| This too is India
E.M. Forster is not remembered for his short stories, in part because many of them look like somewhat inadequate explorations of a sudden idea. Some of these ideas-as-tales are in line with those by H.G. Wells, Forster’s older contemporary, but in the short story mode Wells’s themes seem brighter and better developed. “The Country of the Blind” and “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” make you realize the value of eyesight, and of seeing things differently, more clearly and powerfully than the collected writings of John Berger and Susan Sontag. There is nothing quite as visionary as this in the Forster corpus of short fiction.
There is, however, one story by Forster, titled “The Eternal Moment”, which holds much personal meaning for me. The story is about a woman writer who, as a tourist, discovers a relatively isolated village in the hills, an area of beauty, charm and tranquillity which has somehow escaped the trekkers’ beat and managed to retain its medieval sense of place. Elated by the unexpected wonders of this isolated spot, which seems to belong just to her and a few pleasantly disposed locals, she writes an inspired novel set in this Elysium.
The novel becomes a bestseller and makes her famous. It changes her life. It also changes life for the utopian village in which her novel is set. And there lies the rub: thanks to her book, tourists flock to this proto-Ayemenem, which then becomes exactly the sort of hideous tourist spot that the writer had contrasted it with in her book. The laid-back locals now have time for nothing except counting their money, they’re all horribly busy growing rich on the tourist trade. Their lives, suddenly overtaken by hard cash, make them boorish.
When the novelist returns to this culturally trampled village — the new incarnation is ironically her creation entirely — one of the waiters in the hotel she has idolized makes a pass at her. The idyll is over. Media exposure brings in the money but also kills the distinctiveness which had once made the place seem so unusual and worthwhile. Prosperity, from the subaltern perspective, is ruination from the viewpoint of the privileged. That is the moral of the Forster story.
As a parable of rampaging modernity this may not be in the same league as One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it hits a smaller nail very straight on the head. Can you think of any Indian small town in the hills which, once paradise, is not now a concrete urban nightmare, or well on its way there' Nainital, Mussoorie, Simla, Srinagar, Manali, Darjeeling and Almora in the North, and Ooty and Kodaikanal in the South, required no novelist to lead them up the twin garden paths of prosperity and ruin. Mediterranean civilizations require art to initiate tourism and inflows of cash; in India we manage the same with just chaat. Set up a few hawkers with a sufficient quantity of tongue-tickling, lip-smacking condiments, and you will do for tourism all over the massive Himalaya what Michelangelo & Co do for tourism in tiny Florence.
There is no room in the volumes of the “Subaltern Studies” series for the hell-holes that subalternity and philistinism have carved out of arcadia. It is politically incorrect to suggest that the rampant making of money within a deprived section of the populace can also mean godawfulness within the everyday life of entire urban conglomerations. The democratic instinct silences the aesthetic.
There is a second moral in the Forster story: if you have found a nice place in which to live, keep it a secret, guard its name with your life. In India, demographic upheavals can happen overnight. The moment someone hears you’re living happily ever after, they’ll buy the house next door and get all their relatives to buy everything in sight all around you, making your dream life seem like a dream that never was. Live quietly. That way, you have a slightly better chance of being able to die in peace.
I live part of my life in a small town in the Kumaon hills — a little place which comes close in its present state to the early Macondo in Marquez and the remembered village in the Forster story — and I live in constant dread of precisely the sort of social eruption that these parables foretell. Living there, I know exactly how wrong Malthus was: there is no likelihood of food falling short and causing a decline in population via starvation, there is only the fear that an excess of food, in the form of mushrooming restaurants and hotels, will cause the population to grow as fearfully as it has done in the rest of the country. Like the Hindu wife who dare not name her husband for fear of his being afflicted with a malign spirit, I dare not name my little village for fear that other Indians like myself, and others much worse, will come and live in it.
The desire for solitude and the solitary life was, in our context, seen until recently as the assertion of an anti-democratic, aristocratic, feudal, bourgeois, ivory-towerish feeling. Even ten years back, a volley of Marxist abuse was ever at hand to make one feel like a worm for wanting to get the hell out of urban India and live close to the snows.
If you picked up a trident and tied your hair in a bun and wore saffron and begged your way up a glacier, you were okay, you were a pilgrim, you were a proper Hindoo, you were on your way to heaven because you were underclad. The same desires in blue jeans, and your goose was cooked. Luckily, the Marxists themselves are all now living in a Marxist paradise called the United States of America — they visit Bangla- desh on field trips to salve their conscience and go back home via Bali — the place where every middle-class Russian and every middle-class Indian would rather be.
I have managed to get with rupee notes what the Marxists have taken with dollars. Nothing much happens in my little Chekhovian village in Uttaranchal. It is a cantonment town, so it is relatively protected from the worst forms of over-development. Yet there is enough to keep me and my wife and my dog happy. Think of Toyland in the Noddy books and you’ll see a bit of what happens there. Big Ears takes the form of a genial nextdoor neighbour who can growl like a bear. His name is Mr Kala. Mr Durga C. Kala. Mr Durga Kala has written the best biography of Jim Corbett and, inside the trunk on which he puts his evening glass of rum, there lie the original documents on which all knowledge of Jim Corbett is now based: a memoir dictated in South Africa by Corbett’s sister, Maggie, to her friend Ruby Beyts. The breath of white ants in those documents flavours the Old Monk we sometimes sip with him.
In the house beyond BigEars lives Mr Wobbly Man. Mr Wobbly Man is our best friend, Amit Sen. Amit Sen wobbles because he lives on rum and gin and has done so, in the greatest bliss, the past twenty-five years. Mr Amit Sen of Calcutta, once a big man in the advertising world, had the far sight and the good sense to get the shit out of urban India and find himself a civilized nook where he could sip his gin and admire sunsets while looking at substantial flocks of Great Himalayan magpies with whacking big tail feathers that droop when they perch.
One day Amit Sen will die in peace, at a great distance from the rest of India. His house and his surroundings are the remembered village of the Forster story. This too is India. Living like this, knowing you will die like this: what more could a man want'