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Edmund Wilson in Benares

But it was hard to break off contact, even harder to be indifferent to the innocent friendliness he exuded every time I saw him. He often appeared at the library, “checking up,” he said, on whether I was being my studious self, or whether I went to the library to “ogle the girls.” I would try to avoid him by disappearing from the library at the time he was likely to be there, but he would then show up at a later hour. He also showed a surprising amount of interest in my reading; surprising, because although he had done an undergraduate course in English, I rarely saw him reading anything more than the Hindi newspapers scattered around the tea shops on the campus. “Edmund Wilson! Again! Why,” he would ask with genuine bemusement, “are you always reading the same man?” He listened patiently while I tried to say a few explanatory words about the particular book or essay he had pointed to. He once caught me reading To the Finland Station, and I had to provide a crude summary, in fewer words than used by Wilson, of Trotsky’s main ideas. I couldn’t, of course, refuse; the thought of Rajesh’s instability, the pistols in his room, always forced me to summon up a reasonably friendly response. It could be exhausting being with him at times. Why, I would wonder, did he, who seemed to have read little beyond Faiz and the Romantics, want to know so much about people so distant from us, like Trotsky or Bakunin? (More simply, why couldn’t he spend his time with other people in the university?)

Rajesh was well-known in student circles. There was a special respect for him among other upper-caste students from nearby villages; lonely and vulnerable in what to them was the larger, intimidating world away from home, they saw in Rajesh a sympathetic fellow provincial and older protector. Rajesh fit the role rather well: he was physically bigger and stronger than most students on the campus; he had a certain reputation—a lot of people seemed to know about the pistols in his room; and it pleased him to be thought of as a godfather-like figure.

A small crowd instantly gathered around him whenever I went out with him to a tea stall, and eagerly hung on to every word he spoke. He often talked about politics, the latest developments in Delhi, the current gossip about the size of a minister’s wealth; he would repeat colorful stories about local politicians, the imaginative ways in which they had conned the World Bank or some other development agency, the bridges that were built only on paper, the roads that existed only in files.

Indeed, I often wondered—although he seemed content simply talking about politics—if he was not planning to be a politician himself: students with a popular mass base in the university who proved themselves capable of organizing strikes and demonstra-tions were often handpicked by local political bosses to contest elections to the local municipal corporation. He seemed to know people off-campus as well; I once noticed in his room a couple of conspicuously affluent visitors who had driven to see him in a sinister-looking pale green Ambassador with tinted windows.

But I was preoccupied, particularly with Wilson’s writings and their maze of cross-references which sent me scurrying from book to book in an effort to plug up at least some of what I felt were egregious gaps in my knowledge. One of the books I came across in this way was Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which I had read rather indifferently in a Penguin Classics edition some time back. Wilson’s essay on the politics of Flaubert, collected in The Triple Thinkers, made me want to reread it. Now I found this account of an ambitious provincial’s tryst with metropolitan glamour and disillusion full of the kind of subtle satisfactions that a neurotic adolescent sensibility would be especially susceptible to. I identified with Frédéric Moreau, the protagonist, with his large, passionate, but imprecise, longings, his inde-cisiveness, his aimlessness, his self-contempt. I cannot ever forget the sick feeling that came over me after I finished the novel late one evening at the library. I was only twenty, and much experience, and many more books, lay ahead of me. Yet I couldn’t fail to recognize the intimations the novel gave me of the many stages of drift and futility I was encountering and was yet to encounter in my own life.

I recommended Sentimental Education to Rajesh one evening, and gave him a Xeroxed copy of Wilson’s essay. I didn’t expect him to read all of it; but he had been curious about Wilson, and I thought the essay was a good example of his writing. I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks. My life went on as before. I left for the library early in the morning, and came back to a house reverberating with the exuberant jangling of sitars, the doleful twang of sarods, the hollow beat of tablas. I ate every evening with Panditji’s wife, sitting cross-legged on the floor in her dark kitchen, awkwardly inhaling thick smoke from the wood fire, over which Shyam dextrously juggled hot chapatis from one calloused palm to another.

Later, back in my room, trying to read in the low-voltage light, I would hear the bells for evening prayers ring out from the adjacent temple. I spoke little to the Americans who, after their lessons with Panditji, came up to the roof to smoke opium. I already knew I could not share my intellectual discoveries with them. They hadn’t heard of Edmund Wilson: one of them, a Princeton undergraduate, straining to recognize the name, thought I meant the biologist E.O. Wilson. The cultural figures they spoke about, and appeared to miss in the often oppressive alienness of this most ancient of Indian towns, were then unknown to me; it was to take me a few more years to find out who David Letterman was. But the Americans were, like me, whatever their reasons, refugees from the modern world of work and achievement, explorers of a world that antedated their own, and I was sympathetic to them.

Several weeks after I’d last seen him, Rajesh abruptly reappeared one afternoon at the library. He had been away, he said, on urgent work. Now he was on his way to visit his mother who lived in a village forty miles west of Benares. Would I come with him? I thought of making some excuse, but then I realized I needed some diversion and Isaid yes. Besides, I was curious about Rajesh’s background, of which he had told me nothing until then. I could guess that he wasn’t well-off, but one could have said the same for most students at the university.

We left one cold foggy morning on the small-gauge, steam-engined train that in those days used to run between Benares and Allahabad. A chilly wind, gritty with coal dust, blew in through the iron-barred windows as the train puffed and wheezed through an endless flat plain, stubbly fields stretching to tree-blurred horizons, coils of smoke torpid above ragged settlements of mud huts and half-built brick houses. The train was empty, and we stretched ourselves on hard wooden benches, wrapped from head to toe in coarse military blankets, and hurriedly sipped cardamom-scented tea that seemed to turn cold the moment the vendor lifted the kettle off his tiny coal stove. We got off at a small station populated entirely, it seemed, by mangy dogs. Another half-hour tonga ride from there, the horse’s hooves clattering loudly against the tarmac road. Mango groves on both sides. Here and there, a few buildings: box-shaped houses of naked brick and mud huts with large courtyards where men slumbered on string cots; cold-storage warehouses; tiny shuttered shops. At an enclave of mud huts, swarthy blouseless women swept the common yard with brooms made of leafy neem twigs that left the earth raked over with crows-feet patterns. Finally, at the end of a row of identical roadside buildings, there was Rajesh’s own house, brick-walled, one room, poor—but what had I expected?

The door was opened by Rajesh’s mother, a tiny shrunken woman in a widow’s white saree. She looked frankly puzzled to see me at first, but suddenly grew very welcoming when Rajesh introduced me as a friend from the university. After the early morning light, it was dark and damp inside the high-ceilinged room. There was a solitary window, but it was closed. In one corner, partitioned off by a flimsy handloom saree, was the kitchen, where a few brass utensils dully gleamed in the dark, and where Rajesh’s mother busied herself with breakfast. In another corner, under a sagging string cot, was a tin trunk, leprous with rust. There were religious calendars in garish colors on the walls: Shiva, Krishna, Hanuman. I recall being unsettled by that bare, lightless room, and its extreme poverty, something not immediately apparent in Rajesh’s life in Benares.

Rajesh, who since the morning had become increasingly silent, left the room, and I sat in a straight-backed wicker chair and talked to his mother. Both of us had to speak very loudly to make ourselves heard above the hissing sounds from the kerosene stove. It wasn’t easy to express sympathy in that high-pitched voice; and sympathy was what was increasingly required of me as she began to tell me stories from her past. She had been widowed fifteen years ago when Rajesh was still a child, and soon afterward her wealthy, feudal in-laws had started to harass her. The house in which she lived with her husband and son was taken away from her, and they refused to give back the little dowry she had brought with her. Her parents were dead, her brothers too poor to support her. There was only Rajesh, who had worked since he was thirteen, first in the maize fields, and then at a carpet factory in Benares, where he had gone to evening school and done well enough to enter the university. The years had somehow passed.

But now she was worried. Rajesh, she felt, had reached a dead end. There were no more openings for him. All the jobs these days were going to low-caste people. And not only did Rajesh have the wrong kind of caste, he had no connections anywhere for a government job. And, she added with a touch of old Brahmin pride, he had too much self-respect to work for low-caste shopkeepers and businessmen.

How little of his past I had known! I knew a bit about those carpet factories; they had been in the papers after some human rights organizations petitioned the courts to prohibit them from using child labor. There had been pictures of large-eyed, frightened-looking children in dungeon-like rooms, framed against their exquisite handiworks. I was shocked to know that Rajesh had been one of them. The tormenting private memories of childhood that he carried within himself seemed unimaginable.

On the train back to Benares, Rajesh broke his silence to say that he had read Sentimental Education, and that it was a story he knew well. “Yeh meri duniya ki kahani hai. Main in logo ko janta hoon,” he said, in Hindi. “It is the story of my world. I know these people well.” He gave me a hard look. “Your hero, Edmund Wilson,” he added, in English, “he also knows them.”

What did Rajesh, a student in a provincial Indian university in the late 1980’s, have in common with Frédéric Moreau or any of the doomed members of his generation in this novel of mid-nineteenth-century Paris? As it happened, I didn’t ask him to explain. I had already been made to feel awkward by the unexpected disclosures about his past. And then the day had been somewhat exhausting. We talked, desultorily, of other things, and parted in Benares.

I was in Benares again two years later, when I heard about Rajesh. The man who told me, someone I remembered as one of Rajesh’s hangers-on, appeared surprised that I didn’t already know that he had been a member of a criminal gang specializing in debt collection on behalf of a group of local moneylenders and businessmen. That explains his mysterious absences from Benares, I thought, as well as the pistols in his room and the sinister-looking Ambassador with tinted windows.

It was, the man said, a good, steady business: once confronted with the possibility of violence, people paid up very quickly, without involving the police. But then Rajesh had graduated to something riskier—and here, although shocked and bewildered by what I had been told, and fully expecting the worst now, I could not take it in.

At some stage, the man said, dramatically pausing after every word, Rajesh had turned himself into a contract killer. It was an extremely well-paid profession; also, a well-connected one. You worked for small-time contractors who in turn worked for wealthy industrialists and also did favors for local political bosses who did not always rely on their own “private armies” (the local term for loyal henchmen) for certain jobs. You got to know everyone well after a few years in the business. You worked for all these important people, yet you were always on your own. The chances of survival weren’t very high. Sooner or later, the police came to hear of you. Fierce loyalties of caste and clan ensured that every murder would be avenged. It was what would one day happen to Rajesh, he said. In a typical ambush of the kind often reported in the local papers, he would be on his motorcycle when four men would surround him at a busy intersection in the old city, and shoot him dead. The prurient excitement on the man’s face filled me with disgust and anger.

I never did hear what happened to Rajesh. Such stories were in the newspapers every day. But it took me a while to sort out my confused feelings. I kept seeing Rajesh at that busy crossing, trapped in the dense swarm of scooters, cycle rickshaws, bullock carts, cars, buses, trucks, and bicycles, the four men converging upon him, producing crude pistols from their pockets…

Rajesh had bewildered me: his self-consciousness about his Brahmin identity, the pistols in his room, his constant talk of the void. I could now see that he had been struggling to make sense of his life, to connect the disparate elements that existed in it; but so, in a different way, was I.

Then a few months ago I thought of writing something on Edmund Wilson. I had tried before, in 1995, the year of Wilson’s centenary, but what I wrote seemed to me too much like a reprise of what a lot of other people had already said about him. But then I was trying to write about him in the way an American or European writer would have. What I had in mind was a straightforward exposition of Wilson’s key books. It didn’t occur to me that a separate narrative probably existed in my private discovery of Wilson’s writings in a dusty old library in the ancient town of Benares.

Now I was again looking for material on Wilson in preparation for another attempt when, browsing through old papers, I came across a Xeroxed copy of his essay on Flaubert’s politics. It looked familiar. Idly flipping through the essay, I came to the pages on Sentimental Education, where I saw some passages underlined in red. As I am not in the habit of marking up a printed text, I wondered who had done this. I read the underlined sentences:

Frédéric is only the more refined as well as the more incompetent side of the middle-class mediocrity of which the dubious promoter represents the more flashy and active aspect. And so in the case of the other characters, the journalists and the artists, the members of the various political factions, the remnants of the old nobility, Frédéric finds the same shoddiness and lack of principle which are gradually revealed in himself….

On another page the underlined passage read:

Flaubert’s novel plants deep in our mind an idea which we never quite get rid of: the suspicion that our middle-class society of manufacturers, businessmen, and bankers, of people who live on or deal in investments, so far from being redeemed by its culture, has ended by cheapening and invalidating all the departments of culture, political, scientific, artistic, and religious, as well as corrupting and weakening the ordinary human relations: love, friendship, and loyalty to cause—till the whole civilization seems to dwindle.

The passage offered a small glimpse of Wilson’s way of finding the sources and effects of literature in the overlap between individual states of mind and specific historical realities. But I hadn’t noticed it when I first came across it. I read it again and thought about the red underlinings. And then, after almost seven years, Rajesh strode back into my consciousness. I remembered the afternoon I had given Sentimental Education and Wilson’s essay to him; I remembered his words to me on the train, words I dismissed as exaggeration, the hard, determined look on his face as he said, “It is the story of my world. I know these people well. Your hero, Edmund Wilson, he also knows them.”

What had he meant by that?

The question did not leave me. And there came a time when I began to think I had understood very little, and misunderstood much, during those months in Benares. I thought of the day I went to visit Rajesh’s village and I at last saw that there had been a purpose behind Rajesh’s invitation to his home, his decision to so frankly reveal his life to me. Even the cryptic remarks about Sentimental Education and Wilson on the train: he wanted me to know that not only had he read the novel, he had drawn, with Wilson’s help, his own conclusions from it.

In the hard and mean world he had lived in, first as a child laborer and then as hired criminal for politicians and businessmen, Rajesh would have come to know well the grimy underside of middle-class society. What became clearer to me now was how quick he had been to recognize that the society Flaubert and Wilson wrote about wasn’t much different from the one he inhabited in Benares: “It’s the story of my world,” he had said. I couldn’t see it then but in Benares I had been among people who, like Frédéric Moreau and his friends, had either disowned or, in many cases, moved away from their provincial origins in order to realize their dreams of success in the bourgeois world. Only a handful of them were able to get anywhere near to realizing their dreams while the rest saw their ambitions dwindle away over the years in successive disappointments. The degradation of bribery, sycophancy, and nepotism that people were forced into in their hunt for jobs was undermining in itself: so pervasive was the corruption around them that neither those who succeeded nor those who failed were able to escape its taint.

The small, unnoticed tragedies of thwarted hopes and ideals Flaubert wrote about in Sentimental Education were all around us. And this awareness—which was also mine but which I tried to evade through, ironically, the kind of obsessive reading that had led me to the novel in the first place—had been Rajesh’s private key to the book. Thus, where I saw only the reflection of a personal neurosis—the character of Frédéric in particular embodying my sense of inadequacy, my severe self-image—he had discovered a social and psychological environment that was similar to the one he lived in.

That discovery did honor to both Flaubert and Wilson. The world we knew in Benares was many years away from those of the French novelist and the American critic. Yet—and this was a measure of their greatness—they seemed to have had an accurate, if bitter, knowledge of its peculiar human ordeals and futility. It was a knowledge Rajesh himself arrived at by a somewhat different route. “To fully appreciate the book,” Wilson had written of Sentimental Education, “one must have had time to see something of life.” It sounds like a general sort of adage; but Rajesh exemplified its truth even as he moved into another world, taking what in retrospect look like all the wrong turns. Rajesh had known how to connect whatever little he read to the world around himself, much in the same way Wilson had done in his essay, and in his other writings, which reveal a symbiotic relationship between life and literature that I, despite all my reading, was not fully to grasp until long after I had left Benares and thought again of that time of hopeful, confused striving when I first read Edmund Wilson.

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