In 1888, when he was nineteen, and already married for six years, Gandhi went to England to study law. It was a brave thing to do. Not the English law—which, however alien to a Hindu of 1888, however unconnected with his complicated rites and his practice of magic, could be mugged up, like another series of mantras—not the law, but the voyage itself. Hindu India, decaying for centuries, constantly making itself archaic, had closed up; and the rules of Gandhi’s Gujarati merchant caste—at one time great travelers—now forbade travel to foreign countries. Foreign countries were polluting to pious Hindus; and no one of the caste had been to England before.
To please his mother Gandhi had taken vows not to touch wine, meat, or women while abroad. But these vows did not satisfy everybody. One section of the caste formally declared the young man an outcaste. But Gandhi, though timid, was obstinate. For a reason which he never makes clear—he was virtually uneducated, had never even read a newspaper—he passionately wanted to go to England. He began to be afraid that the caste might prevent him going; and, two months earlier than he had planned, he took a ship from Bombay to Southampton.
And this is how, in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, written nearly forty years later, when he had become the Mahatma, Gandhi remembers the great adventure (the translation is by his secretary, Mahadev Desai): “I did not feel at all sea-sick…. I was innocent of the use of knives and forks…. I therefore never took meals at table but always had them in my cabin, and they consisted principally of sweets and fruits I had brought with me…. We entered the Bay of Biscay, but I did not begin to feel the need either of meat or liquor…. However, we reached Southampton, as far as I remember, on a Saturday. On the boat I had worn a black suit, the white flannel one, which my friends had got me, having been kept especially for wearing when I landed. I had thought that white clothes would suit me better when I stepped ashore, and therefore I did so in white flannels. Those were the last days of September, and I found I was the only person wearing such clothes.”
That is the voyage: an internal adventure of anxieties felt and food eaten, with not a word of anything seen or heard that did not directly affect the physical or mental well-being of the writer. The inward concentration is fierce, the self-absorption complete. Southampton is lost in that embarrassment (and rage) about the white flannels. The name of the port is mentioned once, and that is all, as though the name is description enough. That it was late September was important only because it was the wrong time of year for white flannels; it is not a note about the weather. Though Gandhi spent three years in England, there is nothing in his autobiography about the climate or the seasons, so unlike the heat and monsoon of Gujarat and Bombay; and the next date he is precise about is the date of his departure.
No London building is described, no street, no room, no crowd, no public conveyance. The London of 1890, capital of the world—which must have been overwhelming to a young man from a small Indian town—has to be inferred from Gandhi’s continuing internal disturbances, his embarrassments, his religious self-searchings, his attempts at dressing correctly and learning English manners, and, above all, his difficulties and occasional satisfactions about food.
Sir Edwin Arnold, known for his verse translation of the Gita, is mentioned, but only mentioned and never described, though Gandhi must have been dazzled by him, and the poet wasted some time as vice-president of a vegetarian club Gandhi started and ran for a short while in Bayswater. There is an entertaining account of a very brief call, with a visiting Indian writer, on Cardinal Manning. But generally English people are far away in Gandhi’s London. There is no reference to plays (an account of a visit to an unnamed theater turns out to be an anecdote about an uneaten dinner). Apart from a sentence about Cardinal Manning and the London dock strike, there is nothing about politics or politicians. The only people who come out of the void and make some faint impression are cranks, theosophists, proselytizing vegetarians. And though they seem of overwhelming importance (Dr. Oldfield, editor of The Vegetarian, “Dr Allinson of vegetarian fame,” Mr. Howard or Mr. Howard Williams, author of The Ethics of Diet, Mr. Hills, a puritan and “proprietor of the Thames Iron Works”), they are hardly seen as people or set in interiors. They are only their names, their status (Gandhi is always scrupulous about titles), and their convictions.
And then, quite suddenly, Gandhi is a lawyer; and the adventure of England is over. As anxious as he had been to get to London, so he is now anxious to leave. “I passed my examinations, was called to the bar on the 10th of June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home.”
And yet, curiously, it was again a wish for travel and adventure that two years later sent Gandhi to South Africa. He went on law business and intended to stay for a year. He stayed for twenty years. England had been unsettling only because it hadn’t been India. But in England Gandhi had ceased to be a creature of instinct; out of his unsettlement there, and his consequent self-searching, he had decided that he was a vegetarian and a Hindu by conviction. South Africa offered direct racial hostility; and Gandhi, obstinate as always, was immeasurably fortified as a Hindu and an Indian. It was in South Africa that he became the Mahatma, the great-souled, working through religion to political action as leader of the Indian community, and through political action back to religion. The adventure never ceased to be internal: so it comes out in the autobiography. And this explains the most remarkable omission in Gandhi’s account of his twenty active years in South Africa: Africans.
Africans appear only fleetingly at a time of a “rebellion,” when for six weeks Gandhi led an Indian ambulance unit and found himself looking after wounded Africans. He says his heart was with the Africans; he was distressed by the whippings and unnecessary shootings; it was a trial, he says, to have to live with the soldiers responsible. But the experience did not lead him to a political decision about Africans. He turned inward and, at the age of thirty-seven, did what he had been thinking about for six years: he took the Hindu vow of brahmacharya, the vow of lifelong sexual abstinence. And the logic was like this: to serve humanity, as he was then serving the Africans, it was necessary for him to deny himself “the pleasures of family life,” to hold himself free in the spirit and the flesh. So the Africans vanish in Gandhi’s heart-searchings; they are the motive of a vow, and thereafter disappear.
Far away, at Yasnaya Polyana in Russia, Tolstoy, in the last year of his life, said of Gandhi, whose work he followed and with whom he exchanged letters: “His Hindu nationalism spoils everything.” It was a fair comment. Gandhi had called his South African commune Tolstoy Farm; but Tolstoy saw more clearly than Gandhi’s English and Jewish associates in South Africa, fellow seekers after the truth. Gandhi really had little to offer these people. His experiments and discoveries and vows answered his own need as a Hindu, the need constantly to define and fortify the self in the midst of hostility; they were not of universal application.
Gandhi’s self-absorption was part of his strength. Without it he would have done nothing and might even have been destroyed. But with this self-absorption there was, as always, a kind of blindness. In the autobiography South Africa is inevitably more peopled than England, and more variously peopled; there are more events. But the mode of narration is the same. People continue to be only their names and titles, their actions or convictions, their quality of soul; they are never described and never become individuals. There is no attempt at an objective view of the world. As events pile up, the reader begins to be nagged by the absence of the external world; when the reader ceases to share or follow Gandhi’s convictions, he can begin to feel choked.
Landscape is never described. I may be proved wrong, but in all the great length of My Experiments with Truth I believe there are only three gratuitous references to landscape. In 1893, on the way out to South Africa, Gandhi notices the vegetation of Zanzibar; three years later, returning briefly to India, he lands at Calcutta, “admiring the beauty” of the Hooghly river. His only important experience of landscape comes at the age of forty-five when, back in India for good, he goes to Hardwar, a place of Hindu pilgrimage in the Himalayas. “I was charmed with the natural scenery about Hrishikesh and Lakshman Jhula, and bowed my head in reverence to our ancestors for their sense of the beautiful in Nature, and their foresight in investing beautiful manifestations of Nature with a religious significance.”
The outer world matters only in so far as it affects the inner. It is the Indian way of experiencing; what is true of Gandhi’s autobiography is true of many other Indian autobiographies, though the self-absorption is usually more sterile. “I see people having their being”: the Indian girl who said that of the Bombay crowds she saw on her return from Europe was trying hard. She was in the Indian tradition; like Gandhi in Southampton in 1888, she couldn’t describe what she hadn’t been able to take in. In India, as she said, she “related” only to her family. The vogue word enabled her to boast in a modern-sounding way; but the word also covered up a traditional limitation of vision and response. The deficiency that she was able to convert into boasting is an aspect of what is now being propagated as Hindu wisdom by those holy men who preach “meditation” and expound the idea of the world as illusion.
Meditation and stillness can be a form of therapy. But it may be that the true Hindu bliss—the losing of the self—is more easily accessible to Hindus. According to Dr. Sudhir Kakar, a psychotherapist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who is himself Indian and has practiced both in Europe and in India, the Indian ego is “underdeveloped,” “the world of magic and animistic ways of thinking lie close to the surface,” and the Indian grasp of reality “relatively tenuous.” “Generally among Indians”—Kakar is working on a book, but this is from a letter—“there seems to be a different relationship to outside reality, compared to one met with in the West. In India it is closer to a certain stage in childhood when outer objects did not have a separate, independent existence but were intimately related to the self and its affective states. They were not something in their own right, but were good or bad, threatening or rewarding, helpful or cruel, all depending on the person’s feelings of the moment.”
This underdeveloped ego, according to Kakar, is created by the detailed social organization of Indian life, and fits into that life. “The mother functions as the external ego of the child for a much longer period than is customary in the West, and many of the ego functions concerned with reality are later transferred from mother to the family and other social institutions.” Caste and clan are more than brotherhoods; they define the individual completely. The individual is never on his own; he is always fundamentally a member of his group, with a complex apparatus of rules, rituals, taboos. Every detail of behavior is regulated—the bowels to be cleared before breakfast and never after, for instance, the left hand and not the right to be used for intimate sexual contact, and so on. Relationships are codified. And religion and religious practices—“magic and animistic ways of thinking”—lock everything into place. The need, then, for individual observation and judgment is reduced; something close to a purely instinctive life becomes possible.
The childlike perception of reality that results does not imply childishness—Gandhi proves the opposite. But it does suggest that Indians are immersed in their experiences in a way that Western people can seldom be. It is less easy for Indians to withdraw and analyze. The difference between the Indian and the Western ways of perceiving comes out most clearly in the sex act. Western man can describe the sex act; even at the moment of orgasm he can observe himself. Kakar says that his Indian patients, men and women, do not have this gift, cannot describe the sex act, are capable only of saying, “It happened.”
While his world holds and he is secure, the Indian is a man simply having his being; and he is surrounded by other people having their being. But when the props of family, clan, and caste go, chaos and blankness come. Gandhi in 1888, not yet nineteen, taking ship at Bombay for Southampton, would have been at sea in every way. It was about Gandhi and Gandhi’s account of England that I talked to Kakar when we met in Delhi. Gandhi would have had no means of describing what he saw at Southampton on arrival, Kakar said; Gandhi would have been concentrating too fiercely on the turmoil within him; he would have been fighting too hard to hold on to his idea of who he was. (And Kakar is right: later in the autobiography Gandhi says of his first weekend in England, spent at the Victoria Hotel in London: “The stay at that hotel had scarcely been a helpful experience for I had not lived there with my wits about me.”)
“We Indians,” Kakar says, “use the outside reality to preserve the continuity of the self amidst an ever changing flux of outer events and things.” Men do not, therefore, actively explore the world; rather, they are defined by it. It is this negative way of perceiving that goes with “mediation,” the striving after the infinite, the bliss of losing the self; it also goes with karma and the complex organization of Indian life. Everything locks together; one cannot be isolated from the other. In the Indian set-up, as Kakar says, it is the Westernstyle “mature personality,” individualistic and assertive, that would be the misfit. Which no doubt explains why, in the ashrams, while Indians appear to flourish in the atmosphere of communal holiness, Western inmates, like the hippies elsewhere in India, tend to look sour and somewhat below par.
In an active, busy country, full of passion and controversy, it is not an easy thing to grasp, this negative way of perceiving. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of India’s intellectual second-rateness, which is generally taken for granted but may be the most startling and depressing fact about the world’s second most populous country, which now has little to offer the world except its Gandhian concept of holy poverty and the recurring crooked comedy of its holy men, and which, while asserting the antiquity of its civilization (and usually simply asserting, without knowledge or scholarship), is now dependent in every practical way on other, imperfectly understood civilizations.
A recent remarkable novel, however, takes us closer to the Indian idea of the self, and without too much mystification. The novel is Samskara,* by U..R. Anantamurti, a forty-four-year-old university teacher. Its theme is a brahmin’s loss of identity; and it corroborates much of what Sudhir Kakar says. The novel was originally written in Kannada, a language of South India; its India is not over-explained or dressed up or simplified. The novel has now had an India-wide success; it has been made into a prize-winning film; and an English translation (by a poet, A.K. Ramanujan) was serialized over the first three months of 1976 in India’s best paper, the Illustrated Weekly of India.
The central figure is the Acharya, the spiritual leader of a brotherhood of brahmins. At an early age the Acharya decided that he was a “man of goodness”—that that was his nature, his karma, the thing he was programmed to be by his previous lives. In the Acharya’s reasoning, no one can become a man of goodness; he is that, or he isn’t; and the “clods,” the “men of darkness,” cannot complain, because by their nature they have no desire for salvation anyway. It was in obedience to the “good” in his nature that, at the age of sixteen, the Acharya married a crippled girl of twelve. It was his act of sacrifice; the crippled girl was his “sacrificial altar”; and after twenty years the sacrificial act still fills him with pleasure, pride, and compassion. Every day, serving the crippled, ugly woman, even during the pollution of her periods, he gets nearer salvation; and he thinks, “I get ripe and ready.” He is famous now, this Acharya, for his sacrifice, his goodness, and the religious wisdom brought him by his years of study of the palm-leaf scriptures; he is the “crest-jewel of the Vedanta,” and the Vedanta is the ultimate wisdom.
But among the brahmin brotherhood there is one who has fallen. He drinks; he catches the sacred fish from the tank of a temple; he mixes with Moslems and keeps an untouchable mistress. He cannot be expelled from the brotherhood. Compassion is one reason, compassion being an aspect of the goodness of the Acharya. But there is another reason: the fallen brahmin threatens to become a Moslem if he is expelled, and such a conversion would retrospectively pollute, and thereby break up, the entire brotherhood. This very wicked brahmin now dies of plague, and a crisis ensues. Should the brotherhood perform the final rites? Only brahmins can perform the rites for another brahmin. But can the dead man be considered a brahmin? In his life he abjured brahminhood, but did brahminhood leave him? Can the brotherhood perform the rites without polluting itself? Can another, lower sect of brahmins be made to perform the rites? (They are willing: the request flatters them: their brahmin line got crossed at some time, and they feel it.) But wouldn’t that bring the brotherhood into disrepute—having the rites for one of their own performed by a lower group?
These are the problems that are taken to the Acharya, the crest-jewel, the man of goodness. The matter is urgent. The heat is intense, the body is rotting, the vultures are flapping about, there is a danger of the plague spreading. And the brahmins, who are fussy about their food in every way, are getting hungry: they can’t eat while the corpse is uncremated.
But the Acharya cannot give a quick answer. He cannot simply consult his heart, his goodness. The question of the status of the dead man—brahmin or not brahmin, member of the brotherhood or outcaste—is not a moral question. It is a matter of pollution; and it is therefore a matter for the laws, the sacred books. The Acharya has to consult the books; no one knows his way about the palmleaf manuscripts as well as the Acharya. But this consulting of the books takes time. The plague spreads; some untouchables die and are unceremoniously burned in their huts; the brahmins are beside themselves with hunger and anxiety. And the books give the Acharya no answer.
The Acharya understands that his reputation for wisdom is now at stake; in the midst of the crisis he acknowledges this remnant of personal vanity. But a decision has to be made, and it has to be the correct one. The Acharya can only turn to magic. In the morning he goes to the temple of the monkey god and ritually washes down the man-sized idol. He puts one flower on the god’s left shoulder and another on the right. And he decides how the god will answer: if the flower on the right shoulder falls first, the brotherhood can perform the rites for the dead man. But the god gives no reply. For the whole of the hot day, while the Acharya prays and anguishes (and his crippled wife becomes infected by the plague), neither flower falls. And, for the first time in his life, the Acharya, the man of goodness, has doubts about himself: perhaps he is not worthy enough to get an answer from the god.
Exhausted, tormented, he leaves the temple in the evening, to go to look after his wife. In the forest he meets the untouchable mistress of the dead man. She expresses her concern for him; she has worshipped the Acharya for his piety, and it has occurred to her that she should have a child by the Acharya. Her breasts touch him, and he is enveloped by the moment; he wakes at midnight imagining himself a child again, in his mother’s lap. It cannot be said that he falls or sins. The words are too positive. As with Sudhir Kakar’s patients in real life, the sexual moment simply happens. “It was a sacred moment—nothing before it, nothing after it. A moment that brought into being what never was and then itself went out of being. Formless before, formless after. In between, the embodiment, the moment. Which means I’m absolutely not responsible for making love to her. Not responsible for that moment. But the moment altered me—why?”
The reasoning is strange, but that is now the Acharya’s crisis: not guilt, but a sudden neurotic uncertainty about his nature. The earlier crisis has receded: the dead man has been cremated during the night by his mistress, with the help of a Moslem. The Acharya is left with his new anguish. Is he a man of goodness, or has he really all his life belonged to the other, “tigerish” world? Men are what they are, what they have been made by their previous lives. But how does a man know his true nature, his “form”?
“We shape ourselves through our choices, bring form and line to this thing we call our person.” But what has been his defining choice—the long life of sacrifice and goodness, or that barely apprehended sexual moment? He doesn’t know; he feels only that he has “lost form” and that his person is now like “a demonic premature foetus.” He is bound again to the wheel of karma; he has to start again from the beginning and make a new decision about his nature. In the meantime he is like a ghost, cut off from the community of men. He has lost God and lost the ways of goodness. “Like a baby monkey losing hold of his grip on the mother’s body as she leaps from branch to branch, he felt he had lost hold and fallen from the rites and actions he had clutched till now.” Because men are not what they make themselves, there is no question here of faith or conviction or ideals or the perfectability of the self. There is only a wish for knowledge of the self, which alone would make possible a return to the Hindu bliss of the instinctive life: “to be, just to be.”
Formless now, his wife dead from the plague, and with her death his especial act of sacrifice abruptly terminated, the Acharya decides to wander, to let his legs take him where they will. This is really an attempt to test his responses to the world; it might be said that he is trying to define his new form by negatives. What do other people see in him? Does the peasant see the brahmin still? Do other brahmins see the brahmin, or do they see a fraud? At a village fair, is he the man to be tempted by the women acrobats, the pollutions of the soda-pop stall and the coffee stall, the lower-caste excitement of the cock-fight? Between the pollution-free brahmin world and this world, the “world of ordinary pleasures,” of darkness, a “demon world of pressing need, revenge and greed,” there is no middle way. All around him are “purposive eyes. Eyes engaged in things…. Immersed. The oneness, the monism, of desire and fulfilment.” Men are defined by the world; they are defined by the pollution they can expose themselves to.
The Acharya is terrified; he feels himself being “transformed from ghost to demon.” But, neurotically, he continues to test himself. His caste sins mount; and he understands that by exposing himself to pollution he has become a polluting thing himself. He comes to a decision. He will return to the brotherhood and confess. He will tell them about his sexual adventure with the dead man’s untouchable mistress, his visit to the common fair; he will tell them that, though in a state of pollution (partly because of his wife’s death), he ate with brahmins in a temple and invited a man of lower caste to eat with him. He will speak without repentance or sorrow. He will simply be telling them about the truth of his inner self, which by a series of accidents—perhaps not really accidents—he has just discovered.
Samskara is a difficult novel, and it may be that not everyone will agree with my reading of it. The translation is not always clear; but many of the Hindu concepts are not easy to render in English. Even so, the narrative is hypnotic; and the brilliance of the writing in the original Kannada can be guessed. Anti-brahmin feeling (and by extension anti-Aryan, anti-northern feeling) is strong in the south; and some readers of the serialization in the Illustrated Weekly of India have seen the novel as an attack on brahmins. This is a political simplification; but it shows to what extent Indians are able to accept the premises of the novel that are so difficult for an outsider: caste, pollution, the idea of the karma-given self, the anguish at the loss of caste identity.
The author, U.R. Anantamurti, is a serious literary man. He teaches English to postgraduate students at Mysore University, which has a lively English department; and he has also taught in the United States. His academic background seems a world away from the society he describes in the novel; and it is hard to assess his attitude to that society. Knowingly or unknowingly, Anantamurti has portrayed a barbaric civilization, where the books, the laws, are buttressed by magic, and where a too elaborate social organization is unquickened by intellect or creativity or ideas of moral responsibility (except to the self in its climb to salvation). These people are all helpless, disadvantaged, easily unbalanced; the civilization they have inherited has long gone sour; living instinctive lives, crippled by rules (“I didn’t try to solve it for myself. I depended on God, on the old lawbooks. Isn’t this precisely why we have created the Books?”), they make up a society without a head.
References to buses and newspapers and the Congress party indicate that the novel is set in modern times. But the age seems remote; and certainly Gandhi doesn’t seem to have walked this way. The Acharya’s anguish about his true nature, though presented in religious terms, is bound up with the crudest ideas of pollution and caste and power. Brahmins must be brahmins, the Acharya reasons at one stage; otherwise “righteousness” will not prevail. “Won’t the lower castes get out of hand? In this decadent age, common men follow the right path out of fear—if that were destroyed, where could we find the strength to uphold the world?” It is an aspect of this righteousness that when an untouchable woman begs for a gift of tobacco, the brahmin woman should throw it out into the street, as to a dog. In this way pollution is avoided, and righteousness and fear maintained.
“We Indians use the outer reality to preserve the continuity of the self.” Sudhir Kakar’s analysis of Gandhi’s stupor in England in 1888 is remarkably like Anantamurti’s wonderful description of the Acharya’s wanderings in the world. Gandhi is preserving his purity, his idea of the self, in the midst of strangeness. The Acharya is collecting impurities; the account he will present to the brotherhood is not an account of what he has seen, an account of the world he has decided he must enter, but an account of the pollutions he has endured. In both men there is the same limitation of vision and response, the same self-absorption.
But there is an important difference. The Acharya is imprisoned in his dead civilization; he can only define himself within it. He has not, like Gandhi in England, had to work out his faith and decide where—in the wider world—he stands. Gandhi, maturing in alien societies, defensively withdrawing into the self, sinking into his hard-won convictions and vows, becoming more obstinate with age, and always (from his autobiography) seemingly headed for lunacy, is constantly rescued and redefined by external events, the goadings of other civilizations: the terror and strangeness of England, the need to pass the law examinations, the racial pressures of South Africa, British authoritarianism in India (made clear by his experience of the democratic ways of South Africa).
When Gandhi returns to India for good, in his mid-forties, he is fully made; and even at the end, when he is politically isolated, and almost all holy man, the pattern of his foreign-created Mahatmahood holds. In the turmoil of Independence—the killings, the mass migrations between India and Pakistan, the war in Kashmir—he is still, at the age of seventy-eight, obsessed with the vow of sexual abstinence he had taken forty years before at the time of the Zulu rebellion in South Africa. But he is roused by the Hindu-Muslim massacres in Bengal and goes to the district of Noakhali. Sad last pilgrimage: embittered people scatter broken glass on the roads he is to walk. Seventeen years before, on the Salt March, at the other end of India, the poor had sometimes strewn his path with cool green leaves. Now, in Bengal, he has nothing to offer except his presence, and he knows it. Yet he is heard to say to himself again and again, “Kya karun? Kya karun? What shall I do?” At this terrible moment his thoughts are of action, and he is magnificent.
The Acharya will never know this anguish of frustration. Embracing the “demon world,” deliberately living out his newly discovered nature, as he deliberately lived out the old, he will continue to be self-absorbed; and his self-absorption will be as sterile as it had been when he was a man of goodness. No idea will come to him, as it came to Gandhi, of the imperfections of the world, of a world that might in some way be put right. The times are decadent, the Acharya thinks (or thought, when he was a man of goodness). But that is only because the lower castes are losing fear and getting out of hand; and the only answer is a greater righteousness, a further withdrawal into the self, a further turning away from the world, a striving after a more instinctive life, where the perception of reality is even weaker, and the mind “just one awareness, one wonder.”
Restful to the outsider, the visitor, this ideal of diminishing perception. But India has invested in necessary change, and a changing society requires something else. At a time of change, according to Sudhir Kakar, the underdeveloped ego can be a “dangerous luxury.” Cities grow; people travel out of their ancestral districts; the ties of clan and family are loosened. The need for sharper perception increases; and perception has to become “an individual rather than a social function.”
This threatens everything; it unbalances people in a way outsiders can hardly understand. Caste and clan and security and faith and shallow perception all go together; one cannot be altered or developed without damaging the rest. How can anyone, used from infancy to the security of the group and the security of a minutely regulated life, become an individual, a man on his own? He will be drowned in the immensity of the unknown world; he will be lost. He will be like the Acharya in Anantamurti’s novel, tormented by his formlessness. “A piece of string in the wind, a cloud taking on shapes according to the wind. I’ve become a thing. By an act of will, I’ll become human again.”
For the Acharya there is a sanctioned way to becoming human again; he has only to make a choice. But how does a man become an individual when there is no path, and no knowledge even of the goal? How can men learn to presume? Men can only stumble through events, holding on to the idea of the self. When caste and family simplify relationships, and the sanctity of the laws cannot be doubted, when magic buttresses the laws, and the epics and legends satisfy the imagination, and astrologers know the future anyway, men cannot easily begin to observe and analyze. And how, it might be asked, can Indians face the Indian reality without some filter of faith or magic? How often in India—at every level—rational conversation about the country’s problems trails away into talk of magic, of the successful prophecies of astrologers, of the wisdom of auspicious hours, of telepathic communications, and actions taken in response to some inner voice! It is always there, this knowledge of the other, regulated world, undermining, or balancing, intellect and the beginnings of painful perception.
When men cannot observe, they don’t have ideas; they have obsessions. When people live instinctive lives, something like a collective amnesia steadily blurs the past. Few educated Indians now remember or acknowledge their serenity in 1962, before the Chinese war and the end of the Nehru era, when Independence could still be enjoyed as personal dignity alone, and it could be assumed, from the new possession of dignity by so many, that India had made it or was making it. Few can interpret the increasing frenzy of the country since then, through the Pakistan war of 1965, the consequent financial distress, the drought and famine of 1967, the long agony of the Bangladesh crisis of 1971.
India is poor: the fact has only recently begun to be observed in India, with the great growth in population, the choking of the cities, the political assertiveness of industrial workers. To many Indians, however, poverty, just discovered, also seems to have just been created. It is, bizarrely, one of the charges most often made against Mrs. Gandhi: her failure to remove poverty, as she promised in 1971: that very poverty which, until the other day, was regarded by everyone else as a fact of Indian life, and holy, a cause for pious Gandhian pride.
A famous Indian politician, in his time a man of great power, once almost prime minister, said to a foreign interviewer just before the Emergency: “Here there’s no rice, there’s no wheat…. Until five years ago a family used to buy at least twenty pounds of cereals a month…. We built factories too…and machinery we even managed to export…. Now we have to import everything once more.” Did he really believe what he said? No rice, no wheat, everything imported? Did he really believe in that picture of a recent richer past? The chances are that he did. He is a Gandhian, and will not consciously distort the truth. He sits at his spinning wheel every day: the Gandhian spinning wheel no longer a means of livelihood for the dispossessed, or a symbol of labor and brotherhood with the poor, but a sacred tool, an aid to thought (as with this politician) or (as with others) a yogic means of stilling the waves of the mind, an aid to mental vacuity. To know the past (when he had been a man of power) the old politician had only to consult himself, his heart. There he saw quite clearly his own fulfillment and—since the outer world matters only in so far as it affects the inner—he could claim without disingenuousness that there had been a time when things were going well with the country.
Individual obsessions coalesce into political movements; and in the last ten years or so these movements of protest have become wilder. Many of these movements look back to the past, which they reinterpret to suit their needs. Some, like the Shiv Sena in Bombay (looking back two and a half centuries to the period of Maratha glory) and the Dravidian movement in the south (seeking to revenge itself, after 3,000 years, on the Aryan north), have positive regenerating effects. Others, like the Anand Marg, fusing disparate obsessions, asserting caste and violence and sexual laxity as if in an inversion of Gandhianism, are the grossest kind of Hindu cult: a demonstration, like others in the past, of the ease with which Hinduism, striving after internal continuity and calm, stripping itself of intellect and the need for intellect, can decline into barbarism.
A party which seeks a nuclear armory for India, and combines that with a program for protecting the holy cow (free fodder for cows, homes for old cows), might at first be dismissed as a joke. But it isn’t a joke. This party is the Jan Sangh, the National Party. It is the best-organized opposition party; with its emphasis on Hindu power, it touches many Hindu hearts and it has a large middle-class following in the cities; for some years it controlled the Delhi municipality. In the 1971 elections one of its candidates in Delhi ran purely on the cow issue.
It might all seem only part of the quaintness of India. It is in fact an aspect of the deep disturbance of India at a time of difficult change, when many men, like the Acharya in Anantamurti’s novel, find themselves thrown out into the world and formless, and strive, in the only ways open to them, to become human again.
With the Emergency some of these parties have been banned and their leaders imprisoned, with many others; and people outside who are concerned with the rule of law in India have sometimes been disconcerted by the causes they have found themselves sponsoring. In India, where the problems are beyond comprehension, the goals have to be vague. The removal of poverty, the establishment of justice: these, however often stated now, are like abstractions. People’s obsessions are more immediate.
One opposition pamphlet now being circulated is about the torture of political prisoners in Indian jails. The torture, it must be said, is not of the systematized South American variety; it is more an affair of random brutality. But the power of the police in India is now unlimited, and the pamphlet doesn’t exaggerate. It leaves out only the fact that there has always been torture of this sort in Indian jails. Torture, like poverty, is something about India that Indians have just discovered.
There is something else about the pamphlet. It lists a number of strange things as tortures. Somebody’s mustache is shaved off; many people were beaten with shoes and made to walk the public streets with shoes on their heads; some people had their faces blackened and were paraded in the bazaar in cycle-rickshaws; one university professor “was pushed from side to side with smearing remarks.” These are not what are usually thought of as tortures; they are caste pollution, more permanently wounding, and a greater cause for hysteria, than any beating-up. Black is a color horrible to the Indo-Aryan; the mustache is an important caste emblem, and untouchables are being killed for wearing their mustaches curling up rather than drooping down; shoes are made of leather, and tread the polluted earth. Almost without knowing it, the pamphlet confuses its causes: democracy, the rule of law, and humanitarianism merge in caste outrage. Men are so easily thrown back into the self, so easily lose the wider view. In this land of violence and cruelty, in the middle of a crisis that threatens the intellectual advance India has begun to make, the underdeveloped ego is still capable of an alarming innocence.
(This is the fifth in a series of articles on India.)
August 5, 1976