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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.

Many of my days in Benares were spent in this way, and when I think of them they seem serenely uneventful. But what I remember best now are not so much the clear blue skies and magically still afternoons, glimpsed from my window-side perch at the library, as the peculiar factors that constantly threatened to undo that serenity. For a radically different world existed barely a few hundred meters from where I sat, reading about Santayana.

The university in those days was the scene of intense battles between students and the police. Anything could provoke them: a student who was not readmitted after being expelled, an exam that a professor refused to postpone. A peculiar frenzy periodically overtook the two sides when the students rampaged through the campus, smashing furniture and windowpanes left unbroken from their last eruption of rage. Challenged by the police, they retreated to the sanctuary of their hostels and fired pistols at the baton-charging constables. In retaliation, the policemen often invaded the hostels, broke into locked rooms, dragged out their pleading, wailing occupants, and proceeded to beat them.

I once saw one of their victims, minutes after the police had left, coughing blood and broken teeth, his clothes torn, the baton marks on his exposed arms rapidly turning blue. Another time I saw a policeman with half of the flesh and bones on his back gouged out by a locally made hand grenade. Anxious colleagues watched helplessly from behind their wire mesh shields as he tottered and collapsed on the ground. Terrified bystanders like myself threw themselves to the ground in a defensive reflex we’d seen in action movies. The grenade thrower—a scrawny boy in a big-collared shirt and tight polyester pants who, I learned later, had targeted the policeman after being tortured by him in custody—stood watching on the cobblestone road, fascinated by his handiwork.

Such violence, extreme though it seemed, wasn’t new to the university, which had long been witness to bloodier battles between student wings of Communist and Hindu nationalist organizations. These two groups tended to be allied with different ends of the caste system: the lower castes tended to be Communist; the upper castes tended to be Hindu nationalist. But frequently now, the violence came for no ideological reason, with no connections to a cause or movement. It erupted spontaneously, fueled only by the sense of despair and hopelessness that permanently hung over North Indian universities in the 1980s. It was part of a larger crisis caused by the collapse of many Indian institutions, the increasingly close alliance between crime and politics, and the growth of state-organized corruption—processes that had been speeded up during Mrs. Gandhi’s “Emergency” in the mid-Seventies.

For students poised to enter this world, the choices were harsh—and it didn’t matter what caste you belonged to; poverty was evenly distributed across caste divisions in this region. Most of the people I knew were deeply cynical in their attitude toward their future. You could work toward becoming a member of either the state or national legislature and siphon off government funds earmarked for literacy and population-control projects; if nothing worked out, you could aspire, at the other end of the scale, to be a lowly telephone mechanic and make money by selling illegal telephone connections.

Most of the students in this traditionally backward region of India came from feudal or semirural families, and aspired to join the Civil Service, a colonial invention which in independent India continued to offer the easiest and quickest route to political power and affluence. But there were fewer and fewer recruitments made to the Civil Service from North India, where the decline in standards, as well as the cheap availability, of higher education had made it possible for millions to acquire university degrees while they had less and less prospect of employment. Bribery and nepotism had a major part in the disbursement of the jobs in the minor government services. Students from the lately impoverished upper castes suffered most in this respect: if poverty wasn’t enough, they were further disadvantaged by the large quotas for lower-caste candidates in government jobs.

The quotas, first created by Nehru’s government in the early 1950s and meant as a temporary measure, were expanded and used by successive governments as an electoral ploy to attract lower-caste votes. The upper-caste students found themselves making the difficult adjustments to urban life only to confront the prospect of being sent back to the oblivion they had emerged from; and their sense of blocked futures, which they acquired early in their time at the university, was to reach a tragic culmination in 1990 in the spate of self-immolations following the central government’s decision to provide even larger quotas in federal jobs for applicants from lower castes.

My own situation was little different from that of the people around me. I had recently spent three years at the nearby provincial university at Allahabad, where I was in even closer, more unsettling, proximity to the desperation I saw in Benares. I was upper-caste myself, without family wealth, and roughly in the same position as my father had been in freshly independent India when the land reform act of 1951—another of Nehru’s attempts at social equality, it was meant to turn exploited tenants into landholders—reduced his once well-to-do Brahmin family to penury. My mother’s family had suffered a similar setback. Like many others in my family who laboriously worked their way into the middle classes, I had to make my own way in the world. Looking back, I can see my compulsive pursuit of books, and the calm and order it suggests, contrasting so jarringly with the rage and desperation around me, as my way of putting off a grimly foreclosed future.

So, during my months in Benares, I was able to live at a slight tangent to the chaos of the university. And I was able to do this, I now see, partly because of Rajesh.


I got to know Rajesh early in my stay at Benares. A tall, wiry, good-looking man in his mid-twenties, he had continued to live in Benares after he had finished his studies at the university. He was eccentric and moody: he would start reciting Urdu poetry one moment and then denounce its decadence the next, and start enumerating the virtues of the farming life. “All these winedrinkers with broken hearts,” he would say. “You can’t compare them to simple peasants who do more for humanity.” He used to say he would rather be a farmer than join government service and do the bidding of corrupt politicians. On other occasions, he would tell me about the good works honest civil servants in India could achieve, and how he himself aspired to be one of them. There was also an unexpected mystical side to him. I once saw him standing on the ghats gesturing toward the sandy expanses across the river. “That,” he was saying to his companion, a slightly terrified young student, “is sunyata, the void.” “And this,” he pointed at the teeming conglomeration of temples and houses behind us, “is Maya, illusion. Do you know what our task is? Our task is to live somewhere in between.”

He revered Gandhi, and distrusted Nehru, who he said was too “modern” in his outlook; but then he would change his mind and say that Gandhi wasn’t “tough” enough. All of these opinions he delivered with a faraway look; they formed part of monologues about the degraded state of contemporary India. “Where are we going?” he would say, dramatically throwing up his hands. “What kind of nation are we becoming?” He loved Faiz, the Pakistani writer whose doom-laden poetry he knew by heart; he was also fond of Wordsworth, whom he had studied as an undergraduate; he showed me a notebook where he had copied down his favorite poems, “The Solitary Reaper” among them. But I could never get him to talk about them. He did not listen much; and he did not like anyone interrupting his monologues. It wasn’t easy to be with him.

He had been at the university for eight years when I met him, and at first he appeared another of the countless students who hung around the campus, mechanically accumulating useless degrees, applying for this or that job. I had come to him with an introduction from a mutual friend at my undergraduate university. This friend believed that “studious” people like myself needed powerful “backers” at Benares Hindu University—he used the English words—and that Rajesh was well-placed to protect me from local bullies and criminals. Rajesh himself believed so, and was more than happy to take me under his wing. “You are here to study,” he told me at our first meeting, “and that’s what you should do. Let me know if anyone bothers you and I’ll fix the bastard.”

Part of his concern for me came from an old, and now slightly melo-dramatic, reverence for “studious” Brahmins. He was Brahmin himself, but considered himself unequal to what he felt to be the proper dignity of his caste. The feeling was widespread in the region, where the traditional dominance of Brahmins was beginning to collapse in the face of a serious political challenge by assertive lower castes. The decline of Brahmin prestige and authority—which was intimately linked to their diminishing political importance—was symbolized by a famous family of Benares, which was once very close to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and had been pushed into irrelevance by the new, militant kind of low-caste politician. The members of the family still wore their caste marks on their foreheads; they still observed fasts, regularly bathed in the Ganges, were chief guests at temples on holy days, and would not accept food from low-caste people. But it was only this excessive concern about their public image, and an overdeveloped sense of uncleanliness and contamination, that remained of their Brahminness. No crowds of job-seekers and flunkeys gathered at their house anymore; the women in the family went around the bazaars unescorted and unrecognized; visiting journalists went elsewhere for good copy.

Rajesh felt the general change of status differently. He fasted religiously, went to offer flowers at the temple of Hanuman, the monkey god, every Tuesday. His regard for Faiz and love for Urdu poetry spoke of an older Brahminical instinct for learning and the arts. But he also gave the impression that none of the old ways or values mattered anymore in a world in which Brahmins were forced to struggle to survive with everyone else. “Yes, I am a Brahmin, too,” Rajesh would say, and then add, mysteriously, “But I have done things no Brahmin would have ever done.”

I remember my first visit to his room, which was in one of the derelict-looking hostels with piles of broken furniture scattered on the front quad. The stairs to his room were splattered with blood-red patterns made by students spitting betel juice. In the assorted shabbiness of his room—light from a naked bulb weakly falling on scabby blue walls, unmade bed, discarded slippers, rickety table, cheap denim jeans hanging limply from a solitary nail in the wall, a bamboo bookstand tottering under the weight of old newspapers—I noticed a jute shoulder bag lying open on the ground, bulging with crude pistols. No attempt had been made to conceal the pistols, which seemed to belong as naturally to the room as the green plastic bucket next to it. It made me nervous; so did the hint of instability given by his speech and manner, the long monologues, the unconnected references to Wordsworth, to India. I began to wish I saw less of him.

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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