for David Pryce-Jones
“I have no memory at all. That’s one of the great defects of my mind: I keep on brooding over whatever interests me, by dint of examining it from different mental points of view I eventually see something new in it, and I alter its whole aspect. I point and extend the tubes of my glasses in all ways, or retract them.”
—Stendhal,The Life of Henry Brulard
I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition. The early age is unusual, but I don’t think extraordinary. I have heard that serious collectors, of books or pictures, can begin when they are very young; and recently, in India, I was told by a distinguished film director, Shyam Benegal, that he was six when he decided to make a life in cinema as a director.
With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham. I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters: there was no one to write them to. I wasn’t especially good at English composition at school; I didn’t make up and tell stories at home. And though I liked new books as physical objects, I wasn’t much of a reader. I liked a cheap, thick-paged children’s book of Aesop’s fables that I had been given; I liked a volume of Andersen’s tales I had bought for myself with birthday money. But with other books—especially those that schoolboys were supposed to like—I had trouble.
For one or two periods a week at school—this was in the fifth standard—the headmaster, Mr. Worm, would read to us from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, from the Collins Classics series. The fifth standard was the “exhibition” class and was important to the reputation of the school. The exhibitions, given by the government, were for the island’s secondary schools. To win an exhibition was to pay no secondary school fees at all and to get free books right through. It was also to win a kind of fame for oneself and one’s school.
I spent two years in the exhibition class; other bright boys had to do the same. In my first year, which was considered a trial year, there were twelve exhibitions for the whole island; the next year there were twenty. Twelve exhibitions or twenty, the school wanted its proper share, and it drove us hard. We sat below a narrow white board on which Mr. Baldwin, one of the teachers (with plastered-down and shiny crinkly hair), had with an awkward hand painted the names of the school’s exhibition winners for the previous ten years. And—worrying dignity—our classroom was also Mr. Worm’s office.
He was an elderly mulatto, short and stout, correct in glasses and a suit, and quite a flogger when he roused himself, taking short, stressed breaths while he flogged, as though he were the sufferer. Sometimes, perhaps just to get away from the noisy little school building, where windows and doors were always open and classes were separated only by half-partitions, he would take us out to the dusty yard to the shade of the saman tree. His chair would be taken out for him, and he sat below the saman as he sat at his big desk in the classroom. We stood around him and tried to be still. He looked down at the little Collins Classic, oddly like a prayer book in his thick hands, and read Jules Verne like a man saying prayers.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea wasn’t an examination text. It was only Mr. Worm’s way of introducing his exhibition class to general reading. It was meant to give us “background” and at the same time to be a break from our exhibition cramming (Jules Verne was one of those writers boys were supposed to like); but those periods were periods of vacancy for us, and not easy to stand or sit through. I understood every word that was spoken, but I followed nothing. This sometimes happened to me in the cinema; but there I always enjoyed the idea of being at the cinema. From Mr. Worm’s Jules Verne I took away nothing and, apart from the names of the submarine and its captain, have no memory of what was read for all those hours.
By this time, though, I had begun to have my own idea of what writing was. It was a private idea, and a curiously ennobling one, separate from school and separate from the disordered and disintegrating life of our Hindu extended family. That idea of writing—which was to give me the ambition to be a writer—had built up from the little things my father read to me from time to time.
My father was a self-educated man who had made himself a journalist. He read in his own way. At this time he was in his early thirties, and still learning. He read many books at once, finishing none, looking not for the story or the argument in any book but for the special qualities or character of the writer. That was where he found his pleasure, and he could savor writers only in little bursts. Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed. He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked. In this unlikely way—considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home—I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.
These were some of the pieces that were in that anthology before I was twelve: some of the speeches in Julius Caesar; scattered pages from the early chapters of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield; the Perseus story from The Heroes by Charles Kingsley; some pages from The Mill on the Floss; a romantic Malay tale of love and running away and death by Joseph Conrad; one or two of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare; stories by O. Henry and Maupassant; a cynical page or two, about the Ganges and a religious festival, from Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley; something in the same vein from Hindoo Holiday by J.R. Ackerley; some pages by Somerset Maugham.
The Lamb and the Kingsley should have been too old-fashioned and involved for me. But somehow—no doubt because of the enthusiasm of my father—I was able to simplify everything I listened to. In my mind all the pieces (even those from Julius Caesar) took on aspects of the fairy tale, became a little like things by Andersen, far off and dateless, easy to play with mentally.
But when I went to the books themselves I found it hard to go beyond what had been read to me. What I already knew was magical; what I tried to read on my own was very far away. The language was too hard; I lost my way in social or historical detail. In the Conrad story the climate and vegetation was like what lay around me, but the Malays seemed extravagant, unreal, and I couldn’t place them. When it came to the modern writers their stress on their own personalities shut me out: I couldn’t pretend to be Maugham in London or Huxley or Ackerley in India.
I wished to be a writer. But together with the wish there had come the knowledge that the literature that had given me the wish came from another world, far away from our own.
We were an immigrant Asian community on a small plantation island in the New World. To me India seemed very far away, mythical, but we were at that time, in all the branches of our extended family, only about forty or fifty years out of India. We were still full of the instincts of people of the Gangetic plain, though year by year the colonial life around us was drawing us in. My own presence in Mr. Worm’s class was part of that change. No one so young from our family had been to that school. Others were to follow me to the exhibition class, but I was the first.
Mangled bits of old India (very old, the India of nineteenth-century villages, which would have been like the India of earlier centuries) were still with me, not only in the enclosed life of our extended family, but also in what came to us sometimes from our community outside.
One of the first big public things I was taken to was the Ramlila, the pageant-play based on the Ramayana, the epic about the banishment and later triumph of Rama, the Hindu hero-divinity. It was done in an open field in the middle of sugar cane, on the edge of our small country town. The male performers were barebacked and some carried long bows; they walked in a slow, stylized, rhythmic way, on their toes, and with high, quivering steps; when they made an exit (I am going now by very old memory) they walked down a ramp that had been dug in the earth. The pageant ended with the burning of the big black effigy of the demon king of Lanka. This burning was one of the things people had come for; and the effigy, roughly made, with tar paper on a bamboo frame, had been standing in the open field all the time, as a promise of the conflagration.
Everything in that Ramlila had been transported from India in the memories of people. And though as theater it was crude, and there was much that I would have missed in the story, I believe I understood more and felt more than I had done during The Prince and the Pauper and Sixty Glorious Years at the local cinema. Those were the very first films I had seen, and I had never had an idea what I was watching. Whereas the Ramlila had given reality, and a lot of excitement, to what I had known of the Ramayana.
The Ramayana was the essential Hindu story. It was the more approachable of our two epics, and it lived among us the way epics lived. It had a strong and fast and rich narrative and, even with the divine machinery, the matter was very human. The characters and their motives could always be discussed; the epic was like a moral education for us all. Everyone around me would have known the story at least in outline; some people knew some of the actual verses. I didn’t have to be taught it: the story of Rama’s unjust banishment to the dangerous forest was like something I had always known.
It lay below the writing I was to get to know later in the city, the Andersen and Aesop I was to read on my own, and the things my father was to read to me.
The island was small, 1,800 square miles, half a million people, but the population was very mixed and there were many separate worlds.
When my father got a job on the local paper we went to live in the city. It was only twelve miles away, but it was like going to another country. Our little rural Indian world, the disintegrating world of a remembered India, was left behind. I never returned to it; lost touch with the language; never saw another Ramlila.
In the city we were in a kind of limbo. There were few Indians there, and no one like us on the street. Though everything was very close, and houses were open to every kind of noise, and no one could really be private in his yard, we continued to live in our old enclosed way, mentally separate from the more colonial, more racially mixed life around us. There were respectable houses with verandas and hanging ferns. But there were also unfenced yards with three or four rotting little two-roomed wooden houses, like the city slave quarters of a hundred years before, and one or two common yard taps. Street life could be raucous: the big American base was just at the end of the street.
To arrive, after three years in the city, at Mr. Worm’s exhibition class, cramming hard all the way, learning everything by heart, living with abstractions, having a grasp of very little, was like entering a cinema some time after the film had started and getting only scattered pointers to the story. It was like that for the twelve years I was to stay in the city before going to England. I never ceased to feel a stranger. I saw people of other groups only from the outside; school friendships were left behind at school or in the street. I had no proper understanding of where I was, and really never had the time to find out: all but nineteen months of those twelve years were spent in a blind, driven kind of colonial studying.
Very soon I got to know that there was a further world outside, of which our colonial world was only a shadow. This outer world—England principally, but also the United States and Canada—ruled us in every way. It sent us governors and everything else we lived by: the cheap preserved foods the island had needed since the slave days (smoked herring, salted cod, condensed milk, New Brunswick sardines in oil); the special medicines (Dodd’s Kidney Pills, Dr. Sloan’s Liniment, the tonic called Six Sixty-Six). It sent us—with a break during a bad year of the war, when we used the dimes and nickels of Canada—the coins of England, from the halfpenny to the half-crown, to which we automatically gave values in our dollars and cents, one cent to a halfpenny, twenty-four cents to a shilling.
It sent us textbooks (Rivington’s Shilling Arithmetic, Nesfield’s Grammar) and question papers for the various school certificates. It sent us the films that fed our imaginative life, and Life and Time. It sent batches of The Illustrated London News to Mr. Worm’s office. It sent us the Everyman’s Library and Penguin Books and the Collins Classics. It sent us everything. It had given Mr. Worm Jules Verne. And, through my father, it had given me my private anthology of literature.
The books themselves I couldn’t enter on my own. I didn’t have the imaginative key. Such social knowledge as I had—a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world seen from the outside—didn’t help with the literature of the metropolis. I was two worlds away.
I couldn’t get on with English public-school stories (I remember the curiously titled Sparrow in Search of Expulsion, just arrived from England for Mr. Worm’s little library). And later, when I was at the secondary school (I won my exhibition), I had the same trouble with the thrillers or adventure stories in the school library, the Buchan, the Sapper, the Sabatini, the Sax Rohmer, all given the pre-war dignity of leather binding, with the school crest stamped in gold on the front cover. I couldn’t see the point of these artificial excitements, or the point of detective novels (a lot of reading, with a certain amount of misdirection, for a little bit of a puzzle). And when, not knowing much about new reputations, I tried plain English novels from the public library, too many questions got in the way—about the reality of the people, the artificiality of the narrative method, the purpose of the whole set-up thing, the end reward for me.
My private anthology, and my father’s teaching, had given me a high idea of writing. And though I had started from a quite different corner, and was years away from understanding why I felt as I did, my attitude (as I was to discover) was like that of Joseph Conrad, himself at the time a just-published author, when he was sent the novel of a friend. The novel was clearly one of much plot; Conrad saw it not as a revelation of human hearts but as a fabrication of “events which properly speaking are accidents only.” “All the charm, all the truth,” he wrote to the friend, “are thrown away by the…mechanism (so to speak) of the story which makes it appear false.”
For Conrad, as for the narrator of Under Western Eyes, the discovery of every tale was a moral one. It was for me, too, without my knowing it. It was where the Ramayana and Aesop and Andersen and my private anthology (even the Maupassant and the O. Henry) had led me. When Conrad met H.G. Wells, who thought him too wordy, not giving the story straight, Conrad said, “My dear Wells, what is this Love and Mr. Lewisham about? What is all this about Jane Austen? What is it all about?”
That was how I had felt in my secondary school, and for many years afterward as well; but it had not occurred to me to say so. I wouldn’t have felt I had the right. I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five. I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction. I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side. Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.
Certain undeniable things, though, had been added to my anthology during my time at the secondary school. The closest to me were my father’s stories about the life of our community. I loved them as writing, as well as for the labor I had seen going into their making. They also anchored me in the world; without them I would have known nothing of our ancestry. And, through the enthusiasm of one teacher, there were three literary experiences in the sixth form: Tartuffe, which was like a frightening fairy tale, Cyrano de Bergerac, which could call up the profoundest kind of emotion, and Lazarillo de Tormes, the mid-sixteenth-century Spanish picaresque story, the first of its kind, brisk and ironical, which took me into a world like the one I knew.
That was all. That was the stock of my reading at the end of my island education. I couldn’t truly call myself a reader. I had never had the capacity to lose myself in a book; like my father, I could read only in little bits. My school essays weren’t exceptional; they were only crammer’s work. In spite of my father’s example with his stories I hadn’t begun to think in any concrete way about what I might write. Yet I continued to think of myself as a writer.
It was now less a true ambition than a form of self-esteem, a dream of release, an idea of nobility. My life, and the life of our section of our extended family, had always been unsettled. My father, though not an orphan, had been a kind of waif since his childhood; and we had always been half dependent. As a journalist my father was poorly paid, and for some years we had been quite wretched, with no proper place to live. At school I was a bright boy; on the street, where we still held ourselves apart, I felt ashamed at our condition. Even after that bad time had passed, and we had moved, I was eaten up with anxiety. It was the emotion I felt I had always known.
The colonial government gave four scholarships a year to Higher School Certificate students who were at the top of their group—languages, modern studies, science, mathematics. The question papers were sent out from England, and the students’ scripts were sent back there to be marked. The scholarships were generous. They were meant to give a man or woman a profession. The scholarship winner could go at the government’s expense to any university or place of higher education in the British Empire; and his scholarship could run for seven years. When I won my scholarship—after a labor that still hurts to think about: it was what all the years of cramming were meant to lead to—I decided only to go to Oxford and do the three-year English course. I didn’t do this for the sake of Oxford and the English course; I knew little enough about either. I did it mainly to get away to the bigger world and give myself time to live up to my fantasy and become a writer.
To be a writer was to be a writer of novels and stories. That was how the ambition had come to me, through my anthology and my father’s example, and that was where it had stayed. It was strange that I hadn’t questioned this idea, since I had no taste for novels, hadn’t felt the impulse (which children are said to feel) to make up stories, and nearly all my imaginative life during the long cramming years had been in the cinema, and not in books. Sometimes when I thought of the writing blankness inside me I felt nervous; and then—it was like a belief in magic—I told myself that when the time came there would be no blankness and the books would get written.
At Oxford now, on that hard-earned scholarship, the time should have come. But the blankness was still there; and the very idea of fiction and the novel was continuing to puzzle me. A novel was something made up; that was almost its definition. At the same time it was expected to be true, to be drawn from life; so that part of the point of a novel came from half rejecting the fiction, or looking through it to a reality.
Later, when I had begun to identify my material and had begun to be a writer, working more or less intuitively, this ambiguity ceased to worry me. In 1955, the year of this breakthrough, I was able to understand Evelyn Waugh’s definition of fiction (in the dedication to Officers and Gentlemen, published that year) as “experience totally transformed”; I wouldn’t have understood or believed the words the year before.
More than forty years later, when I was reading Tolstoy’s Sebastopol sketches for the first time, I was reminded of that early writing happiness of mine when I began to see a way ahead. I thought that in those sketches I could see the young Tolstoy moving, as if out of need, to the discovery of fiction: starting as a careful descriptive writer (a Russian counterpart of William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent, not much older, on the other side), and then, as though seeing an easier and a better way of dealing with the horrors of the Sebastopol siege, doing a simple fiction, setting characters in motion, and bringing the reality closer.
A discovery like that was to come to me, but not at Oxford. No magic happened in my three years there, or in the fourth that the Colonial Office allowed me. I continued to fret over the idea of fiction as something made up. How far could the making up (Conrad’s “accidents”) go? What was the logic and what was the value? I was led down many byways. I felt my writing personality as something grotesquely fluid. It gave me no pleasure to sit down at a table and pretend to write; I felt self-conscious and false.
If I had had even a little money, or the prospects of a fair job, it would have been easy then to let the writing idea drop. I saw it now only as a fantasy born out of childhood worry and ignorance, and it had become a burden. But there was no money. I had to hold on to the idea.
I was nearly destitute—I had perhaps six pounds—when I left Oxford and went to London to set up as a writer. All that remained of my scholarship, which seemed now to have been prodigally squandered, was the return fare home. For five months I was given shelter in a dark Paddington basement by an older cousin, a respecter of my ambition, himself very poor, studying law and working in a cigarette factory.
Nothing happened with my writing during those five months; nothing happened for five months afterward. And then one day, deep in my almost fixed depression, I began to see what my material might be: the city street from whose mixed life we had held aloof, and the country life before that, with the ways and manners of a remembered India. It seemed easy and obvious when it had been found; but it had taken me four years to see it. Almost at the same time came the language, the tone, the voice for that material. It was as if voice and matter and form were part of one another.
Part of the voice was my father’s, from his stories of the country life of our community. Part of it was from the anonymous Lazarillo, from mid-sixteenth-century Spain. (In my second year at Oxford I had written to E.V. Rieu, editor of the Penguin Classics, offering to translate Lazarillo. He had replied very civilly, in his own hand, saying it would be a difficult book to do, and he didn’t think it was a classic. I had nonetheless, during my blankness, as a substitute for writing, done a full translation.) The mixed voice fitted. It was not absolutely my own when it came to me, but I was not uneasy with it. It was, in fact, the writing voice which I had worked hard to find. Soon it was familiar, the voice in my head. I could tell when it was right and when it was going off the rails.
To get started as a writer, I had had to go back to the beginning, and pick my way back—forgetting Oxford and London—to those early literary experiences, some of them not shared by anybody else, which had given me my own view of what lay about me.
In my fantasy of being a writer there had been no idea how I might actually go about writing a book. I suppose—I couldn’t be sure—that there was a vague notion in the fantasy that once I had done the first the others would follow.
I found it wasn’t like that. The material didn’t permit it. In those early days every new book meant facing the old blankness again and going back to the beginning. The later books came like the first, driven only by the wish to do a book, with an intuitive or innocent or desperate grasping at ideas and material without fully understanding where they might lead. Knowledge came with the writing. Each book took me to deeper understanding and deeper feeling, and that led to a different way of writing. Every book was a stage in a process of finding out; it couldn’t be repeated. My material—my past, separated from me by place as well—was fixed and, like childhood itself, complete; it couldn’t be added to. This way of writing consumed it. Within five years I had come to an end. My writing imagination was like a chalk-scrawled blackboard, wiped clean in stages, and at the end blank again, tabula rasa.
Fiction had taken me as far as it could go. There were certain things it couldn’t deal with. It couldn’t deal with my years in England; there was no social depth to the experience; it seemed more a matter for autobiography. And it couldn’t deal with my growing knowledge of the wider world. Fiction, by its nature, functioning best within certain fixed social boundaries, seemed to be pushing me back to worlds—like the island world, or the world of my childhood—smaller than the one I inhabited. Fiction, which had once liberated me and enlightened me, now seemed to be pushing me toward being simpler than I really was. For some years—three, perhaps four—I didn’t know how to move; I was quite lost.
Nearly all my adult life had been spent in countries where I was a stranger. I couldn’t as a writer go beyond that experience. To be true to that experience I had to write about people in that kind of position. I found ways of doing so; but I never ceased to feel it as a constraint. If I had had to depend only on the novel I would probably have soon found myself without the means of going on, though I had trained myself in prose narrative and was full of curiosity about the world and people.
But there were other forms that met my need. Accident had fairly early on brought me a commission to travel in the former slave colonies of the Caribbean and the old Spanish Main. I had accepted for the sake of the travel; I hadn’t thought much about the form.
I had an idea that the travel book was a glamorous interlude in the life of a serious writer. But the writers I had had in mind—and there could have been no others—were metropolitan people, Huxley, Lawrence, Waugh. I was not like them. They wrote at a time of empire; whatever their character at home, they inevitably in their travel became semi-imperial, using the accidents of travel to define their metropolitan personalities against a foreign background.
My travel was not like that. I was a colonial traveling in New World plantation colonies which were like the one I had grown up in. To look, as a visitor, at other semiderelict communities in despoiled land, in the great romantic setting of the New World, was to see, as from a distance, what one’s own community might have looked like. It was to be taken out of oneself and one’s immediate circumstances—the material of fiction—and to have a new vision of what one had been born into, and to have an intimation of a sequence of historical events going far back.
I had trouble with the form. I didn’t know how to travel for a book. I traveled as though I was on holiday, and then floundered, looking for the narrative. I had trouble with the “I” of the travel writer; I thought that as trav-eler and narrator he was in unchallenged command and had to make big judgments.
For all its faults, the book, like the fiction books that had gone before, was for me an extension of knowledge and feeling. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to unlearn what I had learned. Fiction, the exploration of one’s immediate circumstances, had taken me a lot of the way. Travel had taken me further.
It was accident again that set me to doing another kind of nonfiction book. A publisher in the United States was doing a series for travelers, and asked me to do something about the colony. I thought it would be a simple labor: a little local history, some personal memories, some word pictures.
I had thought, with a strange kind of innocence, that in our world all knowledge was available, that all history was stored somewhere and could be retrieved according to need. I found now that there was no local history to consult. There were only a few guidebooks in which certain legends were repeated. The colony had not been important; its past had disappeared. In some of the guidebooks the humorous point was made that the colony was a place where nothing of note had happened since Sir Walter Raleigh’s visit in 1595.
I had to go to the records. There were the reports of travelers. There were the British official papers. In the British Museum there were very many big volumes of copies of relevant Spanish records, dug up by the British government from the Spanish archives in the 1890s, at the time of the British Guiana-Venezuela border dispute. I looked in the records for people and their stories. It was the best way of organizing the material, and it was the only way I knew to write. But it was hard work, picking through the papers, and using details from five or six or more documents to write a paragraph of narrative. The book which I had thought I would do in a few months took two hard years.
The records took me back almost to the discovery. They showed me the aboriginal peoples, masters of sea and river, busy about their own affairs, possessing all the skills they had needed in past centuries, but helpless before the newcomers, and ground down over the next two hundred years to nonentity, alcoholism, missionary reserves, and extinction. In this man-made wilderness then, in the late eighteenth century, the slave plantations were laid out, and the straight lines of the new Spanish town.
At school, in the history class, slavery was only a word. One day in the schoolyard, in Mr. Worm’s class, when there was some talk of the subject, I remember trying to give meaning to the word: looking up to the hills to the north of the city and thinking that those hills would once have been looked upon by people who were not free. The idea was too painful to hold on to.
The documents now, many years after that moment in the schoolyard, made that time of slavery real. They gave me glimpses of the life of the plantations. One plantation would have been very near the school; a street not far away still carried the Anglicized French name of the eighteenth-century owner. In the documents I went—and very often—to the city jail, where the principal business of the French jailer and his slave assis-tant was the punishing of slaves (the charges depended on the punishment given, and the planters paid), and where there were special hot cells, just below the roof shingles, for slaves who were thought to be sorcerers.
From the records of an unusual murder trial—one slave had killed another at a wake for a free woman of color—I got an idea of the slave life of the streets in the 1790s, and understood that the kind of street we had lived on, and the kind of street life I had studied from a distance, were close to the streets and life of a hundred and fifty years before. That idea, of a history or an ancestry for the city street, was new to me. What I had known had seemed to me ordinary, unplanned, just there, with nothing like a past. But the past was there: in the schoolyard, in Mr. Worm’s class, below the saman tree, we stood perhaps on the site of Dominique Dert’s Bel-Air estate, where in 1803 the slave commandeur, the estate driver or headman, out of a twisted love for his master, had tried to poison the other slaves.
More haunting than this was the thought of the vanished aborigines, on whose land and among whose spirits we all lived. The country town where I was born, and where in a clearing in the sugar cane I had seen our Ramlila, had an aboriginal name. One day in the British Museum I discovered—in a letter of 1625 from the king of Spain to the local governor—that it was the name of a troublesome small tribe of just over a thousand. In 1617 they had acted as river guides for English raiders. Eight years later—Spain had a long memory—the Spanish governor had assembled enough men to inflict some unspecified collective punishment on the tribe; and their name had disappeared from the records.
This was more than a fact about the aborigines. It to some extent altered my own past. I could no longer think of the Ramlila I had seen as a child as occurring at the very beginning of things. I had imaginatively to make room for people of another kind on the Ramlila ground. Fiction by itself would not have taken me to this larger comprehension.
I didn’t do a book like that again, working from documents alone. But the technique I had acquired—of looking through a multiplicity of impressions to a central human narrative—was something I took to the books of travel (or, more properly, inquiry) that I did over the next thirty years. So, as my world widened, beyond the immediate personal circumstances that bred fiction, and as my comprehension widened, the literary forms I practiced flowed together and supported one another; and I couldn’t say that one form was higher than another. The form depended on the material; the books were all part of the same process of understanding. It was what the writing career—at first only a child’s fantasy, and then a more desperate wish to write stories—had committed me to.
The novel was an imported form. For the metropolitan writer it was only one aspect of self-knowledge. About it was a mass of other learning, other imaginative forms, other disciplines. For me, in the beginning, it was my all. Unlike the metropolitan writer I had no knowledge of a past. The past of our community ended, for most of us, with our grandfathers; beyond that we could not see. And the plantation olony, as the humorous guidebooks said, was a place where almost nothing had happened. So the fiction one did, about one’s immediate circumstances, hung in a void, without a context, without the larger self-knowledge that was always implied in a metropolitan novel.
As a child trying to read, I had felt that two worlds separated me from the books that were offered to me at school and in the libraries: the childhood world of our remembered India, and the more colonial world of our city. I had thought that the difficulties had to do with the social and emotional disturbances of my childhood—that feeling of having entered the cinema long after the film had started—and that the difficulties would blow away as I got older. What I didn’t know, even after I had written my early books of fiction, concerned only with story and people and getting to the end and mounting the jokes well, was that those two spheres of darkness had become my subject. Fiction, working its mysteries, by indirections finding directions out, had led me to my subject. But it couldn’t take me all the way.
—This is the first of two articles.
February 18, 1999