April 04, 2020
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Safari-Suited Idealists: Elegy For Another Country

The crumby details of Indian life around ’80 went with an ardent hope for progress. It’s replaced by the new prosperity’s handmaidens: apathy, intolerance.

Safari-Suited Idealists: Elegy For Another Country
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Safari-Suited Idealists: Elegy For Another Country

The India I first visited over 30 years ago was another country. At that time, to a foreigner, it still exuded a faint scent of danger; ill-defined but pervasive. Tourists were afraid they might “catch something”. India was known as the site of dirt and disaster. Some visitors returned home, appalled by the poverty, and vowing never to go back.

Certainly, the India of 1980 was, to say the least, frugal and sparing. Luxury was not obvious and consumption less than conspicuous. The first place I stayed was in Madame Cama Road in Bombay, in a guesthouse attached to the ywca. It was clean, unornamented and provided basic fare. The only concession to comfort was an antique imperial survival: ‘bed-tea’. It had to be ordered the night before at the reception, where the timing was entered in a big marbled register that made it look like scripture.

At that time, most of the people I met were teachers, lecturers, activists and journalists. I have a composite memory of their domestic interiors, rather cheerless and unaccommodating, habitations suitable for high minds that despised material comforts, which were, in any case, largely unavailable. But no one repined for things they could not have. They expected life to be a battle against heat and discomfort, to which the weight of bureaucratic obstructiveness, public squalor and genteel indigence were frequently added. I remember, too, the somnolence of government departments, where languid ceiling fans scarcely disturbed the sheaves of papers beneath their heavy paperweights, and did little to encourage employees out of their torpid reverie.

In the other india, intellectuals could be intoxicated with ideas, and put the world to rights over chai and biscuits.

If I now dwell on the austere domestic arrangements of my friends then, it is mainly to contrast them with the living conditions of today’s more cosseted intellectuals. I have a memory of gunmetal cabinets and drawers, great carved almirahs with chipped glass, stone floors, wooden chairs and hard, functional beds. Even the cushions were unyielding. Places without softness, but where predictable and nourishing meals of rice, dal, vegetable and roti were served. If they enjoyed the amenity of a television set, this showed only images of unglamorous presenters haltingly reading news to camera from a typewritten page, or ritual folk performances from what were then regarded as ‘peripheral’ parts of India. Hot water came by means of temperamental geysers that sometimes failed to light and occasionally exploded. There were metal shelves, on which books, unprotected from sunlight and insects, wasted away; and whenever a copy of Lukacs, Tennyson or Tagore was removed, friable pieces of each page floated to the ground. Whorls of dust scuttled across the floor like tumbleweed in the draught; while a squeaky fan stirred the air and cobwebs that clung to flaking plaster. A sour smell of soapsuds from washing in a metal pail pervaded the apartment. High on the wall were garlanded photographs of dead parents, honoured, if faded to the colour of the ghosts they had become. A humming bar of strip lighting shed a shadowless light on the scene, while artifacts made by traditional craftspeople had lost their paint beneath a coating of time. Smudgy xeroxed pamphlets and papers littered the rooms, with their calls to attend a meeting, make a protest, gherao an unpopular minister.

But the conversation made up for the absence of physical amenities, because the people were, in the main, still optimistic and full of hope; the Left retained a vibrancy it has since forfeited; a commitment to social justice and progress had not yet been halted by a deterministic and relentless iconography of wealth. This latter has, to a greater or lesser degree, transformed these plain homes, and the altered environment has muted the sharpness of discussion; acuity of observation, it seems, has been blurred by the soft furnishings and timid luxury. In the process, the home-made and the improvised have become shabby, contemptible belongings of those who have failed to move with the times, and have failed to avail themselves of the goods wafted into India on the sweet winds of liberalisation in the early nineties.

Later, I stayed in hotels too, mainly government enterprises, characterised by extreme neglect on the part of functionaries who only nominally staffed them. The rooms in these places were health hazards. Bare wires were placed in electric light sockets for lamps, the shades of which were of parchment, burned black where they had been tilted against the bulb. The light was, in any case, so dim as barely to dispel the darkness. Dining rooms were sombre and heavily draped with curtaining that was a stranger to any known cleansing agent. More than once, turning back the bedsheets, the carcass of a flattened cockroach invited me to share its eternal slumber. Room keys, suggestive of a fortress or jail, were affixed to significant chunks of wood to ensure that no guest would forget to deposit them at the reception before leaving. Staff, abundant but inactive, sprang to life only when they sensed the chance of a tip, an accomplishment they acquired great proficiency in.

Yet this encounter with India, a mere 30 years ago, was far from joyless. Tourists had not become commonplace, and anyone with a smattering of Hindi was received with an enthusiastic welcome. How appealing it was to become part of an instant extended family! People called you uncle or brother, and assimilated you spontaneously into a web of kinship, from which it was extremely difficult to extricate yourself, and which, it soon appeared, imposed significant (usually financial) obligations.

It was a time of popular social movements, which had not yet been overtaken (taken over?) by non-government organisations, civil society or social entrepreneurship initiatives. It still seemed possible that a more just order might be brought about by mass mobilisation and popular effort: I met Chipko and Appiko activists, representatives of slum-dwellers, the landless, migrant labourers, even a trade union of maidservants. The future of India had not yet been foretold, though even then omens of change were not wanting. I was in Chhattisgarh after the murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi and had a sense that the tide was already turning.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the integration of India into a global economy, the opening up (so redolent of earlier colonial excursions) of markets, the awakening of an extensive middle class to the kiss of reckless consumption—all this appears to show that the fate of India has now been definitively settled. The corporate ideology has replaced the struggle for social justice, and high economic growth has become a substitute for popular agitation, if not for the agitated state of the people. One consequence of this is that resistance increasingly comes less from civil disobedience, or the public shaming of reprehensible figures, than from intractable and hardening fundamentalisms, both secular and other-worldly. One should not be too transfixed by the Anna Hazare phenomenon: exaltations orchestrated by the media are no substitute for popular organisation.

Much has been gained in the “new” India and its image-makers. Transformation is in the air. But poverty becomes more tenacious as poverty itself is also “modernised”, and the social and moral landscapes of India now more closely resemble those of countries which have inspired a developmental model to which, everyone now asserts, no alternative is to be contemplated.

It is not simply nostalgia which makes me look back with wry affection on the unreconstructed India of 1980, when people were obsessed with “the Hindu rate of growth”, and stagnation and timelessness were declared to be its most enduring characteristics. In spite of “progress”, particularly in areas that advance the interests of the already well-to-do, there was something obscurely attractive in that other India, where intellectuals could still become intoxicated with ideas, and put the world to rights over nothing stronger than tea, biscuits and chana. The appeal of that ridiculously old-fashioned, quaintly innocent country lay in the fact that idealism had not yet received its quietus, social hope still animated its intelligentsia, and the cynical knowingness of globalism had not swept away the concept of a better world that was not defined solely by the heaping up of material goods.

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