The rich exuberance of the country, together with the beauty and amiable disposition of the native women, has given rise to a proverb in common use among the Portuguese, English, and Dutch, that the Kingdom of Bengale has a hundred gates open for entrance, but not one for departure.
“Shortly after Clive obtained his dignities from Delhi, he wrote to Jagat Seth, to say “that the nabob had made him an omrah of the empire without a jaghir.” The answer was “that the nabob never granted jaghirs in Bengal; that Orissa was too poor, but that he might have one in Bihar.”
CALCUTTA (Calicata). This city is situated about 100 miles from the sea, on the east side of the western branch of the Ganges, named by Europeans the Hooghly, or Calcutta river, but by the natives, the Bhagirathi, or true Ganges, and considered by them peculiarly holy.
Author reclining in bed (there is no armchair), Ramakrishna Mission, unfolded Calcutta map in left hand, notebook against crossed leg. Yellow metropolitan area, green outskirts, through which black-and-yellow cab has just made its way (miles and miles) from Dum Dum Airport, driver’s severe but sympathetic face (rear view mirror), aquiline nose, deep-set eyes, pale skin. “The Bengalese are in general a lively, handsome, race of men” (Hamilton). Through the map’s upper left-hand quadrant flows the Hooghly (pale blue). “There is a softness in their features.” Broken only by Howrah Bridge (in white). “Corresponding to a general mildness.” Author locates himself. “Or perhaps pusillanimity.” Junction, Gariahat Road and Southern Avenue. “Of their character.” (Gol Park). Up for evening outing.
Circumambulates roundabout (5:00 pm), light fading. “Were it not for the uncharitable operation of caste.” Lights come on in stalls. “They would.” That line the street. “Comparatively.” Facing inward. “Be a friendly.” From the curb. “And inoffensive race.” C.P.A., seeking conversation about America. “They have a thorough contempt for all other nations.” Accosts author. “And castes.” His prospects in India. “(Which seems reciprocal).” Though polite. “Whom they consider impure and degraded.” He wishes to give author advice. “Originally Hindoos.” About how to negotiate Calcutta. “But, in consequence of their sins and enormities.” After 2 abrupt right turns. “Fallen from that high estate.” He gets the point. “The contrast between the rough bluntness of an European.” Leaves author to his own devices. “And the smooth easy polish of a Bengalese.” In the course of our conversation. “ Is very striking.” The light has failed.
Author proceeds north on Gariahat, observing carefully the faces of these interesting people. “The latter are naturally polite.” Bengalis are poised, rather more attractive than their Delhi counterparts. “And frequently exhibit a great suppleness of manner that surprises a stranger.” (If not so beautiful as their southern cousins.) “The observation, however.” Polite, cautious. “Is only applicable.” They give author no trouble. “So far as regards their conduct towards their superiors.” As he walks half a mile north. “For to inferiors.” And returns to the corner. “Of whatever nation.” Of Gariahat and Rash Behari Avenue. “They are usually insolent and contumelious.”
Here he stands for 15 minutes observing the scene, noticed but never molested. And what a scene it is! Advertisements with a 1930s air about them, in white on blue, red on yellow, black on white. Bulb-lit signs. Buses from the 1940s, constructed like bread boxes, narrow windows cut in slabs of aluminum siding. Trolley cars, from the 1950s, their brilliant but simply painted ads ignored by all but the stranger.
A relaxed Sunday evening, the sidewalks are full but not crowded. “Their youths are lively, inquisitive, and of quick perception.” Not much in the way of business, but much window-shopping. “The common people are noisy and loquacious.” The traffic of motor scooter, bicycle, rickshaw moves equably, as though on a movie set, the whole scene caught and cast in a haze of dust penetrated by fires at curbside, the burning wicks of stalls.
Before crossing the street, people pause on the sidewalk. “These are of a dark brown color.” A pretty girl in long black pigtail awaits someone. “Middling stature, thin, but well-made.” Pals meet. “Of an oval countenance.” Slap hands. “Many with aquiline noses.” Regard one another’s nearly identical, mustachioed faces. “All with black eyes and hair.” And go off together. An overweight woman, elaborately veiled in white silk, takes her hefty mother in tow to cross the intersection. (Description of Hindostan.) A distinguished and thoughtful man passes. (Chapter VII, “Of Bengal:”) His sideburns. (“Composition of the population, education and learning.”) Beginning to whiten. (“Houses, inns, plantations, food.”) A stylish young mother. (“Male and female dress.”) In blue sari, lighter blue high heels. (“Trades, religion, music, slavery, castes.”) Briskly crosses Rash Behari. (“Summary.”) Her little 9-year-old son. (“Of the moral character.”) Held by his skinny arm. (“Of the Bengalese.”)
6:00 am view from Captain N.N. Dutta Wing, Ramakrishna Institute of Culture. Pale blue sky streaked with smoky grays throughout hovers above the magnificent structure, its facade in battleship gray, alcoves in salmon. Crows dip out of the sky down, down into the courtyard to settle on the balustrades of causeways, or, reascending, perch on the uppermost roof line. Their shadows move across a northern wall, where a third-floor sunlit alcove houses the busts of bygone leaders, the memorabilia of their dutiful lives ensconced in wood-framed, glass-enclosed cases.
Meanwhile, below in the court, the balletic movement of servants, padding about barefooted in a timeless present. Author, warming up to his own rhetoric, abruptly interrupted by manager. “Badding?” he inquires. Author’s bed has no sheets. Manager off in search of someone to remedy this; returns with brown-uniformed servant; together they enter room, where amidst much loud discussion, the bed is made. Exiting, manager officiously interrupts author again.
Across the court, some 70 yards distant, in red head-wrap against the cool/cold, another small brown-clad figure dusts the third-floor ledge. On the spacious lawn below, 2 men mow, one pushing, one pulling the mower. On the flagstone walkways 2 more men arrange potted chrysanthemums; yet 2 more disappear from view to mount the stair beneath, their mission unclear. Reaching the third floor, their loud voices also interrupt the visiting scholar. One man carries a bamboo pole over his shoulder; the other man carries nothing. They pass on up the stair.
And return. The bamboo pole has now, suspended from it, an earthen pot of daisies, cradled in a burlap sling. Barefooted, the 2 men descend, loquaciously angling their primitive instrument.
Two crows depart their perches on the western wall, dip deeply into the courtyard, their shadows enlarged on the northern facade; come almost simultaneously to rest on the balustrade of the eastern third floor. Two men with daisies re-enter the court below, set down their cargo, accept the assistance of 2 more men, who remove it from its sling. Behind this foursome extends the formal lawn, the flower-bordered walkways, where several hundred pots have been placed at regular intervals, of a foot, 2 feet, 6 inches, to span the yard theatrically to a sandstone stage, itself arranged with row upon graduated row of regular pots.
As author prepares to describe their arrangement the 2 men with pole and sling descend the stair again conversing loudly. As author’s eye returns to station 8 crows descend at once from their perches high above, their shadows cast wildly against the static walls, whose inset windows, outlines in pale blue, have begun to catch the sun. In an instant all the crows are gone, leaving the scene unperturbed.
8:20 am, following day. For first time since arrival author opens window onto the street below: through heavy metal grillwork, past pigeon droppings to yellow top, black cab, depositing at curb woman in dull gray floral-patterned sari. Traffic steady, not yet dense.
Across street, middle-class denizens, emerging from side streets, purchase newspaper, cigarettes, other necessities, huge commercial trucks passing between them and author’s vantage point. In the open beds of those rattling southward sit workers, 2, 5, 8 or more. In most, one or 2 younger workers stand, observing the scene with curiosity. Incoming trucks rumble northward more compactly, their beds filled, cargo mounded high above their wooden walls, secured with rope, battened with canvas, their fellow travelers consigned to the back seats of commodious double cabs. Behind them ─ across the street, up side lanes ─ loom lugubrious, heavily-mildewed, replastered facades of buildings ─ substantial, ample, even spacious. The Telegraph, Monday, December 5. This must be an upper-middle-class neighborhood. “JEWELRY LOOTED IN RAID ON SHOP.” Woman puts paper in briefcase, sets off to work. “Five youths armed with pipe guns and bombs early today raided a jewelry shop on Hinaram Banerjee Lane under the Muchipara police station.” Man glances at headline. “The gang decamped with gold ornaments worth nearly Rs 1 lakh.” Tucks paper under arm. “No one has been arrested.”
Commuter traffic gradually on increase. “NRS POND. Students of the children’s Paradise School.” Buses filled with seated passengers. “On Sunday cleaned the pond.” Bespectacled men in suits standing. “Inside the Nilratan Sarkar Medical College at Hospital campus.” Three rickshaw-pullers at curbside, first seated on passenger footrest, its emerald plastic seat providing headrest. “POLICE TRACE NEWBORN / 4 HOSPITAL STAFF HELD.” He blows his nose. “The police yesterday.” Holding one nostril shut. “Broke a ring.” Into the street. “Lifting newborns.” Reaches beneath the seat. “From different city hospitals.” For a rag to dust off seat. “They arrested four employees.” Puts it back. “Of the Chittanranjan Seva Sadan.” On his left wrist, a silver wristwatch; on little finger, right hand, a gold ring. He coughs. Readjusts position, mindlessly regarding passersby.
“COPTERS TO WARD OFF ELEPHANTS.” Buses continue to pass. “The state government.” Some silver, some red and double-decked. “Has requested the Air Force.” Some green, some yellow. “To provide two helicopters.” All dented, all dirty with grime. “To chase away 42 elephants.” Smaller maroon buses. “From Salboni and the adjoining areas of Midnapore district. Signs reading “Garia to B.B.D. Bagh.” “The herd of elephants.” “South Point.” “Which last month entered the area from the Dalmia hills in Bihar.” Some with words entirely in Bengali script. “Has been damaging crops.” A 55-year-old porter trots past, an enormous pannier of vegetables atop his head. “And endangering human lives.” Rather dowdily-dressed younger women ─ olive pants, maroon undergarments, white shawls; another pair of ill-assorted reds and pinks ─ pass on their way to work. A man in a longhi, 2 pink, white-patterned mattresses atop his head. “According to official sources.”
Passing cars, quite numerous, all in dull pastels: off-white, dusty mauve, pale green; or solid black, a lusterless dark green. From time to time a Japanese car, made in India, enlivens the flow, only to disappear. “CLEANING DRIVE.” Rickshaw-puller, now seated on haunches at rubble-strewn curb, engages in desultory conversation with second rickshaw-puller, who has taken a seat on the floorboards of the first rickshaw. “The Calcutta Beautification Society.” Two men behind them also in conversation at soft drink stand. “Today organized its weekly street-cleaning.” To either side of them, on a low gray wall. “Tree-planting.” Painted in crisp strokes: “And door-to-door garbage collection drive.” Red and black political slogans in Bengali script. “At 35 Sura Third Lane.” Above the sidewalk scene. “Near Beliaghata police station.” An ancient sign: “Lake Tailoring.”
Calcutta through the quotidian, I. Author breakfasting alone, dining room, R.K. Mission, accompanied by Geoffrey Moorehouse’s Calcutta ─ as defense against the Indian scholar who regards breakfast as an appropriate occasion to lecture the American on India. Author listens from a distance as he instead harangues a poor Japanese. Author also avoiding eager Swedes, a kindly Aussie, whose repertoires seem to have been exhausted. Is avoided by table of Asian girls, who on principle avoid all contact with males.
Off into bread box bus ─ “Santospur B.B.D. Bagh” ─ for ride into Cal center, commuters in striped pants, carefully trimmed moustaches, one in acid blue shirt, magenta sleeveless sweater. Thence to USIS Calcutta, entrance through a boiler room humming with heavy machinery, to dodge American women, arrange trip to Patna, feast on 2 toasted cheese sandwiches.
Finally, to Indian Museum, for 2 lectures on Chinese landscape painting. But first a tour, conducted by staff member in the mindbogglingly obvious language of cultural exchange: “These are Buddhist sculptures” (images of the Buddha); “this is Gupta art” (sign reading “Gupta Art”); “these are bronzes.” This from a curator of the oldest museum in India, a veteran of 14 seasons.
The audience for the lectures, however, is attentive and enthusiastic (4 or 5 dozen people arriving at 5:00 pm on a weekday), though in their questions they reveal (for a group of fellow Asians) an astounding dearth of knowledge about Chinese culture. In the summary that always follows the Indian lecture, the chair of the museum’s board says, “We too in India are influenced by confusion principles.”
Calcutta through the quotidian, II. A plainly-lettered sign, “PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB,” attached to door handle, does not do it: notification at the desk, by way of reinforcement, prevents the 6:30 wake-up “bed-tea” delivery, but illiterate sweeper opens the door at 8:00 am (author incautiously failing to lock it); then, note readjusted, author back to sleep, bed-tea waiter pounds on door to check for non-existent tea-tray. Life in India never a solitary affair.
Out then, 8:30, onto street, in search of caffeine, to stop at first tea stall, temporized at curbside by beautiful married woman (red dye filling part in hair), nose pin decorating one nostril, golden ring hanging from the other. Water already boiling, she pours a teaspoonful over lip of glass from kettle, adds a glassful to pan on stove, dips ladle into milk vat, pinches tea leaves, drops small handful of sugar (dusting palm), and within a minute from start to finish deposits tea glass on countertop.
Traffic passing behind her: auto-rickshaw, automobile, pedestrians (moved into street by rush-hour sidewalk congestion): a pair of pale North Indian girls in deep maroon wraps, beige pajama pants, one with lighter cream socks in high-heeled shoes, the other in silver anklets and chappals. Two male friends step to tea stall, stand beside author for a glass, one wearing stone-washed Levis, the other, expensive leather vest.
No morning lecture, sleep impossible, author explores R.K. Mission, wood-appointed reading room, examines standard reference works, peruses periodicals: Marga, Acta Asiatica. Locates East and West, as lunch bell rings.
Lunch finished, 1:30 entry in progress, sounds of rhythmic chanting begin. Author to window, notebook poised on sill. Two files of C.P.I. protestors moving quickly but with limited chaleur up Gariahat Street. A hundred yards of file passes, and the chants turn soprano: a double file of women, composed, it would seem, half of students, half of workers. Another hundred yards of file and chants again turn masculine. Red banners, white hammer-and-sickle. Once again, a passage of women, once again masculine ranks. Traffic, cleared from the left-hand side, continues down the right-hand side of the street. Pedestrians, shop-owners, pause to watch this orderly demonstration of “BUS WORKERS,” which now unaccountably turns festive, 50 besaried protestors in a row all laughing, talking, their bright-colored cheap cotton garb enlivening the street. On the sidewalk across the way a middle-class mother, drab olive smock, stands with hand to chin, as her 9-year-old daughter, in western dress, waits restlessly beside her. Brown-suited gas company employee also waits, middle of road, bicycle-cart filled with red canisters. As marchers finally bring up the rear he vies with a bus to enter the traffic flow. Girls in their 20s, on lunch break, stroll past, gesture to one another, in their more expensive pale blue, light green, pale yellow saris. A scooter passes, its driver helmeted, its rider, in white shirt, green knit sleeveless sweater, grasping the bar behind with both hands.
Calcutta through tourist literature (Gov’t of West Bengal). “Places of Interest. ─ Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh (Dalhousie Square). In 1885, when Queen Victoria took over the administration of India from the East India Company, Calcutta became the capital of British India and remained so until 1912, when the capital was shifted to Delhi. Dalhousie Square, renamed Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh after three martyrs of Bengal, is the heart of the city. On the southern side of the square is the Raj Bhavan, built in the Georgian style. Beside that are the Assembly House and the Calcutta High Court, an unique specimen of Gothic architecture. St. John’s Church, close to Raj Bhavan, is the oldest church in Calcutta. In the churchyard lies the mausoleum of Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta. On the western side of the square stands the imposing General Post Office, beside which is the tall building of the Reserve Bank of India. The entire northern side is occupied by the Writers’ Buildings. Originally constructed as the residence of the writers, or clerks, of the East India Company, they now house the secretariat of the government of West Bengal.”
Departure for Santiniketan. 9:20 am Howrah Station taxi arrival, through early-morning smoggy central Calcutta, up main arteries, zigzagging cross-streets, past vast open parks, nearly deserted roundabouts, sleepy-eyed white-uniformed policemen adjusting to their stations. Calcutta does not start the day early.
Waiting room also but 3/4 full, janitors sweeping refuse from floor, sprinkling it for squeegee treatment. Dim station interior also smog-bound. Over the scene a mosaic mural in modern imitation of Byzantine models: figures outlined in white against a background of multi-colored tiles. The faces portray the collective face of modern Calcutta man: mildly curious, more than a little depressed, resigned to his fate. A Bengal tiger stalks the upper reaches of one panel; in another, a Christian church; in another, Howrah Bridge over Hooghly, abstracted. The sun, mustachioed, reigning ironically over all.
“Chai,” says a gray-uniformed porter, tea vessel in hand, bucket containing 5 glasses. He has found, seated on their luggage, 5 Hindi customers. Nearby, lounging wearily in her seat, a South Indian girl reclines in search of a somnolent posture, glorious dark visage contrasting vividly with green-and-white sari. Caucasians too in evidence: backpackers, businessmen, elderly tourists, arriving from somewhere. The rest of the crowd, however, curiously non-descript: Indians, people with somewhere they must go, people with time on their hands.
Pre-departure, second-class coach, party of Bengali businessmen seated across from author, across the aisle as well, boss volubly, articulately directing his office assistant, who politely places colleagues in their seats, attends to the distribution of newspapers ─ Bengali, English. In the seat opposite, a portly, self-respecting, slightly Walter-Mittyish gentleman in freshly washed beige jacket-shirt over gauzy dhoti. He folds his hands together, resting them on his belly; averts his gaze; focuses instead, through modern plastic glasses, on a point in middle space.
And we are off, commuter trains entering the station as we depart, their passengers already crowding toward the exit portals. Quickly we pass through the suburb of Howrah, on our northwesterly exit from Cal. “The locality of the capital is not fortunate” (Hamilton), “for it has extensive muddy lakes and a forest close to it.” The express train, slowing through first suburban station, is filled with noxious smoke from its own engine. “At first it was deemed scarcely less unhealthy than Batavia.” Before long trackside ponds emerge. “Which it resembled in being placed in a flat and marshy country.” In the stagnant water, mid-morning bathers, water buffalo, lily pads. “The English.” Gent opposite perusing The Telegraph. “It has been remarked.” Plain gabardine slacks, striped shirt, cable knit sweater. “Have been more inattentive to the local advantages of situation than the French, who have always in India selected.” Rows of brick houses, small barns, abutting the shallow, unhealthy-looking waterways. “Better stations for founding their foreign settlements.”
On out into the West Bengal landscape: wide-open fields, on a plain reputedly low in productivity, the early going spread with recently-cut sheaves of wheat. Figures throughout the extensive scene variously transporting, stacking, shifting from margin to pathway. But rice cultivation also in evidence, vegetable farming. Black goats on the raised runners graze in the sweet light, some of them tethered, some running free. Tall women in mostly rust or magenta saris work the fields, which are often punctuated with a miniature palm grove of 2, 3 or 4, a row of banana trees.
Villages, when farther from the tracks, emerge from a clump of foliage ─ banana, palm, deciduous trees. Brick structures predominate, but occasionally the creamy wall of a more official building catches the morning sun. Sometimes a 2-story structure, more prosperous landowner’s home, painted pink, its balconies overlooking the shabbier buildings in its vicinity. Scarcely a village vista without the hammer-and-sickle somewhere visible, on wall, on station, on facing of house.
Some agricultural vistas open to fields scarcely peopled. Others open out to a view a mile long, a half mile deep, individual fields filled with workers, adults and children alike. In the vegetable patches there is cultivation to do by spade (though here and there a rototiller too). In the paddies a pair of bullocks moves slowly. In the fields with sheaves spread to dry a more various activity: boys and girls gathering, passing the produce from hand to hand; mothers and aunts binding; fathers, skinny of frame, mounting on their shoulders immense double bundles connected by a pole.
Arrival at Bolpur station. The “businessmen” turn out to be members of the National Academy of Translation. Not only do we descend from the train together, we are conveyed together in an official car to Santiniketan, a mere 1 1/2 kilometers distant. This is a very sophisticated crowd, with elaborate snubbing routines. Tactfully having kept my distance in the train, I politely offer my card to 2 occupants of the car to receive none in return. It is even difficult to make minimal conversation with the PR officer of Visva-Bharati University, who sits alongside me. We have, it would appear, arrived in Tagore-land.
Details of my visit negotiated, lunch finished, it is nap time, the room unbelievably cool at 2:00 pm (In moving from Calcutta to Santiniketan ─ 146 kilometers ─ we have added both northerly direction and, more importantly, altitude.) In the Indian tradition with which I’ve become familiar, visitors twice interrupt my nap, knocking at an open window through which they can see that I am sleeping.
Compensation, however, in the form of a late afternoon visitation by students, 2 beautiful girls, an instructor, 2 guys with their bicycles. On the back of his, the instructor transports the visiting lecturer, the girls, seated in their graceful, flowing saris, riding behind their young, dignified, thoughtful classmates. Together we exit Santiniketan in direction of canal ─ past Tagore’s residence, or residences I am told, past beautiful peasant women, white-bordered saris over their heads, out a narrow tree-lined road, down an incline, over a bridge a kilometer distant.
Here we pause at a café to sit in close proximity across a table consisting of 2 planks, first for tea, then for large chunks of buttered bread, followed by coffee. The sun, a deep orange disk, pokes through a hazy horizon to illuminate in subtle washes the village on whose outskirts we have stopped. Coffee finished, guest not permitted to pay, we wend our way canalside and through the village proper, down a long avenue of huts in thatch to a small reservoir bordered with trees mirrored in its still surface. Dusk has quietly fallen.
Re-arriving at Santiniketan, I am escorted to an obligatory academic conference on a 19th-century Bengali novelist (among its participants my train-compartment companions). Then, surprisingly, in the midst of a boring paper, the quick-witted girls engineer my retreat. Once outside, past the porch light of Tagore’s house, it is pitch black. I return to my room with the girls for pleasant conversation. The lights go out (the common Indian power outage). A servant provides a lantern. Offered an early dinner ─ so as to avoid the returning scholars ─ I invite the girls to sit with me as I eat, the 3 of us, along with an old servant, alone in the dining room by the light of an oil wick. Dinner over, farewells spoken, the touching smiles of 2 lovely, innocent girls.
10:00 am guest house back courtyard domestic scenery, view of servant quarters, brunch break in progress. Tall pale Bengali man, naked from waist up, gold band tight on upper arm, eats from metal dish, standing. Younger companion in simple hat, sits in walkway, conversing with him. Tan dog, white markings, ears attentively pricked, regards standing man, metal dish; turns attention to author activity, 20 yards distant. Behind the causeway from guest house to servant quarters rises a single banana tree, its stalks catching the steady if weak mid-morning light. Younger seated servant arises, walks to spigot on main house, cleans dish. Is met by guest house kitchen manager, returning up path past author on bike; he himself now exiting between author and 2 cows, one light, one dark brown, tethered at kitchen wall across courtyard.
“A sacred book is often written with the concentration of poetry.” Across the way. “A sacred narrative in English can rarely evade the influence of the Bible.” A servant, bearing a bundle of sticks on her head, approaches the servant quarters. “The original writer, however.” As along the road, at an angle to his path. “Gives a new color.” Amble 2 more cows. “To the Biblical rhetoric’s black and white.” The black cow stops in its tracks. “As his substance pushes him to a new horizon.” To observe the white cow, harried by a dog.
“When V.K. Gokak felt the need of shaping his ideas.” Dog manages to turn white cow about. “In the form of a novel.” Returning her in direction from which she had come. “He was certainly not planning a Biblical narration.” After the white cow has passed, the black cow follows suit. “It was Aurobindian inspiration.” Heading in the same direction, a peasant in white sari. “Mixed up with his knowledge of Oscar Wilde.” Floating fantastically. “Keats.” Gracefully. “Krishnamurthy.” Divinely down the lane. “The Bible.” Passes the 2 cows. “And other religious texts.” Now the servant. “Gokak believes:” Who had borne the bundle of sticks. “Doctrine should incarnate.” Passes in a wine-colored sari. “As imagination.” Complementing the flow of white-clad peasant. “Philosophic idea as image.” White cow. “It is this poetic ideal.” Black cow. “And poetic push.” Dog. “That prompted him to write.” Traversing the horizon. “Nahari:” She passes author. “Prophet of New India.” (Quotations from Susmita Mukhopadhyay, “Poetry that Awakens ─ Inspired Moments in V.K. Gokak’s Work.”)
“There are different kinds of lyricism in the novel: “Black and white cows returned to new grazing station across road. “(1) ‘It was an altar open to the winds of heaven.’” As they stand neck to neck. “‘Which blew over it from all quarters.’” A bicycle convoy approaches. “‘And awakened in it.’” And passes from opposite direction. “‘The Spark and Flame.’” Framing them momentarily. “‘Of the Divine.’” Between the first bike. “‘With their moons of red and white.’” On the shoulder of whose rider is balanced the end of a 20-foot pole. “‘Ruby and diamond.’” And the second bike. “‘An altar with red veins in its marble.’” Whose rider balances the pole’s other end on his shoulder. “‘And a liquid light coursing in those veins.’” A third, managerial type. “‘You could lean your ears against the altar.’” Follows up the procession. “‘And listen to the peals of the bells of heaven.’” On a bike of his own.
Now new figures emerge. “‘To the footfalls of angels heard like soft-blown petals.’” From the servant quarters. “‘Or the sun-beam accents and organ voice.’” A 25-year-old in purple-and-white-checked longhi. “‘Of the Divine Oracle.’” Who takes a squatting perch to eat from metal pan. “‘It was an altar.’” A youth of 12 (at most). “‘Whose touch was nectar sap.’” Who sits on a rattan stool. “‘The incense that rose from the altar invisibly.’” Their voices alone reveal their presence. “‘Had the fragrance of jasmine and rose.’” The light brown cow, sunning herself beside the building, regards author. “‘The musk and myrrh.’” The second, dark brown cow. “‘You tasted there.’” Stands facing the roadway. “‘A quintessence of sweetness.’” A burlap blanket. “‘That no fruit ever yields.’” Covering her neck and back.
Shanti (peace) niketan (home), early morning street scene: sunlight-flooded foliage of banyan, broadleaf, willow, over single lane of tarmac (main avenue). Cyclists, pedestrians, children passing. A beautiful pouty light-skinned North Indian in her morning cowl (blood red) over white undergarment, pads past on bare feet, nose tilted back as she views the stranger-identity/author-activity, he seated beside road on block of concrete. A lovely, delicate student arriving from hostel (dormitory) below, in sheerest magenta pajama pants, sheerest overgarment, regards author, her gold nose pin momentarily glistening as the sun catches it. A train to the northeast puff-puffs as it leaves the station, puff-puff-puff-puffs on, the pace rapidly quickening. An ancient woman, her form completely wrapped in white cotton folds, walks past with liana-like pale-green-shirted granddaughter, a matching pale green ribbon in her pigtail. Men on bikes bringing their 5-, 6-, 7-year-old sons to school, depositing them silently, the boys turning their backs to walk through the gate without so much as a gesture.
“(2) ‘A rose-red glow.’” A young man in black cape. “‘Glimmered on the waters of Nirmala.’” Negotiating his way. “‘As the sun sloped.’” Over dirt ruts. “‘Towards the west.’” And up onto the roadway. “‘Drawing Turneresque landscapes.’” Astride an antiquated, black. “‘On the horizonned spaces there.’” Enfield motorcycle. “‘And away and against the sunset.’” In the near ground. “‘Suddenly began to glitter.’” The silver-painted structure. “‘The lights of distant cities.’” Of a transformer station. “‘As evening gave way to night.’” Turquoise-painted fence surrounding it. “‘And the stars came out in all their splendor.’” To one side, 2 leafy trees. “‘In a tropical sky.’” To the other, a view of the roadway in perspective.
“In the chapter entitled ‘A Titan’s Agony’ we have a series of prose poems which show the author’s deep concern for his motherland and also his boldness.” Two dogs nose one another, then part, one heading north, one east. “Then again in the chapter entitled ‘An Olympian’s Delight’ we have some poetic passages which are influenced again by The Book but surely original in substance.” A solitary figure in red plaid shawl, his arms clutched tightly to his chest against the cool of early morning. “Poetry and philosophy coalesce to create a new voice.”
The view across the roadway: “(3) ‘It is a banquet of the spirit.’” An elaborate gateway. “‘Spread before you.’” An entrance. “‘With all its diverse and delicate flavors.’” To Viswa (world) Bharati (learning) University. “‘The sweet and the bitter.’” Cast in concrete, parts of it have been stuccoed and painted in characteristic West Bengal cream and rust. “‘The sour and the pungent.’” Above an unused attendant’s alcove, the carefully-painted words, “LONG LIVE SFI,” in red and blue. “‘The salt and the astringent,’” Beneath, on the wall-face, a Bengali text. Four urchins pass. “‘A child brought up on lollipops.’” An older sister, hooded in white. “‘Nothing but sweets will please you.’” A younger sister, in green dress, disheveled hair. “‘Let your tongue taste each flavor.’” Boys of 8 and 6. “‘It is only then that you can taste the Spirit which is all these flavors and more.’” All looking for firewood sticks beside the road. “‘That essence.’” Girl students, in their 20-year-old certainty/uncertainty, exit past the gate. “‘Which is the bitter and the sweet.’” (The gate itself locked, only pedestrian arch open.) “‘The sour and the pungent.’” Insouciantly point their bicycles across the road. “‘The salt and the astringent.’” Only half aware of the rhythm of traffic, which must slow for their crossing.
“The novel begins with poetry in the Biblical narrative mode.” Two peasant women in their 20s, brilliant saris imbued with the black, white and deep red colorations of the regional style, the dark marriage dye filling the middle parts in their hair. Shopkeepers on bicycles pedal toward the town. “And ends with the greater poetry of the Aurobindian style.” College professors to class, 5 minutes in arrear of their students, the procession of which on foot is followed up by a few late arrivals pedaling more intently so as not to be tardy.
“(4) ‘Life was epic drama.’” Pedi-cabs bearing women and their school-age children. “‘Tragicomedy.’” Empty pedi-cabs. “‘And romance.’” Pedi-cabs loaded with merchandise. “‘All rolled into one.’” Join the stream. “‘One only had to say AMEN to all that came.’” Which, for intervals, manifests no traffic at all. “‘For creation’s ultimate intention was Parvati’s emergence.’” Then a sudden re-eruption. “‘From an inconscient universe.’” Bullock cart; 4 bicycles; 2 scooters. “‘Her rediscovery.’” A last rout of students crossing the road. “‘Of the Supreme.’” Attending to the words of an old master. “‘Whose aspect she is.’”
With their wealth, their reforming zeal and their nationalism, the Tagores were also preposterously accomplished. . . . Dwarkanath and Prasanakumar were among the first Indians to be admitted to the erudite Asiatic Society in 1829. . . . Debendranath composed a Sanskrit grammar. His eldest son, Dwijendranath, was a mathematician, a philosopher, a writer in prose and poetry, and a very decent flautist; he also invented Bengali shorthand. Dwijendranath’s nephew Balendranath was the first recognized critic of Bengali art, but died young before he could fulfill even greater promise. This century has seen a Tagore painter, a Tagore Professor of Fine Arts at the University and a Tagore musicologist. All this, and Rabindranath Tagore as well.
There is an undeniable peacefulness to Santiniketan, this former ashram turned university, product of the wealth and imagination of Tagore. His presence is everywhere. At the tourist hotel last night we sit in the lobby, having arrived 10 minutes before the dinner hour begins. On the walls are sepia photos of a dramatic performance of Kabuki-adapted Indian dance drama; of Tagore in old age; 2 color reproductions of his atrocious but popular paintings. As we sit I notice that the other occupants of the lobby are absolutely glued to the black and white television set, where 2 professorial types are discussing music. Though it is not Tagore’s work that is under consideration, it is that traditional work out of which his reputedly more popular songs grow, songs, one is told, heard daily on the radio. “He wrote something for every possible mood, so one always finds something to like.” I ask if there is any divergence of opinion about the master. Not even a glimmer of irony in the eyes of my respondents, 2 professors from the university.
I ask about Calcutta. My hosts, having grown up there, having then retired to positions in Santiniketan, return, they say, once a month to the city. Taking note that I am not the tourist pure and simple, told that I am writing about the city, they shift gears and helpfully draw my attention to certain attractions: Prinsep Ghat, the Marble Palace, the locale for the delectation of the current cinema. Most of all one notices the matter-of-factness of their attitude. Calcutta exists. It is their donnée, a term from which neither will ever escape.
From the young man, who is writing about Shakespeare’s production techniques, I learn of the contemporary stage. A Bengali theater exists, but it all ─ except for revivals of folk art ─ would seem to derive from modern European theater. I inquire about the handling ─ translation, performance in English ─ of Shakespeare in Calcutta, but the young man’s responses are vague. The Bengali Shakespeare canon is not of great interest to him. I mention that Shakespeare was first translated into Chinese in 1905, but this provokes no reflections on Indian translation; nor is he keen on traditions of performance in English. I do, however, learn that someone has adapted the Bard so as to merge Hamlet with Macbeth. As I am about to speculate on ways that this might be extended, I am interrupted by these talkative, mercurial, unreflective souls.
Nevertheless I am treated hospitably, and the evening ends in pleasant agreement.
Russians in Santiniketan. “In 1553 the ill-fated Sir Hugh Willoughby attempted to force a passage along the north of Europe and Asia, the successful accomplishment of which has been reserved for a Swedish explorer of our day. Sir Hugh perished miserably; but his second in command, Chancellor, reached a harbor on the White Sea, now Archangel. Thence he penetrated by land to the court of the grand Duke of Moscow, and laid the foundation of the Russia Company for carrying on the overland trade with India through Persia, Bokhara, and Moscow.”
In addition to Chinese it is possible to study Russian at the university, thanks to a program whereby the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages sends its young professors on language-teaching missions to third-world countries. Dmitri and Elena have been here over a year; have applied for another 18-month term; are flown back to Moscow each summer for 2 months, where they enjoy the cool of the northern climate in their newly-acquired prize: a 2-bedroom flat.
They are brisk and professional but also committed to the modern youth international program of universal friendship (though they flinch at my mention of the ’60s phrase mir i druzhba). Their stance is a commonsensical, non-political one that assumes compatibility and waits, poised for signs of eccentric opposition.
Elena attends a lecture of mine, taking a break in her study for a Sanskrit exam. Dmitri invites me for coffee at home after another lecture, which he attends. Together they seat themselves at the kitchen table, ready for friendly conversation. Dmitri takes the lead. With only minimal deference to by seniority (he was 2 years old, he admits, when I visited Moscow), he surveys his Indian experience, fields my questions about the Soviet Union, offers the official family view of America. I press both on questions of recent Soviet-American relations and only then do their reticences reveal unshared opinions. They see no problems in the development of Sino-Soviet relations, being as ignorant of China as are the Indians, and are more concerned with internal Soviet problems. After an exchange of addresses, Dmitri graciously walks me home.
9:00 am guest house colonnade sit, servants in motion, answering phone calls, sweeping out, delivering post-breakfast tray of coffee, sugar, milk, all set on dazzling ─ if coffee-stained ─ piece of Dresden blue, cream-and-black-embroidered fabric. At author’s back 2 other guests, here for agricultural policy conference, arguing points of doctrine, their rapid, sophisticated (if not too intelligent) Bengali discourses peppered with English words and phrases: “Science is science,” “Marxist” this, “Marxist” that, “the system is not working.”
At 9:15 the house dog, having taken his constitutional, returns from the road to lie in the drive, between 2 luxuriant locust-like trees. A visiting conferee, swathed in extravagantly colored cape: arterial red with black and cream stripes, ultramarine fringe, mounts his bicycle, mustachioed face in animated conclusion of conversation with colleague, plastic glass frames on the tip of his nose.
Colonnade vacated, I sit in my green wicker chair, look over dark red concrete floor, past beige balustrade, over rust pebbled courtyard, past sleeping dog to a garden, half an acre in extent, where a broad, low-lying palm catches sun with its branches like a satellite’s solar energy panels, a soft carpet of rose-like bushes beyond, still blooming in December. Farther still a semi-circle of Ashoka trees, their spires a misty dark green on the viewer’s side, their perimeters outlined in yellow-green sun-strike.
After a lecture on Chinese landscape painting to an audience that grows from a dozen to 2, from 3 dozen to 4 as I talk, I am taken by students to the studios of the art school to meet the artists. Only 2 materialize. The first is a lively-eyed 55-year-old instructor of sculpture, in the process of supervising the casting in ceramic of a large haut-relief of 3 principal figures: the lotus goddess Lakshmi; a primitive snake goddess; and Durga, mounted on a tiger, in front of which, in a rock garden, will be assembled a turtle, alligator, and large metal bird perched upon a pole. The second artist is a painter. He picks me up in a rickshaw and takes me to his house to view his work.
He has achieved considerable success, partly due to his own good humor no doubt, partly due to the humorous facility of his figurative work, which represents a narrow range of subjects, all very Indian, in immediately recognizable postures: Bengali women (young and old), Ganesha (in a multitude of cute variations), “lovers,” as he calls these peculiar pairs; figures who seem scarcely-disguised self-portraits, though they go by fanciful names; and so on. He has exhibited not only in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, but Seoul, Tokyo, Paris, New York.
The following day he attends my second lecture, on Chinese bird and flower painting. In the midst of a sequence of Ming orchids, beautiful, accomplished things, unknown to the lecturer until his trip to China, he and a friend or 2, mocking the subject matter, get up and walk out.
Santiniketan (home of peace). Sun at author’s back, wedding music off to distant right, clump of ghosh to immediate left, lake before him. Straight ahead: an orange truck, “Public Carrier” painted in black across the face of its bed, backed into the shallows, a single figure in pink longhi washing its sides. The surface of the water, smooth and reflective at the shore, begins to ripple with the early-morning breeze 100 meters out. To either side of the truck, on southern and northern shores of the lake ─ really but a pond ─ dhobis at work beating wet laundry on raised planks that sit off from the shore.
A woman, perhaps 25, in loose and flowing straw-yellow sari, her arms gracefully swinging, black tress mid-way down her back, floats along the ridge of the long open plain that leads from road to lakeside. She passes by the first of the sheets and other spreads drying on the northern bank in the rising eastern sun, tilts her head to north and south in acknowledgement of laboring men, passes on in direction of her destination, a village at the western edge of the lake. But before she has proceeded half way she pauses, stands in conversation with 2 more young beauties, one in smoky pink, one in off-white sari. The figure in pink lifts a slender forearm to scratch her head. The 3 young women gesture animatedly, as 2 older figures, in early middle age, pass them headed east. The first, over a mustard green, black-bordered undergarment, wears a rusty-blood-colored shawl, the second a rouge floral-patterned sari. Both are especially dark-skinned, gold nose pins accentuating their beauty. They pass on up the raised path against a background of low-lying trees to join the high road.
Emboldened, the author arises to move closer to the dhobi ghats. Passing beyond the workers, who are flinging water-laden saris, trousers, sheets over their heads and pummeling them, one to rhythmic grunts, on the corrugated wooden washboards at knee level, he settles in among the grass at the lake’s northern edge. A water buffalo passes behind on the ridge above, led by a 16-year-old boy. At the author’s feet, the margin of the lake is filled with lily pads, an occasional small white flower rising amongst them.
The sun has climbed to 30 degrees, warming the brow still chilled from the morning’s cold shower. A daughter and elderly mother pass on the ridge from west to east, daughter craning her neck, twisting her lithe torso to do so, pink top protruding from aquamarine sari. Her mother, facing forward, comments on the stranger, who is mostly hidden from view.
Along the western shore move 3 cows, black, white, brindled; behind, 2 children tending them. To the southwest 2 swarthy figures, their heads wrapped in shawls, sit on their haunches, 300 meters distant. The sun rakes across the surface of the lake, leaving the shrubbery on the southern shore in muted shadows. A clump of Corot trees, slender, flaring at the top, emerges against the sweet backdrop of light-tinged denser foliage. The warming trend continues, author pausing to roll up his shirt cuffs. The rhythmic slapping of garments also continues, the line of washers led by an energetic 20-year-old, her orange sun-soaked sari wet to the knees.
Thence to final lecture (“Theogony and Epos in Early Greece and India”), where audience again begins with only a handful of students, the others detained by a protest against the Bengali department, who apparently have illegally admitted several unqualified students. Here too the audience enters in mid-course, swelling the ranks from a dozen to 2 to 3 by lecture’s end.
At which point I am thanked, genuinely and politely, by the chair of the department for my 4 lectures, whose content is summarized in turn by a senior professor, who graciously compliments me and expresses her wish that I will return to Santiniketan. These formalities concluded, we move once more to the “lounge,” a rather stiff table crowded with straight chairs, for coffee, the faculty and I, while the 2 lovely girls, by whom I had been escorted, wait outside in the corridors for me to emerge, ready for more escorting.
After lunch, visitation by half a dozen student poets, all lively, all polite, all bi-, tri-lingual, who eagerly show their work, compete to criticize one another. After which, shadows lengthening, addresses exchanged, farewells said, a distinguished gentleman, former Ambassador abroad, who had attended my Chinese lectures, appears, to convey me to his home at the other end of town, where he and his wife, a painter in the Chinese manner, offer pleasant conversation, the 2 of them rambling over the North-Indian scene without ever too seriously treading the obvious.
Bolpur-Calcutta return. Late official car from Santiniketan through mid-day town activity, station confusion, car selection, which requires aid of 2 students, other enlisted help, rejection from first-class car, final station-master disposition. Second-class non-A/C repeat journey, same urchin sweeping floor, same hand returning outstretched.
View out window of same terrain (sequence reversed), author again seated on northeast side of train (initiation of Gangetic plain), southwestward view (across train, out window) of algae-covered ponds, ducks atop them.
Aisle activity, intense during station stop, continues after each resumption: orange-jacketed folk instrumentalist/vocalist, bells on chappals; shoe-shine boy, peanut vendor, vendor of “ball pens”; tea seller, his galvanized bucket of paper cups, instant cocoa, hot water.
My companion for the 3-hour journey: a gorgeous, serene dancer from Sri Lanka, on tour of northern India with her escort, an employee of the Bureau of International Cultural Affairs.
Return to Howrah Station, Howrah to Cal, rush hour Hooghly Bridge (Rabindra Setu) crossing. Shaky. Smoggy. Loud. Gigantic burst of bus exhaust covering notebook page with soot. Vegetable dealers lining the sidewalk of bridge approach, porters beginning ascent to bridge proper, baskets, bundles, packages balanced atop their heads. Taxis, handcarts, an army truck; an occasional private car; battered buses. Pedestrians in the roadway, as well as on both sidewalks.
A cream-and-orange bus; silver-and-green bus; “Tully Ps.” bus, in maroon-and-yellow. A police stand, halfway across, unoccupied. Smog at mid-point almost stifling. Downriver view to the right of lights on east bank of river, they too almost eclipsed by smog. A single white-jacketed pedestrian walking up the middle of the bridge.
View, approaching exit ramp, of warren-like middle-class apartments, shops, offices. Porters, Howrah-tending, rope-mesh-contained burdens of aluminum pots. Traffic has stalled. From within adjacent bus a woman in her 60s, handkerchief covering mouth, looks down into taxi’s back seat to observe author activity. Behind her head, a display of gods at front of bus, in whose aluminum side reflections of the blushing taillights of the taxi ahead. A red scooter squeezes between author and bus, “OK” painted on its motor cowl.
Calcutta, Prinsep Ghat, 7:00 am. Hooghly moving swiftly, water high on banks, debris, mostly greenery, skimming past. Two skiffs to shore, curved cabins, movable deck planking, radio on, traditional song. Owner of one rearranges potted plants on forward deck as owner of other joins him, squatting to study condition of his own boat. Now, leaning over water, he brushes his teeth, using his finger. Nearby tea stall assemblage of early risers, hawking and spitting, drinking cha, talking and listening, gesticulating. Tied up near shore: several wooden coast guard vessels in gray and white, a cutter, a fishing boat. Mist/smog so thick one can scarcely see to opposite bank of the river, but a quarter mile distant. Overhead: crows, smaller birds making a racket in the trees. Standing off shore 50/100 meters: outsized docking buoys.
As the sun rises higher the outline of the farther shore gradually emerges. A thin line, like the delicate brush stroke of a Qing bamboo painter, signifies a smokestack, its black effluvium melding into the cloudy, foggy morning sky like ink into a clear bowl of milky liquid. Trees too only smudges of light gray in a lighter gray medium. The front of a large house, stuccoed, columned, a blur of light touching the surface of foliage, sky, water, which darkens slightly near the shore, receiving the faint reflection of building front and columns. Standing off the farther shore 200 yards is a long barge, its white sides and captain’s block (fo’c’stle), the brightest thing on the river, elevates the scene. A black crow flaps diagonally across the picture plane from lower left to upper right. White gulls descend to the water surface.
Northward shore passage, past park benches, tea stalls, shelters, tents, small villages of settlers, whose quarters, at 7:30 are already swept clean, bedding folded, breakfast in progress. A seller of eels, his basin full of several dozen squirming creatures, surrounded by children from 4 to 14, as a woman argues him into giving her better produce, exchanging a skinny fourth eel in her dish for a fatter one, he insisting that this tips the balance of the scale.
Author, reaching end of passage, must duck under a fence, tread the side of railway track for 50 yards, but emerges with unexpected vista: ferry dock (horn signaling its arrival), bathing ghat beside, 3 dozen people immersing themselves/washing their laundry, some doing both. Colorful accents in otherwise light brown scene: salmon shawl, pink underpants, bright blue longhi. A woman of 30 wades into the river fully dressed in a purple sari, lifts garment to bathe her breasts, rewraps it about her, splashes her face, spits out a stream of water; pauses to pray, her hands held before her face. “She is called Ganga.” Offshore a tanker. “Daughter of the Lord of Himalaya.” Smoke bleeding from its stack. “Born from the lotuslike foot of Vishnu.” Into the fog. “Dwelling in the Matted Locks of Siva.” Stands tall. “Taking Pride.” An upper band of gray, a lower band of rust-stained maroon. “In the Broken Egg of Brahma.” As much smaller ferries filled with passengers pass her. “Triple-braided Stimulator.” The bathing woman. “Cow that Gives Much Milk.” Having joined her skinny husband on shore, clothes herself in magenta sari, removing the dark, wet, purple garment from underneath. “Mother of the World.” Having accomplished this feat, she now inserts a beautiful light olive top, which she fits about her breasts. (Quotations adapted from Moorehouse, Calcutta.)
Strand Road South vista (bordering Hooghly River), 8:00 am, author leaning against rusted lamppost to write. Behind him a stretch of 100 yards of sidewalk, its nighttime occupants arisen, breakfasted, brushing their teeth in the gutter, urinating against the high brick wall, bundling sticks, tying together possessions in heavy burlap parcels, men squatting beside their homesteads.
Traffic along the road thickening but not yet crowded. A truck marked “ALL W. BENGAL,” its bed loaded with workers. A 7-year-old urchin, returning from upstreet with a boiling hot aluminum cup of tea balanced on a twig, cries out to her mother to come and fetch it. Her hair is matted, her dress filthy, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Parked in front of author, to the north, a bus in pastel green, yellow and maroon decorative horizontal stripes, a black bumper. A young man steps to the rusted, red-paint-chipped mailbox behind author, takes a final look at the handwritten addresses on his 2 letters, and deposits them. A grandmother, dressed in gorgeous wine-dark sari with goldenrod pattern, escorts her 3-year-old grandson back to their dwelling, his breechclout insufficiently covering dangling genitals.
Directly ahead, across the broad roadway, looms an imposing neoclassical building, its pink stucco and rust-pink trim streaked with soot. Beyond it, on either side, high-rise buildings of 12 or 15 stories. Up the street to the east, the pinnacle spires and iron rooftops of a Victorian structure. Beneath, under tree limbs arching across a side street, a long smoggy vista, figures huddled together impassively, a charcoal fire smoking.
One-hour walk up Strand Road South to Biplabi R. Bose Road, return past Writers’ Building, past B.B.D. Bagh, Lal Bazaar St., thence to Lenin Sarani. Along the Strand Road drivers of trucks, their tires bald, start up motors, drink tea, spit out windows, head off. Calcutta gets going. Along the inner streets of the city, men (mostly) at curbside setting out wares: screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches; beans and rice; flower displays; plumbing parts. Brisk business at pan stall and tea stand. Sidewalk braziers fanned by one, cooked over by a second brother, who boils in deep fat battered vegetable puree, which a third brother has ground/is grinding with mortar and pestle.
On up Chitteranjan Avenue for another half hour’s walk. “A few weeks ago I was happily seated at St. David’s.” Past Bepin Behari. “Pleased with the thoughts of obtaining your confidence and esteem.” Colootola Street. “By my application to the civil branch of the Company’s affairs.” Onward to M.G. “And improving and increasing the investment.” (Mahatma Gandhi) Road. “But the fatal blow given to the Company’s estate at Bengal.” To Muktaram Babu Street. “Has superseded all other considerations.” In search of the Marble Palace. “And I am at this presidency upon the point of embarking on board his majesty’s squadron.” Splendor of the Raj. “With a very considerable body of troops.”
Author seated in its courtyard, having been hassled at the gate. “To attempt the recovery of Calcutta.” 11:00 am sun warm and pleasant, mist of morning burnt off, smog ever-present in cloudless sky. Author. “You may rest assured.” Surrounded by statues: sleeping lions (beside which 2 real pelicans, one its eye open on author). “I will never turn my back.” An Aphrodite on pedestal, 2 urns on either side filled with broadleaf vegetation. “To Bengal.” Two matching wrought-iron love-seats. “─ Robert Clive.” Two single chairs. “From his letter.” Two bronze dogs. “To a director.” The whole in symmetrical arrangement. “Of the East India Company.”
A gray skyline of church spire, 4-story blocks of flats, over which a line of palm trees, their trunks also gray, their fronds, through the haze, a greenish gray.
“While the detachment was driving Sinfray from the tank, the portion of the nabob’s army stationed farthest to the southeast was observed to linger behind the rest, and even advance in the direction of the grove.” Marble Palace interior, shoes off. “The movement was at first misunderstood.” Obligatory guide declaiming obvious features. “And Clive.” Billiard room with marble statues. “Having sent a detachment to oppose their further progress.” Majestic Victoria in full girth. “Some execution was done before it was ascertained.” Carved from a single block of wood. “That the troops acting so suspiciously were those of Mir Jafar.” Music room. “Who had now at last thrown off the mask.” Seventeenth-century Italian bronze figures in theatrical poses. “And openly declared himself.” Sound of roosting bird. “Had the issue of the battle been any longer doubtful.” At end of music room, 3 statues of Venus: “Jafar’s conduct would have decided it.” Two in the pose of the Venus de Milo, one with arm aloft, one bearing Cupid.
“Clive, when once certain that he could calculate on the neutrality if not the co-operation of a large part of the army opposed to him.” Touraco, blue-winged lory, white crow, black cockatoo, blue macaw. “And carried at once both the redoubt to which Sinfray had retired.” Courtyard ceiling strung with wire mesh, pigeons roosting atop it. “And the commanding hillock immediately to the east of it.” Courtyard itself filled with wrought-iron benches, at center of which a fountain surrounded by 3 putti. “By five o’clock the British force was within the entrenchment.”
To stairwell. “And in possession of the camp.” Where visitor is greeted by Mercury, finger pointed upward. “The nabob.” Marble bust of the 60-year-old Victoria, looking suspicious. “On being made acquainted with Mir Jafar’s desertion and the British advance.” Decorous, but withal imperious. “Mounted a camel.” At top of stair guide points out portrait of Bengali businessman. “And fled at utmost pace.” The museum’s patron. “Accompanied by about 2,000 horsemen.”
“This is meeting room,” he says, at entrance to very dimly lit marble room. “With his departure all idea of resistance ceased. “This is 4-seat sofa,” he says, lifting plastic cover. “And nothing remained but to reap the fruits of victory.” Room filled with Victorian marble sculpture.
“The soldiers who had gained it, seeing the baggage of a whole camp lying before them, were naturally reluctant to leave it unplundered.” “This is Queen Victoria and Family” (coeval paintings). “But on being promised a donative.” View of peacock from second-floor railing. “Received the order to advance with acclamation.” “This is ballroom.” “The pursuit, continued for about 6 miles, brought them in the evening to Dandpore.”
“The loss of the victors in killed and wounded was only 72; that of the vanquished was also trifling, and is computed by Clive himself as not more than 500. Furnishings all covered in dust-collecting wraps. “The victory thus feebly contested on the one hand.” Floor dirty. “And won unexpectedly.” Walls dusky. “Almost without an effort.” Atmosphere dusty. “On the other hand.” Out onto balcony. “Was in its results the most important that had been gained in India since Europeans first landed on its shores.” “This is monkey.” “It founded the British Empire.” Very small, pink-faced, caged monkey. “In the East.” (Quotations from Henry Beveridge, “The Battle of Plassey,” in the Comprehensive History of India.)
Post-tour bench-sit. “Gentlemen.” Guide, given 5 rupees for his simplicities. “I have received both your remonstrance and protest.” Also asks that I give baksheesh to other officials. (Clive, to his officers.) Who congregate in the doorway. (On the occasion of their refusing to share booty with the sailors who had participated in the general effort at Plassey.) To observe and commentate author. (On the grounds that they were not “soldiers” and therefore did not qualify among those “troops” among whom the booty was to be distributed.)
“Had you consulted the dictates of your own reason.” Large “Moose Deer,” outlined in plaster, stares out goofily. “Those of justice.” Crow atop pillar crowing steadily. “Or the respect due to your commanding officer.” Author turns crowd of officials away. “I am persuaded such a paper, so highly injurious to your own honor as officers, could never have escaped you.” “NOTICE” (Marble Palace entranceway). “You say you were assembled at a council to give your opinion about a matter of property.” “1. No Snap-Shots Please.” “Pray, Gentlemen.” “2. Please Take Off Your Shoes.” “How comes it that a promise of a sum of money from the nabob, entirely negotiated by me, can be deemed a matter of right and property?” “3. Please Don’t Touch Any Objets d’Art.” “So far from it.” Bicycle messenger arrives. “It is now in my power.” Stands up his bike (green plastic handle grips, maroon seat cover). “To return to the nabob.” Takes out newspaper and begins to read it. “The money already advanced.” Beside the doorway: 2 pairs of leather shoes, 5 pairs of plastic flaps, one pair of slippers. “And leave it to his option whether he will perform his promise or not.”
Servant in muscle shirt (no muscle) arrives from within. “You have stormed no town and found the money there.” Looks about for his pair of flaps. “Neither did you find it in the plains of Plassey.” Puts them on, walks off. “After the defeat of the nabob.” Scratching his left biceps with his right hand. “In short, gentlemen.” His right biceps with his left.” “It pains me to remind you.” Flaps his white-and-blue-plaid longhi, adjusting it. “That what you are to receive is entirely owing to the care I took of your interest.” A tourist family of 4 appears. “Had I not greatly interfered in it, you had been left to the Company’s generosity.” Little boy with plastic rifle. “Who, perhaps, would have thought you sufficiently rewarded.” Little girl in western dress. “In receiving a present of six months’ pay.” Adidas sneakers, high athletic socks. “In return for which I have been treated with the greatest disrespect and ingratitude.” Family takes off shoes, enters Marble Palace. “And, what is still worse.” Author reaching end of page. “You have flown in the face of my authority for overruling an opinion, which, if passed, would have been highly injurious to your own reputation.” Deciding that he has seen enough of the Marble Palace. “And been of the worst consequences to the cause of the nation.” Closes his notebook. “And the Company.”
Return to Gol Park on foot by way of Park Street. “This Calcutta poem I am referring to symbolizes the journeys into the interior of most of your poems.” Late afternoon, pre-rush-hour traffic. “Or may I call them impassioned proses in Indian-English?” What has been omitted from the journalistic accounts of the city is middle-class life. “Your poem is a manifesto toward a new expressionism.” From Park Street to Shakespeare Sarani. “A vision of life rendered from images.” From Shakespeare Sarani to Gurusday Road. “In words become deeds.” Down Ballygunge to Gariahat. “Your poem is the harbinger of the new Indian consciousness.” And onward to Gol Park. “In revolt against the mocking bird of derivative poetry.” Stepwise descent. “Whether in the languages of India or in English.” From affluent to upper middle class. “This poem makes a departure.” From upper middle class to middle class. “Beyond the bourgeois conventionalities into the domain of the unsayables.” From middle to lower middle class. “The attempt at penetration beyond perceptions.” People coming home from work. “With this poem on Calcutta came your book that opened the floodgates which were damned up in our country.” All in reasonably good condition. “Out of the fear of what Cyril Connolly, or the Leeds professors.” The streets and sidewalks a dirtier but safer version of New York. “Or the Times Literary Supplement would say.” Shops servicing ordinary appetites.
“Gone are those soft sentimental sighing words of the fake Indian Romanticism from Sarojini Naidu to Fredoon Kabraji.” Only an American advertisement suggesting that there is something sexy about eyeglasses. “You have also discarded the vocabulary of flabbiness.” People stand and watch a bank of TV sets at a television store. “The exotic trappings of the language of your predecessors.” Much as they would in Taipei, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro. “Stripped, essential, bare boned.” 12-year-old girls return from school in their green-and-white school uniforms. “Your language attains a grandeur.” Or, later, emerge. “That all the florid literary influences inherited by your contemporaries.” With violin cases, on their way to music lessons. “From the Victorians, the Edwardians, the Georgians, the Elizabethans.” Father on motor scooter. “And similar extravagances.” Self-consciously strapping on his helmet. “Look derived, weakly imitative, impotent.” Feeling secure about himself. “In the face of the tension we all live with today.”
Calcutta, it is true, is not a place one would want to live. “You have achieved a breakthrough to new consciousness.” But not so much for its terror as its ordinariness. “No doubt it is the language of the dark night.” It is more like Omaha, Wichita, Oklahoma City. “But the tragic time requires it.” Than Moscow in Revolution, Rome at the End of the World.
Indian Americans in India. I take my seat in the dining hall ─ we are back at the R.K. Mission ─ first to do so at the bell. There enters a Soviet delegation, which moves en masse to the other end of the hall. Next a group of Indians, which does likewise. Then the spiritual older American woman, who several days ago tried to engage me with her rehearsal of Ramakrishna doctrine. I politely declined to agree, so we are still on good terms. She takes a seat, however, at the other end of the table, having been rejected once.
There enter next Indian man and wife, in standard western shirt and pants/sari. As the woman is about to seat herself opposite me, her husband intervenes to place himself there, her on his left, next to the Ramkrishna adept. I thought it rather peculiar that an Indian woman would take a place opposite an unattached man.
Her husband introduces himself and asks why I am in India. “Clive, as we have seen, had not forgotten his own interests.” He smiles the ironic smile reserved for the foreigner. “And had shared in the spoil to an extent which cannot easily be justified.” I plunge ahead. “And which his most unqualified admirers must unite in deploring.” “Have you,” he asks, “seen many places in India?” “As it gave his enemies a handle.” “Yes, quite a few for 4 months,” I reply. “For the charges which embittered his life.” Again the little Indian smile. “And what do you lecture on?” “And probably led to the act.” “In India I’m most often asked to lecture on American and English literature, which I teach in America. But I also lecture on Chinese landscape painting and even limited aspects of Hindu culture.” “By which it was prematurely terminated.” Again the ironic smile. “You see I also teach these subjects in America.” Pause. No comment. “What brings you here?”
“I’m here,” he says, “to organize the American half of an Indo-American conference.” The subject? Solar energy. “How long have you been in America?” “Quite a long time.” He has been there since 1963, a refugee from Bangladesh who originally fled to Calcutta. He is in Boulder. “Where else have you lived in the U.S.?” Stamford, Connecticut; Princeton. He is not forthcoming with details, and so I offer: “I went to school for 6 years in Connecticut.” Ironic smile. “Where?” “Wallingford and New Haven.” I must repeat “Wallingford.” He lets New Haven drop. And so the conversation comes to a stop.
“What are you working on in the field of solar energy?” I say by way of reviving it. Monosyllabic terms, no elaboration. I venture my interest in all the areas mentioned. No response. “What are the prospects, now, for a more rapid deployment of the available technology?” I query politely. There follows a lecture rehearsing details of recent political history. I’m an American too, I think to say, but bite my tongue. Again talk comes to a standstill. Bengali literature? I make a last effort, hoping at least to learn something. He doesn’t read it but rehearses for the scholar, who has just informed him of a trip to Santiniketan, the elementary details of Tagore’s career. Finally, a relief. A gold-toothed Soviet journalist arrives to tell rancid jokes and lively stories. I pat him on the arm, wish him luck in his upcoming TV interview, and take my leave.
General view of Ramakrishna reading room, 11:30 am, from “Researchers” table (north end looking south). Author perusing contents of East and West (Vol. 36, Nos. 1-3, September 1986). “‘Un uom nasce a la riva / de l’Indo.’” Rather large-breasted, dark-skinned Bengali girl. “E quivi non è chi ragione / di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva.’” Steps to reference shelf in saturated light blue tunic, black pants. ”‘E tutti suoi voleri e atti buoni / sono, quanto ragione e umane vede.’” Chooses a volume. “‘Sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni.’” Sets it down, spine facing author: “‘Muore non battezzato e sanza fede:’” Fasc. I a-uttapi. “‘Ov’è questa guistizia che ‘l condanna?’” A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages. “‘Ov’è la colpa sua, se ei non crede?’”
Bruno Genito, “The Medes ─ A Reassessment of the Archaeological Evidence.” So dim is the light. Markhan Lal, “Chronology of the Protohistoric and Early Historic Cultures of the Upper Ganga Plains.” In this large hall. Madan Mohan Agrawal, “Treatment of Reasoning in Advaita-Vedanta.” That her features recede into the shadows. Fabio Scialpi, “The Feast of Dasara in the City of Mysore.” Formed at brow, at cheeks, at neck by Western-cut hair. Thomas E. Donaldson, “Erotic Rituals on Orissan Temples.” Large, thick, plastic-framed glasses further obscure her expression. Raju Kalidos, “Vishnu’s Mohini Incarnation: An Iconographical and Sexological Study.” Her silver watchband gleams in the light from the window. Paul Younger, “The Chitamparan Temple Complex and Its Evolution.” Opened to traffic noise. Laxman S. Thakur, “Architectural and Sculptural Art of Himachal Pradesh:” And street conversation. “The case study.” Bengali girl. “Of Hatkoti Temples.” Shifts in her seat. (Quarterly published by the Istituto Italiano Per Il Medio Ed Estremo Oriente.)
Most of the other 12-seat tables also have 2 occupants. “First and foremost.” In 4 cases. “The question is:” They have both chosen an end seat. “Is reason to be identified with one of the methods of knowing (i.e. Pramanas)?” Opposite one another. “Or is it different among them?” Nearest the source of natural light. “The Nyaya-ghasya says:” But also nearest the source of traffic noise. “Reasoning (tarka) is not included among the methods of knowing (i.e. Pramanas).” Two tables (of the 9). “Nor is it a separate method of knowing (i.e. Pramana).” Have 3 occupants. “It is, instead, an aid or auxiliary (sahakari) to the methods of knowing (i.e. Pramanas).” (Madan Mohan Agrawal, paper cited above.) “It is in this way.
“Suppose someone concludes that there is no fire in the hill after doubting about its existence (from seeing smoke issuing from it).” Of the 15 readers (including scribbling author). “Then, if another were to tell him:” Five are female. “‘If there were no fire in the hill, there would be no smoke also.’” Only one light-skinned. “This kind of argument.” (A girl from Sweden.) “Is what is called reasoning (tarka).” The ceiling and walls of the room. “It helps in establishing the presence of the probandum in the subject.” Which is lined with reference works. “Which is the object of the inference.” Are gray.
“Because it points out the absurdity of the hill being smoky in the absence of fire (its cause).” Bengali girl glances at author, blushes. “It is an aid to inference.” Outdoors a maroon panel with yellow horizontal stripe passes. “And again, tarka is a kind of hypothetical reasoning leading to an undesirable result.” Followed immediately by the top of an all-yellow taxi. “(Hence reductio ad absurdum).” Bengali girl drops ballpoint pen on floor. “It consists of arguing that if.” Leans over to pick it up. “Out of two concomitant things.” A second, aluminum panel follows behind. “The concomitant (vyapa) is present.” Rights herself. “The presence of the other (vyapaka).” Again. “Its correlate.” Blushing. “Should be taken for granted.”A group of 3 young men are talking outside the nearest window. “E. g., if a jar were to exist here it should be perceivable like the spot (where it stands).” Two of them not visible. “This kind of hypothetical reasoning.” But their voices are audible. “Consists in the deduction of an untenable proposition.” The young man who is visible is fingering his moustache. “From a certain position.” He too is blushing. “This has the logical effect of exposing the invalidity of that position.” Bengali girl reading. “And thereby lending support.” Face still flushed. “To the counterposition.” Lunch bell sounds.
Author, exiting library’s dark recesses, pauses in an antechamber off its semicircular narthex to regard the “Thought for the Day,” posted on an old-fashioned black peg-board in tiny white letters. “Our sweetest songs,” it reads, “are those that tell of saddest thought. SHELLEY.” Behind and to the left, encased in glass, is a maquette of the Institute itself. As author moves to examine it, a voice, mounting the stair over it, speaks down to say, “That is the Ramakrishna Institute.”
“Yes,” I reply. Interlocutor pauses as author continues to examine maquette, which represents the Institute in all its gray imperturbability. Its maroon roof tiles are covered in a layer of dust, which impartially covers sidewalk, shrub, street as well, even the schematic representation of outlying areas. I sense a presence at my side and turn to find a brochure in space, extending from the hand of this self-appointed Instructor of Identities. “The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture,” it is titled.
“The Institute,” reads the text, “is rooted in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) which, among other things, stress the unity of mankind, the equal validity of all religions, the potential divinity of mankind, and service to man as a way of worshipping God.”
“BAHAR. A great portion of this district is level and highly cultivated land.” Gorgeous early-morning landscapes of gently rolling terrain. “But there are also many hills, most of which are extremely rugged, being, from a difference in their component parts, much more broken than others.” Shawled peasants. “And their sterility is rendered more conspicuous by their nakedness.” Sunning themselves. “A great many of these hills are scattered about with the utmost irregularity.” Author’s feet, nose, hands still cold from overnight train ride. “And stand quite insulated among the soil of the plains.” Sun, risen to 20 degrees above horizon.” The hills of the district.” Rakes the fields with its golden light. “Nowhere approach the Ganges.” Train in final approach to Patna. “The Ganges is nowhere fordable within the limits of the Bahar division, at any season of the year and its channel when clear of islands is generally a mile wide” (quotations from Hamilton, Description of Hindostan).
Descent from train. “PATNA.” Ascent to pedestrian overpass. “It is difficult.” Redescent. “To settle on the boundaries of Patna.” Into crowd of porters. “To exclude all beyond the walls.” Beggars. “Would reduce it to a trifle.” Touts tugging at one’s arm. “While the suburbs are built in a very straggling, ill-defined manner.” Cab ride to hotel. “There is one street tolerably wide.” Hopeful prospect of hot shower. “But it is by no means straight.” Past modern Hindu temple. “Or regularly built.” Its pyramidal form a pile of Chase Manhattan Bank marble slabs. “Every other passage is narrow, crooked, and irregular.” Across the street an open market: “In the heats of spring.” Thirty yards of fruit stalls. “The dust is beyond idea.” Oranges and apples. “And in the rain.” Also piled in pyramids. “Every place is covered with mud.”
Hotel-dining-room Bihari depression. Family group in blue: mother in pale blue sari, black sweater; father in elaborate aquamarine knit vest; little boy of 8 in white-and-blue horizontal striped sweater, overalls with blue Mickey Mouse appliqué (he in turn wearing light blue top, dark blue shorts). Family, breakfast finished, departs, leaving 2 slow-moving mustachioed waiters, client in terminal depression, facial features resembling those of a wax figure. The sobriety of Calcutta, the serenity of Santiniketan giving way to Patna’s passionless inertia. View out restaurant window of brown-uniformed, balding man, head dejected, a bundle of palm fronds under his arm, they alone catching the sunlight, as he walks past triangular sign ─ “Seventh Adventist School” bus upstreet ─ advocating family planning.
9:20 am scene, main traffic route, fresh-swept market foreground, stalls still empty. “Many years ago the Company erected here a depot to contain rice.” Early arrivals playing cards. “In the shape of a bee-hive.” Two barbers shaving customers. “With two winding stairs on the outside.” Whose faces incline towards author. “Ascended on horseback.” As first barber squats, his knees fit precisely into his armpits. “By means of these stairs.” He shaves an inch. “It was intended.” Then removes lather from blade by wiping it onto his left forearm. “That the grain should be poured in at the top.” To get at the other cheek. “There being for the purpose a small door at the bottom.” He turns now in contrapposto, dirty light illuminating the dirty back of his white tank top. “To take it out.” Which is full of small holes. “The walls at the bottom.” A big yellow road bus, “KUMAR” in black italic block letters on its side, trundles in from out of town, a huge oil drum atop its cargo rack. “Although 21 feet thick.” A Sikh on foot in black-and-white polka dot shirt, white tennis shoes, brilliant carmine turban. “Have given way.” Two policemen direct traffic. “A circumstance of very little consequence.” A job requiring about one third the energy of one person. “As, were it filled (which it never was).” One stationed on the ground, one 3 feet above. “It would not contain.” On a podium striped pale red and light blue. “One day’s consumption for the province.”
Roundabout billboard, main traffic route: “YOU MAY BRIBE THE WHOLE WORLD BUT YOU CAN’T BRIBE YOUR CONSCIENCE.” “Patna merchants.” “Corruption is not a new thing.” “Export to Nepaul broadcloth.” “But remember.” “Muslins, silks, spices.” “Honesty is not so old-fashioned.” “And Manihari goods.” “That it should be forgotten.” “And bring in return bees wax, gold dust.” “PAY YOUR EXCISE & CUSTOM DUTIES.” Bull tails, musk, woolen cloth named Tush.” “& HELP THE NATION.” “And some medicinal herbs.” “─ Collectorate of Central Excise & Customs (BIHAR) PATNA.” “Nepaul merchants also trade.” Cinema ad: “EKHI MAQSAD.” “To an equal extent.” “COOK’S FAST FOOD JOINT.” “The whole Nepaul trade, however.” “SAVOURY (red) CHINESE (black) FOOD (red).” “Does not come this way.” Chinaman with oversized fork, Mickey Mouse gloved hand supporting bowl of rice. “Especially the timber.” Indian descends from stall interior. “From the lower provinces.” “JANAM” (romantic cinema ad).
Visitation, the former Palace of the Rajah, facing inward to the town (approach up narrow alleyways easily defensible), its other prospect idyllic, for, emerging onto the second floor, we move directly into the ballroom, which commands a view ─ author’s first ─ of the Ganges. “GANGA. The sacred river Ganges.” One-hundred-eighty-degree vista. “It is said to be mentioned only twice in the Rig-Veda.” River, surrounding plateaux. “The Puranas represent the Viyad-ganga, or heavenly Ganges, to flow from the toe of Vishnu.” Seen from the elevation of cliff top. “And to have been brought down from heaven.” As well as upper story. “By the prayers of the saint Bhagirathi to purify the ashes of the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara, who had been burnt by the angry glance of the sage Kapila.” View down 75 degrees of slope to the near bank. “Siva, to save the earth from the shock of her fall, caught the river on his brow and checked its course with his matted locks.” Where denizens of Patna. “The river descended from Siva’s brow in several streams, four according to some.” In red, yellow, black, green. “And ten according to others.” Are bathing at 11:00 am. “But the number generally accepted is seven.” Out over the rest of the scene to Serenity Itself. “Personified as a goddess.” Regal. “Ganga is the eldest daughter.” Divine. “Of Himavat and Mena.” Superlunary calm. “And her sister was Uma.” A single broad-sailed craft on the flood.
Mid afternoon TV, India thumping New Zealand at cricket (only program on). Ball “thwack” (New Zealand batsman); instant yellow framed inset, upper left of screen, as batsmen scurry between wickets. Main screen taken up with mostly motionless fielders. Action followed by Hindi announcer’s commentary, interspersed with laconic New Zealander’s remarks.
Minutes pass with no word spoken, MRF Data visuals flashed on screen (“To win New Zealand needs . . .”). New bowler for India. Series of 6 or 8 runs without a single word of commentary, followed at last by some discussion in Hindi of a fielder’s play. Long visual passages of batsmen standing around.
“The new Zealand batsmen” ─ New Zealand announcer ─ “seem to be rather hapless against this new spinner.” New spinner settling into his groove. Teams moving to sideline. “It is a great pleasure to have in the box the President of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association.” Players resting. “And how do you read the match?”
“Well, the New Zealanders seem to be rooted to their crease. A couple of steps down the wicket might help their cause.”
Tea stall, 9:00 am, West Patna, opposite housing project. Author followed by 2 sharp characters for 50 yards, who suddenly decide they too need tea, at the same shop where author stops. Hindustan Times, Patna, December 15. They sit now 6 feet away. “CHATRA. A young woman, Chinta Devi, along with her 10-month son, committed suicide by jumping into a well in Babhandiha village.” Whisper to one another. “The bodies, after being fished out, were sent for post mortem.” Wait for their opening. “Police have registered a case under section 306 against the husband and parent-in-law of the deceased who are reportedly absconding.”
One gets up. “In another case in village Mogla.” Takes a seat on opposite side of author. “A young woman was also drowned in a well.” Who promptly moves to bench facing them. “It remains a mystery as to whether the death was an accident or not.” Now the other one stands up. “This week saw another tragic incident in broad daylight.” Approaches author. “When one Navaru Sahu was severely assaulted with cudgels.” Says something in Hindi. “He sustained multiple fractures.” Author indicates incomprehension. “He was sent to Hazaribagh hospital in a precarious condition.” Second character tries his hand. “His nephew, aged 23 years.” No dice. “And three women.” They stand and confer. “Were also injured in the incident.” Decide to depart.
Now a group of Mafioso-looking types arrives. “Mr. S.S. Sing.” Late 40s, early to mid 50s. “The investigating officer.” One stands apart. “Said that land feud.” In jacket shirt over longhi. “Was the factor behind.” Vest atop jacket; scarf. “The murderous attack.” Studies author. Eyes him suspiciously. Tries looking malicious. “GIRIDIH.” Author holds steady. “A spurt in crime.” A car drives up. “Has been reported.” Brand new Suzuki Maruti. “In Giridih.” A 30-year-old, pudgy with good food, emerges. “Due to police indifference.” Black-and-white-striped shirt. Stands in conversation with the Mafioso-looking types, as 2 other young men wait in the car, one in jean-jacket, its collar pulled up. Conversation concluded, Suzuki Maruti departs.
12:30 pre-lunch Patna street scene. A flock of tethered goats led past author, bleating with the voices of little children. Dust at curbside, detritus (leaf, torn paper, straw). Asphalt road covered with flattened cow pies, dirt dust.
Faces of passersby rather severe, scrutinizing in their looks, sharp-featured. Girls in unusually business-like attitudes. Males, young and old, narrow their eyes to regard author, as though in atavistic consideration of prey. Those who do not regard him directly seem absorbed in a different world, their faces somehow neither thoughtful nor oblivious but rather both. “SITAMARHI. An assistant sub-inspector under Subarsa police station.” Life ─ from these faces ─ must be terribly difficult in Bihar. “Has been sent to the police lines.” Historically. “For alleged rape.” It is a region of periodic famine. “Of the wife of a rickshaw puller.” No one is moving too quickly, with any excess animation, with any undue optimism in his gait.
Banks of the Ganges, 4:00 pm, kiln turning out large gray construction bricks, sand trucks loading, shovelers transferring gray sand from baskets of porters mounting from river barges. Upbeat/depressive music from radio covering/describing the mood of the scene, where many are laboring, many simply standing about.
At the shoreline 2 dozen fishing boats are beached side by side, in the midst of which 2 ferries, one yellow, one peach. Author, now in position (having crested dune) to see that it is the fishing boats that are hauling the sand; there are no barges. It is one of these (empty) boats that has been rented for our outing, cheaply, since its crew is otherwise unoccupied.
We are pushing off, 3 passengers, 2 oarsmen, a mate. “She is called Ganga on account of her flowing through Gang, the earth.” The 2 oarsmen moving in semi-synchronous motion, large bamboo oars dipping attached wooden blades under the force of considerable human exertion, captain at station observing author activity. “She is called Jahnavi, from a choleric Hindoo saint, whose devotions she interrupted on her passage to the sea.” Neither approving nor disapproving. “When, in a fit of displeasure he drank her entirely up.” Sun, fallen to 20 degrees, renders shore-standing figures as near silhouettes, palm trees behind them on a ridge in gray-green against purpled horizon. “But was afterwards induced by the humble supplications of the Devas (demigods) to discharge her by his ears.” Our craft passing the last of the downstream boats, at the bow of which a man in red tunic.
Here we turn, heading out to mid-stream. “She is called Bhagirathi.” The upstream shoreside waters placid almost to the point of stillness. “From the royal devotee Bhagavatha.” Sky and water merge at western horizon. “Who by the intensity and austerity of his doctrines.” A vague low-lying shoal exiting from the vanishing-point. “Brought her from heaven to earth.” Met by almost horizontal line of shoal entering in slightly nearer distance.
The oarsmen have stopped to rest, one leg over the oar, one beneath it. The drifting boat turns by itself, bringing us once again parallel with the shore. Before our headway is lost, the oarsmen recommence. Off our bow to starboard, 50 meters distant, passes a gravel skiff, its occupants in white: 2 oarsmen, one in a red turban, one in black, a figure wrapped in orange shawl seated in the rigging. From the shore a whistle sounds. “And from there she proceeded to the infernal regions.” The oarsmen cease. “There to re-animate the ashes of some of his ancestors.” Off the farther shore more casual traffic: a canoe-like fishing boat; following 50 yards behind, a sailing skiff, being towed in the calm; 200 yards behind it, another sailing craft, its nearly square, burnt sienna sail still up, as it sits, beached on the shore.
“And lastly she is called Triputhaga.” We stand 100 yards off the northern shore. “On account of her proceeding forwards.” All the sand boats visible. “In three different directions.” The arrangement symmetrical: “Watering the three worlds.” A dozen to one side, a dozen to the other side of a central gap, where porters continue to mount the bank, balancing their burdens. “Heaven, earth, and those infernal regions.” Disappearing from sight before they deposit them.
Slowly the upper landscape of the northern shore unfolds: a large embankment faced with stone, palm branches emerging out of it, a minaret in their midst, all dwarfing the figures of 3 children who scamper above the escarpment. Farther along the shore huts, houses, 2-, 3-story, rise, culminating in concrete buildings, lines of wash flown from their highest, as well as lower, reaches. The sun is beginning to set. The captain regards author once more from eyes beetled by a brown knit cap.
Aboard ship a puff of cigarette smoke interrupts shoreline observation. Author distracted by another skiff, also approaching the shore. We have reached nearly the end of the line of buildings, which concludes in a large white house trimmed in green. Here the bank continues, till it reaches a long terraced ghat descending gracefully to the water’s edge. There follows an esplanade extending 2 or 300 yards to a large electric crematorium in modern bare concrete. Beneath this structure, which looms from the bank, 4 pyres aflame: 2 bodies under cremation, one more nearly dissolved, one awaiting the rite.
“A Patna Retrospective:” Aboard the ship all is calm. “The Late Professor A. Dasgupta.” We have now nearly pulled even with the fires of the ghat. “But the portrait is yet incomplete.” “She became the wife of King Santana.” “The poet in him sought expression.” “And bore him a son, Bhishma.” “Three volumes of love lyrics soon appeared.” Two more nearly exhausted fires become visible. “Songs sung in full-throated abandon of restlessness, passion, dejection, and death.” “Who is also known by the metronymic Gangeya.” “They combine a rare gamut of human experience ─ and of his reading of Keats and Shelley, Whitman, Schopenhauer, Browning.”
Near the second of the newly-revealed fires stands a figure in red turban, long white cloak, a black scarf trailing behind him. “One evening in his youth, as he sat by the river under a tree contemplating the flames of cremation, he realized that life was a plumed charlatan, one whose colors change with the chameleon’s impermanence, and often with a terrifying finality.” The second fire burns heatedly, with consuming energy. “The flames, which reduce the physical being to ashes, seemed to mock at human vanity, pretension, material quest.” At each of the largest 2 fires a priestly figure presides. “Being also, in a peculiar way, the mother of Kartikeya, she is called Kumara-su.” Before audiences of mourners seated upon the bank. “This image became a recurrent motif in his work.” Twenty yards distant from the actual site of cremation. “It gave him too a code.” A flock of crows makes its way southward. “For the creatural world.” A pig nuzzles in amongst refuse piled between 21 seated ranks of mourners. “Outside of art.” “Gold, according to the Mahabharata.” “One that expressed and celebrated.” “Was born of the goddess Ganga.” The extinct pyre begins to smoke. “To Agni, by whom she had been impregnated.” “Humility and compassion.” Farther downstream the sad regular cadences of a popular ballad commence. The oarsmen renew their efforts. “Professor Dasgupta wrote poetry for esoteric consumption.” Drawing us into an onshore current. “But he gave his all to the many who leaned on his doorbell for help.” Where we enter a range of floating detritus. “If an epitaph had to be written.” Sewage dotted with the petals of flowers. “Gray would come to mind.” Which have drifted off-shore from the sites of cremation. “‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness in the desert air.’” The boat has come full circle.
A train has been derailed between Delhi and Patna. We learn of the news only upon arriving at the station for our return to Calcutta. It is 6:30 pm. All trains, it is said, have been “indefinitely delayed.” We spend the next hour on the platform, taking stock of the situation, talking to the station master, to conductors on incoming trains. We glean a consensus estimate: our train will likely be at least 4 hours late.
I argue for an overnight at a nearby hotel, with trips at 2- or 4-hour intervals to ascertain when the train will arrive. This, it is said, will not work, for notification comes only an hour before arrival. Nor can one get much information by phone, where the gravity of the situation has clogged the lines, which at any rate are now giving out a recorded message: “indefinite delay.”
We return to our hotel, where we know the staff, to consider alternative plans. Should the train not come at all, could we take a plane? The airline office closed at 5:00 pm. It does not reopen till 8:00 am, at which time all who wish a reservation must compete. A private car could be hired, but at great expense and danger: a nighttime driver on Indian roads cannot see obstacles until he has come upon them. With phone communication blocked we decide that we must return to the station.
Here we receive at least an official estimate of the length of delay: 7 hours. The earlier, unofficial estimate had been 4. I try to convince my companions that we have here a progression: 4 hours . . . 7 hours . . . x hours, that the actual delay will probably be 12-15 hours. They’re not much interested in gathering available tidbits and opinions to substantiate or controvert this view. It is 9:30.
With the official estimate as gospel, we leave in search of a nearby hotel (we cannot return again to ours, since cab service in Patna ends at 11:00 pm). But hotels near the station are already full. Finally we locate one that will give us a room for 4 hours. That will get us through, it is argued, till 1:30, the new official time of arrival. At 1:30 one of my companions returns from the station. The train has been delayed until 4:30. We go back to sleep. At 3:00 o’clock a knock on the door. The holder of the room’s reservation has arrived ─ on another delayed train. Much discussion, as we are removed from our quarters to the lobby. A call to the station. The latest arrival time? 6:30.
To the station by 6:00 am (the train might be early). In the main entrance hall I huddle for warmth with dozens of travelers, their forms wrapped in blankets on the floor. A young woman arises from their midst to dress, adjusting her sari in its various, complicated phases, tucking, stretching, folding, tucking, straightening. Next she touches up the marriage dye in the part down the middle of her head. Re-combs her hair and braids it. Toilette complete, she chastely regards her beauty in a hand-held mirror and finishes by donning a blue shawl to complement her rust-purple sari.
Another hour’s delay announced. At 7:30 ─ 13 hours from scheduled departure ─ our train arrives.
Slow-moving, mid-morning Bihar landscape with figures. Gangetic plain flattened to a table. Trackside railway workers in breechclouts, tied longhis, dhoti-shirt-and-sweater, most standing inactive, toothed hoes, pickaxes, bars, crossed in back, extending across 2 shoulders. In near distance, an arable portion of plain begins: a single hooded female figure leaves her hut beside the irrigation pump, mounts the divider between 2 paddies and sets out on foot across the vast flat land, destination indeterminable.
Two girls, of 8 and 11, tending 4 goats in a stubble-filled wheat field, pause and turn to regard the passing train, which begins to slow again, comes finally to a halt in the midst of still more of the great expanse.
An elderly man with vigorous shouted commands directs a brown, a white bullock, as they reach the end of the furrow. “Atcha,” he shouts, he and his accomplice keeping them in line. Behind them a figure on a bicycle, distant half a kilometer, bears a woman on the back of his fragile vehicle, as it bumps along the rural path. At a distance of 200 meters a skinny boy in black shirt, follows on foot.
Seizing his opportunity to service the first-class cars through their windows, the tea seller is out and down the track with his cry, large-spouted teapot in hand, a brazier attached beneath it, bucket of tea glasses in other hand. He has stylishly wound his dark plaid scarf into a turban, whose tail trails down and across his chest. The train haltingly starts again. The bullock team turns once more at the opposite end of the furrow. Four blackbirds sit on a telephone wire, another, at some distance, on a second wire below.
There is nothing in Bahar that could be called a lake, and the marshes are of small extent. During the rainy season, for the purposes of rice cultivation, the greater part of the country is converted into a marsh; but in the dry season, even the low lands, parallel to the Ganges from Patna downwards, become quite dry.
Bihari trackside station scene (Manapur), mid-day warmth pleasant on author’s notebook page, aluminum rice tray with vegetarian fare finished. On the light red sandy soil sits a pair of sprightly sisters, 38, 32 and their 2 elder children, the 2 kids seated between their mothers. On the right, her hands clasped between her spread knees, the smiling face of the younger sister, head still covered with yellow sari top, its magenta tail crossing her breast, her ankle showing. Her elder sister sits more pensively, with hand to temple, elbow to knee, her head too shrouded with sari hood, in pale orange with light blue pattern.
A male cousin, back from college, approaches, grabs by turn the forearms of each sister, they smiling at his rough tugs. Now in conversation he stands to one side at a decorous distance, his own drab uniform in pleasant contrast to theirs.
“Although the winters are not severe.” The 2 older children. “Fires are then extremely comfortable.” Are joined by a 6-year-old female cousin. “And all the natives who can procure one.” In turquoise dress. “Sleep by it.” An aluminum drinking vessel in her hand. “Yet frosty nights are rare.” All the children up and off to fill it.
Elder sister sprawls on concrete slab in sun. “The heats of spring are excessive.” As younger sister regards scribbling author. “And much aggravated by dust.” His notebook projecting through window. “There being at that time no vestige of vegetation.” She smiles an affectionate smile. “And not only the west winds.” Turning her attention to sister. “But also those from the east.” She readjusts her pose. “Are hot and parching.” Moving to squat on her haunches, elbows resting on her knees, right hand to brow, shielding her eyes from the sun, left hand, wrist flexed, gesturing elegantly.
4:30 pm, exiting Bihar, entering West Bengal. Sun through hazy sky over cricket pitch, over scenes of cattle-herding, over slightly rolling terrain, terraced for wheat, rice, grazing. Villages on the ridge in brick, stucco, mud houses, some with walls surrounding them. Our new engine, acquired during afternoon nap, is racing us through the countryside at nearly 100 miles per hour. Past solitary figures who are dwarfed by its immensity; past distributions of dozens throughout the rolling plain; past a village where all the livestock and people are ranged in a single line, as they return homeward from pasture. Stretches too of great emptiness, with grazing land alone: a herd of sheep, a single shepherd.
The sun has moved to a bare inch above the horizon, a deep reddish-orange ball. In the beige landscape, patches of bright green. A man bearing a branch with still-green leaves upon it. A woman in green sari against the green of a more heavily irrigated field. A green banana grove. A substantial town, which we hurtle through, clearing at last its electric transformer station ─ on out into the empty plain again.
Before long a road joins us, parallel with the railway tracks, on which, separated from one another by kilometers: a bicyclist in longhi; 3 children alone on foot; a jeep-like truck; a bus, packed with passengers, even its luggage rack filled with travelers.
An Australian in Calcutta. The kindly Aussie interested in the local history of Perth and his home town, Harvey ─ back once more at the Ramakrishna Mission for a day before train to Orissa ─ has in fact not exhausted his repertoire. Gently over breakfast I tease him away from his obsession ─ the settlement of West Australia (really an interest in family history) ─ stepwise to the larger subjects: Australia in its early dealings with India (his research project in Calcutta), the larger contours of Australian settlement, her position in Asia.
Patiently addressing my ignorance he tells me that modern-day Australia still has but 16,000,000 inhabitants, mostly concentrated at Sydney and Melbourne (the 2 principal metropolises), Adelaide and Brisbane (to the southwest and northwest, around from the eastern seaboard), and Perth, the capital of Western Australia. This resident of W.A. defines the province for me as a vast region of semi-habitable and inhabitable terrain, including a southwestern forest with bauxite mines, a west-central area of wheat production, a more or less habitable northwest quadrant, all before the desert begins in the eastern half of the region. He himself grew up in Harvey, some 80 or 90 miles from Perth, which, in the early nineteenth century, had extensive commercial relations with Calcutta. It is records of these that he has come here to gain access to, unsuccessfully, for the bureaucrats will not budge.
Cuttack 8:00 am, commercial avenue. Hooded rickshaw past, puller in dark longhi, another silver-fendered, yellow-seated, baby-blue-accoutered shaw parked at curb, across from facing Hotel Roxy. Black bull cud-chewing, face to sun. Tea stall proprietor patiently hearing out long gestural tirade of unhappy employee, bags of dried curry piled on his desk. Many appliances: stereo, refrigerator, fluorescent lights (all in use); back-up generator, coffee-grinder, overhead fans (not in use). Author the sole patron, condition, activity, physiognomy under scrutiny by 3 employees, all with arms folded: 8-year-old in shorts, green plaid shirt, mauve scarf; older youth, flexing his upper body, open tennis shirt reading “POWER” over pocket; 12-year-old in dour expression. Black bull has knelt in front of tea stall; swings tail, flaps ears together, shakes head to harry flies; efforts ineffectual. Adjacent stall piled with pyramid of apples, cube of cellophane-wrapped biscuits. Across-street arrival: bright light blue jeep, white top. Stall entrance: white-clad men, thick glasses. Stall interior, rear wall: 2 subtly colored popular prints: Hanuman in Rama’s embrace, the latter serene, the former devoted, his tail curving into an “S” at right of picture. To side of which, Lakshmi, conch in left hand, one finger of right hand twirling; other hands in palm-forwards gesture, lotus-holding posture. Smell of vegetable samosas frying in cheap oil. Over all: the eternally sad strains of thump-beat, winding-stringed, bass-voiced popular song.
Hotel Akbari rear courtyard, Muslim-abstracted architectural elements, plastered wall, gradients of lawn in sloping berms. Marigolds, rose bushes, potted greenery. At the center of a grassy knoll, the brightly colored panels of a marriage tent, a double throne for bride and groom. Awning above in emerald, pink, purple; panels of orange and purple, red and yellow, rust and gold. Two gardeners moving about in slow activity, picking up party remains, clipping single leaves of potted plants, inspecting. A graceful woman sways past, 1-year-old on her ample hip, her feminine neck, shoulders, torso undulating under gray, white-diamond-bordered sari.
Author seated on marble slab, view of half-constructed wall (opposite direction). Above it, a bastion of brick ramparts nearing completion, concrete floor disposition imminent. Below, a white plastered expanse, gray-blue in its shadows, yellow-white in sunlight. A 55-year-old sits in a chair at the juncture of light and shade, symmetrically postured, knees spread, hands clasped, held beneath his lap, hair swept back without a part. A blue scarf falls equally over either shoulder, down each biceps to cover forearm. He regards author steadily. To his right, some 60 feet distant, a guard, seen in profile, sits in a robin’s-egg blue plastic chair talking to someone through the courtyard portal. To the left, an expanse of freshly-swept concrete, construction bricks neatly piled. Suddenly a robin’s-egg blue scooter appears, its capped, scarfed, vested driver dismounting, now locking handlebars against a green grillwork background.
“Konarak, otherwise called Arkakshetra or Padmashetra, owes its singular distinction to the Sun Temple located here.” White cardboard wall plaque. “The temple represents the high water mark of the Kaliga branch of the North Indian style of architecture.” Alongside it. “With its beginnings in the seventh-century temples of Bhubaneswar.” Photo of apsaras taken in situ. “Built in the thirteenth century by Narasimadeva I.” Script on plaque in Hindi, Oriya, English. “It was conceived as a giant solar chariot.” Courtyard. “With twelve pairs of exquisitely ornamented wheels.” Archaeological Museum. “Drawn by seven rearing horses.” Mostly in shadows (4:00 pm). “The temple consisted of a sanctum with a lofty sikara (or spire).” Loud conversation among museum guards in progress. “A jagamohana (or front porch).” Boy with line and hook. “And a natamandira (or detached dance hall).” Angles for goldfish in courtyard pond. “All in the same axis.” Scraggly flowers in beds. “Besides other subsidiary shrines.” Lining the brownish grass floor. “The sanctum displays superb images of the Sun-god.” Author leans on block of stone recovered from the temple site, sunlight shifting gradually as he writes.
4:30. With a clear view to the temple itself he sits in the shade, against a still warm December sun, perched atop a massive boundary wall at north of the site. “The result of the whole of this astronomical inquiry.” Voices of tourists audible, as they gossip their way in and out of the shade of the temple’s upper reaches, filing up and down its cutaway side. “Respecting the three first Avatars.” A large leafy tree. “Is.” Spreading its branches in and out of the late rays. “That to the sun.” Marking the northeast corner. “The great but subordinate deity of India.” Light brightly striking the backs of white-shirted men, a red-clad girl, a pink-clad matron, an older woman in yellow, brown and black.
Rising then above them all is the rather modest, carefully calculated mass of the temple’s pyramidal crown, topped with the circular lotus form. Cleaning has restored much of its warm reddish and beige sandstone facing, though equal parts remain covered by a dark gray soot (it was known to ancient mariners as “the black temple”). The 2-toned whole stands gracefully, almost lightly, on the plain, a chariot in motion.
Moving eastward, author resituates himself again. “The radiant symbol of the Supreme Being, to that sun passing through.” Regards the temple’s upper reaches, where, under scrutiny, figures begin to emerge: “Or, as the ancients were accustomed to expressing themselves.” A full-breasted apsaras, a seated male figure grasping his knees, huge griffin supporting the lotus crown. “Taking up his abode.” Come parallel with northeast corner, author takes seat on archaeological fragment to study. “In any constellation.” The central mass. “Or single star.”
Indian tourists posing in the 5:00 o’clock light for a white-suited photographer. “And diffusing thence.” It is a lively, slightly boisterous crowd. “His vivifying.” Who, identifying author’s activity. “Penetrative.” Begin to shout, wave, photograph him. “Influences.” Girls and boys alike joining in the festivity.
“They assigned the name.” Exiting the modern stone platform, they leave the photographic background against which they have stood, visibly unchanged. “And even the form itself.” A stone elephant. “Of the animal.” One of a pair mounted opposite. “Under whose figure.” Stand in the strong chiaroscuro. “The constellation was designated.” Of the late afternoon sun. “In the heavens.” Layabout tourists lounge on the platform before his feet, swarthy, bearded, 2 of them in caps, one blue, one black.
Author to southeast corner, standing to regard sun at edge of pyramid. “And VEESHNU.” Temple now reads as pure dark. “Therefore.” Nothing at all like the sun. “Successively.” Which casts the apsaras, as though a caryatid, in silhouette. “Became incarnate.” On a porch above the terraced openwork face of the northwest corner. “And received homage in the Fish.” Author moves, placing sun behind temple, retinal images still flashing blue, pale green on the page. “The Boar.” Now the sun glows, giving right-hand side of the pyramid an effulgent nimbus. “And the Testudo of the Sphere.” Resituating himself, he transfers the nimbus to the southern exposure, the base of the temple shrouded here by the spreading branches of a second, even larger tree.
Fifteen paces farther southward. “His fourth incarnation.” And the sun re-emerges from the temple’s eastern face, even its light failing. “Exhibits him assuming the form of a Lion.” Author, controlled by 2 faces of architectural ornament, studies their contrast. “Bursting from a column to destroy a blaspheming monarch.” One an unfinished wall, the other a tracery of apsarases against a perforated stone screen. “Which Sir William Jones very happily conjectured.” To author’s left: “Alludes to the tyrant Nimrod.” A bush in bloom with pink flowers. “And the presumptuous race.” Delicately besaried Bengali women, all petite, all in variations of black, brown, silver and white. “Who erected the tower at Babel.”
Rounding the nrityamandapam, the massive structure of the temple proper comes into view again. “Which, we observed, probably happened when the star.” The sound of several reconstructive picks tamping northface wall elements into place. “Denominated by astronomers Cor Leonis.” A pair of late middle-aged, overweight European tourists descending the steps from the eastern portal. “The most splendid in the heavens.” On the lowest step of which a row of seated saris: “Was in the solstitial colure.” Bright orange-pink, bright violet, deep rust, white. Sun about to settle in amongst trees to the southwest.
“But as all the subsequent Avatars.” Author to rough-hewn stone perch at side of central stair. “Have an evident allusion.” Sound of picks a misapprehension: “To the events that happened in the first post-diluvian ages.” They are instead the chisels of 4 youths squaring up new paving stones at the base of the stair. All 4 unremittingly clank away, adding to the air examples of random tonal permutation/rhythm. “We shall defer the interesting consideration of them to our second volume.”
Author tilts head to eastern face, so elegantly proportioned, varied, considered. Above, the filigree of elements, ranged at intervals, reads as a single beading mass. Below and projected forward, a smooth face of altar-surrounding portal. Within, a bronze frieze. On either wing large figures in amongst architectural framing, the filigree of ornamentation. A rearing griffin, above which a man with enormous testicles projects his phallus toward the curvaceous thighs of a dancing woman. “Which will descend down to the period of the first invasion of India by the Arabian generals, and terminate the proposed History of ANCIENT INDIA.” (Quotations from Thomas Maurice, Chapter XIII, “Containing the Oriental Accounts of the General Deluge,” in History of Hindostan: Its Arts, and its Sciences, 1795.)
Morning sun, author seated, outdoor restaurant, 7:30 am. Omelet arrives like pancake sun on moon-white plate. Tourist director blowing whistle to aid Konarak Travels bus driver back his big blue vehicle into the roadway. As it turns to face south, side panels catch the glare of sun, returning a brilliant glint authorward. Left behind: silver-sided Amaddar Travels bus, part of its red and blue striping visible through gate in stone wall (itself intent on a sunny statement), over the top of which a little girl is visible as she leans her red-sweatered arm out a barely opened window. She passes down a silver disk, an empty dish, to a woman waiting below. Behind Amaddar is a Bapi Travels bus, its white side even more brightly sunstruck, stripes also visible through wall-cut gate, in pale blue, red, creamy yellow, black and white. A crow takes a perch on telephone lines atop the 2 buses and begins its raucous caw, 4 buses (or parts thereof) visible/partly visible beyond: turquoise, brown, cream, sky blue. To the east of the wall an expanse of sand, in which a grove of trees, behind which a construction site, large blocks of granite laid out for course to rise off sandstone base. Over them all, past a sun-struck, cream-and-white official building, the first portico of the temple momentarily catches the sun, only to be eclipsed, as author writes, by the red-white-and-blue side of an in-backing tour bus.
On the subject of beautiful women. Konarak, mid-morning (9:00 am), sun flooding porch of Panta Nivas, courtyard of tourist hotel, as author, freshly showered in cold water, warms himself in its rays, yellow shirt, beige pants, cowboy boots. Beautiful women ─ and he has known many ─ are different from other women, for their reception in the world is not unlike that of others whom the world receives with prejudice. Especially for those who were beautiful from an early age (and this of course is not always the case), their reception by men is, from the start, erotic. The small girl is treated, if not explicitly at least sentimentally, as a sex-object. No wonder, then, that her relation with men becomes problematic. Even if she is not taken advantage of, she is constantly regarded as though this might be a possibility. And so she develops mechanisms to prevent such response, but these too merely increase her erotic appeal, for neither charm nor detachment will diminish the allure of beauty.
As she grows older, another problem develops. For everywhere she goes in public among men, she has her way. To enter a restaurant or bar filled with male patrons, a beautiful woman on one’s arm, is to experience this at first hand. No attention whatsoever is paid to oneself. The woman is queen, or goddess ─ as in fact, if her beauty be such, she should be, for Aphrodite is nothing but the highest manifestation of the power of feminine beauty, grace and charm.
Author begins to sweat. The sun, risen to 30 degrees in the eastern sky, is more than warm. He rolls the cuffs of his yellow shirtsleeves. The light is no longer arriving, it is pervasive. The sounds of the town ─ tourists, touts, restaurateurs, even the personnel of the guest house, have settled into a constant chatter.
How, then, to treat the beautiful woman? First, she must be approached tentatively, calmly, deferentially. For she, like everyone else, is seeking understanding, though one must not at once express one’s understanding of her situation. The beautiful woman may, however, be told that she is extraordinarily beautiful, for though she patently is, paradoxically she is rarely told so, and thus may not really believe it herself. Or, if she does believe it, and is not told so, she rightly resents the failure to recognize her condition.
But she is also seeking friendship, for this is precisely what her condition makes difficult: men wish something else form her, women are jealous. And so the male must approach her in the terms of friendship, even those of female friendship. In this there is nothing perverse, for in our relations with the opposite sex it is always a combination of erotic complementarity with that peculiarly disinterested friendship available only from members of one’s own sex that we are seeking.
So: sympathy for her condition; appreciation of her beauty; the disinterested interest of true friendship. And of course the active exploration of all her other virtues.
This pursuit is not for everyone but only for the true lover of feminine beauty.
Puri through tourist literature (Gov’t of Orissa). “Visited by Savants and Seers alike, Adi Sankaracharya, Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Nanak, Vivekananda, and many others, Lord Jagannath has been the melting pot of all religious faiths. According to tradition Puri was once a thickly wooded hill inhabited by the Sabaras (Pre-Aryan and Pre-Dravidian tribes of the Austric linguistic family).”
Author waiting for call to be placed, Puri Telegraph Office, 12:35 pm (call requested 12:00 noon, only one line from Puri to Bhubaneswar). Author meanwhile perusing “List of Standard Greetings ─ Telegrams.” “The Temple of Lord Jagannath dominates the landscape for kilometers around.” Telegraph Office on dirt street (alleyway). “May Heaven’s Choicest Blessings be Showered on the Young Couple.” Waiting room in anciently-painted light green. “Hearty Congratulations on the New Arrival.” Sill and sides of barred window. “An Exceptionally Happy New Year to You.” Worn to a dark green. “Congratulations.” By the oily pressure of many palms. “It has the largest kitchen in the world, feeding thousands of devotees every day.” “Loving Greetings.” Graffiti in Oriya, English, Hindi. “Many Happy Returns of the Day.” A lozenge-shaped heart, pierced by a feathered arrow, “I Love You” in script. “Besides the Temple of Lord Jagannath, the visitor can see a host of other temples such as:” “Hearty Congratulations on Your Success in the Examinations.” “Gundicha, Lokanath, Sunar, Gauranga.” A flower, its petals curving outward in long curlicues. “Many Thanks for Your Good Wishes which I/We Reciprocate Most Heartily.” “Tojagopinath and Patiarani.” “Wishing the Function Every Success.” A long message in Oriya script. “And tanks like:” “A Merry Christmas to You.” “Narendra.” A schematic girl, her body-skirt an equilateral triangle. “Markandeya.” “Wish You Both a Prosperous and Happy Wedded Life.” “Sweta Ganga and Indradyumna.” Many names, many telephone numbers. “Best Wishes for Your Success in the Election.” “VASANTHAR 12-12-87.” “Long Live the Republic.” A column of addition: 121 plus 16 plus 195, no total given. “Congratulations on the Distinction Conferred on You.” “The numerous Mathas [monasteries] are also worth visiting.”
Temple Lake, Puri, 300-yard by 300-yard expanse of green water, at its center a small pagoda. Kids at play, shouting so as to hear their voices echo off the tank’s farther wall. At the western edge, where author sits, a small temple over the water, approachable by hundred-foot concrete jetty. Through its doorway a priest, napping. It is 1:30. On the eastern ghats, women washing. Cool breeze, sunny day, shadow of author on notebook, as he records the presence of palms, in various configurations, about the tank’s perimeter. A bell rings. It rings again. Over the water’s surface play wind-caused ripples, fluttering trees casting turquoise shadows at the near shore.
Temple interior: figures of Jagannath, Bala-rama, Su-brata; Jagannath’s mother, Josoda, wife Lakshmi across the way in a separate portal. Priest takes author’s hand (account/visitor’s book open, donations listed), drops rose petals into palm, turns palm over, depositing petals in register book. Next moves author’s hand to touch the stumps, in turn of Jagannath, Su-brata, Bala-rama.
Jagannath Temple square (author entrance prohibited). “JAGAN-NATHA.” Library steps. “Lord of the World.” Pink-pajamaed Indian girl passing rickshaw, puller in pink turban. “Bala-rama, his brother, and Su-brata, his sister, are usually seen in association with him.” Girl, pen in hand, opens notebook. “A particular form of Vishnu.” Temple entrance. “Or rather of Krishna.” Moderately crowded. “Jagannath is worshipped in Bengal and other parts of India.” Lit in a cool, penetrating light. “But Puri is the great seat of his worship.” Bengalis, Malayalis entering. “And multitudes of pilgrims resort thither from all parts.” Other pilgrims arriving, grandmothers with small children, mothers with young sons, fathers with daughters. “Especially to the great festivals of the Gnana-yatra and Ratha-yatra.”
Temple front in gaudy pastels: “At the first of these the image is bathed.” Blue, green, beige, white. “With bhang, milk and water.” Statuary painted. “In the second the image is brought out upon a car, with the images of his brother and sister, and drawn by the devotees.” Sweet-sellers covering wares against flies. “The legend of Jagan-natha’s origin is peculiar.” Square opening out behind in Moorish architectural elements. “Krishna was killed by a hunter, and his body was left to rot under a tree, but some pious persons found the bones and placed them in a box.” Three-story facades. “A devout king named Indra-dyumna was directed by Vishnu to form an image of Jagan-natha and to place the bones of Krishna inside it.” Store signs: “Viswa-karma, the architect of the gods, undertook to make the image on the condition of being left quite undisturbed till the work was complete.” “KWALITY ICE CREAM.” “After fifteen days the king was impatient.” “VEGETARIAN MEALS.” “And left off work before he had made either hands or feet.” Sweeper working valiantly to clear forefront of library steps. “So that the image has only stumps.” South Indian business convention pausing with guide. “Indra-dyumna prayed to Brahma, who promised to make the image famous.” A boy with a bundle of Jagannath lathi. “And did so by giving it eyes and a soul.” Religious icons for sale. “And by acting as high priest at its consecration.”
Forecourt of newly-built Japanese Buddhist temple: stone cutters’ atelier. Asbestos-roofed, open-walled, breezy comfort. Eighteen artisans, aged 16 to 40, at work on Buddhist, Hindu, Jain images. At author’s elbow Oriya lad of 17 chisels patiently at a marble Ganesh, seated cross-legged on a piece of burlap, an aluminum tumbler of water to one side, a plastic bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder to the other. Across from author a man in early middle age, working on a smaller scale, a Buddha held in the palm of his left hand as he chisels with his right, a sharpening stone on the pavement before him. At the shed’s interior a whole group of men at work on details for the Jagannath Temple. Only half of the craftsmen at work at any one moment, all looking for conversational excuses.
High above them, up steps, mounted on a marble floor, the open-air Buddhist shrine, resplendent. Through locked Chinese red gates, central lotus design in wrought iron, author regards opulent interior: heavily decorated altar, an entire bank of gold-embroidered silks, dragon, floral designs in bas-relief. Two blue-on-white 3-foot Japanese vases hold a luxurious display of red flowers, freshly cut. At the fore, a lectern with text open, cushion for kneeling worshipper. Hanging from above, innumerable bells, accompanied by hundreds of silver pendants, a circle of paper lotuses.
Beach scene panorama, 5:00 pm, sun an inch and a half above horizon, a globe half orange, half smoky burnt orange, as a band of purplish gray intercepts it. It hangs, as though precessing toward the viewer, in a bank of diaphanous gray, casting behind that bank its roseate memory.
On the beach a gaggle of Bengali youth-tourists have assembled with their video camera about a group of American hippies. Between them and the sun: a line of incoming surf, many hundreds of meters long, the coordinated shelf of wave itself 3 or 400 meters in length. Directly opposite the sun, a foot above the eastern horizon, is the now fully rounded, gray-featured, white-faced moon, its creaminess accentuated by the smoky background, which also projects it up and out. Suddenly the sun has come within a hair of the horizon, as beneath the moon a nuclear family assembles: red-shirted boy, mother in white, daughter in yellow western dress, father in drab shirt and pants. Boy selling coral beads in red “V.I.P.” shirt, purple pants, dark brown skin, lays skeins of beads on author’s writing arm, leans against his leg. Colorful Bengalis, having strolled eastward, return against green background of Bay of Bengal. Slender girl in yellow sweater, bright blue sash, olive skirt. Figures in burnt sienna, brown pants, beige shawl. Inward-facing scene: a dozen shore hotels, each in a slightly different style: cream, white, off-white. An ancient palace, its 4 turrets afloat in the gloaming.
The sea itself, sun set, a bedspread of lacy inrushing froth laid out before the author’s feet. A westward view of its retreat shows reflected gray skies on the moistened sand, then pinkish glow, then the beach’s encroachment, as it reabsorbs the wave into its dark brown surface. Here a breaker of more moment crashes, speeds its aftermath 40 feet higher up the shore to send author scampering.
Moon now in much-darkened arena, pearly in its luminosity. In comes another swell of waves, cresting, quickly turning, spreading restlessly forward in foamy action, retarding itself with its undertow. Yet, despite that motion, the line, as it moves shoreward, makes a final effort to leap the limiting shelf, ending instead in a turbulence of mud-colored sand.
Americans in Puri. Westernized cabaña (beachside restaurant) scene, 2 swarthy Indians observing author, his activity. Table of 4 wealthy Bengalis, one in “costly” vest, another in red hunting cap, a third in elaborate knit sweater (too big for him), fourth his back to author, all in conversation, sloppily wolfing potato fries, chapattis, spaghetti, alternately observing/eavesdropping on conversation of modest, mannerly American tourists. “I was seeing you in Bombay,” says a voice from another table, addressed out of the blue to a blond 20-year-old American. “You must have been in Bombay too,” she replies. Elsewhere: single white tourists drinking beers, another mannerly table of American male-youth, behind whom on wall a poster of very white full-length nude, arms covering nipples, hand before puss; photo of boat (hull up); ad for a current movie (“Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi”). The young Bengalis, exiting, leave behind messes of uneaten food; awaiting their opening, the 2 swarthy Indians approach author with offer of leather goods. A third figure has joined them, intent unknown. “So when we got here, there was no way . . .” (mixed table recounting travel management problems). American male-youth table passing bhang. Seven-year-old boy clears Bengali table of water glasses, elder brother, 10, black shirt, yellow pinstripes, wiping it off with wet rag.
5:00 am wake-up, 6:00 am Hotel Mili exit, into fog-shrouded, dimly-lit beach street. Tea stall, however, brightly lit, light on yellow painted benches, chairs. A group of rich Bengali tourists is having its morning tea, the girls wrapped in elegant woolen shawls, natural gray-white with gold-inwoven breeds. Each has gathered up her hair into a stylishly twisted bun. Eyes glisten with emotion as they talk animatedly, before an audience of 2 sleepy-eyed boys who tend the stall ─ under their father’s supervision, he in a tee shirt reading “BOSS.”
Author, second glass drained, out into the street, waving rickshaw-wallahs away, to walk the shrouded street. Finally, the long ride to bus stand, through foggy ways, past fog-filled field, past groups of huddled homeless tending their morning fires, wrapped in the meager garments of their possession.
First bus to Bhubaneswar off and away, amid much beating of its sides by late-boarding passengers; stopping to load another, yet another, still scarcely a third full, as it leaves the ghostly esplanade before the bus stand. Through traffickless streets we quickly reach the edge of town, but here stop to linger, as a crowd of early commuters materializes. All men, in their white long-distance-journey garb: white western pants and shirts, white jackets and pantalon; white dhoti and shawl; even white athletic shoes. Out the window, at corner tea stall, a Brahma bull grazes on its thatched wall, unimpeded. At the next stop enter dour, youthful men, in beige and tan, one in a brown sweater, stitched-on label reading “SWEET MEMORY.”
Bhubaneswar through tourist literature (Gov’t of Orissa). “The modern capital of Orissa boasts a cluster of some 500 temples. No other place has such a continuity of building so chronologically arranged. The temples of Laxmaneswar, Satrughneswar and Bharateswar (c. 6th century); Parsurameswar and Swarna Jaleswar (c. 7th century); Vaital (c. 8th century); Mukteswar (c. 10th century); Brahmeswar, Rajarani and Lingaraj (c. 11th century); and Ananta Basudeva (c. 13th century) are worth visiting.”
Denied entrance to Lingaraj, author sits at side gate, the massive tower, smoky in tone through smoky air, shrouded in turn by branches of broad-leafed tree. Alley to entrance already swept (if not clean), cow with calf ambling up it toward narrow portal. Still of 9:00 o’clock morning air, flags atop spire motionless, thin red and white pennons trailing down to rest on stone lotus. Sweeper with large basket, in white tee shirt, green cotton turban, longhi, enters doors, closes them.
From vantage across alleyway more of the tower visible: huge griffins supporting its upper bulb, seated on platforms extended out from the tower itself, whose elaborate crenellations catch and gently hold the sun’s incoming rays. To the east; a stepped tower, the delicate legs of 15-year-old girls seen climbing up it.
View from west side of temple enclosure, author looking down 25 feet from sandstone ledge to surface of tank all but completely covered with lotus vegetation, the sun, risen to 45 degrees, reflecting as a single circle of light in a small lotus-leaf interval. Above and to the east: the gray silhouette of the main tower, crowded by the presence of several minor towers, near and far. Scanning northward: rounded masses of trees lead the eye to a various plenitude of even lesser towers, from northeast to due north, on across the narrow alleyway where author sits, to a small undistinguished temple on the west. These smaller forms, though all reasonably graceful, are surprisingly rough-hewn, their ornamentation rather perfunctory.
10:30, author seated, broad shady piazza, a large group of communicants exiting another lesser temple, to be greeted by the cries of vendors, who leap to their feet, rush forward, gesturing, exhorting, imploring. In 2 minutes’ time the group has passed through the scene, leaving only the sound of a hammer tapping a plank of wood, the quiet voice of a 60-year-old woman purchasing a green-bottled soft drink. Noticing author, but not noticing author noticing her, she holds the bottle behind her back with left hand, approaches him with outstretched right hand.
In the square’s cool expanse a boy, in pale-green and even-lighter-green plaid longhi, arranges long sticks of sugar cane, the wheel of this press painted in red and blue. As author is describing him there enters a file of schoolchildren, all in green-and-white uniforms, white socks, black hair.
“Not far from Bhubaneswar” (tourist literature) “is Dhauli.” At the center of the square, within a red-painted enclosure. “The hill brings to mind.” A banana-seller has piled his yellow store. “The bloody battle.” Under a large spreading tree the coconut-seller. “That served to convert Ashok.” Has pyramided his green store. “To Buddhism.” And sits whetting his sickle, awaiting the next rout of tourists.
Opposite author’s bench, his own rickshaw, a 4-petalled abstract yellow flower painted on its pale blue plastic cushion. The puller, a towel thrown over his shoulder, crosses his leg. Through the square with dignified stride marches a blouseless woman in black and gold sari.
Visit to second, third temples complete, rickshaw puller, in wordless communication, nods; author ascends seat; and we are off ─ for the long trip to the State Guest House. He has been a marvelous guide, sensing exactly when to stop, absenting himself as I write, enjoying his tea at tea stall, where I pay the modest bill.
Leaving the Lingaraj he takes me down a scenic route, curving between the walls of houses enclosed behind them. In this brief passage alone we pass several temples, but no word is spoken. They loom, present themselves, and disappear. Women, stepping off the narrow road, let the rickshaw pass, regarding the ungainly blond-pink stranger as though apprehending some lusus naturae.
The way to the guest house is a long one: 3 or 4 kilometers at least. We pass first up a road that leads to a vast expanse of uncultivated vegetation, having come full circle to the point from which we had approached the Lingaraj. An uphill climb is followed by a more relaxed passage, as we cycle past schools, other institutional buildings in pink and cream, the Ramakrishna Society’s Vivekananda Library. Before long we enter into a long, upward-curving stretch of open road, its buildings set hundreds of yards back at the end of great fields. After uphill passage along narrow tarmac, relief in the form of an equally long descent. The road is too bumpy to record a single word, though I take out pen and notebook several times.
Before long we reach a roundabout, out of which leads the road to Cuttack. This spoke we pass for another, which leads us into an older part of town. Expressions on the faces of citizens are wanly intransigent, as they barely exert themselves, on foot or on cycle, to avoid the path of the toiling rickshaw peddler. Patiently, on uphill as well as downhill courses, he slows or stops for traffic, although he thereby loses momentum and must pay with renewed exertion. Through all he is uncomplaining.
The central district passed, we begin another long uphill climb, through the relative opulence of the government sector: institutional buildings set in large courtyards surrounded by spiked fences. The boulevard is wide ─ 4 narrow lanes, one of which in the process of being repaired. Beside the road are ranged, on a wide grassy shoulder, 4 huge troughs for the melting of asphalt. Here gorgeous swarthy women, their elegant ancient postures swathed in wine, dark green, canary yellow saris, stir the bubbling sauce, ladle it into shallow pans, transfer them to the heads of waiting porters, who transport them to the site where the hot tar is decanted. They pause at their travail, hips projected forward, shoulders back, statuesque in their glamorous beauty.
After a sweaty final climb the rickshaw puller deposits me at the guest house. Advised to pay him 15 or 20 rupees, I give him 50 instead.
“This new tenor becomes even more pronounced on early 10th century temples at Baudh, Khiching, Ganeswarpur, Mukhalingam and Caurasi” (Thomas E. Donaldson, “Erotic Rituals on Orissan Temples”). “YAMA.” “And testifies to the widespread popularity of Tantrism.” “Restrainer.” “On the Kutaitundi Temple at Khiching the baranda recess on the north side.” “In the Vedas he is a god of the dead, with whom the spirits of the departed dwell.” “The only section with its sculpture in situ is filled with seven scenes of erotic rituals.” “He was the son of Vivaswat (the Sun), and had a twin sister named Yami.” “Beginning on the east the scenes consist of.” “By some they are looked on as the first human pair.” “(1) a nude male and female facing one another.” “Another hymn says that Yama ‘was the first of men that died.’” “(2) possible fellatio with the standing male holding the head of the female with his left hand while raising his right hand over his head.” “‘And the first that departed to the celestial world.’” “(3) a male holding with both hands the head of a kneeling female.” “‘He it was who found out the way to the home that cannot be taken away.’” “(4) a fat rishi holding a club/khatranga over his shoulder and facing a female raising a kapula in her right hand.” “‘Those who are now born follow by their own paths to the place whither our ancient fathers have departed.’” “(5) fellatio with the male placing his right hand on the head of the kneeling female.” “‘But,’ says Dr. Muir, ‘Yama is nowhere represented in the Rg-Veda as having anything to do with the punishment of the wicked.’” “(6) a nude female in a seductive pose in front of a small, sexually exited male.” “‘Yama is still to some extent an object of terror.’” “And (7) a standing male lifting his right hand to his face.” “‘He is represented as having two insatiable dogs with four eyes and wide nostrils.’”
“The scenes on the west side include: “‘Which guard the road to his abode.’” “(1) a standing rishi.” “‘And which the departed are advised to hurry past.’” “(2) a reclining female.” “‘With all possible speed.’” “(3) a small male mounting a reclining female while a figure in the background lifts up both arms and chants mantras.” “In the epic poems Yama is the son of Vivaswat by Sanjna (conscience), and brother of Manu.” “(4) a nude female straddling a Siva-linga.” “Mythologically he was the father of Yudi-shthira.” “Her yoni making contact.” “He is the god of the departed spirits.” “(5) missing.” “And judge of the dead.” “(6) fellatio.” “Yama is regent of the south quarter, and as such is called Dakshinasa-pati.” “With a second male in the background fondling his lingam.” “He is represented as green in color and clothed with red.” “(7) a male and a female.” “He rides upon a buffalo.” “Standing in relaxed poses.” “And is armed with a ponderous mace and a noose.” “With the male lifting the chin of the female.” “To secure his victims.”
When I was at sea last August, on my voyage to this country, which I had long desired to visit, I found one evening, on inspecting the observations of the day, that India lay before us, and Persia on our left, whilst a breeze from Arabia blew nearly on our stern. . . . It gave me inexpressible pleasure to find myself in the midst of so noble an amphitheatre, almost encircled by the vast regions of Asia, which has ever been esteemed the nurse of sciences, the inventress of delightful and useful arts, the scene of glorious actions, fertile in the productions of human genius, abounding in natural wonders, and infinitely diversified in the forms of religion and government . . . . I could not help remarking how important and extensive a field was yet unexplored. . . . But I consoled myself with hope . . . that if in any country such an Union could be effected it was among my countrymen in Bengal, with some of whom I already had and with most was desirous of having the pleasure of being intimately acquainted.
Christmas in Calcutta. “PURANAS. ‘Old,’ hence an ancient legend or tale of olden times.” The Bengalis. “The Puranas succeed the Itihasas or epic poems.” It would seem. “But at a considerable distance of time.” Take the day as an excuse to be idle. “And must be distinguished from them.” Children especially professing an interest in Jesus as a way of getting out of their homework. “The epics treat of the legendary actions of heroes as mortal men.” At any rate, it is more than simply another Sunday, this year. “The Puranas celebrate the powers and works of positive gods.” For shops are closed. “And represent a later.” Traffic is heavy. “And more extravagant.” With picnickers leaving the city. “Development of Hinduism.” The parks are full. “Of which they are in fact the Scriptures.”
In these cool/balmy days of December outdoor life must be taken advantage of. “The definition of a Purana by Amara Sinha.” And so one sees lanes chalked in a roadside margin for children’s races. “An ancient Sanskrit lexicographer.” A children’s zoo packed with visitors. “Is a work which has five distinguishing topics:” Casual games of netless badminton, along with the usual cricket in the parks.
“(1) The creation of the universe.” Shortly after noon I am picked up in a yellow taxi. “(2) Its destruction and renovation.” Its meter already running high. “(3) The genealogy of gods and patriarchs.” For a drive to the home of Vattacharja Chandan. “(4) The reigns of the Manus.” Editor of Prakalpana Literature. “Forming the periods called Manwantaras.” Who’d published me in English with facing Bengali translation even before my arrival in India. “(5) The history of the Solar and Lunar races of kings.” And who has invited me to lecture and read from my work tomorrow evening.
“These are the Pancha-Lakshanas, or distinguishing marks.” He has come in from the South Calcutta suburbs. “But no one of the Puranas.” Where I have not been. “Answers exactly to the description.” The taxi ventures forth in straightforward fashion, but before long we begin to take many turns, left, right, around tight corners, up alleyways, until we have entered into an increasingly narrow maze. “Some show a partial conformity with it, others depart from it vary widely.” We are in a slum. “The Vishnu Purana is the one which best accords with the title.” Refuse fills the street. “According to one authority:” The odor of open sewer. “‘Pantheism.’” The poverty that has been kept hidden opens itself to view. “‘Is one of their invariable characteristics.’” Desperate looks in the eyes of middle-aged men and women. “‘And underlies their whole teaching.’” Uncertain but by no means friendly intent on the faces of younger slum-dwellers. “‘Although.’” Upon the sighting of a taxi traversing their neighborhood. “‘The peculiar divinity who is all things.’” Two youths. “‘From whom all things proceed.’” Move to stop the vehicle. “‘Is diversified.’” Chandan speaks to them. “‘According to their individual sectarian bias.’”
Yes. “The Puranas are all written in verse.” He knows where he is going. “And their invariable form.” We will turn right. “Is that of a dialogue.” At the end of the street. “Between exponent and inquirer.” Where they pretend there is no exit. “Interspersed with the dialogues and observations.” Within a hundred yards we are through this shortcut. “Of other individuals.” And into a lower-middle-class neighborhood. “Thus Pulastya received the Vishnu Purana.” Houses neat. “From Brahma.” If a little dirty. “Made it known to Parasara.” A peaceful ambiance withal. “Who narrated it to his disciple Maitreya.” Children playing in the streets (girls hand in hand), goats scampering through garbage. Stately palms rising above, oblivious of the compromised scene below.
I am most warmly received, by wife, by sister, by children of both. A full table is spread, the visitor exhorted to overindulge, not only in hearty home cooked fare and elaborate store bought pastries but also in the western dishes cooked out of an anxiety that he might not partake of Indian food. “The Puranas are 18 in number.” Conversation follows its ritual, difficult course. “And in addition to these.” There is still much cultural gap to bridge. “There are 18 Uppapuranas.” Between these esthetically westernized Indians. “Or subordinate works.” And this partially orientalized Westerner. “The Puranas are classified in three categories.” But all is handled. “According to the qualities of purity.” With felicity. “Gloom.” With warmth. “And passion.” With humanity.
The visit coming to an end, an obligatory coda is appended. I am led across the street to the house of the sister’s parents-in-law, the grandfather himself a poet. A genial interview ensues beneath portrait in oils of the poet as a younger man, under R. Tagore’s gaze, under the scrutiny of the daughter-in-law, her daughter, her niece, a cousin, even a servant, who pokes her earthy glowing smile around the corner. The visitor exits with a handful of books, though not before his and his host’s name have been located in an ancient edition of the International Who’s Who of Poetry.
It is culture which brings to light the inner Self, and only in that inner Self is the likeness to God to be found.
Time is only the matrix of action. It is pure duration, a chronological dimension where action can unfold. It is not the womb of a dark fatality. It is not moving irresistibly towards any somber precipice.
“The emergence of revolutionary consciousness in France and, later on, in Russia, China and other places, raises the question of the reconciliation of Hinduism with revolutionary consciousness.” Indian Coffee Co-workers’ Cooperative Coffee House, amidst Calcutta U. book stalls crammed with books, single bulbs burning before each stall. “In practice, Hinduism is unmitigated Brahmanical ritualism and orthodoxy.” 6:00 pm caffeine break before talk at Prakalpana Literature. “At the philosophical level.” Host purchasing cigarettes. “One may wonder at the monistic mysticism of the Nasaduja hymn.” Posters. “And the Upanishadic metaphysics.” Foxy radical girls. “And the ethics of disinterestedness (of Karma-yoga).” This is the crucible of social change in Calcutta. “As formulated in the Bhagavad-gita.”
Coffeehouse ─ up one flight ─ cavernous, hall 2 stories high, lit throughout by long vertical fluorescent bulbs on walls. “But in daily practice.” December-inactive ceiling fans suspended 30 feet from ceiling. “More or less.” To position 10 feet over heads of patrons. “Hinduism amounts to priestly ceremony.” Heads bent over tables in intense discussion. “And the paying of fees to the priests.”
Four black heads of hair, one youth frowning; one intense, in black plastic glass frames. “Sometimes a heterodox or liberal teacher like Makkhali Gosala or Gautama Buddha.” Two with backs to author. “Mahavira or Charvaka, Kabira or Lohla.” Two of the 4 breaking out in laughter. “Appears on the scene.” A professor, in green sleeveless sweater, taking a seat alone. “But by and large.” Tension relieved. “Hinduism has become.” The other 2 relaxing. “A degenerate social force.” One young revolutionary. “Engulfed by the insatiable lust.” In olive shawl. “For monetary gratification.” Remains, however, intransigently wrapped within it. “By the priestly sector.” Knee drawn up to chin.
“Such Hinduism cannot be reconciled even with political democracy.” Other, more middle-class, students, at dinner/snacks. “Obviously.” Two professors talking. “There can be no question.” Ordinary students. “Of its reconciliation.” Walls of the chamber in acidic pale green. “With anarchism.” Dull green door-, window-frames. “With socialism.” Table tops of glass attached with clamps to green enamel wooden surface. “With communism.” Comfortable chairs. “But on the ground of this incompatibility.” (Aerated backs, springy tubular construction.) “One need not call.” White-clad waiters solicitous of patrons’ needs. “For a war on Hinduism.” Author observed by clientele but not hassled. “For any open attack on our political independence.” Leaving to pay for his coffee. “Hence should be adopted the technique adopted by Dayandanda, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Three table-mates also arising. “And radically reform Hinduism from within.” Fluorescent light glinting off lenses held by black glass frames. “Liberal social legislation should be welcomed.” Girl in green skirt, green shawl smiles at author. “For Hinduism must be liberalized.” Apparently for no reason.
Park Mansions, 57 Park Street, expansive stairway interior. “The Ramayana is also rich in significant symbolism.” Author waiting for United States Educational Foundation in India to open its doors. “In this great parliamentary contest.” Walls of stairwell in whitewashed plaster. “The epic’s central symbolic motif is that of the Atman-Brahman exchange.” Upper reaches in deep blood-red enamel. “Though the victory remained with Clive.” “And this is interpreted in a variety of ways.” “Many things occurred which must have been galling in the extreme to his proud spirit.” Early-morning light scattering patches of green across its mildewed surface. “One of them, which is popular from a theistic angle, regards Rama and Sita as the Parmatma and Jivatma.” Red plaque on which white letters: “(The Supreme God and the Divine Self).” “Open 9:30-5:00, Monday-Friday.” “The ten-month period of Sita’s captivity in Lanka providing a graphic picture of the sorrows and privations of the soul in Samsaric bondage and isolation.” “He professed, however, to be satisfied, and in a letter written to Mr. Hastings on the 14th of October, 1773, thus expressed himself:” Immense padlock on elaborate double wooden door, standing within stone Gothic archway. “Sita’s life in Asokarana.” “All the reports of the committees are published.” “Under the surveillance of the Raksasis.” “And will of course be transmitted to you.” Hand-lettered sign. “Who bore names.” “A few envious and resentful individuals turned the whole attack upon me.” “Strangely befitting their organic equipment.” “And aimed at the ruin of my fortune and reputation.” “And anatomical deformities.” “NOTICE:” “But the justice of the House of Commons defeated their intentions.” “THIS OFFICE WILL BE CLOSED ON MONDAY, 26 DECEMBER.” “And, by a great majority, passed a vote that.” “Would illustrate the manner in which a true Prapanna or Mumuksu should live.” “IN LIEU OF 25 DECEMBER.” “And conduct himself in earthly life.” “I had rendered great and essential services to this country.” USEFI letterhead.
“Sansaric existence is a separation from the Supreme.” After USEFI’s office, tenancy continues in reduced circumstances. “It signifies an embodied state of the Jivatman acquired as a result of Karma. “This was doubtless the light in which he wished to view the matter.” “And implies the necessity for the Mumuksu and the Prapanna to contend against the limitation of captive existence.” “But during the seasons of gloom and depression.” Next office. “To which he was constitutionally subject.” Stairwell bespattered with whitewash. “The darker side of the picture presented itself.”
“The word of deliverance is heard with the advent of Hanuman.” Its entranceway decorated in pale mauve, pale turquoise, the ascent to the third floor in orange. “These seasons had unfortunately become more frequent.” Paint badly chipped. “In consequence of miserable health.” Representing the Sadacarya.” On ceiling. “Or Sadguru.” As well as walls. “And an excruciating disease.” “Remains of green underneath.” “Which he sought to alleviate by an excessive use of opium.”
“The guru as messenger of God speaks of the incomparable excellences, the Kalyanagunas of the Lord, giving a shape and direction to the Mumuksa’s meditation and filling it with substance and significance.” “In November, 1774, a violent return of his complaint.” Upper reaches heavily encumbered with cobwebs. “Obliged him to have recourse to his habitual remedy.” Remnants of brown at border of stairs. “Hanuman is Acarya par excellence.” “As his agony was extreme.” “Containing in himself the concentration.” “The medicine was probably used to an extent which impaired his reason.” “Of Jnana.” “And made him no longer accountable for his actions.” “Bhakti.” “Certain it is.” “And Vairagya.” “That on the 22nd of the above month.” Overhead, the beautiful wooden paneling that covers the underside of the stairs. “His message to Sita in her condition of captivity.” “He died by his own hand.” “Is the true Acarya’s word of Wisdom and grace of the questing soul.” Beneath, seated on the steps, a beautiful girl. “He had only in the end of the previous September.” Red sweater over white sari. “Completed his 49th year.” Also waiting for the office to open.
There was a tendency to conscious literary laboring which was carried to an extreme in another work of Dandin’s, a poem, which was written with such skill that it could be read both forwards and in reverse, in the one case narrating the story of the Ramayana and in the other case the story of the Mahabharata.
Withdrawal from Cal a rather slow and painful one. “In looking back over the whole course of events recorded in this work, it is impossible not to be struck with wonder and admiration” (Henry Beveridge, “Extinction of the East India Company,” in the Comprehensive History). (18) Swargarohara-parva: ascent to heaven. “At first a small body of merchant adventurers, with no higher ambition than to obtain a share in what was known to be a lucrative trade, contribute their capital and send out a few ships of moderate burden to the eastern seas by way of experiment.” (17) Mahaprasthanika-parva: the great journey. Fog in Delhi has kept flights from landing there, flights to Delhi from Calcutta from leaving the latter. “Some of the ships are wrecked, and others fall into the hands of enemies who plunder or destroy them.” (16) Mausala-parva: death by the sea; fight with clubs. And so a 5:00 o’clock flight is delayed, first to 9:00 pm, next to 12:45 am.
“A few are more fortunate, and return laden with cargoes so valuable as to compensate for other losses and stimulate to new exertions. For a time the continent of India is in a great measure overlooked, and the main exertions are directed to the Persian Gulf and the spice islands of the Indian Archipelago.” (15) Asrana-parva: hermitage and forest fire. One has no choice but to go to the airport and wait, for there is no refund for a ticket unless the flight is cancelled. “But soon India begins to attract more attention, and in addition to a few places on the Malabar coast.” (14) Aswa-medhiha-parva: horse sacrifice. Needless to say there is no information with regard to weather conditions in Delhi. (13) Anusasana-parva: book of precepts. In fact one is greeted at the entrance to the terminal with a sign announcing a departure time at variance with that posted inside. “Other localities are selected, particularly on the Coromandel coast, and northwards towards the Bay of Bengal.
“Hitherto all the factories established in India were held by the most precarious tenure. The property in the soil remained with the native princes.” (12) Santi-parva: book of consolations. “Whose protection, though purchased by much fawning and many costly presents, was not infrequently withdrawn, as often as the pillage of a factory promised to be more profitable than its tribute. In one quarter, however, the tenure was of a different and more satisfactory nature. The island of Bombay, possessing the best harbor in India, had passed to the British crown as part of the dowry of the Portuguese princess who became the wife of Charles II.” (11) Stri-parva: lamentations of the women. “At first there was room to doubt whether this acquisition was to promote or to damage.” (10) Samptika-parva: night attack. “The interests of the East India Company. Prerogative pushed to its utmost limits was then the favorite policy of government, which accordingly began to exercise its new sovereignty in the East in a manner which seemed to set the Company’s chartered privileges at naught. Complaint and recrimination of course ensued.” (9) Salga-parva: more battles. “And the results threatened to be disastrous, when the government made the happy discovery that the possession of Bombay, instead of being a gain, was actually entailing a heavy loss. This was one of the last evils which a court so needy and avaricious as that of Charles II could endure, and little difficulty therefore was felt in concluding an arrangement by which the company entered into possession of Bombay with all its burdens.
“This was a new and important step in a drama.” (8) Karna-parva: commander’s death. “Previously there were only trades existing by the sufferance of the native princes.” Two hours of telephoning the airline, the airport, each on several numbers, number B suggested by A, number A by B, results in nothing by way of information. (7) Salgh-parva: more battles. So, out into a taxi. “Now they too were sovereigns.” Procured with difficulty. “And having laid aside the abject forms of address, with which they had been accustomed to approach the native princes, began to use a more dignified language, and act in a bolder spirit.” And off into the smoky, rancid, uncertain air.
After twenty-one days of steady traveling, a sore throat begins, which a day of sleep will not serve to abate. “He who desires to travel with honor in India, whether by carriage or palankeen” (Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India) “ought to take with him twenty or thirty armed men, some with bows and arrows, and others with muskets.” A full-fledged cold kicks in. “And you pay them as much as those who carry the palankeen.” Hacking in the midst of cigarette smokers, who are already inhaling the equivalent of a half a pack of day just by breathing the Calcutta miasma. “Sometimes for greater show you carry a flag.” Sniffling, aching, yearning for bed. “This is always done by the English and Dutch, for the honor of their Companies.” Instead I begin what may well be another 12-hour ordeal, added onto a day of waiting.
“The profits of trade had hitherto satisfied them, but they now talked of revenue from territory” (Beveridge). “The aims of the Company became visibly enlarged. They would no longer exist by sufferance, and began to familiarize their minds with the idea of conquest.” (5) Udyoga-parva: preparations for war. “It was not long before full scope was found for this warlike temperament. Not merely had they to repel aggression on the part of native rulers; but a great European power, which had settled on the east coast, had engaged in a vast scheme of ambition, which, if realized, would almost as a necessary consequence annihilate British interests in India.
“The collision with France was rendered inevitable and led to a desperate struggle, in which France was obliged to succumb. Meanwhile.” (4) Virata-parva: adventures in 13th year of exile. “A war fraught with still more important consequences commenced in another quarter.” (The leading subject of the poem is the great war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, who were descendants, through Bharata, from Puru, the great ancestor of one branch of the Lunar race.) “The atrocity of the Black Hole of Calcutta had been perpetrated, and Clive, who marched to avenge it.” (The object of the great struggle was the kingdom whose capital was Hastina-pura ─ elephant city.) “Had, in return for dethroning the ruler and placing another upon the throne, obtained for the Company an absolute control over the revenues of the immense provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.” (3) Vana-parva: life in the forest. “With full right to appropriate them to their own use, subject only to certain stipulated payments.” (2) Satha-parva: assembly; loss of kingdom; exile.
“This grant of the diwani was properly, as the name implies, only one of all the other rights of property, and accordingly the Company acted from the date of the grant as if three provinces belonged to them in absolute sovereignty. The British Empire having been thus founded.” The taxi rumbles, headlightless, through the traffic-bound streets of the central city. (1) Adi-parva: genealogy. Roars unsafely down long avenues. Marriages. Drifts through the directionless Hades of huddled bodies. Enmity. “Continued to advance in the face of hostile combinations which interrupted its progress.” And rivalry. “And at times even threatened its existence.” Flickering charcoal fires. “Till every power hostile to it.” (The ruins of which are traceable fifty-seven miles north-east of Delhi.) “Was overthrown.” (On an old bed of the Ganges.) To the modern traveler’s oasis: “And its supremacy was completely established.” The aerodrome.