At a dinner party in Delhi, a young foreign academic, describing what was most noticeable about the crowds he had seen in Bombay on his Indian holiday, said with a giggle: “They were doing their ‘potties’ on the street.” He was adding to what his Indian wife had said with mystical gravity: she saw people only having their being. She was middle-class and well connected. He was shallow and brisk and common, enjoying his pickings, swinging happily from branch to low branch in the grove of Academe. But the couple were well matched in an important way. Her Indian blindness to India, with its roots in caste and religion, was like his foreigner’s easy disregard. The combination is not new; it has occurred again and again in the last thousand years of Indian history, the understanding based on Indian misunderstanding; and India has always been the victim.
But this couple lived outside India. They returned from time to time as visitors, and India restored in different ways the self-esteem of each. For other people in that gathering, however, who lived in India and felt the new threat of the millions and all the uncertainties that had come with Independence and growth, India could no longer be taken for granted. The poor had ceased to be background. Another way of looking was felt to be needed, some profounder acknowledgment of the people of the streets.
And this was what was attempted by another young woman, a friend of the couple who lived abroad. The women of Bombay, she said, and she meant the women of the lower castes, wore a certain kind of sari and preferred certain colors; the men wore a special kind of turban. She had lived in Bombay; but, already, she was wrong: it is true that the women dress traditionally, but in Bombay the men for the most part wear trousers and shirt. It was a revealing error: for all her sympathy with the poor, she was still receptive only to caste signals, and was as blind as her friend.
“I will tell you about the poor people in Bombay,” she insisted. “They are beautiful. They are more beautiful than the people in this room.” But now she was beginning to lie. She spoke with passion but she didn’t believe what she said. The poor of Bombay are not beautiful, even with their picturesque costumes in low-caste colors. In complexion, features, and physique the poor are distinct from the well-to-do; they are like a race apart, a dwarf race, stunted and slow-witted and made ugly by generations of undernourishment; it will take generations to rehabilitate them. The idea that the poor are beautiful was, with this girl, a borrowed idea. She had converted it into a political attitude, which she was prepared to defend. But it had not sharpened her perception.
New postures in India, attitudes that imply new ways of seeing, often turn out to be a matter of words alone. In their attempts to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.