancing simultaneously on all fronts, responding to every kind of idea at once. The National Institute of Design is the only one of its kind in India; it is fabulously equipped, competition to enter is fierce, and standards should be high. But it is an imported idea, an imported institution, and it has been imported whole, just like that. In India it has been easily divorced from its animating principle, reduced to its equipment, and has ended—admittedly after a controversial period: a new administrator had just been sent in—as a finishing school for the unacademic young, a play-pen, with artisans called in to do the heavy work, like those dispirited men I saw upstairs squatting on the floor and working on somebody’s chairs: India’s eternal division of labor, frustrating the proclaimed social purpose of the Institute.

Mimicry within mimicry, imperfectly understood idea within imperfectly understood idea: the second-year girl student in the printing department, not understanding the typographical exercise she had been set, and playing with type like a child with a typewriter, avoiding, in the name of design, anything like symmetry, clarity, or logic; the third-year girl student showing a talentless drawing and saying, in unacknowledged paraphrase of Klee, that she had described “the adventures of a line”; and that fourth-year man playing with tools for the peasants. There are times when the intellectual confusion of India seems complete, and it seems impossible to get back to clarifying first principles. Which must have been one of the aims of an institute of design: to make people look afresh at the everyday.

An elementary knowledge of the history of technology would have kept that student—and the teachers who no doubt encouraged him—off the absurdity of his tools; even an elementary knowledge of the Indian countryside, elementary vision. Those tools were designed in an institute where there appeared to have been no idea of the anguish of the Indian countryside: the landless or bonded laborers, the child laborers, the too many cheap hands, the petty chopped-up fields, the nullity of the tasks. The whole project answered a fantasy of the peasant’s life: the peasant as the man overburdened by the unending labors of his fields, overburdened by the need to gather in his abundant harvest: romance, an idea of the simplicity of the past and pre-industrial life, which is at the back of so much thinking, political and otherwise, in India, the vision based on no vision.

The bullock cart is to be improved by high science. The caravans will plod idyllically to market and the peasant, curled up on his honest load, will sleep away the night, a man matching his rhythm to that of nature, a man in partnership with his animals. But that same peasant, awake, will goad his bullock in the immemorial way, by pushing a stick up its anus. It is an unregarded but necessary part of the idyll, one of the obscene sights of the Indian road: the hideous cruelty of pre-industrial life, cruelty constant and casual, and easily extended from beast to man.

The beauty of the simple life, the beauty of the poor: in India the ideas are rolled together and appear one, but the ideas are separate and irreconcilable, because they assert two opposed civilizations.

Indians say that their gift is for cultural synthesis. When they say this they are referring to the pre-British past, to the time of Moslem dominance. And though the idea is too much part of received wisdom, too much a substitute for thought and inquiry, there is proof of that capacity for synthesis in Indian painting. For the 200 years or so of its vigor, until (very roughly) about 1800, this art is open to every kind of influence, even European. It constantly alters and develops as it shifts from center to center, and is full of local surprises. Its inventiveness—which contemporary scholarship is still uncovering—is truly astonishing.

In the nineteenth century, with the coming of the British, this great tradition died. Painting is only as good as its patrons allow it to be. Indian painting, before the British, was an art of the princely courts, Hindu or Moslem, and reflected the culture of those courts. Now there were new patrons, of more limited interests; and nothing is sadder, in the recent history of Indian culture, than to see Indian painting, in its various schools, declining into East India Company art, tourist art. A new way of looking is imposed, and Indian artists become ordinary as they depict native “types” in as European a manner as their techniques allow, or when, suppressing their own idea of their function as craftsmen, their own feeling for design and organization, they struggle with what must have been for them the meaninglessness of Constable-like “views.” A vigorous art becomes imitative, second-rate, insecure (always with certain regional exceptions); it knows it cannot compete; it withers away, and is finally abolished by the camera. It is as though, in a conquered Europe, with all of European art abruptly disregarded, artists were required to paint genre pictures in, say, a Japanese manner. It can be done, but the strain will kill.

India has recovered its traditions of the classical dance, once almost extinct, and its weaving arts. But the painting tradition remains broken; painting cannot simply go back to where it left off; too much has intervened. The Indian past can no longer provide inspiration for the Indian present. In this matter of artistic vision the West is too dominant, and too varied; and India continues imitative and insecure, as a glance at the advertisements and illustrations of any Indian magazine will show. India, without its own living traditions, has lost the ability to incorporate and adapt; what it borrows it seeks to swallow whole. For all its appearance of cultural continuity, for all the liveliness of its arts of dance, music, and cinema, India is incomplete: a whole creative side has died. It is the price India has had to pay for its British period. The loss balances the intellectual recruitment during this period, the political self-awareness (unprecedented in Indian history) and the political reorganization.

What is true of Indian painting is also true of Indian architecture. There again a tradition has been broken; too much has intervened; and modernity, or what is considered to be modernity, has now to be swallowed whole. The effect is calamitous. Year by year India’s stock of barely usable modern buildings grows. Old ideas about ventilation are out; modern air-conditioners are in; they absolve the architect of the need to design for the difficult climate, and leave him free to copy. Ahmedabad doesn’t only have the National Institute of Design; it also, as a go-ahead city, has a modern little airport building. The roof isn’t flat or sloping, but wavy; and the roof is low. Hot air can’t rise too high; and glass walls, decoratively hung with some reticulated modern fabric, let in the Indian afternoon sun. It is better to stay with the taxi-drivers outside, where the temperature is only about a hundred. Inside, fire is being fought with fire, modernity with modernity: the glass oven hums with an expensive, power-consuming “Gulmarg” aircooler, around which the respectable and sheltered cluster.

At Jaisalmer in the Rajasthan desert the state government has just built a tourist guest house of which it is very proud. Little rooms open off a central corridor, and the desert begins just outside the uncanopied windows. But the rooms needn’t be stuffy. For ten rupees extra a day you can close the shutters, switch on the electric light, and use the cooler, an enormous factory fan set in the window, which makes the little room roar. Yet Jaisalmer is famous for its old architecture, its palaces, and the almost Venetian grandeur of some of its streets. And in the bazaar area there are traditional courtyard houses, in magnificent stone versions for the desert: tall, permitting ventilation in the outer rooms, some part of the house always in cool shadow.

But the past is the past; architecture in India is a modern course of study and, as such, another imported skill, part of someone else’s tradition. In architecture as in art, without the security of a living tradition, India is disadvantaged. Modernity—or Indianness—is so often only a matter of a façade; within, and increasingly, even in remote places now, is a nightmare of misapplied technology or misunderstood modern design: the rooms built as if for Siberia, always artificially lit, noisy with the power-consuming air-conditioning unit, and uninhabitable without that unit, which leaks down the walls and ruins the fitted carpet: expense upon expense, the waste with which ignorance often burdens poverty.

There was a time when Indians who had been abroad and picked up some simple degree or skill said that they had become displaced, and were neither of the East nor West. In this they were absurd and self-dramatizing: they carried India with them, Indian ways of perceiving. Now, with the great migrant rush, little is heard of that displacement. Instead, Indians say that they have become too educated for India. The opposite is usually true: they are not educated enough; they only want to repeat their lessons. The imported skills are rooted in nothing; they are skills separate from principles.

On the train going back to Bombay one rainy evening I heard the complaint from a blank-faced, plump young man. He was too educated for India, he said; and he spoke the worn words without irony or embarrassment. He had done a course in computers in the United States, and (having money) what he wanted to do was to set up a factory to build the American equipment he had learned about. But India wasn’t ready for this kind of advanced equipment, and he was thinking he might have to go back permanently to the United States.

I wanted to hear more about his time in the United States. But he had little else to say about that country or—the rainy, smoky industrial outskirts of Bombay, rust, black, and green, going past our window—about India. America was as he had expected it to be, he said, He gave no concrete details. And India—even after the United States, and in spite of what could be seen through our window—he assessed only as an entrepreneur might assess it.

He was of a northern merchant caste; he carried caste in his manner. He belonged to old India; nothing had happened to shake him out of that security; he questioned nothing. From the outside world he had snatched no more than a skill in computers, as, in less complicated times, he might have learned about cloth or grain at home. He said he was too educated for India. But—to give the example given me by the engineer I had got to know in Bombay—he was like the plumber from the slums: a man from a simple background called upon to exercise a high skill, and exercising it blindly. Water is the plumber’s business; but water is to him a luxury, something for which his wife has to queue every morning; he cannot then understand why it is necessary for a tap to be placed straight, in the center of a tile. So—in spite of his own simple background, in spite of India—the computer man, possessing only his specialized skill, saw his business as the laying down of computers, anywhere.

To match technology to the needs of a poor country calls for the highest skills, the clearest vision. Old India, with all its encouragements to the instinctive, nonintellectual life, limits vision. And the necessary attempt at making imported technology less “exclusive”—to use the confusing and perhaps confused word of the Maharashtra education minister—has ended with the school of the bullock cart, a mixture of mimicry and fantasy. Yet it is something—perhaps a great deal—that India has felt the need to make the attempt.

India is old, and India continues. But all the disciplines and skills that India now seeks to exercise are borrowed. Even the ideas Indians have of the achievements of their civilization are essentially the ideas given them by European scholars in the nineteenth century. India by itself could not have rediscovered or assessed its past. Its past was too much with it, was still being lived out in the rituals, the laws, the magic—the complex instinctive life that muffles response and buries even the idea of inquiry. Indian painting now has its scholars in India, but the approach to painting, even among educated people, is still, generally, iconographic, the recognition of deities and themes. A recently dead tradition, an unchanging belief: the creative loss passes unnoticed.

India blindly swallows its past. To understand that past, it has had to borrow alien academic disciplines; and, as with the technology, their foreign origin shows. Much historical research has been done; but European methods of historical inquiry, arising out of one kind of civilization, with its own developing ideas of the human condition, cannot be applied to Indian civilization; it misses too much. Political or dynastic events, economic life, cultural trends: the European approach elucidates little, has the effect of an unsuccessful attempt to equate India with Europe, and makes nonsense of the stops and starts of Indian civilization, the brief flowerings, the long periods of sterility, men forever claimed by the instinctive life, continuity turning to barbarism.

History, with its nationalist shrillness, sociology with its mathematical approach, and its tables: these borrowed disciplines remain borrowed. They have as yet given India little idea of itself. India no more possesses Indian history than it possesses its art. People have an idea of the past and can quote approving things from foreign sources (a habit of which all Indians complain and of which all are guilty). But to know India, most people look inward. They consult themselves: in their own past, in the nature of their caste or clan life, their family traditions, they find the idea of India which they know to be true, and according to which they act.

Indian newspapers reflect this limited vision, this absence of inquiry, the absence of what can be called human interest. The pre-censorship liveliness of the Indian press—of which foreign observers have spoken—was confined to the editorial pages. Elsewhere there were mainly communiqués, handouts, reports of speeches and functions. Indian journalism developed no reporting tradition; it often reported on India as on a foreign country. An unheadlined item from the Statesman, September 17, 1975: “Woman Jumps to Death: A woman jumped to death after throwing her two children into a well at Chennaptna, 60 km from Bangalore recently, according to police.—PTI.” Recently! But, that is all; the police communiqué is enough; no reporter was sent out to get the story. From the Times of India, October 4, 1975: “An ‘eye-surgeon,’ who had performed 70 eye operations here in February resulting in the loss of eyesight of 20 persons and serious injuries to many others, has been arrested in Muzaffarnagar, the police said there yesterday. The man, apparently an Ayurvedic physician with no knowledge of surgery, had promised patients in Jalgaon that he would perform the operations at concessional rates.” That is all; the story is over; there will be no more tomorrow.

A caste vision: what is remote from me, is remote from me. The Indian press has interpreted its function in an Indian way. It has not sought to put India in touch with itself; it doesn’t really know how, and it hasn’t felt the need. During its free years it watched over nothing; away from the political inferno of its editorial pages it saw few causes for concern. Its India was background, was going on. It was a small-circulation left-wing paper, the Economic and Political Weekly of Bombay, that exposed the abuses on the coalfields in the Dhanbad district of Bihar, where workers were terrorized by money-lenders and their gangs. Shortly after the Emergency, the government announced that two or three hundred of the moneylenders had been arrested. That, too, was a simple agency item in the Indian daily press. No paper related it to what had gone before, or seemed to understand its importance; no one went out to investigate the government’s claim. Only, some time later, the Calcutta Statesman carried an account by a reporter of what it felt like to go down a pit at Dhanbad: a “color” piece, cast in terms of personal adventure, an Indian account, with the miners as background.

Since the Emergency the government—for obvious reasons—has decreed that newspapers should look away from politics and concentrate on social issues. It has required newspapers to go in for “investigative reporting”—the borrowed words are used; and it might be said that the news about India in the Indian press has never been so bad as it is now. Recent numbers of the Illustrated Weekly of India (adventurously edited, even before the Emergency) have carried features on bonded labor, child labor, and child marriage. The Indian press has at last begun to present India to itself. But it does so under compulsion. It is one of the paradoxes of India under the Emergency that make judgment about the Emergency so difficult: the dangers are obvious, but the results can appear positive. The press has lost its political freedom, but it has extended its interpretative function.

The press (like technology, eventually) can be made to match Indian needs. But what of the law? How can that system, bequeathed to India by another civilization, with other values, give India equity, and perform the law’s constant reassessing, reforming role? From the Times of India, October 5, 1975:

The Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, said today that the Indian legal system should assume a “dynamic role” in the process of social transformation, shaking off the “inhibiting legacy of the colonial past.” …She said: “Law should be an instrument of social justice.” Explaining the “dynamic role” of the legal system, Mrs Gandhi said it should assist in the liberation of the human spirit and of human institutions from the strait-jacket of outdated customs. She said the people’s respect for law depended on the extent of their conviction that it afforded them real and impartial protection. “Our ancients realized this when they stated that society should uphold dharma so that dharma sustains society,” she added.

But how can the imported system assume its dynamic role in India? The difficulty, the contradiction, lies in that very concept of dharma. The dharma of which Mrs. Gandhi speaks is a complex word: it can mean the faith, pietas, everything which is felt to be right and religious and sanctioned. Law must serve dharma or at least not run counter to it; and that seems fair enough. Yet dharma, as expressed in the Indian social system, is so shot through with injustice and cruelty, based on such a limited view of man. It can accommodate bonded labor as, once, it accommodated widow-burning. Dharma can resist the idea of equity. Law in India can at times appear a forensic game, avoiding collision with the abuses it should be remedying; and it is hard to see how any system of law can do otherwise, while the Indian social system holds, and while dharma is honored above the simple rights of men.

A.S.R. Chari is a famous Indian criminal lawyer. He has written a book about some of his cases; and in October 1975 Blitz, a popular left-wing weekly of Bombay, retold this story from the Chari book. In Maharashtra, in the 1950s, a marriage was arranged between the daughter of a clothseller and the son of a lawyer. The lawyer turned up for the wedding ceremony with 150 guests, all to be fed and lodged at the clothseller’s expense. The clothseller objected; the lawyer, angered by the discourtesy and apparent meanness, threw 2000 rupees in notes at the feet of the clothseller in a gesture of insult. Yet the marriage went ahead: the lawyer’s son married the clothseller’s daughter. Only, the lawyer forbade his son to have anything more to do with his wife’s family, and forbade his daughter-in-law to visit her parents. The girl suffered. (“She seemed to have been a highly strung girl,” Chari writes.) She suffered especially when she was not allowed to visit her sister in hospital. Her husband was firm when she asked his permission. He said: “You know the position. I cannot allow this. Do not be too unhappy over it.” Waking up that night, the young man found his wife dead beside him.

Cyanide was detected in the viscera of the dead girl; and the young man was charged with her murder. The prosecution argued that she could not, by herself, have obtained the cyanide in Bombay; it must have been administered by her husband who, as a photographer, had chemicals of various kinds in his laboratory. But the police hadn’t found potassium or sodium cyanide in the laboratory; they had only found potassium ferricyanide, not a poison. This gave Chari—arguing the young man’s appeal against conviction for murder—his clue. “Potassium ferricyanide, though not ordinarily a poison, would act as a poison when taken by a person who had hyper-acidity—that is, a person who secreted too much hydrocholoric acid in the stomach.” So the girl had committed suicide. Her husband was acquitted.

Justice was done. But the injustice to the dead girl was hardly commented on. The Supreme Court, hearing the appeal, spoke of “false ideas of family prestige”; but in Chari’s legalistic account, as rendered in Blitz, full of technicalities about the admissibility of evidence, the punishment of the clothseller by the suicide of his daughter is made to appear just one of those things. “Oh yes,” one of the appeal judges said, “you have to make arrangements so thoroughly that you satisfy every demand made by any one of the bridegroom’s party.” And in this acknowledgment of the traditional demands of family honor the tragedy of the girl is lost: writing letters to the family she is not allowed to see (“God’s will be done”), so quickly accepting that her young life is spoiled, and has to be ended.

The law avoids the collision with dharma. Yet it is this very dharma that the law must grapple with, if the law is to have a “dynamic role.” That is the difficulty: to cope with the new pressures, India has in some ways to undermine itself, to lose its old security. Borrowed institutions can no longer function simply as borrowed institutions, a tribute to modernity. Indians say that their gift is for synthesis. It might be said, rather, that for too long, as a conquered people, they have been intellectually parasitic on other civilizations. To survive in subjection, they have preserved their sanctuary of the instinctive, uncreative life, converting that into a religious ideal; at a more worldly level, they have depended on others for the ideas and institutions that make a country work. The Emergency—coming so soon after Independence—dramatizes India’s creative incapacity, its intellectual depletion, its defenselessness, the inadequacy of every man’s idea of India.

(This is the sixth in a series of articles about India.)