Twenty-Five Ways of Imagining India

by Fakrul Alam

India in Mind. Edited by Pankaj Mishra. London: Picador India, 2005

Pankaj Mishra’s anthology, Imagining India offers us twenty-five remarkable ways of looking at India, and, inevitably, imagining it. The viewers, alphabetically arranged in Mishra’s capacious collection, range from the whimsical and endearing Englishman J. R. Ackerley to the equally idiosyncratic and engaging but more famous American Gore Vidal. Chronologically, the entries span over a century; the earliest is Mark Twain’s characteristically sharp account of his visit to Bombay at the end of the 19th century to Pico Iyer’s 2003 elegant fictional ruminations on the much-traveled tourist triangle of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra (although the extract from Vidal’s novel has him conjuring an encounter with Gautama Buddha in fifth century India). Most entries describe India in the twentieth century, encompassing turn of the century Raj, the waning days of empire, the period of transition when Indians finally took over their country, and the closing years of the last millennium when intermittently “eternal”, occasionally exquisite or esoteric, and often exasperating India still claimed the itinerant, alienated or exilic writer’s attention.

Mishra’s list of contributors includes some the best writers of the West: know-it-all Anglo-Indians like Rudyard Kipling, bemused Englishmen like E. M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham, the ambivalent George Orwell, the mostly jaundiced but occasionally wonder-struck and always hyper-anglicized V. S. Naipaul, the meditative, lyrical German Herman Hesse and the rhapsodic and flamboyant Andre Malrux. Mishra’s list contains other famous continentals: Claude Levi-Strauss turns a caustic, analytic eye on fifties Pakistan (there are a few snide paragraphs on Dhaka middle-class life and Bengali cuisine) the brilliant Italian filmmaker-writer Pasolini dissects Gwalior and the south with an innate fastidiousness veneered with Marxism. Famous American writers in Mishra’s book include Paul Bowles, Peter Matthiessen, and Allen Ginsberg. Peripatetic authors who made travel writing one of the liveliest genres of literature in the second half of the twentieth century—the Granta school of writing, so to speak— are represented by the Englishman Bruce Chatwin, the Australian Robyn Davidson, and the American Paul Theroux. India in Mind has one piece by the non-resident Indian, Ved Mehta, and one by someone who was a longtime resident alien in India, Ruth Prawer Jhabvalla. Women, I dare say, are underrepresented in the list of contributors, and so the crossover Jan Morris’s excellent piece on Delhi is especially noteworthy. Octavia Paz, man of letters and diplomat, is the only poet chosen by Mishra. He is represented by his verse meditations inspired by moments spent in India when he was ambassador of Mexico in the country.

Taken together, Mishra’s selections are able to represent the length and breadth of the subcontinent, the megalopolises and the byways, the highways and the railways, the mountains, deserts, rivers, and plain lands, the tourist spots and the out of the way locations accessible to backpackers and intrepid lonely planet types (I can’t imagine though what Orwell’s superb “Shooting an Elephant” is doing in an anthology titled India in Mind, unless, that is, we stretch our historical imagination and backpack to the time when Burma was part of Britannia’s India). Ackerley’s account is about a state in zany, princely India. Forster dabs his feet in the River Supra trying to imagine Kalidas doing so in “out-of-the-way-Ujjan”. Maugham in Kerala is also seeking proof of the life of the spirit in India he had read about, for example, in the Upanishads. Ginsberg’s journal jottings are about the sights and sounds of Benares and its riverscape whose burning ghats image his anguished mind.

Kipling’s chameleon Kim walks along the Grand Trunk Road with his mystic lama. Malrux finds in the caves of Elephanta confirmation of the “Ancient Orient” of the European soul and is bewitched seemingly not so much with what he sees but with what he had read about taking shape in front of him (Edward Said, of course, would have a different take on this). Bowles and Theroux travel down south, the former by bus, and the latter by rail. Davidson encounters the nomadic Rabaris of Rajsthan’s desert lands. Mattheissen scales the Nepalese Himalayas above Pokhara in an excerpt from what is surely one of the most beautiful and meaningful books in English on any part of the subcontinent, The Snow Leopard (although the pages reproduced in Mishra aren’t enough to make one realize that Mattheissen is also scaling what Hopkins had discovered while mental mountaineering: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there”). Paul Scott depicts a club in his fictional Mayapore (brought so vividly alive in the splendid television series The Jewel in the Crown) when the British have left but where there is “residual awareness” of Englishness everywhere. Alan Ross, the inspirational editor of London Magazine, remembers his Indian childhood with what Mishra characterizes in his prefatory comments as “fierce nostalgia”.

On the whole, Mishra has done impressive work in India in Mind by assembling some of the best writing in English on the subcontinent under one cover. He has done especially well in bringing to attention exceptional writing that would have perhaps escaped most people’s notice because of the transient forms in which they had first appeared. I am thinking in particular of the Cape Comorin escapades of Paul Bowles, which was printed in a book called Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands are Blue that few people will come across. And yet, as is obvious from the excerpted pages, Bowles is a wonderful writer, his prose immensely readable, his ear for dialogue sharp, his mind alert and receptive, and his sense of the oddities of life out of the ordinary (as an example of his wit and humor please see the essay on the cow that he discovered during his Indian sojourn that I hope our literary page editor will print in this page). Similarly, Mishra deserves praise for not going to A Passage to India for Forster extracts but to the less well-known Abinger Harvest from which he has come up with two specimens of the clarity, the acuteness, and the wit with which the great English novelist viewed India.

It is precisely because Mishra has made India in Mind unforgettable by often selecting out of the way pieces by great and not so great writers that I regret that he did not do so consistently. I can’t understand, for example, why he went to Kim and not to Kipling’s notebooks and letters where he is often much more vivid and himself in describing India. Also, Mishra would have done better by going outside “literature” more often and by excerpting pages from some of the innumerable fascinating and vividly written dairies, memoirs, and journals left behind by Anglo-Indians, whether “memsahibs” or Raj officials (Ginsberg’s remarkable jottings on Benares are proof that the most powerful prose is not always to be found in conventional “literary” forms). I can think of writers like Eliza Fay and Lady Eden in the nineteenth century who imagined India more memorably than, say, Maugham or Pico Iyer. Similarly, I feel that writers like Geoffrey Moorehouse and Eric Newby have represented India better than Jhabvala ( an Indian by choice for a long time)or Mehta (an Indian by birth)

But I suppose compilers of anthologies can always be found guilty of acts of commissions or omissions. Better to end by congratulating Pankaj Mishra for giving readers twenty-five very lively testimonies on the way India fascinated and/or exasperated interested Westerners throughout the last century with its oddities, ambiguities, attractions, and diversity. Mishra, I am sure, deserves kudos for giving us through India in Mind absorbing glimpses of twenty-five fascinating minds encountering and imagining the amazing thing that India has been and still is.

November 24, 2005
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.