Jaipur, India — I have watched a whole family of monkeys perched on ancient stonewalls, and I have followed elephants as they’ve galumphed down the avenues of monstrous cities—undaunted by polluting buses, trucks and scooters. From the back seat of an air-conditioned car I have observed farmers harvesting wheat on plots of land so small I wonder how they can possibly eke out an existence. I have also visited villages without proper sanitation or potable water and I have stopped along super highways to sip chai tea when it's 100 degrees by 8 a.m. and 100 degrees 12 hours later, and no relief in sight. It's April in India and the rains are far away. The dry hills around Jaipur—one of the most popular tourist destinations in India—make me think of California in the drought. Even the monkeys look parched. The elephants could use a cold shower.
The Indians I have met on my quest to find the soul of India tell me that their country is a land of contrasts and contradictions. I can see them before my own eyes. Almost everywhere I turn, I notice opulence and squalor, along with indelible beauty and unforgettable suffering. I have never seen human beings so thin and emaciated and so determined to survive. Granted, China, Russia and the U.S.A. are lands of extremes. Still, extremes seem to thrive in “Mother India,” as its sons and daughters call it. They thrive here more completely than in any other places I have ever visited, from the jungles of Mexico to the teeming streets of Hanoi.
Often described as the world's largest democracy—and at the same time as one of the most corrupt nations on the face of the earth—India refuses to be wrapped up in a single phrase or image, though the English novelist, E. M. Forster, caught something essential when he called India both a “muddle” and a “mystery.” Traffic in New Delhi is certainly a mess. At almost any time of day, it might take 30 minutes to go 3 kilometers. The car is killing New Delhi. But when compared with corruption, traffic jams are a minor blip on the screen. Many Indian friends told me on my recent visit that corruption is the number one problem that holds their nation back from social and economic progress. Indeed, corruption seems to pervade India from top to bottom: from New Delhi, the capital, all the way to the coconut groves of Kerala near the southern tip of the country, once a Communist stronghold, now increasingly a destination for eco-tourists. From my own perspective, Indian corruption seems to be inseparable from the illiteracy and poverty that stare a visitor in the face.
In the swimming pool at the back of the luxury hotel where I stayed for three days and nights, a dark-skinned tourist from Sri Lanka who works as a nurse told me tales of corruption in his own country and in India, too. He added that Indian politicians have fueled the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus to fatten their own bank accounts and to tighten their grip on the levers of power. My Indian friends—who shall remain anonymous—are mostly teachers, writers and intellectuals who express both sadness and anger about the fate of their nation that came into existence seventy years ago—in 1947—a year before Gandhi was assassinated by a member of the Hindu Nationalist Party. Some of my friends blame the British for India’s problems today: for dividing and conquering the country and setting the stage for the seemingly unending strife between Hindus and Muslims. A college student named Hamid explained that the British Empire was a snake that injected India with its poison and that India had not yet recovered. But a feisty woman who teaches English literature and who encourages her students to take risks and defy the authorities told me: "at least the British came here and sweated it out with the rest of us." She added "these days the new imperialists do it all by e-mail from far away."
Most of the Indians I met on my recent visit were Hindus. Some complained that Muslims are largely uneducated, and that they had far too many children for their own good and the good of the society. Not true Muslims insisted! In fact, Muslims often view themselves as a minority persecuted by the Hindu majority: told what they can eat and what they can or cannot wear; when and where to cover-up faces and bodies, and where and when to meet in public. Under new “Anti-Romeo” laws as they are called, the police can arrest young men simply because they talk to young women in public. Meanwhile, the men who make war against women go free.
At times, India seems to be a cultural and religious battleground between meat-eating Muslims and vegetarian-eating Hindus. Perhaps if Rudyard Kipling were alive today he would have to revise his statement about the irreconcilable differences between east and west and say, "Hindus are Hindus, Muslims are Muslims and never the twain shall meet."
Still, most of my Indian friends are a cheerful lot who love good food and good books and like nothing better than to sit, drink tea and talk about Shakespeare, about the brilliant Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, and their unsung heroes, including a little known Indian nationalist named Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) who worked with Gandhi and then broke with Gandhi and created an army of Indian soldiers to battle the British with bullets and bayonets and drive them into the Indian Ocean. Call Bose an Indian Mao.
Since Bose's death following a plane crash at the end of World War II, a sleek and sinister empire has turned India into a new source of cheap labor and a market for mass-produced goods. A few hours at a gigantic mall made it clear to me that the same designer brands that are available in the U.S.A. are also available in India. And an afternoon of watching Indian TV convinced me that American-style ads and programs are poisoning a land that has been invaded and occupied for centuries—by the Moguls, the Persians, the British, the Japanese and now the Americans. The lords and their overseers lashed the men who constructed the tombs, temples, forts and walls that tourists now flock to see. The laborers who actually built the grand edifices rarely if ever receive credit for their toil. So, too, today tens of millions of workers who build the towering skyscrapers and the new metro lines and stations are never publicly acknowledged. Bertolt Brecht addressed that issue in his poem, “A Worker Reads History”:
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time?
One night, gazing up at the blue sky from the courtyard of a run-down hostel where I slept and ate vegetarian food for three days, I wondered when and where India might find its saviors and when Indians might again mutiny against their masters?
When I repeated to a young Indian mother the hostile comments I had heard about Hindus by Muslims, she turned to me, sniggered and said, “Bull Shit.” I was refreshed to hear that mild obscenity in a land in which Mahatma Gandhi himself said, “Pure thought is far more potent than the spoken word.” Sorry, Mahatma, but in my view, India could use a lot less pure thought, a lot more of the spoken word and perhaps even a smattering of four-letter words.
* * *
I’m in the spiffy Indira Gandhi International Airport. My flight to San Francisco was scheduled for a 1:30 a.m. departure. Now, it’s supposed to take off at 4:30 a.m. I’ve already been up for 23 hours. I don’t want to fall asleep now and miss the plane, so I take out my phone and start to write about my frenetic time here in India. After two weeks on the go, I have never really gotten over jet lag and now I’m sure I’ll have jet lag again when I’m back in California, a place that now seems strange, distant and unreal. To everyone I met I said I was from California. I never said I was from America or the U.S.A.; over and over again I explained that I disliked Trump. No one I met really understood American politics or how Hillary could win more popular votes than Trump and still lose the election.
Indians don’t seem to be anti-American. No one ever uttered an anti-American remark. I know what anti-Americanism sounds like. I heard it in England in the early 1960s and again in the 1980s in Belgium, when I was teaching there and Reagan was in the White House. Educated Indians follow U.S. news closely. Young men pay attention to the NBA and the Golden State Warriors. Even when I couldn’t get online, they could. WIFI in India seems to be closely regulated and maybe even monitored.
On one occasion, when a reporter from a Hindi newspaper interviewed me I offered him a sound bite and said that I thought that while Indian nationalism was good American nationalism was bad. I got into trouble for that remark. An India professor I trust, told me that in South Asia India behaves like an imperial power. With its army and air force the government in Delhi tries to lord it over neighboring states.
The government also seems to lord it over its own citizens, especially the poorest of the poor who have been persuaded that India’s elected officials are on their side and against the rich. Prime Minister Modi, who is a Hindu nationalist—along with his administration and the media—have done a nifty job of deceiving the poor and helping the wealthy. All over Delhi, I’ve seen Modi’s picture. Indeed, he’s represented as the nation’s benevolent father figure: a kind of Hindu Santa Claus who smiles to cover-up what seems to be a thuggish nature. There is an opposition here, or so I’m told, but it’s often underground. When there are mass protests citizens gather around India Gate, a huge monument to the Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire in World War I. These days, the police don’t let anyone get near the building that houses the Indian parliament. In World War I, Indians were paid to fight for the British. They didn’t just volunteer. In many cases they had no idea why they were fighting or who they were fighting for or against. They were just fighting — and dying.
Two university students accompanied me all the way to the airport. That afternoon, I had spoken to them and, in fact, to a large crowd at one of the leading Islamic universities in Delhi. My book, The Mythology of Imperialism—which was originally published in 1971—is required reading in literature classes. That was a big surprise. I don’t know if the Indian publisher bought the rights from Monthly Review Press, which reprinted the book in 2009, or if the Indian edition was pirated. At this point in time, it really doesn’t matter. What does is that Indian students are reading it and thinking about literature and empire, a topic as timely now, I think, as it was when I wrote the book in the 1960s.
On the ride to the airport I sat in the back seat with a young woman who attends the Islamic university in Delhi and who speaks real good English. I’ll call her Tali. She’s young and smart. When I first met her I assumed she came from Burma or Laos. She looks Asian. But she explained that she belongs to an ancient tribal culture in a largely inaccessible mountainous region of India called Nagaland that borders Myanmar (formerly called Burma.) The word “Naga” comes from the Sanskrit and means snake. Tali told me, “The Nagas are like the Native Americans in your country.” I told her she had the most beautiful smile in all of Delhi. “You made my day,” she replied. Nagaland— as the name suggests—is inhabited by the Nagalanders, a loose federation of 16 different tribes each with its own language, culture and dress. Not surprisingly, the Nags want independence and their own country. Nationhood has stormed the whole world.
In the back seat of the car on the way to the airport, I turned to Tali and asked, “So, how’s your sex life.” She just laughed. And then she explained that Indian men were impossible, that a double standard operated, that it was okay for guys to have sex before marriage, but not women. “If I had sex before marriage, I’d be called a ‘slut,’” Tali said. She insisted she couldn’t say she was a feminist (though she is). It was too dangerous to do so. Men would assault her. “When it comes to women’s rights and equality between the sexes, India is really backyard,” Tali said. Still, I had met Indian couples in which men and women and husbands and wives treated one another with mutual respect and admiration. I saw no one kiss or hug in public and while I saw no pornography, Indian ads, like American ads, use sex to sell products.
At the airport, the driver stopped at the curb, got out, opened the trunk and pulled out my suitcase. Tali grabbed a cart, placed the suitcase on top and began to push it toward the terminal. “Thanks,” I said. “You don’t have to come along any further.” She replied, “I want to.” She took me as far as she could before a guard stopped her. “See you in Nagaland,” she said. “There’s a big rock concert there that you might like.” I shot back, “Yeah, see you in Nagaland.” Then Tali reached into her purse, pulled out a sheaf of papers and handed them to me. “So you’ll have something to read on the long flight home,” she said. “They’re my short stories.”
I stuffed them in my pocket and then went through customs and immigration. I was searched four times by four different groups of security agents. Everyone on the flight was searched four times. Inside the plane, which was packed with turbaned Sikhs and with Indian grandmothers going to visit their grandchildren, I read Tali’s short stories. They were magical and they were real, and they transported me to Nagaland. Yes, indeed, I would come back to India. Then I would head for the remote mountains and tribes that Tali writes about in her stories and that taught me that India is a land with perhaps more ancient cultures and more diversity than any other place on the face of the earth. Namaste India. You’ve been very good to me.