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Edmund Wilson in Benares


I spent four months in Benares in the winter of 1988. I was twenty years old, with no clear idea of my future, or indeed much of anything else. After three idle, bookish years at a provincial university in a decaying old provincial town, I had developed an aversion to the world of careers and jobs which, having no money, I was destined to join. In Benares, the holiest city of the Hindus, where people come either to ritually dissolve their accumulated “sins” in the Ganges, or simply to die and achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirths—in Benares, with a tiny allowance, I sought nothing more than a continuation of the life I had led as an undergraduate.

I lived in the old quarter, in a half-derelict house owned by a Brahmin musician, a tiny, frail, courteous old man. Panditji had long ago cut himself off from the larger world, and lay sunk all day long in an opium-induced daze, from which he roused himself punctually at six in the evening to give sitar lessons to German and American students. It was how he maintained his expensive habit, and also staved off penury. His estranged, asthmatic wife lived on the floor above his—she claimed to have not gone downstairs for fifteen years—and spent most of her time in a windowless kitchen full of smoke from the dung-paved hearth, conversing in a low voice with her faithful family retainer of over fifty years. The retainer, a small, reticent man in pleated khaki shorts, hinted, in that gloomy setting, at better days in the past, even a kind of feudal grandeur.

The house I lived in, the melancholy presence of Panditji and his wife, were part of the world of old Benares that was still intact in the late Eighties, and of which the chess games in the alleys, the all-night concerts in temples, the dancing girls at elaborately formal weddings, the gently decadent pleasures of betel leaves and opium formed an essential component. In less than two years, most of this solid-seeming world was to vanish into thin air. The old city was to be scarred by a rash of fast-food outlets, video-game parlors, and boutiques, the most garish symbols of the entrepreneurial energies unleashed by the liberalization of the Indian economy, which would transform Benares in the way they had transformed other sleepy small towns across India.

But I didn’t know this then, and I did not listen too closely when Panditji’s wife reminisced about the Benares she had known as a young woman, when she told me about the time her husband came to her family home as a starving student, when she described to me the honors bestowed on her father by the Maharajah of Benares. I was even less attentive when she complained to me about her son and his wife, more particularly the latter, who, though Brahmin, had, in her opinion, the greedy, grasping ways of the merchant castes.

I didn’t pay much attention to the lives around me. I was especially indifferent to the wide-eyed Europeans drifting about on the old ghats, each attached to an ash-smeared Guru. I was deep into my own world, and, though I squirmed at the word and the kinds of abject dependence it suggested, I had found my own Guru, long dead, but, to me, more real than anyone I knew the winter I spent slowly making my way through his books.

On an earlier visit to the library at Benares Hindu University, idly browsing through the stacks, I had noticed a book called The American Earthquake. I read a few pages at random, standing in a dark corridor between overloaded, dusty shelves. It seemed interesting; I made a mental note to look it up on my next trip to the library. Months passed. By then I had moved to Benares, and one day while looking for something else in the same part of the stacks, I came across the book again. I took it to the reading room this time. An hour into it, I began to look at the long list under the heading “Other books by Edmund Wilson.” Later that afternoon, I went back to the stacks, where they all were, dust-laden, termite-infested, but beautifully, miraculously, present: The Shores of Light, Classics and Commercials, The Bit Between My Teeth, The Wound and the Bow, Europe Without Baedeker, A Window on Russia, A Piece of My Mind….

It was miraculous because this was no ordinary library. Wilson’s books weren’t easily accessible. I had always lived in small towns where libraries and bookshops were few and far between, and did not stock anything except a few standard texts of English literature: Austen, Dickens, Kipling, Thackeray. My semicolonial education had made me spend much of my time on minor Victorian and Edwardian writers. Some diversity was provided by writers in Hindi and the Russians, which you could buy cheaply at Communist bookstores. As for the rest, I read randomly, whatever I could find, and with the furious intensity of a small-town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding, the larger world.

I had realized early on that being passionate about literature wasn’t enough. You had to be resourceful; you had to be perpetually on the hunt for books. And so I was, at libraries and bookshops, at other people’s houses, in letters to relatives in the West, and, most fruitfully, at the local paper recycler, where I once bought a tattered old paperback of Heinrich Mann’s Man of Straw, which I—such were the gaps in my knowledge—dutifully read, and made notes about, without knowing anything about his more famous and distinguished brother. Among this disconnected reading, I had certain preferences, a few strong likes and dislikes, but they did not add up to coherent standards of judgment. I knew little of the social and historical underpinnings to the books I read; I had only a fleeting sense of the artistry and skill to which certain novels owed their greatness.

I had problems, too, with those books of Edmund Wilson I had found at the library, some of which I read in part that winter, others from cover to cover. They constantly referred to other books I hadn’t heard of; many of them were collections of reviews of books I could not possibly read at the time. Proust, Joyce, Hemingway, Waugh, yes; Malraux and Silone, probably; but where in India could one find John Dos Passos? Wilson’s books also assumed a basic knowledge of politics and history I did not have. They were a struggle for me, and the ignorance I felt before them was a secret source of shame, but it was also a better stimulus to the effort Wilson’s books demanded than mere intellectual curiosity.

I was never to cease feeling this ignorance, but I also had a sense as I groped my way through his work that all those unread books and unknown writers were coming to me filtered through an extraordinarily cohesive sensibility. Over the next few months, it became clear to me that his powers of summary and explication were often worth more attention than the books and writers that were his subject. There was also a certain idea that his lucid prose and confident judgments suggested, and that, at first, I found so attractive about him: the idea of a man wholly devoted to reading and thinking and writing. I thought of him at work in his various residences—Provincetown, Talcottville, Cambridge, Wellfleet—and these resonant names became attached in my imagination to a promise of wisdom and serenity.

The library where I had found Wilson’s books had, along with the university, come out of an old, and now vanished, impulse, the desire among Hindu reformists in the freedom movement to create indigenous centers of education and culture. The fundamental idea was to train young Hindu men for the modern world; and, like many other idealisms of the freedom movement, it hadn’t survived long in the chaos of independent India, where even the right to education came to be fiercely fought over under the banner of specific castes, religions, regions, and communities.

Sectarian tensions were particularly intense in North India, especially here in Uttar Pradesh, the province with the greatest population and second highest poverty rate in the country, where caste and political rivalries spread to the local universities. The main political parties,* eager to enlist the large student vote in their favor, had begun to put money into elections to the student unions. Politically ambitious students would organize themselves by caste—the Brahmin, the Thakur (the so-called warrior caste), the Backward, and the Scheduled (the government’s euphemism for former untouchables). The tensions were so great that academic sessions were frequently interrupted by student strikes; arson, kidnapping, and murder among students became common features of campus life.

Miraculously, the library at Benares had remained well stocked. Subscriptions to foreign magazines had been renewed on time: you could find complete volumes of the TLS, Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books from the 1960s in the stacks. Catalogues of university presses had been dutifully scrutinized by the library staff; the books, as though through some secluded channel untouched by the surrounding disorder, had kept flowing in.

The library was housed in an impressively large building in the style known as Hindu-Saracenic, whose attractive pastiche of Hindu and Victorian Gothic architecture had been prompted by the same Indian modernist aspirations that had created the university. But now chaos reigned in almost every department: few books were to be found in their right places; the card catalog was in complete disarray. In the reading room, students of a distinctly criminal appearance smoked foul-smelling cigarettes and noisily played cards. Some of them chose to take their siestas on long desks; bored young women spent hours scratching their initials on table tops.

It was hardly a congenial place for long hours of reading, but since I wasn’t enrolled as a student at the university, I could not take books out of the library. I was, however, allowed to sit in the reading room, and I was there almost every day from the time it opened in the morning. Since I had little money, I walked the four miles to the library from my house. For lunch I had an omelette at a fly-infested stall outside the library, and then hurried back after a glass of sticky-sweet tea which effectively killed all hunger for the next few hours. In the evening, I would walk home along the river and sit until after dark on the ghats, among a mixed company of touts and drug-pushers; washermen gathering clothes that had rested on the stone steps all afternoon, white and sparkling in the sun; groups of children playing hopscotch on the chalk-marked stone floor; a few late bathers, dressing and undressing under tattered beach umbrellas; and the groups of old men, silently gazing at the darkening river.

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