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As she has proved ...
As she has proved in three previous books--her wry take on the marketing of the mystic East in Karma Cola; the rich historical saga of Raj; and the beguiling tales of A River Sutra--there is no better guide to India's multihued mosaic than Gita Mehta. She knows India in all its rich detail--its folkways and history, its culture and politics, its ancient traditions and current concerns. In Snakes and Ladders, she gives a loving but unflinching assessment of India today, in an account that is entertaining, informative, and wholly personal.
Mehta, born in India before her country gained independence, lived through that period with a child's alert imagination and has been passionately studying the place ever since—although, as she makes plain here, her identity is as much cosmopolitan (with moorings in London and Manhattan) as Indian. While some of these pieces seem too hectic, possessing a heady, dashed-off quality, Mehta's quickness of mind and pen is also her strength. She can plunge us into the intensely remembered girlhood pleasures of reading Nabokov and Kerouac and "Archie" comics in Calcutta's impromptu lending libraries. She can precisely catch the differences between a concert audience in India and another in America: "Art is not just something displayed by the talented to a passive audience," she writes, observing an Indian singer, "but, rather, that moment when the artist, the audience, the subject, the discipline—all combine to become something approaching religious experience, a moment of mutual creation." Mehta also tells spirited personal stories of her adventures and researches, such as seeking out ragpickers to find out how they live. She's very good on the ethics of power: "The most interesting evolution in independent India is the change from individual fearlessness in the face of social and political injustice to craven courting of those who possess social and political power." Shrewdly, she avoids generalizing about India, concentrating instead on a wide range of quite specific topics—e.g., the spiritual meaning of trees to Indians; interior design as a clue to the country's character; the coming of high-tech and shopping malls to the land of Gandhi.
Pugnacious in tone and irreverent in critique, Mehta clearly loves her home and is maddened by it.
It was three o'clock in the morning and my mother was still dancing at the Roshanara Club in Delhi when her labor pains began. She was rushed to hospital and I was born an hour later.
Holding me in her arms, my godmother demanded that I be named Joan of Arc. She was a revolutionary, you see, like many of the other young people dancing that dawn. Styling themselves freedom fighters, frequently forced to go underground for their political activities against the British Empire, when they were not in jail they spent an inordinate amount of time dancing the rumba, the tango, the foxtrot, and hoping the British departure from India was imminent.
My parents lived in New Delhi, the brand-new capital designed by Lutyens for a British Empire destined to last forever, but in barely twenty years the Empire was already looking rocky and my parents were providing sanctuary to so many Indian nationalists on the run from the police that an elite of freedom fighters across the subcontinent knew my parents' home as Absconder's Paradise.
On the morning I was born a consensus of opinion in Absconder's Paradise held that Joan of Arc lacked an Indian resonance. And so I was named Gita, or song. As in song of freedom, you understand, because it was the 1940s and it seemed freedom was finally at hand. The choice of name showed a premature optimism. Exactly three weeks later six armed constables arrived at Absconder's Paradise, manacled my father, and took him off to jail.
The handcuffs had to do with the pistols. A decade of Gandhian nonviolence had not dislodged the British from India. These ardent young nationalists, mostly still in their twenties and impatient for freedom, had acquired arms from sympathetic nationalist officers in the Indian Army against the day when they might have to die on their feet rather than live on their knees. Indeed, a few years earlier my father's first cousin, a nineteen-year-old poet who had led the raid on the British Armoury at Chittagong, died on the steps of the Armoury in a volley of bullets rather than surrender, unaware that his wounded younger brother had already been captured.
As the handcuffs were placed on my father, he instructed my mother, under guise of bidding farewell, to get rid of the arms. Otherwise, it was a certainty that Father would find himself sharing a cell with his unfortunate cousin in the dreaded penal colony of Kala Pani--the Island of Black Water--one of the distant mass of Andaman Islands where only the most dangerous prisoners were incarcerated, and where conditions were so unspeakable that half of the sixty-odd prisoners who shared my uncles' life sentence, when he was deported at the age of fourteen, ended up committing suicide in their cells.
Getting rid of the arms posed a problem for my mother. Like many girls in northern India she had been raised in purdah, tutored in the seclusion of the women's quarters by a succession of women, including a Scottish governess. My mother's traditional education ensured that she could turn out a competent watercolor of the lakes of her native Kashmir, play the odd raga on the sitar, show a familiarity with the allusions of classical Sanskrit, or recite Persian quatrains. But she lacked certain modern skills.
Early in their marriage, my father set about correcting this inadequacy. Displaying a nice sense of priority, and ignoring the considerable difference in their heights, he first taught my mother ballroom dancing. Then he taught her to play bridge. Then he put her on a bicycle, pushed it until she pedaled well enough to retain her balance, and deserted her. She cycled halfway around Delhi before she had the courage to dismount, but her one lesson made her a cyclist.
Father, who was by way of being an air ace, now decided Mother should learn how to fly an airplane, and at the moment of his incarceration she was proving a demon at the controls of a Tiger Moth. But the ability to drive an automobile--so desperately required at that critical moment--was a skill in which Mother lacked proficiency. As yet, Father had only taught her how to reverse the two-seater Sunbeam Talbot convertible out of the long drive that connected Absconder's Paradise with the outside world.
Nonetheless, as soon as Father was frog-marched away, Mother chucked the pistols and rounds of ammunition into pillowcases,got into the Sunbeam Talbot, and gamely reversed out of the gates as far down the road as she could go. Leaving the motor running, she leapt out of the car, tossed the pillowcases into a ditch beyond a darkened pavement, reversed into a U-turn, and returned home, where, uncharacteristically, there were no revolutionaries to keep an eye on two small children bawling for attention--my one-year-old elder brother and myself.
The next day Mother discovered she had decanted the pistols outside the walled compound of the Chief Inspector of Police. Fortunately, even in that moment of high melodrama, my mother, with the miserliness of the good housewife, had been careful not to use her monogrammed linen, and the connection between the arms and Absconder's Paradise was never established.
As it happens, only a few months earlier Father had been handsomely complimented, even decorated, by the Vicereine of India for the large number of British civilians he had evacuated from Burma in the teeth of the Japanese advance during World War II. Landing in impossible terrain, making sortie after sortie accompanied only by an engineer, jettisoning fuel to accommodate even more women and children on the packed aircraft, Father had generally displayed that daredevilry which is later recognized as heroism but at the time is only the natural conduct of young men larking about with life and death.
Sentimentality is an early casualty of nationalist struggles. Father saw no paradox in keeping pistols for future use against the British even as he was risking his own life to save British lives. Equally, the British saw no paradox in jailing a man as a terrorist whom they had only recently lauded as a savior.
The task of living with these ironies fell to my mother. For almost four years she followed my father from jail to jail, dragging two infants with her. Smuggling letters into jail, sometimes in the soles of my brother's shoes, although my brother, with the self-importance of small children, sometimes insisted on showing the jailers his hiding place, thus lengthening my father's prison term.
After two years Mother deposited us in a convent in the hills so that she could better concentrate on trying to curtail Father's increasingly hair-raising attempts at escape. Until that blessed moment when he broke his arm in several places and she prevailed upon a revolutionary doctor to personally set the arm--upright. For months Father was frozen in the posture of a policeman stopping traffic because Mother feared her husband's height and hell-raising temperament would make him an easy target for recapture and deportation.
Meanwhile, Father was using his jail years to improve his cooking, his chess game, and to hatch schemes for destroying the British Empire. The plot dearest to his heart required him to become a textile magnate. Apparently textile factories used the same dies and chemicals that were required for the manufacture of currency. Father was convinced that within six months of his release he could flood the subcontinent in such a tidal wave of counterfeit currency it would drown the British Raj.
Many years later, when India had been an independent country so long it was difficult even to imagine a British Empire, I telephoned my parents from Europe to say I was expecting a child. They were enthusiastic in their congratulations and demanded that I return to India for the birth. But of the long conversation I remember only the succinct observation "Then at least we will have lived to see our first grandchild born on Indian soil."
That remark made me realize for the first time that my husband and myself had not been born citizens of a free India.
In an attempt to understand what it felt like on a day-to-day basis to be a colonized people, I asked my mother. "What is your worst memory of living under British rule?"
"My worst memory?"
"Your absolute worst."
My mother considered her answer for so long I thought she was sifting through memories almost too painful to express. My father's imprisonment; herself running from one official to another trying to gain his release; sending her children off when they were still babies to live in boarding schools; deciding which of so many humiliating experiences had been the most humiliating.
Finally she said, "When I was sixteen years old, I remember walking down the railway platform with my family's oldest retainer to board a train to Lahore. Suddenly an Englishwoman sitting in a railway carriage put her hand through the window and pulled off the old man's turban. I was horrified that she could so casually insult such a dignified old man? I stood there thinking of the filthiest abuse I knew in English. Then I shouted up at her, `How dare you? You old hag!'"
"Did the police come for you?" I asked.
"Police? What are you talking about? This Englishwoman looked at me through the train window. She had red hair. And she said, `My dear, one day you will be an old hag too.' That is my worst memory of the British Raj."
Since traditional Indian mothers are not given to deadpan humor, I could only take what my mother said at face value.
So I asked my father what his worst memory of the Raj had been. I expected him to tell me of his school days when an irate police sergeant, for no particular reason except perhaps the heat, had smashed a truncheon on his head, splitting his scalp in a five-inch gash. Or similar experiences, not so much for the pain inflicted as for the impotence of not being able to respond. Or at the very least, the months he had spent in solitary confinement.
Instead, Father said, "Once I was asked to fly a British colonel and his adjutant to the North-West Frontier. As I was climbing into the cockpit, he said very loudly, `My God! I'm not going up in an airplane flown by a bloody native!' Of course, he didn't have any option. So I landed in a field about a hundred miles from Quetta, the hottest place in India during the summer. And it was damned hot in that field, without a tree for miles. The colonel was sweating and abusing natives, his face getting redder and redder in the sun while his adjutant nodded obediently."
"What did you do?"
"Got back into the cockpit, told him to find someone who wasn't a bloody native to fly him, and took off, leaving him to walk to Quetta."
Over the years I have found that no amount of wheedling can get my parents or their associates to talk about their suffering. They will speak passionately about the suffering of others. Indeed, a whole generation of the jeunesse doree of Bengal, scions of some of India's most powerful and distinguished families, went into hiding on the docks of Calcutta, having joined the outlawed Communist Party during the Bengal famine created by the commandeering of food supplies for the Allied forces in expectation of a Japanese attack on India. When the attack did not materialize, the food was released and found its way into the black market, where ordinary people could not afford to buy it. That winter of 1942, while tons of food rotted away, nearly three million people starved to death, most of them on the streets of Calcutta.
Decades later these doughty old nationalists are still enraged when they speak about such injustices. Decades later they still take those injustices personally. But the injustices they themselves endured are simply brushed aside as part of the necessary price of becoming citizens of a free India rather than remaining subjects of a foreign empire. And whenever they talk about those years of nationalist struggle they only joke and tell funny stories, as if it were bliss in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven.
And perhaps it was. The nationalist movement broke so many of the shibboleths that constrained conventional Indian society. Women raised as my mother had been could never have hoped to live with such ease among so many extraordinary young men and women in an atmosphere of such excitement. It wasn't just the airplanes, the pistols, the deadly games of hide-and-seek with the police, the unchaperoned socializing between men and women. Their desire for freedom propelled them out of the confines of their sheltered lives and society's notions of respectable behavior into unknown worlds where they were forced to discover their own strengths.
For instance, my godmother was from a well-known Hindu family from eastern India, but she had broken iron convention by marrying a prominent nationalist who was a Muslim from northern India. Her mentor, modern India's greatest woman leader, Sarojini Naidu--who called Mahatma Gandhi "Mickey Mouse" and who was herself described by Gandhi's biographer Robert Payne as "exuberant, earthy, irreverent, improbable ... one of those women who make the world glad"--had already shocked Indian sensibilities by marrying beneath her own high caste. Such women were fearless, whether they were on the barricades or bearding the King Emperor in his palace or leading marches against mounted police. Later that same fearlessness would take them into the middle of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in the most crowded Indian cities during the partition of the subcontinent into the two nations of India and Pakistan, where, unarmed and unaccompanied, they would attempt to stop the killings through sheer force of will.
It is a fearlessness I find hard to understand today. Their courage did not seem to be inspired by self-aggrandizement or ideological dogma or religious fervor--those certainties which usually fuel suicidal actions--and sometimes I wonder if they did indeed possess what Mahatma Gandhi called a kind of moral force.
Hoping to grasp the nature of their courage, I spoke to the uncle who had been sentenced to the penal colony of Kala Pani. He was an affectionate man who liked to play the piano and in his seventies still displayed a childlike curiosity about the world.
But I was in absolute awe of him. Seventeen years incarcerated in a penal colony!
"Weren't you frightened when you heard your sentence?"
"Naturally. I was only fourteen years old. I had been shot in the ankle. Tortured and interrogated for weeks before being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor, put in chains, and loaded onto the ship sailing to Kala Pani. Still, I don't think I really understood fear until we docked and I saw four British jailers in kneesocks and starched white shorts cracking their whips on the sand, shouting, `This is where we tame the Bengal tigers!'"
Then he smiled. "I wouldn't recommend my life to everyone. But I think when you face fear every day for years, and are lucky enough to survive, you learn a little about its limits. In any case, British rule was also a form of imprisonment. There was no freedom of speech, or of the press, or of congregation. At least now we are citizens of a free nation."
I suppose on paper that is true. But in the fifty years that India has been a free nation the names of those who genuinely fought for freedom have been progressively excised from our history.
Instead, we have been bored to tears by overbearing leaders who have claimed that they are India, but even worse, that India is them. And their sons. And their sons' sons, yea even unto nausea.
The latter claim, particularly, sticks in the craw, especially when they go to extreme lengths to make the claim stick, such as the wholesale imprisonment of anyone who begs to differ. And there has been too little fearlessness in defying them.
In fact, the most interesting evolution in independent India is the change from individual fearlessness in the face of social and political injustice to craven courting of those who possess social and political power.
It is a surprise when things are otherwise. I once called on a senior bureaucrat whose office was only three doors down from the office of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who was already quite loopy and entertained a genuine conviction that her family owned India. Naturally, her intense obsession with an imagined inheritance had given rise to an equally intense paranoia with those who might deny it, and consequently her administration was colored with many examples of tale-carrying, of ambitious courtiers reporting lies about their colleagues, and all the other spy-versus-spy paraphernalia of the would-be despot.
Wont to harangue the citizenry in public speeches with such lines as "Remember! My father gave you freedom!" Mrs. Gandhi did not take lightly to government officers with an independent turn of mind. So I was astonished to hear this senior bureaucrat expressing his exasperation with the Prime Minister in such terms as "dynastic" and paranoid" without a hint of self-consciousness.
"Should you be talking quite so loudly about the Prime Minister in this way?" I inquired with some admiration. "After all, she does employ you."
"She doesn't bloody employ me!" he snarled. "The people of India employ me. Don't you ever forget it. This is my damned soil."
Such bad humor is enough to make you want to cling to your Indian passport for another fifty years of freedom.
At least that was the thought that crossed my mind when an immigration officer at New Delhi airport inquired how long I had been resident out of India.
At my reply, he stared in disbelief. "And you are still carrying an Indian passport, madam? May I ask why?"
It was an occasion to be blunt. But I was in a land where ladies don't swear. So I couldn't bring myself to snarl, "Because this is my damned soil. And don't you ever forget it!"