Ian Jack’s Outer-Indias: Roads Less Traveled, Destinations Seldom Seen

Reflections on Moffusil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012

(Penguin / Viking, Pages: 322 Rs. 599)
By SB Veda

mofussil junction2CALCUTTA – In January, 2014 when I interviewed Ian Jack for a video series called ‘Calcutta Conversations,’ I arranged for the former foreign correspondent and editor to return promptly to his digs at the Taj Bengal Hotel in a brand new Audi. I was honored that he had agreed to an interview with a little known scribe at our studio some forty-five minutes away from the literature festival which had brought him to town; I wanted to send him back to his hotel ‘first class’. Little did I know that after catching the inauguration of the festival, he would endeavor to see the city (renamed to Kolkata since he had last visited) on foot and by tram – a willful Gandhian third-class outing.

Jack wrote about his adventure for the Guardian, after inhaling the fumes, dust and various scents and smells of the city, and bravely traversing what he described as an “irregular procession of broken slabs, gnarled tree roots and fetid little lakes that have crept inland from the gutter“ – all the while being interminably honked at. The resulting column was aptly titled, ‘Cars are choking Kolkata, even though only a tiny minority in India can drive.’ The writing, crisp and witty, could have been clipped to the back of his book, Moffusil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012.

That said, much of the book describes journeys of a different kind, an India of a different era (humble, searching, less obstinate) – a time when the masses took the tram or train, walked, and rode Rickshaws. If you were fortunate enough to be riding in a private car, it was more than likely to be the ubiquitous Ambassador, virtually unchanged since the 1956 prototype.

India’s big cities then were considered quaint (or ‘backward’ as many over here like to say); the Mofussil or outer edges of urban pre-liberalizaton India, took this further, and they existed as ‘Indias’ unto themselves. During the decidedly unsexy days before the economic reforms of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, few journalists from the West looked forward to coming to Delhi, Mumbai or Calcutta, let alone the small towns beyond them. It makes the fact of Jack’s seeking out these mud-pathed, impoverished and often pestilent corridors all the more admirable (and certainly more interesting).

These days, critics and cultural observers in India seem deeply concerned about whether a ‘white man’ writing about the subcontinent is an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’, whether their accounts are tinted with colonial lenses, whether they can truly write ‘of the place’. If the same skepticism is, today, applied to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister (or as many like to joke, Britain’s last Viceroy) people should be burning The Discovery of India. (Of course, I’m not advocating this…yet!) Instead, India’s intelligentsia consider brown-skinned orientalists like Nehru to be among the more progressive and modern while at the ready to brandish their Western counterparts as ignorant, lacking in nuance or just plain racist.

Thankfully, Jack falls into none of these categories – but as he humbly admits at the beginning of his book, his accounts may not be perfect. Such impeccability is unlikely if not impossible in journalism – especially reportage during those unconnected analog days often spent sweating in non-AC hotel rooms during power-cuts, having to clatter away at a manual typewriter – and this too, on a deadline. Then, as now, the writing is so rich, one can forgive a stray assumption gone awry. Ramachandra Guha writes admiringly of Jack’s prose in his introduction to the book but, strangely, doesn’t forgive a stray but rather accurate judgment on revolutionary activities in the history of Bengal. Guha’s introduction is splendidly written but it is as though he can’t resist engaging in a certain literary pastime (for which he is well-known) and for a moment, it takes away from Jack’s collection which is refreshingly free from any agenda – whether neocolonialist or neo-Gandhian.

The essays in the book span thirty-five years. It starts during a period before my recollection of India, and covers a timeframe during which I grew from child to adult, visiting from abroad almost annually. Even if not directly about my experience, the prose evoked memories of places I’ve been, things remembered, periods that still haunt, and I found myself nodding and smiling – even laughing out loud. The author managed to access a place in my consciousness, embedding vivid portraits alongside my own memories, in the process demonstrating his gifts as raconteur.

Jack starts with places, the pursuit of George Orwell’s birthplace in Bihar. It is part memoir, part mystery, part history lesson and it fascinates. His essay called ‘Clever Calcutta’ left me feeling nostalgic for a city I got to know through my father’s experiences at Coffeehouse and those of his generation: the ‘Adda’ of conversation on art, film, poetry, left politics. A later piece quoting writer RP Gupta sums it up brilliantly, ‘If only Bengalis could turn drainage into an abstract argument by quoting a French philosopher or two…then Calcutta would have much better sewers.’ And, this is typical of the book. Jack, himself, rarely needs to comment. He makes keen observations and lets lively sometimes eccentric characters supply the analysis – Ruth Prawer Jabhwala talking about the constant struggle ‘to keep oneself human,’ which ultimately caused her to leave India, GD Birla opining that his friend Gandhi would have been ‘an interfering old man,’ in politics had he lived, Bhagwan Rajneesh explaining how he used unspeakable wealth to lure followers ‘in my net.’ The personalities complement the places in bringing Jack’s Indian encounters to life.

This brings us to ‘Serampur’, the longest and perhaps most gratifying piece in the book and warrants some space for reflection: Jack describes an erstwhile Danish settlement in an ancient Hindu district where the chime of church bells and the chanting of Vaishnavites provide an irrepressible background to the honking of rickshaws and call of birds. It begins with a dream, ‘a cunning dream,’ the kind in which one knows one is dreaming – but remains trapped all the same, unable to distance oneself from the action and emotion. And, it left Jack in tears. The hangover is abated (if only temporarily) with cups of cold water dumped on his face in the bathroom. Here the narrative quality of Jack’s prose is at its best. The characters burst with life as do images of greater Bengal: ‘I passed old men in their dhotis and sandals taking their daily exercise, while in the river itself families bathed from the muddy shore; the men struck out boldly into the river and held their noses and bobbed under, while the women stayed close to the bank and soaped themselves discreetly under wet saris. Each splash sparkled in the sun.’

As a day progresses from morning to afternoon, and the baking heat of summer takes its toll, Jack masterfully makes us feel it; we experience Serampur as he does. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to reference any better description of Bengali summer – a heavy sapping noontide broil: ‘By midday it was too hot to walk and by afternoon the fierce light had bleached the landscape. Trees that in the morning looked green now looked grey, the brown and blue of the river had turned to a sheet of silver. The crows and rickshaws fell silent, the lizards struck motionless on my bedroom walls. Even the Krishnaites sounded defeated, their chants ragged and tired.’

A former trading outpost of the Danish East India Company where missionaries like William Carey established printing presses, botanical gardens, and a college – the first degree-granting institution in Asia no less, Serampur was an extraordinary place. When bought by the British and integrated into the Bengal Presidency of British India, they industrialized it, setting up jute mills. But independence and the partition of the sub-continent, which followed left the majority of jute being cultivated in a different country – a rival of India’s in the post-colonial world. These raw materials, which were now grown in East Pakistan got transported to West Pakistan to be processed instead of places like Serampur, which were substantially closer. The town declined as a result with Jack describing in melancholic detail, the dilapidated and neglected remnants of this once vibrant place.

Seeing the evidence of decay and perhaps still affected by the hangover of his dream, Jack found it to be ‘a balm,’ setting down in the presence of energetic Christian missionaries and dancing Hindu Bhaktas occupying the same space, their sights, their sounds, juxtaposed to one another. He came to realize his dream was one of loneliness on his travels, a homesickness for which Serampur, having preserved the old industrial civilization of Britain, served as tonic: ‘people as well as scenes, manners as well as objects, frozen in the Victorian economy of the lower Ganges. Sometimes it even seemed…that I had come home; or if not home, then to some tropical version of the time and country that my Scottish parents and grandparents knew, as if I might turn a corner of a Serampur lane and meet them dressed in dhotis and saris.’ It is an absurd and delightful sight he conjures but one imbued with both longing and a feeling of ease in a foreign land in the company of strangers. In the Mofussil of Bengal.

Against the history of the British missionary Willam Carey, Jack writes of an elderly Brahmin convert he met there named Tewari who narrates his life story to him. Tewari, Jack tells us, adopted the Christian faith due to a revelation, unlike many low-caste and tribal converts, who do so to uplift their position in society or to escape systemic oppression. His had been a philosophical journey involving missionaries and Mahatma Gandhi, no less. As Tewari’s describes his frustrations at the college where he had taught comparative religion in Serampur, the details are laced with regret: of how low-caste evangelical converts who had found the ‘word of God’ were not interested in learning about other faiths; of how he, a polyglot and Sanskrit scholar, was surprised at the attitude of these students towards the ancient language, rejecting it as the ‘code-speak’ of caste oppression; and of how he lamented their attitude towards education – their lack of intellectual curiosity, their sense of entitlement. He was too much a Brahmin in the final analysis, admitting he would never have converted had he foresaw his future then, for it had cost him too much in life and left him with little solace at the end.

The tale demonstrates that the commonest purpose of conversion in India is for gaining political space, and not necessarily for the shepherding of souls. And, it shows how ingrained societal divisions remain. People can be baptized in faiths that preach brotherhood, but labels adhered to blood, sweat and community, take generations to fade off. It reminds one of just how young independent India is, compared with her peoples’ histories – some of them vividly detailed in this book.

We learn of the conjunctive nature of empire, of Indo-European hybridization, marking the maps with names like McCluskieunge, Frasergunge and more famously Tollygunge (even Fredricksnagore – I especially liked that one). In ‘Somewhere to Call Their Own,’ Jack devotes much space to a little-known plight – the want of those caught between a British fatherland and Mother India for their own space. These sons and daughters of Britain and India, Jack tells us, were first called Mixed Caste, then East Indian, then Indo-Briton, then Eurasian and finally Anglo-Indian; unlike the much-held contemporary perception about the community, their beginnings were modest and fraught with insecurity. He recounts with characteristic wit, a curious and unlikely tale of a search for identity, including an ill-fated attempt to colonize the Andaman Islands and grow coconuts!

Provocative and complex characters are described throughout the book as Jack’s knack of observing and assessing people is shown to be in top form. He writes of the the sophistication and charm of publisher-writer duo, Sunny and Gita Mehta, the reclusive and intellectual columnist and editor, Sham Lal, the enigmatic Ruth Prawer Jhabwala stripped of her mystery, a crotchety old GD Birla, full in his generosity as well as his nervous mistrust of the car he manufactured (he sent Jack to Rajasthan with two Ambassador cars in case one broke down), and including a rabidly Eurocentric and self-obsessed Nirad Chaudhuri (apologies here, for the redundant description).

There is a moving portrait of a young Benazir Bhutto before she came to power, pointing to Queen Razia who ruled the Mughal sultanate in Delhi with fairness and wisdom, as inspiring her. Jack quotes the historian Siraj, who observed that for an Islamic society, ‘she (Razia) was not born of the right sex’, and hence Razia’s virtues were worthless to the men. The last sentence of the piece says Razia was murdered by some of her male subects; it is followed by an addendum stating the date of Benazir Bhutto’s own assassination. Despite my mostly jaundiced view of this complicated leader, I was left with a lump in my throat; I had to close my eyes and take a slow breath. I was affected.

Many of the people Jack interviewed during this time are no longer living. And, their India is largely a thing of the past. There are aspects in this version of the sub-continent that I suspect Jack along with many Desis, miss. There is one elephantine exception – dynastic rule, which has continued in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Despite offering continuity, for now, Indians seem disillusioned with it. But then, many have been disillusioned with India’s flawed democracy for even longer. In one piece, Jack quotes a voter in then candidate Sanjay Gandhi’s constituency, ‘We have the choice between two goondas. We might have as well choose the one who’s related to the next Prime Minister.’ Much has changed since that time but the ‘thugocracy’ continues.

Jack examines politics from the end of the emergency to before the rise of the NDA, including some pieces on the late Indira Gandhi and her two sons – all of them dying unnatural deaths. Other than Sanjay, he writes of the Gandhi family with some empathy – more than I would have accorded them, certainly. But I have the benefit of hindsight. During the period when most of these articles were written, there was no effective national opposition, and the Nehru-Gandhi family provided the strong unifying leadership required to run a country that was once considered to be totally ungovernable.

Jack writes poignantly and without without exploitation about life and death, certain horrors, failed promises, systemic corruption, and the rise of religious politics. He sees communalism as being antithetic to India. And, there is a vivid account of the anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, especially in an area surrounding Delhi. Jack suggests without explicitly saying so, that perhaps more so than religious groups, the Congress Party may well be culpable for the rise of faith-based politics. Jack’s friend and colleague, Mark Tully has also written about this, how it was not just the Akalis and BJP who brought religion into politics: at critical moments in history, Nehru’s descendants abandoned secularism long before the Saffron tide would sweep over their ashes.

Jack is thoughtful, insightful, and offers a historical context that lends weight to his prose. And, there is no doubt that he is a great writer. There isn’t a point in this book where he isn’t telling a story. The novelistic quality to his essays help put the collection in the category of the very best in its genre, not the least bit newsy, and beautifully written. Of all the non-fiction books on India I have read this year, I found Moffussil Junction: Indian Encounters to be the most forthcoming and engaging, offering profound insights into the past and intriguing journeys to places seldom traveled.

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