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Authors: V. S. Naipaul

India (48 page)

BOOK: India
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‘He went to Shillong because he knew some Brahmos there. They then helped him with his education, and he went to college with a lot of well-known people, among them Satyajit Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray, a great humorist and publisher.

‘My father never graduated. He did what in those days was called “First Arts”, the first two years of college, and he became a missionary of the Brahmo and was paid a small allowance. Quite soon thereafter he met my mother and fell in love with her – in Ganga, in Bihar, where my mother’s father was a well-established doctor. When my father asked for his daughter’s hand, the doctor agreed. And my father remained a poor preacher all his life.’

For someone of this background – and perhaps for all devoted Brahmos – Shantiniketan was holy ground, for a special reason.

‘Rabindranath’s father was travelling through this area in the 1840s. It was like a desert, and he liked the place very much. There was one tree, and he sat under it, and that day he decided to found an ashram on the spot. It was to be modelled on the ancient
brahmacharya
ashram – where you practise celibacy during your student days and learn at the feet of your guru. He did found the ashram, and a long time afterwards Rabindranath founded the
university,
Vishwa-Bharati
, India’s World University. There is a raised platform under the tree where Rabindranath’s father sat. That is considered the most sacred spot at Shantiniketan.

‘What Raja Ram Mohun Roy began as a reform movment early in the 19th century Devendranath Tagore made into a religion. It transformed the Bengali middle class. Rabindranath Tagore expanded that religion into a culture. And that culture became Nehru’s politics. Because Rabindranath channelled it into a culture, and didn’t restrict it to religion, it was soon absorbed by the wider middle class. Today the Brahmo Samaj is still technically there. But the life has gone out of the institution – and into the wider society.’

Chidananda first saw Shantiniketan in 1940, when he was nineteen. He was living with his family in the neighbouring province of Bihar, and his father suggested that he should go and spend a holiday there. He stayed in the guest house. He shared a room with an Indonesian teaching batik at the university. It excited Chidananda to be with someone from abroad, and he was also excited by the Indonesian’s name, which was Prahasto. This was a name straight out of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Chidananda immediately had a greater idea of India and Asia; and he felt – what Tagore intended students at his university to feel – that in going to Shantiniketan he had gone to a place that was part of the world, not just of India.

A few days later Rabindranath made a speech at the temple.

‘It was very early in the morning, December, quite cold – there were few houses in Shantiniketan then, much more open ground – and we sat on the cold marble floor in the glass temple, with pieces of glass of various colours. When the sun came up it threw all kinds of colours on the faces and clothes of the people. We all sat there and waited for Rabindranath.

‘He was wheeled in. Then he got up from the wheelchair. He was very tall, but bent with age. He walked in on his own. He was in a white dhoti and koortah and shawl. I was impressed by that sight. It was like an evocation of ancient India, a romantic feeling of encountering a sage from olden times. He sat on a very low stool. Everyone else was seated on the marble, without any spread.

‘Then the singing began. No modern instruments, all traditional instruments. No harmonium, though – Rabindranath disliked it because it has a fixed scale, a western scale, and it is impossible
with it to sound the semi-tones or micro-tones which are important to the Indian system of classical music. Then they sang a hymn, one of Rabindranath’s hymns.

‘He read from a prepared text, in Bengali, with Sanskrit quotations. He was a very big man, six foot two, and he looked very
strong
, and I was struck by the contrast between his voice, which was thin and high, and the largeness of the man. I had expected a deep, rich voice. It took a few minutes to overcome that feeling. But very soon the spell of what he was saying took over. This was December 1940, and the war was very much with us. The subject of his address was the crisis in civilization – he was concerned about the movement towards self-destruction.’

So Chidananda was introduced by Tagore to a way of thinking about the world. It was one of the blessings of the Indian independence movement, that many of its leaders should have been men of large vision, capable of looking beyond their Indian cause.

That first visit of Chidananda’s to Shantiniketan lasted two weeks. Less than a year later Rabindranath died. Chidananda, like many Bengalis, felt that Shantiniketan without Rabindranath was nothing; and it was 46 years before he went back again. He went back, in fact, only after he had decided to go and live there. To make that return journey, he did what I had just done: he took the train from Howrah station in Calcutta, and got off at Bolpur two and a half hours later.

‘That station lets you into the very worst of the Bengali small-town atmosphere – ugly, noisy, crowded, full of the kind of deprivation I see in the style of urbanization in our country, the deprivation of mind, of basic needs. The station had changed much more than Shantiniketan had changed.

‘I went through the chaos of Bolpur. I knew I was going to Shantiniketan, where there would be open spaces and quiet surroundings and trees. It didn’t trouble me too much – because you can’t wish away the reality of your country. It was good to know it had a hidden heart beyond all this chaos. I’ve been practising yoga for about 15 years now, and it’s helped me tremendously to arrive at this mental state – in which I could take an enormous amount of chaos and confusion around me, for a while, without losing my own peace of mind.

‘So even on that first visit I found I liked the place. Some months later I bought some land, as much of it as I could afford, and I began to build right away. An old architect friend, a retired man, a Bengali, drew the plans. He knew the area, the climate, the wind direction.

‘It’s a changed place. I don’t expect it to be what it was. You can’t go back to the old days when people here lived in mud houses and went about barefooted by choice. But I feel that, coming back here, I have come back to more free ways of thinking, living, acting. It doesn’t make me feel shut in. I’ve been reading the Upanishads again – a renewed inclination. Formally, I’m an atheist, but I’ve reached a state where I separate spirituality from theism and religion. To me the Upanishads represent man’s effort to understand the universe and himself at the very highest level of spirituality.

‘Here it’s only two and a half hours away from Calcutta, but I feel I’ve come a very long way from my previous incarnation. The boxwallah incarnation which you saw in 1962 was quite far away from the roots of my culture and upbringing.’

Chidananda had wanted, when he was a young man, to be a teacher. At one stage he had even wanted to be a Brahmo missionary, like his father. But then his wish to prove himself in the world had led him to advertising and then to the tobacco company.

When the news came that he had got the job, everyone congratulated him. But his wife said, ‘Why do you want to take this job? Don’t you realize we will become a different kind of people?’

Chidananda said, ‘In 1962, when you met me, I was looking after the company’s advertising, which was one of the biggest advertising operations in the country. The company itself was a kind of tobacco monopoly dating from the British times. Anything that was made was sold, almost regardless of its quality. I will give you this idea of the complacency of that boxwallah world. There was a highly paid staff manager who spent a large part of his time measuring the carpet that a particular category of officer should get, and discussing the colours of curtains with the wives.

‘The boxwallah was manufactured into a highly peculiar animal. The system was created to answer the needs of the British, their life-style, their ways of eating, sitting, sleeping, shitting. The Britishers who came out here for the company looked upon their
time in India as a stay in a hotel, where everything was provided – down to the last towel and last spoon – in preparation for the time when they would go back home and buy themselves a house and wash their own clothes. Even servants were provided.

‘Within six weeks of joining, I wrote a report saying that the name of the company should be changed from the Imperial Tobacco Company to the ITC. All it caused at the time was laughter.

‘Like the administration of the British Empire itself, the commercial empire, which was an extension of the first, separated a handful of Indians from the rest and made them into an integral part of the system of governance. The object was to make them identify more with British interests than with Indian interests. This was done in a very subtle way. The British would unhesitatingly serve Indian officers whether in political administration or commercial administration. I don’t think this happened with other empires, and it still doesn’t happen with foreign companies operating in India. French or American or Japanese companies almost never have one of their nationals serving under an Indian.

‘The company was highly hierarchical. There were two distinct classes, officers and men. We, the officers, would have chauffeur-driven cars, and our wives would be provided with separate cars to go out shopping – choosing carpets and curtains. There were colleagues of mine who would straighten their tie if the chairman telephoned, or send the car home to get a fresh jacket if they were going out to lunch. And, of course, at work the officers had separate lavatories.

‘My wife got quickly used to the comforts and loved them. I enjoyed the luxury of the life – it would be hypocrisy to say otherwise. And I must say that way of living left a mark on the nature of our needs in later years.

‘My problem was that because of my interest in literature and the cinema I was constantly associating in my private life with people who were utterly different. At the end of the day’s work I would go to the office of the Calcutta Film Society. I had founded that along with Satyajit Ray in 1947, the year of independence. Our main work was sticking envelopes and writing addresses. We were lucky to have a fan over our heads – in a dingy office of a film distributor. Here we discussed the greatness of world cinema.

‘Ray was closely associated with our work. With his enormous
height and his wide shoulders, he came to remind me a great deal of Tagore, and I now see him as the last great representative of the Tagore era. But, unlike Tagore, he has a big, booming voice. He is swarthy; Tagore had fair, delicate skin. In his culture, his Indianness, his universality (not to be compared with fashionable cosmopolitanism), his honesty, Ray has some very Brahmo virtues.

‘So I was living a Jekyll and Hyde existence. Western clothes, quite formal, during the day, and the Film Society in the evening. Occasionally a colleague would become curious about my leisure pursuits. He would come to the Film Society to see a French or German film, but he would be repelled by the smell of sweat on the bodies of my close associates, who’d travelled long distances on buses, trams, or walking, and worked all day in offices that were not air-conditioned, and didn’t have the means to go back home to change their clothes.

‘A very acute illustration of the kind of spiritual disquiet that the Jekyll and Hyde existence caused me came in the shape of something very material. I remember going with my colleagues to the wedding of a British executive of our company with an Indian girl, something that had caused a great deal of consternation in the higher echelons of our management.

‘Perforce I was in a western lounge suit, along with my colleagues. Or perhaps it was a lack of strength of will on my part. I found, on that extremely hot and sultry evening, the place full of Bengalis in their comfortable thin poplin koortahs and dhotis. As I was sweating inside my completely unsuitable clothes I suddenly realized which side I belonged to, and I said to myself in disgust, “What have I done to myself?” This incident crystallized a lot of things inside me. I began to consider leaving the company, giving up the style of existence it imposed on its executives.

‘I would say there was a lot of underemployment of intelligence in those jobs. Many of us, in sales, went out to the bazaars in Calcutta and in small towns all over the country, but their main job there, I found, consisted in picking up random packets of cigarettes to check the code numbers at the back, which told you how fresh or how stale the cigarettes were.

‘So people drifted from breakfast to office to lunch to an outing at the bazaar and then to the club and a late night every night. There was air-conditioning in the office and at home and in the
club, so one wouldn’t have to spend more than half an hour or an hour without air-conditioning.

The main virtue of this style of existence was that it prevented you from thinking. If you started thinking it could cause you discomfort. It damaged some of the Indians, permanently affecting their ability to be themselves, and printing on them a kind of pretence. I’ve seen a fair number of people who’ve become incapable of holding their own without this protective umbrella. And I’ve seen people go through an infernal amount of humiliation within the organization.

These jobs were more or less sinecures. So they would humiliate you by taking away certain visible symbols of authority and leaving you without any work. I’ve seen people go day in, day out to the office and just sit there, and then go back home – Oxford and Cambridge graduates who, if they had gone into other jobs, might have used their capacities better. The whole office would know about this humiliation. It was made very visible. But for many people resignation was unthinkable. It would have been like being thrown out of a warm and well-lit room into the middle of a winter in northern Sweden.

‘At that time Indian business had not expanded that much, and opportunities were very limited. In any case, Indian businesses wouldn’t have given the boxwallahs the kind of life-style they had become used to. Nowadays Indian business will give you certain facilities and very expensive life-styles – provided you deliver the goods. They make certain of that: there are no sinecures left in Indian business.

BOOK: India
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