Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Unusual Book: Part 1

I had this head rush of reading this 310 page non-fiction book straight from jacket to the blurb without putting it down. Interview with India is a travelogue written by John Frederick Muehl and published in 1950. One of the perks living in Boston is that you can get to buy these old and rare books (I got the first edition) easily as there are many stores in this area and a readers' market for it.

Essentially it is a travelogue where he travels through the country's villages (breathtakingly beautiful and astonishingly ugly as he says) just from independence to that of 1948 early spring. The author starts in Rajputana covering Kathiawar and proceeds on a horse to North Gujarat,South Gujarat and into Maharashtra. Finally he winds up covering the Kanara coast on foot and Tamilnad on a bullock cart where by the end of journey he collapses on his way to Kurnool because of heath exhaustion.

Firstly, he has a gift for words and his style is very similar to the one used by Naipaul India: A Wounded Civilisation as well as Rushdie in The Jaguar Smile. It was his keen perception and lovely conclusions that are the hallmark of this work. For example, he starts the book at the onset of India's Independence and the parition he describes the news-announcers of partition as : "were telling us about mass murders in the same tones they use for weather reports"

Let me sample a few lines for you to get a flavor for this highly insightful memoir:

"Whether the British had or hadnt encouraged the trouble, the British were gone. It was upto India to stop it"

"Untouchables incapable of writing their names could tell stories that would put Edgar Allan Poe to shame"

"It was the case of Germany and Jews all over again, of a racist means to an economic end, for if the sudras and harijans were directed against the moslems,the Brahmins and Vaisyas could retain their positions"

"While the British had left, their empire had not...There was a synthetic middle class that had been bred in the corruptions of an Imperial system,willing to support anyspecial interest that would allow its habitual abuses and dishonesties"

"It was as if Freedom,like an application for drivers' license, had got lost under a shuffle of official papers"

"Six months passed since Independence and Zamindars are still as secure and as powerful as they were before inspite of the fact that feudal land tenure was one of the primary arguments for Swaraj....Of course it takes years toaccomplish if you table the Zemandari act while you discuss the merits of national prohibition.Of course it takes years when the governments of provinces devote their earliest revolutionary energy to the tasks of censoring kissing scenes in theaters and outlawing the western vice of mixed dancing. It takes forever if all things take precedence over the raising of rural standard of living,if the national leaders go on a moralistic witch hunt while a third of its population is on the verge of starvation"

"And yet why should we call them leaders at all?There is no one who has less confidence in the people than they have, these khaddar-clad congressmen who never seem to tire of blaming their ineptness on the Indian masses"

"And only it was when I had abandones my self-conscious attempts that I was able to learn anything that I wanted to know"

"A roguish vanity that all Rajputs affect..Conversation is a pastime rather than a discipline where men talk for pleasure rather than enlightenment"

"Where there is money, it is hard for the banias to establish themselves"

"Halvad had a more diverse agricultural and industrial life than its present inhabitants dare to imagine"

" There was never a collapse but simply a dimunition of vitality at the center of the state.The state settled down to devouring itself. ...This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms"

"..were entitled to an explanation of anything that did not make immediate sense to them"

" the author of their poverty, that is habitual usury that is most clearly the cause of disruption of the traditional village economy.The bania encouraged the people to cultivate the tastes beyond their means,lending money that they never need to pay back the principal (rate was 40%). It was the bania who subsidized the opium additcion of the durbars so that they would relinquish even their small pretense at government and it is the banias who are most anxious that the villagers should continue their senseless competition over marriage expenses"

"the brahmins were permitted to exist because the banias have decided that it would be cheaper to buy than defeat them"

"to have plenty to eat is to be wealthy in the villages"

"It was a vacant smile that was the refinement of unhappiness, a smile that had no connection with feeling, the smile of a man who remembered an expression but had forgotten the occasions on which it was appropriate"

"..carryover value of a white face was so great,even now that there was no government to back up its authority"

"self satisfied provincialism in which the communal spirit characterstically flourishes"

"the corruption of the police and the power of banias together present an unassailable front..the basis of the relationship was more social than economic. The motives were not gain,but self-preservation"

"A congressman is a man with a great deal of money and very little sympathy,who distributes the sympathy and keeps the money!"

"Legal Panchayats were suppressed by very reason of their governmental sanction,which made them far more dangerous than otherwise to the local magistrates and police officials"

"The life of legal panchayat was short.It was inevitable that the bania should recognize it as a threat and it was just inevitable that after such recognition,they should find some means of crippling or destroying it. In the case of Bursad it was easy, After a decision that was particularly unfavorable to their interests,the challenged the judges and, purporting to have evidence of bribery and conspiracy,they brought them before the magistrate's court. Of course, in the end the charges were dismissed,but by the time the judges had been held for so long that their fields ripened and gone to seed and their families contracted enoromous debts. They were released,acquitted, but the banias had won,for after that no one would serve in the panchayat except banias themselves,who proceeded to pack its membership with those representative of them. And of course the system collapsed soon after that, for it was as corrupt as the regular magistrate's court"

"the fertility of the land itself,which permits the banias and Brahmins to live well at less cost to the villager than in poorer sections"

"It is not the weak man,but the strong man who does not fear to laugh at himself. And it is not the weak but a confident regime that knows it can tolerate such mild heresies"

"the truth is our sufferings and injustices are like maggots,generated directly out of our own decay"

"when the villagers really want justice more than they want their old traditions,then, and only then, they will get it"

"And the tragedy is this;they prefer it this way.While the Vysya will complain about the domination of the Brahmins,he will be the first to protest if his own caste is not given a privileged position over the Sudras and Harijans.What can the government do? It must gear in with the system,as rotten as it is,or impose one of its own. I have chosen the latter but sometimes I think it was a more selfish choice than the former would have been"

"And yet, he was right in insisting that it was impossible to learn some one great lesson to the exclusion of all others. He had reminded me that the issue was as complex as it seems,that no passion was an adequate substitute for knowledge.

"In the cities where you could see the statues in the parks,the remnants of the empire still seemed very real,but out here it was obvious that ther whole period of rule had rolled off India like water off a duck"

"The biggest sin of the british raj was that it was a people who knew better playing a filthy game, the rules of the game were not of their making,but had been laid down by India during the years of decline"

"Sindhi-Hindu refugees seemed far more critical of the Gujrati Hindus who were kind enough to offer their hospitality than they were of the Sindhi-Moslems who had driven them out but who were Sindhis like was clear that their loyalty was not to their race but simply to the land they had formerly inhabited"

"Even after a lapse of three centuries,would sometimes stand looking at them,scratching their heads.And the Dutchmen in turn would remain aloof,so architecturally self-satisfied and so historically absured that you began to share the wonder of the villagers and to suspect that no such people has existed

There was none of the stiff and laored classicism that confronts the observer of Western ballet; the wild emotions and the violent grimaces of the dancers were like the free and uninhibited expressions of childhood.Yet, the impression was not that of primitivism or again of a self conscious romantic orgy. The whole thing was so uniformly violent and overdone that it assumed a sort of inverted austerity,like Greek tragedy.

"this country is always in a state of unrest.."

"..half truths of their gossip and the whole cloth of their fictions.."

"Mahatma as an inoffensive old fool.In its simplest version he would appear on the stage clad in nothing but the dhoti and make well-meaning but inane and pathetic generalizations over a minature spinning wheel,which never functioned correctly.Increasing complications would finally get him hopelessly tangled in its cotton. As the act proceeded, he became more and more involved in his formless philosophies till in the end he forsook the nonviolence which he was discussing by smashing the wheel into a dozen small pieces.The villagers loved it"


Anand said...

eggastradinary snippets...yamagajing talent to find these obsure gems....and yes I loved the sonali bhendre song too - great lyrics, but wudnt have been half as good with anyone less poignantly beautiful than ms.bhendre....what say?....

Paddy said...

I also got another book thats about Indian art in French. We shall ask Houghton Mifflin to translate it for us when I am back there.

Coming to Bhendre, she is yamazing as it is but I would say instead of Sriktanth in that clip we needed a bit know..

Paddy said...

my.yamaging: please check this link out