Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi; drawing by David Levine


“India will go on,” the novelist R. K. Narayan had said in 1961. And for the peasants of Bihar or Bundi with their knowledge of karma, India was going on; the Hindu equilibrium still held. They were as removed from the Emergency in 1975 as Narayan himself had been from the political uncertainties of 1961.

Narayan was then in his fifties. Living in India, writing in English for publication abroad, operating as a novelist in a culture where the idea of the novel was new and as yet little understood, Narayan had had to wait long for recognition. He was middle-aged, the best of his work done, his fictional world established, before he had traveled out of India; and, when I met him in London, this late travel seemed to have brought him no shocks.

He had just been visiting the United States, and was returning happily to India. He said he needed to go again for his afternoon walks, to be among his characters, the people he wrote about. In literature itself he was not so interested. Like his hero in Mr. Sampath,1 he was letting his thoughts turn to the Infinite; in the midst of activity, and success, he was preparing, in the Hindu way, for withdrawal. He said he had begun to read sacred Sanskrit texts with the help of a pundit. He seemed a man at peace with his world, at peace with India, and the fictional world he had abstracted from the country.

But it was in the 1930s, before Independence, that Narayan had established his fictional world: the small and pacific South Indian town, little men, little schemes, the comedy of restricted lives and high philosophical speculation, real power surrendered long ago to the British rulers, who were far away and only dimly perceived. With Independence, however, the world had grown larger around Narayan. Power had come closer; men were required to be bigger. To Narayan himself had come recognition and foreign travel; and though in the red land around Bangalore, one of the cities of Narayan’s childhood, peasant life continued as it had always done, Bangalore was becoming a center of Indian industry and science.

Narayan’s small town could not easily be insulated from the larger, restless world, could no longer be seen as finished and complete, with the well-defined boundaries necessary for his kind of humor. And very soon, after the certitude of 1961, doubt seemed to have come to Narayan. As early as 1967 there appeared a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium—so confidently maintained in Mr. Sampath—collapses into something like despair.

The novel is The Vendor of Sweets.2 It is not one of Narayan’s better books; but Narayan is such a natural writer, so true to his experience and emotions, that this novel is as much a key to the moral bewilderment of today as Mr. Sampath was to the sterility of Hindu attitudes at the time of Independence. The Vendor of Sweets, like Mr. Sampath, is also a fable, and it broadly repeats the theme of the earlier book: there is a venture into the world of doing, and at the end there is a withdrawal.

The sweet-vendor is Jagan, a rich man, conscientiously adding every day to his money-hoard at home (the “black money” of India), but a Gandhian, a faddist, a man obsessed with the idea of purity. He is fair with his customers; he cheats only the government of the country for whose sake, in the British days, he endured police beatings and imprisonment in an insanitary jail. “If Gandhi had said somewhere, ‘Pay your sales tax uncomplainingly,’ he would have followed his advice, but Gandhi had made no reference to the sales tax anywhere to Jagan’s knowledge.”

(Was Jagan then a freedom fighter, concerned about the political humiliation of his country, or was he only the disciple of a holy man, in the old Hindu tradition? Hindu morality, centered on the self and self-realization, has its own social corruptions: how many Jagans exist who, conscious only of their Gandhian piety, their personal virtue, have mocked and undermined the Independence for which they say they have worked! But Narayan doesn’t raise the point. He only makes the joke about Gandhi and the sales tax; he is on Jagan’s side.)

Jagan is a widower with one child, a son, on whom he dotes. The boy, though, is sullen and talks little to his father. He announces one day that he is finished with school: he wants to be a writer. And later Jagan discovers that the boy, using money from the money-hoard at home, has booked his passage to the United States, to go to a school of creative writing. Jagan digests his disappointment; the boy goes away. Very quickly, the time passes; and then, almost without warning, the boy returns. He is not alone. He is with a woman, apparently his wife, who, startlingly in that South Indian setting, is half Korean, half American. Between them they have plans, and they need Jagan’s money. They have come to India to set up, with American collaboration, a factory which will manufacture story-writing machines. It is an American invention; and, like Americans, the couple bustle about the ramshackle little town.


The satire is too gross, the new-comers too outlandish. Comedy fails, and the writer’s fictional world collapses, for the reasons that Jagan’s world collapses: they have both been damaged by the intrusion of alien elements. Shock follows shock. The boy fusses about the absence of a telephone, rides about on a scooter (Jagan is content to walk), speaks contemptuously of the sweet-shop. It also turns out that he is not married to the woman who, not being Indian, is already casteless, and therefore without a place in Jagan’s world. All the rules have been broken; Jagan is lost. Without a vision of the future now, he can only contemplate the sweet rituals of the recent, ordered past: his childhood, his marriage, a pilgrimage to a temple.

He feels that his home has been “dirtied” and at last he recoils. He barricades himself against the couple; he seeks, with a “peculiar excitement,” to purify himself. He begins to sell his sweets cheaply to the poor and offends the other shopkeepers; he assembles his staff and reads the Gita aloud to them. Finally he decides to withdraw to a wilderness away from the town, near a ruined shrine. There, divested of possessions, he will watch a master-carver, who is like a “man from the previous millennium,” complete an old, unfinished image of a five-faced goddess, “the light that illumines the sun itself.”

Before he can withdraw, the Korean girl leaves. Jagan’s son, getting nowhere with his business plans, has decided to send her away. And then the son himself is arrested for having half a bottle of liquor in his car. Under the prohibition laws he faces two years in jail. For Jagan this is the final blow, not so much the threat of the jail sentence as the news that his son drinks. He weeps; he will of course pay for lawyers for his son; but he is more determined than ever to give up the world. “A little prison life won’t harm anyone,” he says. “Who are we to get him out or put him in?” And he goes to take the bus out of the town, on the way to his jungle retreat.

So, with high virtue, Jagan abandons his son, just as Srinivas, the hero of Mr. Sampath, “elated” by his vision of eternity, abandoned his friend. But it was only from the world of commerce and “nonsense” that Srinivas withdrew. Jagan’s flight is not like Srinivas’s withdrawal, and is the opposite of the calm renunciation which Hinduism prescribes, when the householder, his duties done, makes way for his successors and turns to a life of meditation. That act of renunciation implies an ordered, continuing world. Chaos has come to Jagan’s world; his act is an act of despair; he runs away in tears.

The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader…. But it always had its rebirth and growth.” This was how, in pre-Independence India, the hero of Mr. Sampath saw the course of Indian history: rebirth and growth as a cleansing, a recurrent Indian miracle, brought about only by the exercise of self-knowledge. But in independent India rebirth and growth have other meanings and call for another kind of effort. The modern world, after all, cannot be caricatured or conjured away; a pastoral past cannot be re-established.

Bangalore, the capital city of the state which contains Narayan’s fictional small town, is also India’s scientific capital. In 1961—when Narayan told me that India would go on—there were perhaps two scientists of distinction at work in Bangalore. Today, I was told, there are twenty. It was at Bangalore that the first Indian space satellite (named, typically, after a medieval Hindu astronomer) was built: more impressive as a scientific achievement, it is said, than the Indian atomic bomb, more revealing of the technological capacity that India has developed since Independence. The dedicated chief secretary of the state, a man of simple origins, sees himself and his family as the products both of Independence and India’s industrial revolution. He is committed to that revolution; the changes it is bringing about, he says, are “elemental.”

From Bangalore there runs a 500-mile highway through the Deccan plateau to Poona, the industrial town on the edge of the plateau east of Bombay. There are almost no cars on this highway, many bullock carts, many lorries. The lorries are hideously over-loaded; their tires are worn smooth; and the lorries often overturn. But, through all the old pain of rural India, the industrial traffic is constant. Change has indeed come to people like Jagan; their world cannot be made small again.


But what to the administrator is elemental change, and urgently necessary, can also be seen as violation. Narayan is an instinctive, unstudied writer: the lack of balance in The Vendor of Sweets, the loss of irony, and the very crudity of the satire on “modern” civilization speak of the depth of the violation Narayan feels that that civilization—in its Indian aspect—has brought to someone like Jagan. And how fragile that Hindu world turns out to be, after all! From the outside so stable and unyielding, yet liable to crumble at the first assault from within: the self-assertion of a son, to whom has come a knowledge of the larger world, another, non-Hindu idea of human possibility, and is no longer content to be part of the flow, part of the Hindu continuity.

Some of the gestures of rebellion might seem trivial—driving in motorcars, meat-eating, drinking—but to Jagan they are all momentous. Where ritual regulates the will, and so much of behavior is ceremonial, all gestures are important. One gesture of rebellion, as Narayan seems to suggest, brings others in its train, and very quickly they add up to a rejection of the piety and reverences that held the society together, a rejection of karma. Such a fragile world, where rebellion is so easy, a mere abandoning of ritual! It is as though the Hindu equilibrium required a world as small and as restricting as that of Narayan’s early novels, where men could never grow, talked much and did little, and were fundamentally obedient, content to be ruled in all things by others.

The Vendor of Sweets, which is so elegiac and simplistic, exalting purity and old virtue in the figure of Jagan, is a confused book; and its confusion holds much of the Indian confusion today. Jagan—unlike the hero of Mr. Sampath in pre-Independence India—really has no case. His code does not bear examination.

Everything rests on his Gandhianism. Jagan, as we are often reminded, was a Gandhian “volunteer” and freedom fighter in his time; and once, during a demonstration, he allowed himself to be beaten unconscious by the police. It was the genius of Gandhi: intuiting just where the Hindu virtues of quietism and religious self-cherishing could be converted into selfless action of overwhelming political force. Jagan, allowing himself to be beaten, finding in the violence offered him a confirmation of his own virtue, saw himself as a satyagrahi, “fighting for the truth against the British.” The stress was on the fight for the truth rather than the fight against the British. Jagan’s was a holy war; he had a vision of his country cleansed and purified rather than a political vision of his country remade.

Jagan won his war. Now, blinded by this victory to his own worldly corruption (the corruption that, multiplied a million times, has taken his country in Independence to another kind of political collapse), his Gandhian impulses decayed to self-cherishing, faddism, and social indifference, Jagan seeks only to maintain the stability of his world; he is capable of nothing else. To be pure in the midst of “the grime of this earth,” secure in the midst of distress: that is all he asks. When his world shatters he cannot fight back; he has nothing to offer. He can only run away. Another Hindu retreat—like the Vijayanagar kingdom in 1336, like the pilgrims worshiping among the ruins of the Vijayanagar capital in 1975, like the mantra being chanted and written fifty million times to give life to the new image of the temple defiled during the last war.

Jagan’s is the ultimate Hindu retreat, because it is a retreat from a world that is known to have broken down at last. It is a retreat, literally, to a wilderness where “the edge of reality itself was beginning to blur”: not a return to a purer Aryan past, as Jagan might imagine, but a retreat from civilization and creativity, from rebirth and growth, to magic and incantation, a retrogression to an almost African night, the enduring primitivism of a place like the Congo, where even after the slave-trading Arabs, and the Belgians, the past is yearned for as le bon vieux temps de nos ancêtres. It is the death of a civilization, the final corruption of Hinduism.


With the Emergency, there was a “clean-up.” And it was on this, rather than the political crisis, that the censored press concentrated.

The former Maharani of Jaipur was then in jail, charged with economic offenses and apparently without the prospect of a quick trial. The houses of the once ruling family of Gwalior were being searched for undeclared treasure. In Bombay the flats of government officials, bank officials, and businessmen—flats the newspapers described as “posh”—were being raided, their contents assessed. Somewhere else—a touch of Hollywood India—an opium-fed cobra was found guarding (ineffectually) a four-kilogram hoard of gold and gold ornaments. Everywhere rackets were being “busted”: foreign exchange dealings, smuggling, black marketing, the acquiring of steel by bogus manufacturing units, scarce railway wagons shunted into sidings and used as storage for hoarded commodities.

Panic was general, but not everyone lost his head. One New Delhi businessman (with a brother already raided), when told by his chauffeur that he was next on the list, handed over all his valuables for safe-keeping to the chauffeur, who then vanished. Day by day the censored press carried communiqués about searches, arrests, suspensions, and compulsory retirements. By the third week of August 1,500 smugglers alone were said to have been picked up. At this inauspicious time an expensive new jewelry shop opened in the Oberoi-Sheraton Hotel in Bombay, to big advertisements in the newspapers. Almost immediately, and as though they were waiting for the place to open first, the authorities sealed the doors.

It was an arbitrary terror, reaching out to high and low: the divisional engineer forging issue vouchers and selling off the stores of a steel plant, the sales-tax inspector accepting a 500-rupee bribe, fifty dollars, from a small businessman, the railway servant carrying rice “illegally” in a dining car, the postman suspected of opening a foreign packet. And for the moment, after the unrest and drift of the preceding years, it brought peace to India.

But it was only terror, and it came confused with a political crisis everyone knew about. It established no new moral frame for the society; it held out no promise for a better-regulated future. It reinforced, if anything, the always desperate Hindu sense of the self, the sense of encircling external threat, the need to hide and hoard. In the high Hindu ideal of self-realization—which could take so many forms, even that of worldly corruption—there was no idea of a contract between man and man. It was Hinduism’s great flaw, after a thousand years of defeat and withdrawal. And now the society had broken down. It was of that, really, that the press spoke, rather than of a clean-up, or of an Emergency, a passing crisis, which it was in the power of Mrs. Gandhi or the opposition to resolve.

The Emergency, whatever its immediate political promptings, only made formal a state of breakdown that had existed for some time; it needed more than a political resolution. In 1975 the constitution was suspended; but already, in 1974, India had appeared to stall, with civil disobedience campaigns, strikes, and student disturbances. The political issues were real, but they obscured the bigger crisis. The corruption of which the opposition spoke and indiscipline of which the rulers spoke were both aspects of a moral chaos, and this could be traced back to the beginning, to Independence.

Hindu society, which Gandhi had appeared to ennoble during the struggle for Independence, had begun to disintegrate with the rebirth and growth that had come with Independence. One journalist said that the trouble—he called it the betrayal—had started the day after Independence, when Mr. Nehru, as prime minister, had moved into the former British commander in chief’s house in New Delhi. But the trouble lay more with the nature of the movement that had brought Mr. Nehru to power, the movement to which Gandhi, by something like magic, had given a mass base. A multitude of Jagans, nationalist but committed only to a holy war, had brought the country Independence. A multitude of Jagans, new to responsibility but with no idea of the state—businessmen, money-hoarding but always pious, politicians, Gandhi-capped and Gandhi-garbed—had worked to undo that Independence. Now the Jagans had begun to be rejected, and India was discovering that it had ceased to be Gandhian.

It was hardly surprising: Gandhian India had been very swiftly created. In just eleven years, between 1919 (when the first Gandhian agitation in Madras had ended with a distribution of sweets in a temple) and 1930 (when the Salt March ended with squads of disciplined volunteers offering themselves, in group after group, to sickening police blows), Gandhi had given India a new idea of itself, and also given the world a new idea of India. In those eleven years nonviolence had been made to appear an ancient, many-sided Indian truth, an eternal source of Hindu action. Now of Gandhianism there remained only the emblems and the energy; and the energy had turned malignant. India needed a new code, but it had none. There were no longer any rules; and India—so often invaded, conquered, plundered, with a quarter of its population always in the serfdom of untouchability, people without a country, only with masters—was discovering again that it was cruel and horribly violent.

In a speech before the Emergency, Jayaprakash Narayan, the most respected opposition leader, said: “It is not the existence of disputes and quarrels that so much endangers the integrity of the nation as the manner in which we conduct them. We often behave like animals. Be it a village feud, a students’ organization, a labor dispute, a religious procession, a boundary disagreement or a major political question, we are more likely than not to become aggressive, wild and violent. We kill and burn and loot and sometimes commit even worse crimes.”

The violence of the riot could burn itself out; it could be controlled, as it now was, by the provisions of the Emergency. But there was an older, deeper Indian violence. This violence had remained untouched by foreign rule and had survived Gandhi. It had become part of the Hindu social order, and there was a stage at which it became invisible, disappearing in the general distress. But now, with the Emergency, the emphasis was on reform, and on the “weaker sections” of society; and the stories the censored newspapers played up seemed at times to come from another age. A boy seized by a village moneylender for an unpaid debt of 150 rupees, fifteen dollars, and used as a slave for four years; in September, in Vellore in the south, untouchables forced to leave their village after their huts had been fenced in by caste Hindus and their well polluted; in October, in a village in Gujarat in the west, a campaign of terror against untouchables rebelling against forced labor and the plundering of their crops; the custom, among the untouchable men of a northern district, of selling their wives to Delhi brothels to pay off small debts to their caste landlords.

To the ancient Aryans the untouchables were “walking carrion.” Gandhi—like other reformers before him—sought to make them part of the holy Hindu system. He called them Harijans, children of God. A remarkable linguistic coincidence: they have remained God’s chillun. Even at the Satyagraha Ashram on the riverbank at Ahmedabad, which Gandhi himself founded after his return from South Africa, and from where in 1930 he started on the great Salt March. Son et Lumière at night these days in the ashram, sponsored by the Tourism Development Corporation; and in the mornings, in one of the buildings, a school for Harijan girls. “Backward class, backward class,” the old brahmin, suddenly my guide, explained piously, converting the girls into distant objects of awe. The antique violence remained: rural untouchability as serfdom, maintained by terror and sometimes by deliberate starvation. None of this was new; but suddenly in India it was news.

Mr. Nehru had once observed that a danger in India was that poverty might be deified. Gandhianism had had that effect. The Mahatma’s simplicity had appeared to make poverty holy, the basis of all truth, and a unique Indian possession. And so, for twenty years after Independence, it had more or less remained. It was Mrs. Gandhi, in 1971, who had made poverty a political issue. Her slogan in the election that year had been Garibi Hatao, Remove Poverty. Her opponents then, fighting another kind of war, had only replied Indira Hatao, Remove Indira. But India had since moved fast. There was now competition in protest. And as a cause for protest the holy poverty of India was all at once seen to be inexhaustible. There seemed always another, lower level of distress.

The government now, committed by the Emergency to radical reform, decreed the quashing of certain kinds of rural debts. Two or three hundred of the moneylenders who had been terrorizing the colliers of the Dhanbad coal fields in Bihar were arrested. And, twenty-eight years after Independence, bonded labor was declared illegal. Bonded labor! In thirteen years I had made three visits to India and had in all spent sixteen months there. I had visited villages in many parts of the country, but I had never heard of bonded labor. An editorial in the Deccan Herald of Bangalore suggested why: “The system is as old as life itself…. In the country itself, the practice of slavery had attained a sophistication that the victims themselves were made to feel a moral obligation to remain in slavery.” Karma!

With Independence and growth, chaos and a loss of faith, India was awakening to its distress and the cruelties that had always lain below its apparent stability, its capacity simply for going on. Not everyone now was content simply to have his being. The old equilibrium had gone, and at the moment all was chaos. But out of this chaos, out of the crumbling of the old Hindu system, and the spirit of rejection, India was learning new ways of seeing and feeling.


An exponent of the “new morality” of post-Gandhian India is the playwright Vijay Tendulkar. He writes in Marathi, the language of the region around Bombay, but he is translated into other languages. When I was there an “Indian English” version of his play, The Vultures, was being put on in Bombay. The title says it all: for Tendulkar industrial or industrializing India, bringing economic opportunity to small men (in the play, a family of petty contractors), releasing instincts that poverty had suppressed, undoing old pieties, has become a land of vultures.

It is the theme of The Vendor of Sweets again: the end of reverences, the end of the family, individuals striking out on their own, social chaos. But Tendulkar is more violent than Narayan; his India is a crueler, more recognizable place. And though Tendulkar is Hindu enough to suggest, like Narayan, that the loss of one kind of restraint quickly leads to the unraveling of the whole system, and purity is possible only to the man who holds himself aloof, for Tendulkar there is no pure past, and religion can provide no retreat. Tendulkar, for all his brutality, is a romantic: in The Vultures the man who holds himself aloof is a poet, an illegitimate son, an outsider.

Tendulkar’s India is clearly the same country as Narayan’s. But it is a country to which change has come. The world has opened out, and men have become more various and individualistic; the will rages. Sensibility has been modified. India is less mysterious: Tendulkar’s discoveries are like those that might be made elsewhere.

The hero of Sakharam Binder—Tendulkar’s most popular play, which got him into trouble with the censors in 1972, long before the Emergency, and later ran simultaneously in four languages in four Bombay theaters—is a working man of low caste who has rejected all faith, all ties of community and family. Sakharam stands alone. His material security is the technical skill which gives him his second name: he is a binder in a printing shop. He will not marry (it isn’t said, but he will be able to marry only within his caste, and so continue to be categorized and branded); instead, he lives with other men’s discarded wives, whom he rescues from temples or the streets (a glimpse, there, of the Indian abyss). Sakharam is not tender or especially gifted; all he insists on being is a man, when he has closed the door on the outside world and is in his own two rooms. Hinduism, in him, has been reduced to a belief in honesty and a rejection of all shaming action. In the end he is destroyed; but he has been presented as heroic.

With Sakharam we have come far from the simple rebellion of Jagan’s son in The Vendor of Sweets, which could be satirized as un-Indian and a mimicry of Western manners. Sakharam’s rebellion goes deeper, is immediately comprehensible, and it is entirely of India. India, coming late to situations that have been lived through elsewhere, becomes less mysterious.

Some time ago Tendulkar was awarded a Nehru Fellowship, and this has enabled him to travel about India, getting material for a book on violence in India. It was news of this project—at first so startling, and then so obvious and right—that made me want to see him. I put him in his late forties, one generation younger than Narayan. He was paunchy and surprisingly placid. But the placidity was deceptive: his mother had died a few days before our meeting, and the censors had just blocked a film for which he had written the script. He said his travels about India followed no set plan; he simply, now and then, followed his nose. He had been investigating the Naxalite peasant movement, which had sought to bring about land reforms by force, had degenerated in some places into rural terrorism, and had then been very quickly crushed by the government. He had been to the Telengana district in the south, and to Bihar and West Bengal in the northeast.

Bihar had depressed Tendulkar especially. He had seen things there that he never believed existed. But he didn’t speak more precisely: it was as though he still felt humiliated by what he had seen. He said only, “The human relationships. They’re so horrible because they are accepted by the victims.” New words, new concerns: and still, even for a writer like Tendulkar, the discovery of India could be like the discovery of a foreign country. He said he had traveled about Bihar by boat, down the Ganges. And it was of the serenity that came to him on this river, sacred to Hindus, that he spoke, rather than of the horrors on the bank.

So it was still there, and perhaps always would be, in the pain of India: the yearning for calm, the area of retreat. But men cannot easily unlearn new modes of feeling. Retreat is no longer possible. Even the ashrams and the holy men (with their executive jets, their international followings, and their public relations men) are no longer what they were.

“You must go to that ashram near Poona,” the Parsi lady, back for a holiday from Europe, said at lunch one day in Bombay. “They say you get a nice mix of East and West there.”

The young man, who had been described to me as a “minor magnate,” said with unexpected passion: “It’s a terrible place. It’s full of American women who go there to debauch.”

There was a risen-dough quality about the magnate’s face and physique which hinted at a man given to solitary sexual excitations. He said he was “one of the last, decaying capitalists”; he liked “fleshly comforts.” Ashram life wasn’t for him; it was possible to make money more easily in India than in any other country, barring the Arab sheikdoms. “Sometimes at night I think about giving it all up. And then in the morning, when I think about speculations and manipulations, I wonder, what’s the use of it all? Why stop?”

It was only half a joke. There are times now when India appears able to parody the old idea of itself.

Parody; and sometimes unconscious mimicry. In September this letter was featured in, of all places, the Economic Times of New Delhi: “Man doesn’t realize his real purpose on earth so long as he rolls in comforts…. It’s absolutely true that adversity teaches a man a bitter lesson, toughens his fibre and moulds his character. In other words, an altogether new man is born out of adversity which helpfully destroys one’s ego and makes one humble and selfless…. Prolonged suffering opens the eyes to hate the things for which one craved before unduly, leading eventually even to a state of resignation. It then dawns on us that continued yearning brings us intense agony…. But the stoic mind is least perturbed by the vicissitudes of life. It’s well within our efforts to conquer grief. It’s simple. Develop an attitude of detachment even while remaining in the thick of terrestrial pleasures.”

In a financial newspaper! But India is India; and the letter seems at first quite Indian, a statement of the Hindu-Buddhist ideal of nonattachment. But the writer has got there by a tortured Western route. Much of his language is borrowed; and his attitude isn’t as Hindu or Buddhist as it seems. The image of the smiling Buddha is well known. He has the bump of developed consciousness on his head, the very long ears of comprehension, the folds of wisdom down his neck. But these iconographic distortions do not take away from his humanity. His lips are full, his cheeks round, and he has a double chin. His senses haven’t atrophied (the Buddha tried and rejected the ascetic way); he is at peace with the senses. The possession of the senses is part of his serenity, part of his wholeness, and the very basis of the continuing appeal of this image after two thousand years. It isn’t nonattachment like this that the letter-writer proposes, but something quite different, more Western: stoicism, resignation, with more than a touch of bitterness: a consumer’s lament.

“Why do you blame the country for everything? It has been good enough for 400 millions,” Jagan said, remembering the heritage of Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita and all the trials and sufferings he had undergone to win independence.

This outburst is from The Vendor of Sweets. And for too long this self-satisfaction—expressed in varying ways, and most usually in meaningless exhortations to return to the true religion, and laments for Gandhianism: mechanical turns of the prayer-wheel—has passed in India for thought. But Gandhianism has had its great day; and the simple assertion of Indian antiquity won’t do now. The heritage is there, and will always be India’s; but it can be seen now to belong to the past, to be part of the classical world. And the heritage has oppressed: Hinduism hasn’t been good enough for the millions. It has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation. It has given men no idea of a contract with other men, no idea of the state. It has enslaved one quarter of the population and always left the whole fragmented and vulnerable. Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth. So that again and again in India history has repeated itself: vulnerability, defeat, withdrawal. And there are not 400 millions now, but something nearer 700.

The unregarded millions have multiplied and now, flooding into the cities, cannot be denied. The illegal hutments in which they live are knocked down; but they rise again, a daily tide-wrack on the margin of cities, and beside the railway lines and the industrial highways. It was this new nearness of the millions, this unknown India on the move, together with the triviality of Indian thought on most subjects—the intellectual deficiencies of the archaic civilization finally revealed during this Emergency, India stalled, unable to see its way ahead, to absorb and render creative the changes it has at last generated—it was this great uncertainty, this sense of elemental movement from below, and an almost superstitious dread of this land of impressive, unfinished ruins, that made the professional man say in Delhi: “It’s terrible to see your life’s work turning to ashes.” And his wife said, “For the middle classes, for people who live like us, it’s all over. We have a sense of doom.”

(This is the second part of a two-part article.)

This Issue

May 13, 1976