Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review of Ian Jack's 'Mofussil Junction"

Book Review

Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012 by Ian Jack (Penguin/ Viking, 2013, 323 pages, Rs 599. ISBN 978-0-670-08644-3)

For the past decade or so, the ‘India story’ has become the flavour of the season with writers and publishers. An expanding economy, a burgeoning middle class hungry for gizmos and consumer goods, the IT industry and Bollywood have captivated the imagination of the reading classes.

It wasn’t always like that. After the glamour of the Raj wore off, India was relegated to the Third World league—not quite the hell hole of some sub-Saharan country but a land that could, at best, have an association with romanticised poverty. For Western diplomats, India was undeniably a hardship posting; and for the foreign correspondent it meant schmoozing the features editor to get yet another story on the last memsahib in Ooty or the train to Darjeeling on page 14 of the Sunday paper. India was exotic in a distant sort of way, but it wasn’t sexy—at least not until the hippies, backpackers and gap year do-gooders made it so. “I am delighted”, Daniel Patrick Moniyan, the departing US Ambassador, remarked with undiplomatic candour, “to be departing a country whose principal export is communicable export.”

India was a niche interest that attracted a small clutch of writers who were taken over by it. There was Mark Tully who had turned native; there was V.S. Naipaul who came in search of his roots and offended the mother country by suggesting that Indians defecate everywhere; and there was Ian Jack, yet another Scot who fell in love with India, an Indian and its functioning anarchy.

As Ramchandra Guha, my contemporary at St Stephen’s College, writes in his introduction to Mofussil Junction, we first met Jack in our impressionable years and we are still reading him. The reason is simple: Jack is both an insider and outsider. He can write with ease and feeling about the railway journeys, the minute differences between the metre and broad gauge, the graveyard of river steamers in Balagarh and the decaying Anglo-Indians of McCluskiegunge—subjects that still interest the Home Counties. At the same time, he can draw evocative pen portraits of India’s lovable eccentrics and even venture (with less success) into the infuriatingly complex world of Indian politics.

Where Jack stands apart from the tribe of media paratroopers who descend on the Gangetic plains to be overwhelmed by the latest Kumbh Mela is his ability to link the present with the past. The tale of the Anglo-Indian settlement goes beyond impressions and amusing conversations with deeply colour-conscious biddies: the story is considerably enriched with a sketch of Sir Henry Gidney, “the most powerful politician and lobbyist the Anglo-Indian community ever produced”.
“Gidney”, writes Jack in an essay first published in February 1991, “was a military surgeon, another son of an Irish railwayman and another dandy. With spats and a monocle and an orchid in his buttonhole, he would take to the dance floors of Indian clubs and hotels and there present his audience with what his biographer described as ‘a fascinating example of the Argentinian tango’. Womanizing made him notorioud—there were jokes about his ever-changing series of companions, always described by Gidney as ‘my nursing sister’—but, as Gidney was fond of pointing out, ‘God never intended one’s wedding bells to be one’s funeral bells.’”

Jack is at his people describing and assessing people. An encounter with Nirad Chaudhury, once described as the “last Englishman” is impish in tone: “He has never managed to conceal his delight in learning or in himself. Step inside his house and you risk perpetual bombardment by heavy cultural artillery: salvos of grand opera on the gramophone, followed by readings from Ronsard and Pascal, interspersed with light machine-gun fire in the shape of recitations of the best years for claret, or the highlights of the Peninsular Campaign, sometimes (an odd finale) the songs of Johnny Cash”.

Jack is both impressed and bewildered by this Victorian and Edwardian oddity from Bengal in the heart of Thatcherite Britain. He can’t resist a parting shot: “His ego’s route to the next world must lie in the promising, but treacherous eye of the setting sun.”

Nirad Chaudhury, a legendary show-off, never failed to generate great copy—and I say this from personal experience. But the Mehtas--Sonny the iconic publisher and his wife Gita, the archetypal cosmopolitan—are more challenging to profile.  Jack does it with exemplary craftsmanship, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill hack.

Sonny, a self-confessed “sybarite” whose “idea of outdoor activity is watching an international cricket match, preferably played between England and India”, is a man of few words: “Sonny listens to his guests, Gita talks to them.” Rather than being underwhelmed by his “laconic” and self-effacing conversation, decorated with period features (‘kind of… sort of’) or being overwhelmed by the ready wit and vivaciousness of Gita—the author of Karma Cola, a demolition job of the starry-eyed, guru-loving, post-Woodstock, India-lover—Jack locates the couple in a context: “The first thing that strikes strangers about (Sonny) is that he comes not so much from a country, India, as an international time zone where the clocks stopped in 1968.”

Then he places the Mehtas in the context of a quasi-Bloomsbury setting in Belgravia and Manhattan: “Neither Mehta nor his wife drives. They are at home in taxis and restaurants, flicking cigarette lighters and keeping yawning waiters from a good night’s sleep. A friend who has known him for twenty-five years, since they were both students at Cambridge University, remembers him for his ‘enormous langour’…’Laid-back’ is a word that, sooner or later, is bound to crop up in any conversation about Mehta. “Reptilian’ is another; several friends have compared him to a lizard, asleep and not yet asleep on a rock.”

Jack has the great ability to re-create an ambience. But he is at his most penetrating best when blending a romantic past with a grim present. The long essay on Serampur, the former Danish settlement on the banks of the Hoogly river is, by any reckoning, an absolute masterpiece in prose. In painting a portrait of William Carey, the impoverished shoemaker from the Midlands who came to Bengal to spread the gospel and rescue heathen souls from eternal damnation, Jack ties in the story of Mr Tiwari, a second-generation Christian convert, who teaches theology at Serampur College, a venerable institution that has seen better days. Juxtaposed between the fascinating life of Carey and the existential dilemmas of Tiwari and his father, a retired professor who was an unlikely Brahmin convert, Jack tells the troubled story of Christianity in India.

The younger Tiwari had mentioned that the new breed of theology students, many of them tribals from Assam and Jharkhand, had no interest in learning Sanskrit—“They identified it as the language of caste oppression. They hated it…”; they wanted dollops of certitude. “That was how Christians had come unstuck in India, he said. They had paid no attention to etiquette, to the rules of Hindu society. They had clumped into houses in their buckled leather shoes, attacked pieces of meat with knives and forks, sweated, not washed enough, talked too much and too confidently, baptized anyone who asked to be baptized…The result had been that intellectual, exclusive Brahmin India disdained them: they had succeeded mainly among the lower castes and tribes, and that limited success had only made their work among the higher castes.”

This was, of course, a partial view but, as Jack observed, Christianity could never circumvent caste: “But caste and religious belief, social position and the individual spirit, these are different things and to change one does not necessarily, or in India even usually, alter the other; just as class differences in England would not be resolved by issuing the poor Old Etonian ties. If you collect sewage for a living and become a Christian you do not stop collecting sewage: all that happens is that you become a Christian sewage-collector.”

This distrust of radical change, of sharp ruptures, permeates through nearly all the essays of this collection. Jack is fascinated by the old-world eccentricities of a R.P. Gupta in Calcutta, the measured Anglophilia of G.D. Birla and the reclusive intellectualism of Sham Lal who, in today’s world, would probably have been drummed out of journalism. He looks back with nostalgia at a time when Indians travelled great distances on train and struck up short-lived friendship as they unrolled the bedding. And he is distrustful of a new age where shopping malls and cheap flights rule the roost. Most of all, Jack mourns the passing of India’s post-Independence innocence built on endemic shortages. Read these essays if you seek to rediscover that lost world.

----Swapan Dasgupta

BIBILIO, July 2013

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