IT WAS nearly dark when our DC-3 circled for a landing at the Calcutta airport. Scarcely three full hours have elapsed since we took off from the fighter strip at Imphal with a full load of disease and battle casualties from the Chindwin sector of the Burma front. We have crossed the saw-toothed ridges of the Chin Hills, by-passed the more treacherous Himalayan peaks, and followed down the thin thread of the Ganges where it winds through the Bengali plains. At a sign from the control tower we leveled off to land, but as our great moment approached there were few of us well enough to know and enjoy it. There were not the cries of jubilation and excitement that I had anticipated, only hoarse grunts of pain as the wheels hit the runway with a skittish bounce. As the plane rolled to a stop I sighed involuntarily to myself. We had "come out" at last.
Vaguely I am aware that civilization implies something more than running water and seven-course dinners, but during these first twelve hours in Calcutta I have never been able to recall just what it is. I am tired of the Burma dust and of the sticky jungle trails, and I am sick to death of rotten bully beef and maggot-covered fruit bars. I deliberated almost an hour between a dinner or a bath, and when I finally chose the bath my roommate, Brennan, had beaten me to it. I chewed at my fingernails and listened, fascinated, to the swishing sound of his soapy washcloth.
During this first evening in Calcutta the city has seemed unbelievable in its expansive luxuries and creature comfort. For the pukah sahibs there are Firpo's, the Golden Dragon, the American Kitchen, and the Grand Hotel, each with its special assortment of steaks and chops, pastries and ice cream. For the tired Burma soldier, Chowringee Road is all he has dreamed of, with its innumerable little shops catering to every whim and several appetites. But deeper within the heart of the city, behind these streets of pleasure and plenty, Calcutta is also a city of hunger and starvation, of scurvy, rickets, malnutrition, and death. None of these horrors are alien to all India, but they are especially present in this famine-ridden city. For those who live in the sprawling native sections, for the beggars and untouchables who walk the streets endlessly, there is no meat, no crumbs of rice. For them there is only the bare sidewalk where they beg for food till they are too weary and sick, where they rub their swollen bellies and crawl after the affluent sahibs, where at last they lie, less painfully dead, waiting patiently for the lorries that will cart them away to the burning yards. Calcutta is a famine city, but that is not the whole story. Calcutta is a place where the dying agonies of the beggar in the street exist side by side with cocktail parties, hors d'oeuvres, seven-course dinners, and padlocked garbage cans.
No one will ever really know how many have died in this Bengal famine. Calcutta is its center, but it is not the entirety. All over the province rice is dear and life infinitely cheaper. There is never a count, seldom even an estimate of the numbers that are burned in the city alone. Yet even this figure, if it could be somehow determined, would reflect but a part of the grisly total. Many bodies are burned individually while some, even within the city itself, are simply left to disintegrate on the streets.
This evening as I walked from the Grand Hotel the worst of the misery was blotted out by the darkness. But as my boot treads echoed on the quiet walk I could hear the continual stirrings around me. An occasional hand would grasp at my passing lea; a voice would whisper, "Sahib! Sahib!" But as I approached the entrance to Firpo's Restaurant, it was then that the famine first struck home to me. Lying in the doorway, two nude bodies were glistening in the sweat of an agony just past. They were spread-eagled there in the semicircle of light, one face upward, mouth and eyes open. I tried to avoid them as I mounted the steps, but a young captain behind me was more considerate. Excusing himself from the girl he escorted, he rolled them out into the darkness of the street, continuing his conversation without interruption.
It was not just the anxiety of a hungry man that made tonight's dinner seem like a banquet to me; Firpo's has a reputation for the best food in Calcutta. There were soups and cocktails, salted nuts and fruit, rolls and relishes, savory, desserts, and an almost unlimited choice of entrees. For a moment I was revolted by the thoughts of what I had seen outside and I stared rather blankly at the food placed before me. But I succumbed very quickly to the sight and the smell and I must confess that in the end I gorged myself. And yet, the moment I arose to leave, my uneasiness returned and I began to be nervous. As I stepped out into the street again, the food became like lead in my stomach. Laboring his way out of the shadows, a man crawled toward me, turban askew above a death's-head face. His head was drooping and an arm was outstretched; it swayed as he moved in painful jerks. We two were alone in the arc of light, yet I felt as if hundreds of people were watching. I stood for a moment, in fear and confusion, till he was almost close enough to touch my leg. Then I suddenly ran blindly out into the darkness, back in the direction of the Grand Hotel. As I walked, my fear gradually turned to sickness and before I could reach my room I had thrown up.
For the dogs of Calcutta this is not a famine but a time of feasting. They roam the streets glassy-eyed and bloated, picking at human flesh and carrying human bones. They fall upon the bodies most freshly dead, attacking them as soon as resistance ceases. Occasionally a family sits crowded together, guarding its own and beating off the scavengers.
Today I saw a dog fighting with a hysterical woman for possession of a dead husband's body.
Though the dead are burned in great rotten heaps, the fires can never consume them quite fast enough. Though the air of the city is white and acrid, the native streets are clogged with the dead and the dying lying overlapped and sprawled indiscriminately together on the streets and on the walk. Yet there is seldom a death on Chowringhee Road, for when a beggar seems weak or dangerously emaciated he is driven back into the native section, denied his last recourse of begging, to die out of the sight and the smell of the sahib.
I learned this morning that the railroads are crowded and that I cannot leave Calcutta for about a week. But at breakfast I met a young lieutenant who suggests that I spend some time with him, promising that it will be "well spent if a bit unpleasant." He is working, on leave, with the government of Bengal, evacuating bodies from the streets of Calcutta. When I told him that I could ride a motorcycle, he assured me that I would be of special value, dispatch riders being at a premium and particularly necessary in the work that he is doing.
"Spend the day getting used to the city," Crawford advised me, only half in fun. "You'll need a strong stomach if you're to come with me."
Instead I spent the day at the Calcutta Boat Club, rowing a little and talking a lot. My roommate carries a letter of introduction, and though its intended recipient was absent today, the chitty provided a general entree. While most of the men were out on the lagoons, I retired to a sitting room where the women were talking. Seizing the conversation when I had the chance, I directed it to the subject of my most immediate interest, the famine and its effects in the city of Calcutta. I questioned the women about the general conditions and, more tactfully I thought, about their own reactions. But I advanced a step too far in that direction and a charter member of the circle exploded in my face.
"Look here, young man," she said to me, "this famine is causing enough inconvenience already. On the streets we're clawed at and jabbered to, and in our own homes we're virtually besieged. My garbage cans have been rifled twice within a week, in spite of the chain and padlock I've used. Why, only last week the club discovered that nearly half the ducks have been stolen right off the lagoons here. You are apparently a stranger to the city, so we can forgive you for not realizing it, but the subject is very tiring and unwelcome to all of us."
The other women nodded their calm approval and the speaker continued in a quieter, more friendly tone. "These Indians have been having their famines since the beginning of time. If 'they're not dying of starvation or malnutrition, why, they're just killing each other off or dying of horrid Asiatic diseases. There have always been too many of them in this country anyway. A few million less is neither your loss nor mine."
I opened my mouth to speak, but another woman patted me on the shoulder and cautioned, "Please. I'm sure that you understand how we feel!"
If I had not understood how they felt at that moment, I would shortly have learned. About an hour after lunch there was an outbreak of laughter from the group that was seated outside on the lawn. When the merriment continued for a matter of some minutes, I went outside to discover the cause. On the grass near the lagoon an emaciated little Indian girl was chasing a crow with a broken wing. She had apparently hit it with a well-aimed rock, but had failed to kill it then and there. Though the crow could not fly, it had managed to escape by fluttering and hopping across the grass. The girl was aware that she was trespassing on sahib's property, but the crow was food and food was life. Alternately pursuing and hesitating, she looked to her audience for encouragement or disapproval.
Though signs of both were quite apparent, they were bewilderingly contradictory and deliberately meant to torment and confuse. The struggle within the child between hunger and fear was being goaded to the utmost and laughed at uproariously. But the show ended somewhat prematurely with the capture of the crow. The little girl was exultant with the catch and she killed it immediately with a twist of the neck. But this last brought a groan from the women of the audience, who seemed to find this an ill-fitting conclusion to so humorous an incident.
I could never attempt a panorama of the famine conditions here in Calcutta. The impact and the horror are far beyond verbalizing, and perhaps in the end that is just as well. The mind can contain only so much emotion and to force more upon it scales down the entirety. If I could convey, with no loss of power, all of my experiences here in the city, I would convey along with them my hardening outlook, my own unconcern arising from necessity. As I reflect upon it now, the famine still seems terrible, but only in a vague and intellectual way. There is none of that stifling physical nausea in which I passed the first two days. The mass is already beginning to blur and the particulars already are losing their shape. I must force myself to record the details.
The human mind can adjust to almost anything; I learned that by rote in my undergraduate years. But I never realized the significance of that axiom till today, when I found myself eating a candy bar, disinterestedly watching a woman die. The telltale marks of chronic famine are plain to be seen throughout Calcutta. The beggars and untouchables have been stunted and withered, and half the population seems crippled or diseased. But the well-fed sahib bears the worst scar of all in his brutalized outlook, in his bitter inhumanity. The cost of this famine, like the cost of a war, is even greater than the lives that are lost. There is something which happens to all who live through it that leaves a mark on the body and mind. Surely this is one of the dangers of imperialism, this subtle poison that eats away whatever it touches. Surely it has left us all just a little less human.
I arose this morning several hours before dawn and drove to the burning yards in Crawford's station wagon. When I approached the gate it was still very dark so that I could not see, though I smelled the horror within. The air was choking with dust and smoke, smelling of kerosene and burning flesh. As I drove to the office shack at the rear of the yard I steered between piles of the waiting dead, joggling unpleasantly over projecting arms and legs. Since Crawford did not arrive for another hour, I spent the interim watching the sunrise. But as the sky grew light the vultures appeared and soon were perched and picking on the dead within the yard. This grisly plot, when seen by. daylight, seemed to extend for hundreds of feet in every direction. From boundary to boundary it was crammed with flesh, most of it too decomposed ever to denominate human bodies. Enormous rats dragged bony remains that as often as not fell apart at the touch. Snakes and dung beetles crawled back and forth, fighting with each other and tearing at loose members. Though the bodies were dead, they quivered with life.
A load of logs was brought in by bullock cart and was spread on the ground in parallel patterns. The coolies arose from mats where they slept, strangely intermingled with the thousands of corpses. They began loading bodies on top of the logs, spreading them carelessly across the pile. The process was repeated again and again till the alternating layers stood shoulder high. Then kerosene was poured liberally over the whole, precipitating a nauseating and unbelievable exodus of the insects and vermin which infested the bodies. Blowtorches were applied at the bottoms of the piles and the coolies moved along to other pyres. Crawford apologized for arriving late and suggested that I ride with him today. I accepted gladly, happy for his company on my initial tour of native Calcutta.
A dispatch rider went out ahead of our truck to determine the sections that most needed evacuation and to report what streets would afford the "best pickings." When he returned he had, in addition to that information, a sheaf of complaints from prominent citizens whose yards and driveways had not been cleared. In Calcutta the surest sign of influence is property free from the remains of the dead. Among the complaints was one from a Christian mission, promising "court action" if its grounds were not cleared. The one which interested me most, however, read, "I have lived in Calcutta through several famines when the bodies were removed with commendable expedition. The inefficiency of the present administration taxes my faith in existing instrumentalities."
I've just read an editorial in an Indian newspaper, explaining that the Calcutta famine is chiefly the result of the people's refusal to eat certain foods. Now of all the asinine theories I have heard yet, this one certainly wins the prize. The most maddening thing of all, however, is the fact that this same story, printed in a British or American newspaper, would be quite credibly accepted by our gullible people, who "never could quite understand those foreigners, anyway." The editorial continues with the explanation that because of rigid religious taboos, the Bengali will simply die in their tracks rather than accept any proscribed food. I have seen these Bengali rooting in garbage pails, just as I would do if I were in their position. I have seen the Hindus devouring meat, yes, even beef that was given to them. As the troop trains pass through the outskirts of the city, the people line the tracks and wail for food. Frequently some kindhearted cook or tommy will throw a can of bully beef to them. But I have never seen anyone refuse the gift or give it away because he was a Hindu. No, starving people forget their taboos when presented with food that will save their lives. I suppose there are a few fanatics in Hinduism, even as in our own medieval monasteries. But the famine cannot be explained as a result of their behavior; the causes are more serious and far less whimsical.
This morning I watched a group of soldiers teasing a little Indian boy. I suppose they didn't realize that he was on the verge of starvation, for I cannot believe they could be so consciously cruel. It began as two sun-tanned American MP's were walking down Chowringhee Road. They had torn open a package of K ration and were sharing it as they continued on their way. They passed by any number of reaching women, screeching old men, and wailing babies. But this did not register; we have all become immune to the raucous appeals of the unimaginative beggars. As they turned a corner the two GI's were met by one fellow with more color if less pride. He was squatted down like a begging dog, making whimpering sounds to the passers-by. His hands were drawn up below his chin, and he would bark occasionally to attract attention. Any number of people had stopped to laugh, and the boy had collected many scraps of food. Strangely I felt little pity for this beggar; I more nearly shared the hatred that showed in the eyes of the other untouchables who passed by and saw.
One of the two MP's broke off a piece of chocolate and held it out for the boy to eat. But when the beggar reached with one of his hands, the chocolate was quickly drawn out of his reach. At a sign from the GI the fellow barked, obeying a hilarious command of "Beg for it." The piece of chocolate was tossed in the air and the boy attempted to catch it in his mouth.
Today, as I drove up before a famine relief station, a bag of rice was being distributed to the lucky few who stood nearest the shelter. The queue pushed forward, those at the head anxious to get their share before the supply was exhausted. But the majority of the line moved slowly and skeptically, obviously aware of the tragic limitations of a single bag of rice among hundreds of people. While the living were fed in front of the basha, the dead were being counted in a yard to the rear. Our business of the moment was with the latter; time enough to meet the others in a few more days. Every time we visit these stations I get a report on the numbers that are dying, a tabulation of the bodies awaiting removal, and an estimate of the deaths which will occur throughout the day. When I compared these figures with the official statistics (which I understand show ten thousand deaths a month), Crawford remarked with a typical grin, "Then we're apparently carting them back and forth."
This evening Crawford introduced me to his major and I asked him about these famine relief stations. I was anxious to know just what they were doing and how many lives they were able to save. My questions were direct and the answers were frank. "You can't stop this famine with an occasional bag of rice, and you can't save many lives with what little we have. But the famine relief stations serve a double purpose; otherwise they'd hardly be worth maintaining. Just the chance of a handful of rice will attract those who are closest to collapse, and even if we're then unable to feed them, it makes the bodies much easier to collect."
The worst job of all in this evacuation is taking dead mothers away from their children. Often we find them with tiny babies still suckling at their cold breasts. Yesterday I encountered a case like this. I was terrified and I didn't know what to do. But before I could interfere, two coolies took the body and threw it up into a waiting lorry. As they began driving off I turned to Crawford and exclaimed in horror, "My God, is the child to be left here?" Crawford pretended a cold indifference but I could see that he was troubled as much as I. "What will they do with the child?", I prodded, knowing full well what they were already doing.
"They'll remember where they left it and come back tomorrow. There's nothing else to be done, old man."
Pitiful as these younger children can be, the older are frequently harder to ignore. The first day I was out we loaded the body of a woman whose child, about ten, refused to let us take it. She spat at us and screamed, scratched one coolie with her nails, but at last the body, was in the truck. As we rolled down the road the little one followed, clinging to one leg that projected from the tarpaulin. "Stay there," I shouted. "Let go of that leg." But the youngster's screams were louder than mine. Finally the driver accelerated and the child was thrown on her face in the street.
It was with considerable bitterness that I read, this morning, a monograph distributed by the British Information Service. I must admit , to begin with, that I was not in a receptive mood, having so lately been busy with Calcutta's dead. It was the usual inflated, pompous nonsense, ignoring all basic issues and dwelling on microscopic kindnesses. I often suspect that we have resurrected Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss to prepare this "hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil" tommyrot. Like that gentleman, we ignore all the obvious facts or bury them beneath long and involved rational arguments which prove conclusively that in this "best of all possible colonies" there could be no such thing as a Calcutta famine.
Maybe I have imagined the bodies in the street. Perhaps the burning yard was no more than a nightmare. It is quite possible that the wailing and crying of the beggars is just "a bit of undigested cheese." Or perhaps on the other hand I overestimate the honesty of the raj. Perhaps this pamphlet is a conscious deceit. Certainly one or the other is true, for the facts simply do not jibe with the arguments.
That is the trouble with all this propaganda; it does not prove too little, it proves too much. It proves that, ever since the British arrived, this country has been progressing by leaps and bounds. "Ignorance and illiteracy have been dealt harsh blows. Industries have been encouraged and railroads have been built. Co-operatives have been fostered and dams have been erected. England and India march together up the road of progress."
But please, then why are the people so poor and why is the country so dependent on agriculture? Why are millions of people allowed to die when there are tons of rice right here in Calcutta? Why does everyone east of Suez misunderstand the altruism of England? Why, when I say, "Nay British sahib; American sahib," do the people turn from hatred to enthusiasm and friendliness? All I know is what I see in the streets. (I don't bother reading the newspapers any more.) And what I see is quite impossible. This little green pamphlet makes that all quite clear.
Whatever the cause of this Calcutta famine (Amery says the people have been eating too much), it is not explainable in the obvious way, by a total lack of food in the city. Often as I drive through the streets and alleys, I pass large warehouses that are loaded with grain. Wherever I go, there is plenty available to the pukah sahibs, at blackmarket prices. I suppose that there is some sophisticated explanation; in cases like this there usually is. But what explanation could possibly justify the death of so many for want of rice that is here?
There has been no violence during my stay in Calcutta. There was little in the past; there will be less in the future. Small knots of people will occasionally form, but they always melt away before the police. Occasionally a group will gather outside a warehouse that they know contains rice or grain. They may chant or wail to the watchman within, but in the end they disperse with a sigh of futility. Here, as everywhere else in Bengal, the people are dying in sullen but silent protest against the tyrannies of alien nature and alien men. Some are residents of the city itself, others are immigrants from the droughted farms. Some are workers and men of caste. Some are beggars from the street, untouchables. They stand together in these dusty roads, sweating out their strength in the blistering sun. Occasionally someone will drop among them, but the others continue to mill about. With maddening restraint they speak quietly together, gesturing weakly and even smiling. Another will fall, to be bewailed for a moment, then the quiet murmur begins again. Now, through the visions of hunger and horror, I see a society that is stronger than my own, a community of physical and spiritual discipline more demanding than the very will to live. The famine to most of those who have seen it must remain a symbol of man's inhumanity. Yet, somehow, to me it has become a contrast between inhumanity and humanity at its best!
I boarded the train this afternoon, bound for Poona, via Nagpur and Bombay. The accommodations were more comfortable than usual, though there was a woman in our compartment and we could not undress. Brennan and I had to share the coach with her and her husband, a lieutenant colonel. The colonel and I were discussing the famine through most of the afternoon and evening. He was particularly bitter with reference to the cause and he spoke quite openly about British bungling. Accepted long ago as a member of the raj, this frankness is nothing new to me. I am much too close now for the patent explanations and I have come to be accepted as one of the family. But I must confess that one thing the colonel said caught me a bit unprepared and more naïve than usual.
"You know," he said, "it's not just the result of a drought. In part, at least, it's a man-made famine." At this last I sat bolt upright in my seat. I had suspected as much but had feared to believe it. "The British Army has encouraged and subsidized a local black market by buying its food rather than shipping it in. It's more expensive to pay profiteer's prices, but it's not hard to outbid the natives of Calcutta. It is costly and brutal, but we continue to do it because it saves our valuable shipping space."
I thought I saw a flaw in this logic and I argued to draw the colonel out. I asked why the British, if they needed the material, did not simply seize it at a reasonable price.
The colonel smiled and hesitated a moment. Then he said, "Now, you don't look that naïve. If we seized it, we would have to provide for the natives or accept the blame for the famine that has resulted. No, it's cheaper in terms of prestige at least to pay the price and disclaim responsibility."
I insisted that a drought was at least partially responsible, and the colonel admitted that this was true. "But the whole situation would be immeasurably better if we would ship in the food that our troops must have."
I do not want to believe in the truth of this account, but I cannot refute it or advance a better one. Indeed, I remember the warehouses full of food and the hungry mobs turned away from their gates.
I'LL be settled in Poona for several months, awaiting a ship that is bound for America. There are many officers stationed here who have been "standing, in line" for as long as six months. I hope that in my case there is no such delay, for though I have grown fond of India, I am tired of Poona. Relieved of all duty, I would be able to travel, but my income imposes a considerable limitation.
I do not expect to be terribly bored, for several odd jobs have come up already. A number of students at Wadia College have urged me to offer a seminar in economics. I expect that I would learn considerably more than they, but perhaps I will accept for that very reason. As soon as the group can convince the authorities, I think that I will begin my "Asiatic Economics."
These students themselves are an interesting bunch, a far cry from the conservative older generation. Every time I see them I am more impressed by their similarity to the American temperament. Their sense of humor is quick and boisterous and they make friends with an amazing ease and rapidity. They are much less self-conscious than I had always imagined and, though sensitive, they are slow to take offense. One of the fellows is a Sikh, for example, and everyone kids him about his beard and turban. He in turn insists that we're all just jealous, never taking offense at our frequent sarcasms.
The first night I spent at the dormitories we were busy exchanging Indian folk songs for American. No one was too stiff or embarrassed to participate and we immediately achieved a complete informality. This makes me feel very much at home, for it is reminiscent of the spontaneous joviality of my American countrymen. And the frequency and energy with which these fellows pound tables is also comforting to a nostalgic American. I've been spending an average of two evenings a week at the college with Syed, Rajam, and Shermohammed. And no matter where the conversation begins, it always works around to Indian nationalism.
We finally obtained permission for my seminar and it began in a college classroom last night. I have no desk or bookcase there, but the fellows have offered to take care of my materials. We have got off to a flying start, but I'm thinking about changing the name for my course. I have calling it "Asiatic Economic Problems" but "Nationalism 31" would be a more accurate title. Last night when I broached the subject of exports a general riot almost ensued. Everyone wanted to talk at once, and even that way we continued more than an hour. It seems that the students are better prepared than I had ever expected that they would be. Most of them can quote tables and appendices from memory, particularly when they bear upon the political situation. I more than commend the students' enthusiasm; it aids their study by giving it some practical meaning. But it makes my lecturing a bit unnerving. I never know when I will touch off a firecracker.
There are just about seven or eight men in the seminar, a sufficient and at the same time a wieldy number. But the ones who attended seemed rather embarrassed and insisted, over my protests, that they would solicit some others.
A little booklet has come into my hands, suggestively entitled Uncle Sham. It is an Indian-written polemic against America, understandable only in the light of its flyleaf. There an agent for the author explains that it is an intended parody on Mother India. And it succeeds, almost as well as the latter, in piecing isolated truths together to form a false whole. According to Uncle Sham, the American prostitute has been driven out of business by the adolescent schoolgirl. Frequent quotations from American notables almost make this thesis acceptable. But the fact worth noting is that in no major respect is the book in real, outspoken error. A totally false picture is presented, but by the use of insinuation and suggestion.
This is not a parody in the usual sense of the word, for too many people have been taken in by it. Though the author was writing with his tongue in his cheek, there are far too many who have failed to discern that. "Are the American women as immoral as they say?" a number of my more naïve students have asked me. When pressed for elaboration, it always becomes apparent that "they" refers to Uncle Sham. This book enjoys dangerously large circulation and wields far more influence than it ever deserved. But the real danger is that more such may follow; Uncle Sham is no mutation but a natural growth.
It is becoming more evident every day that American prestige in India is dwindling. Out in the hinterlands it is as strong as ever, but here in the cities people are losing faith. I once believed that the city dwellers were just more sophisticated than their outlying cousins. But it is ever more obvious that their sophistication consists not in simple reserve, but in a consciousness of disappointing current trends. The informed Indian is growing disillusioned with the word-of-mouth democracy of our country. He had hoped that America would seek freedom for all peoples, but he is beginning to assume that we talk for effect. He does not concern himself with OWI posters; he judges on the basis of the apparent facts. And the apparent facts, from his point of view, are slaughters in which GI's participate. We have been dangerously lax in our Asiatic policy, if indeed we can be said to have one apart from Britain. We have slid and side-winded into a defense of the old order without ever deciding whether we wanted to defend it. Britain has made the most of this, just as she made the most of the massacres. She has bent every effort (and a few facts, for that matter) to convince the Indians that we support her empire. Unfortunately, of course, that is almost true, when this thing is looked at from the practical standpoint. We have quelled uprisings, curtailed discussion among our soldiers, even isolated them from the Indians when the raj requested it. But who decided on this course of action? Does it reflect the judgment of the American people? Or does it rather reflect our political ineptitude, the tendency of our statesmen to play Alice to Britain's March Hare?
Several days ago, after one of our seminars, I was talking with the students about the Indian caste system. I had noticed that none of the men wore their marks and I was anxious to know the reason for this.
One fellow laughed, "Well, the majority of us disapprove of them, but occasionally we have trouble with the incoming freshmen."
The others grinned and winked at each other and I sensed that there was some sort of joke involved.
"What do you mean by having trouble with them?" I asked. "Do you take it upon yourselves to enlighten them?"
Rajam answered, "Oh, we don't just enlighten them. We throw them in the river and wash off the caste marks."
A number of others broke in at this point, anxious to describe their own initiations. Some admitted resenting the treatment, but they as eagerly admit perpetrating it on other freshmen later. It is not that the caste system is falling in ruin; it still holds sway among the masses. But almost all of the leaders, intellectual and political, have turned their backs on this concept of status. Gandhi once threatened to divorce his wife unless she ceased wearing the mark of the Brahman. Nehru and the others are quite as adamant in their refusal to sanction religious inequalities. And here in Poona the college students, predominantly Brahmans, but earnest young liberals, prove that they too refuse the old order and the unjust discrimination which it bred and thrived upon.
This afternoon I had tea with Dr. Wadia, one of the benefactors of Wadia College. He is a Parsi scholar of diversified accomplishments, religion being the realm of his greatest endeavor. I noticed a number of books which he had written, all concerned with the oriental faiths. But I was especially interested in one on Christianity in which Wadia quite unconsciously out-Niebuhred Reinhold. Far less than an outline of neo-orthodoxy, the primary thesis nevertheless inclined toward it. It was Wadia's contention that the Western mind is ill fitted in its literalism to grasp poetic truths.
In discussing the book Wadia elaborated this plausible thesis, reminding me that Jesus was an Oriental and a mystic. "The Bible," he said, "was written by the same people who created the poetic tales in the Arabian Nights. And yet so many of your Western scholars hang on each parable as if it were a clause in a contract. They are so busy grubbing for a mundane significance that the transcendent truths escape their notice. The Bible is a masterpiece of allegorical literature, and studied in broad terms it yields much wisdom. But studied as it is, it is contradictory and confusing. Why, you can't tell the Holy Grail from Aladdin's lamp."
Our supper was served in a little pavilion located in the Wadia formal gardens. The bearers were the best I have ever seen, being a sort of cross between mind readers and acrobats. Each time I felt a desire for some dish, it would be handed to me before I could move. And yet to look at the servants' impassive faces, you would suspect that they were quite unaware of our presence.
After coffee Dr. Wadia produced an album of photographs which he had taken in his travels around the world. For artistry of conception and perfection of technique I have never seen any to quite equal these. Many of the pictures were taken in America, and yet I hardly recognized them till I had read the legends. The broad panoramas of the Royal Gorge and the Yellowstone stand-bys were notably absent. More studied shots of rock formation, angled pictures of some lonesome tree somehow saw less, yet recorded much more than the usual greedy mountaintop sweeps.
Most impressive of all Wadia's art, however, was his collection of Balinese rough wood carvings. Heavily stylized and sophisticated in their very primitivism, the legong dancers and archers were nothing short of magnificent. There was no real attempt to represent forms, but rather a desire to capture mood and motion. Exaggerated fingers and twisted torsos practically wrenched at the polished grain of their wood. As I walked before them, from one piece to another, I involuntarily tended to simulate their positions. Wadia laughed and commented at one point that I had been behaving like a bowler whose roll was sheering off. I could easily believe him, for my muscles were tingling as if I had just finished a period of calisthenics. What a tribute to the unknown creators of the sculpture that their pieces can elicit such sheer physical empathy!
Wadia's philosophizing was rather tedious, being overladen with rationalization. Anxious to justify Parsi domination of India, he inclined toward a muddled Nietzschean outlook. "The common men are capable of no real joys. Therefore they should be subject to the wishes of a superior few." I advanced a few of Kierkegaard's arguments, matching one "existence philosopher" against another. But Wadia branched off into a romantic realm into which I felt it was useless to follow. "Look at the stars up above," he would say. "They have been there forever and they will last through eternity."
The further I go with my class at the college, the more I learn about the economics of empire. And the more I learn about the economics of empire, the more furious I become with the injustice of it all. I have long since abandoned the naïve idea that Britain is concerned with the welfare of the Indian, but I never realized the terrifying extent to which the interests of the two are opposed. Not only in the short run does the colony suffer, from the heel and toe of a swaggering conqueror. Its very destiny is systematically warped; its future is being sold for profits of the moment.
In the words of Ranade, "This dependency has come to be regarded as a plantation, growing raw produce to be shipped by the British agents in British ships, to be worked into manufactured articles by British skill and capital and to be re-exported to this dependency by British merchants to their corresponding British firms in India and elsewhere." Ranade goes on to study the results of this policy and to conclude that as a result "the gradual ruralization of this great dependency, and the rapid decadence of native manufacturing trade become distinctly marked." And this is scarcely the work of a propagandist; it is the conclusion of a competent scholar.
THE date of my sailing must be drawing close, for I am moving to Bombay tomorrow morning. Johnny Brennan is moving with me, so it seems that we will sail for America together. I had hoped at one time to work my way homeward; there's a pile of money to be made in the doing. But it's just as well that I am going in comfort. The trip may take as long as thirty days.
I rather hope that we cross the Pacific, for in that case we'll probably stop off in Australia. And what is more, from my romantic point of view, I'll be able to say that I've sailed around the world.
We've just come back from Colaba Rest Camp, where it was supposed that Johnny and I would wait for our passage. But after taking one look at the accommodations, we've decided to pay for a hotel room ourselves. Neither Johnny nor I had brought a mosquito net; we had both left our blanket rolls back in Poona. And since Colaba is located on the edge of a swamp, when the sun goes down we would sorely need both. On a printed sheet which was handed us by the authorities is the following nauseating if well-advised instruction: "Throw charpoys from the roof of your barracks once or twice to dislodge the bedbugs and eggs that are in them." After a year of this life I am accustomed to "roughing it," when and if the necessity is present. But it is quite illogical, from my point of view, to sleep in the wilds one mile from Bombay. Both Johnny and I are low in funds, so we hate to spend our money on a room. Brennan suggests that we "throw the commanding officer of this place off the roof of our barracks once or twice in order to dislodge the bats in his belfry."
I visited the USO this afternoon, stalking the American in his native habitat. I have talked with so few that I am actually homesick, starved for a broad Midwestern accent. My expedition was a spectacular success, and of more than sheer philological interest. For after traveling the length and breadth of this country, I met the most charming Indian of all, here, in a prosaic American setting.
I was talking to a sergeant in the 14th Air Force when she edged between me and a near-by table, touching me lightly on the arm as she passed. I was startled by her gentle "I beg your pardon," more startled still by her cool beauty. As I moved to oblige, she smiled in thanks, then continued along in a matter-of-fact way. I tried to strike up a conversation by apologizing for blocking the path. But with a friendly dismissal of my minor offense, and a tap on the shoulder of a hulking corporal, she edged away through the parting crowd.
I saw her next involved in an argument with several of the other Red Cross hostesses. When I joined it, out of motives more social than intelligent, I learned that I was really interested in what was being discussed. The leader of the group was insisting weakly that the girls must dance with any and all soldiers, while another, a Southerner to judge from the accent, was protesting that she would never dance with a Negro. She was clearly the most articulate of the girls, and the others seemed unwilling to challenge her openly. Finally, butting into what was none of my business, I called them all to account for their apathy.
"Why are you so damned apologetic?" I asked, addressing the leader now. "If these fellows are good enough to die for their country, they are good enough to dance with anyone in it!" Here I turned to Dixie Belle herself, who was already agape at what I was saying. Her haughty manner served only to infuriate me as I thought of the number of white crosses for black men. "Why the devil did you come out here in the first place? Why didn't you sit back on your broad veranda and let the 'happy darkies' wait on you? Big things are happening in this part of the world, bigger things than you can ever imagine. You'd better run home before you learn what this is about, these men with casts on their legs and bandages round their heads."
Our argument continued for almost an hour, though the girl who had drawn me dropped out near the beginning. When I broke away she was waiting to talk with me, anxious or distressed, I couldn't tell which. And then it happened! All at once I learned what a terrible reputation we Americans have. For Rachel could hardly believe her ears, that one of us could be concerned with racial bigotry!
I witnessed my first snake-mongoose fight this morning on the very eve of our departure. But actually, to call it a fight at all is vastly to overrate the energy of the contestants. Better, let's call it a wrestling match, in the true American sense of the term. Both serpent and rodent were too concerned with their own safety to risk antagonizing the supposed competitor.
It all began when a rickety little fakir drew a nasty, ratlike animal from a bag. There were clots of blood around the small eyes, which blinked incessantly in the unaccustomed light. As for the cobra he lay very still in a basket, apparently quite ready to lose by default, but the matchmaker slapped him angrily several times, till he at last obliged with a condescending strike. His hood opened briefly, and for a moment he looked dangerous, but this business was apparently a strain on the snake. After a few grim seconds he gave up the pretense and meekly deflated while the fakir's back was turned.
Neither the cobra nor the mongoose bore the other any malice; left alone, I am sure they would have become good friends. But thrown together by the dhotied impresario, they bumped into each other apologetically. Finally the crowd began to boo and the flow of annas sharply diminished. The fakir, now the angriest of the three, began exhorting his partners to greater violence. Occasionally one would leap at the other and all of us would surge in, expecting a kill. But the energetic one would soon relapse into indolence and become preoccupied with a twig or a near-by pebble.
In desperation, the fakir took the cobra in his hand, dangling it, stringlike, before the mongoose. Agitated thusly, the latter became interested and clawed compromisingly at the helpless snake. As a fitting climax to this ridiculous show, the cobra was inserted between his jaws. With a squeeze from the fakir, the vise clamped together; the snake thrashed a little, then bled to death.
I had supper tonight with Rachel and her father, in the garden of their home on Malabar Hill. While the food was the usual Anglo-Indian fodder, the setting and the company made it seem like a banquet. Rachel was out of her Red Cross uniform and into a low-cut white silk dress. Her black hair was swept up on top of her head; I could not take my eyes from her throughout the meal.
I was surprised to learn that Rachel is a Parsi. Her liberalism, if not her appearance, denied it. And I was more surprised, after knowing her to be one, to see how vigorously she attacked her own group. I feared to say too much myself, believing that I might rather hurt her feelings. But I was soon put at ease by her response to my timid bids, by her prior statement of my own extreme attitudes.
I am sure I've found more than a political ally. I have found someone through whose eyes I can actually know India. For Rachel is so similar to me in temperament that her opinions are mine, only strengthened by experience. She too has felt this close connection, for we question each other endlessly about our own respective continents. And the mutual exchange of knowledge and insight is a tremendous benefit to both of us!
When I think of it, I am quite as anomalous as she, pro Indian, yet dressed like the pukah sahib. No wonder her surprise was as great as my own when I denounced this whole imperial system. "Rachel isn't interested in politics," I heard from one of the GI's at the Red Cross canteen. "She's really a swell girl, but you two won't hit it off. She'll be bored to tears with your enthusiastic idealism." I can see how he might have judged her in these terms; she's a different girl when around the canteen. But I am convinced that Rachel has a first-rate mind; so much so that I am trying to break down her prejudice against going abroad for a university degree.
The manager of our hotel has an attractive young daughter who tends to over-rate her sex appeal. It has pleased her to accuse Johnny Brennan and myself of viewing her body with lascivious intent. Just how she can so well appraise a glance I cannot say (nor would I dare to speculate!). But for one reason or another she has labeled us respectively "The Dark Brown Wolf" and "The Copper-colored Wolf." It is the old phenomenon of a pretty girl who enjoys resenting masculine attention. She dresses with much care to make that inevitable, then registers shock when the inevitable happens.
Now, if only my virtue were being called into question, I would surely have let the whole thing pass. But Audrey, in her public protestations of horror, has pictured me as a calloused and insensitive brute. This I have felt compelled to argue. To be characterized thus, as "that American barbarian" I set out last evening to demonstrate my acquaintance and proficiency with "Literature, Science, and the Arts."
I composed a parody on Alexander Pope to argue my background as well as my cause. But I fear that to Audrey it argued neither, but served only to strengthen her belief in my depravity. I deposited the work beside her plate, just before the luncheon hour. She found it at once, as she looked demurely down from what was intended as a seductive glance at me. Excusing herself from the company at hand, she tore open the envelope in apparent glee. But as the reading progressed her expression changed from one of merriment to one of anger.
|Patrician grace, the carriage of her station;
Enhanced by subtle taste for affectation;
Through auburn locks that nature never gave her
Sweet Audrey smiles, soliciting our favor.
Self-consciously selecting her attire
To accent most what virile men require,
She plays at virtue; then, by my deduction,
She's guilty of that subtlest sin, seduction.
Then why, when timid lads, reciprocating,
Unguarded eyes on Audrey's joys are sating,
Though pure the light of virtue in her tresses,
A baser motive even than theirs she guesses?
Allay thy fears, sweet aphrodisiac maiden,
Thou silver tray with nature's sweetmeats laden!
For though one samples of the broad array,
'Tis far from proof he means to steal the tray!
The gentleman on her right read the ode aloud when Audrey had dropped it in a flush of embarrassment. To most of the diners it was apparently amusing, for they could only protest feebly, from behind raised napkins. But Audrey, quite incapable of laughing at herself, took immediate refuge in her device of naïveté. She stamped to my table, threw down the paper, and slapped me so hard I saw stars for a moment. When I took it like the gentleman I was reputed not to be, Audrey's own dinner companions burst suddenly into laughter. And as I smiled at them I could tell from their expressions that more than a few agreed with my thesis!
Rachel does not yield her inner feelings readily. They are obscured by a considerable depth of character. But today the last piece has fallen in place; I feel that I understand her now. She was raised and schooled in the old traditions to which virtue and virginity, in women, are synonymous. But through sheer intelligence she has sensed other values more basic and more worthy in historical perspective. Somehow (as if intentionally to refute Marx) she has come to identify herself with the Indian mass. Through barriers of money, class, and race, she has managed to become a part of it. Yet how can she ever express her convictions, her hatred of the injustice in a system which acclaims her? How can she work for the things she believes when by making one move she will forfeit all her power?
Last night she told me, very simply and quietly, that she was going to fight "in the revolution." There was nothing of drama or bravado in the words. They were sheer communication, not said for effect. It seemed strange to hear this beautiful girl, apparently so well adjusted to her life, pronouncing a sentence which so clearly revealed a bitterness beneath the calm surface. She whispered, "I have the strength to kill them myself." There is no doubt in my mind but that she has. This girl, head in hands, is the ultimate Rachel, behind and yet above the Red Cross hostess.
FROM where we are moored, the Gateway to India stands mirrored in the color of an Indian sunset. In the failing light it seems grand and majestic, the fitting symbol of British pomp and power. Yet like many another construction of the raj, it must be viewed from behind to be fully appreciated. For there is the aspect it presents to India. And there is the symbolism perfectly completed.
Every evening at this time, as dusk is approaching, the sailors come in on their liberty lighters. Most of them head for the bars or the brothels, but some of them loiter near the Gateway to India. There are always a few urchins anxious to earn a rupee, and poor enough to care little how they manage it. So from these water-front waifs the sailors buy their intimacies, revolting sensual, sexual attentions. Their crassness is almost beyond belief, for they seldom wait for the darkness to hide them. In clear view of front rooms in the Taj Hotel, they begin to enjoy their doubly damned pleasures. How late this continues I do not know, but I stumbled upon it at half past twelve. A drunken sailor called out a warning when I inadvertently approached his corner. "For Christ's sake!" I cried in embarrassment and disgust. The words echoed down from the mosaic vault. A hoarse drunken laugh echoed out of the corner, then a shout, "Go on, find a place of your own!"
We have left India; her poverty and her filth seem far behind. Occasionally, as I contemplate landing in America, I wonder if I have ever really been away. The purser brings us ice cream every afternoon, and we have plenty of soap and fresh water for bathing. The greatest inconvenience in my life at this moment is the regular boat drill in the afternoon.
Andy and I make a joke of the thing, or rather re-create a joke from Thurber. As the personnel streams down the companionways we shout gaily to each other, "The dam has broken!" For some reason or other, we are both reminded of the illustrations in our Thurber anthology, showing a street choked with hurrying people, all running away from an imaginary flood.
We have steak and chicken, each once a week, and seconds on everything that is served in the wardroom. I am beginning to wonder whether the people of Calcutta are actually starving or whether that was only a bad dream. We have bade adieu to "mystic India," to the minor discomforts and the major inhumanities. But there are four hundred million people who cannot follow us. There are four hundred million who cannot bid adieu to mystic India, because they are bonded servants to its worn-out soil. No, it is not imagination or simply a bad dream; as I joke with Andy, they sweat and scratch their fleas. As I sit down in the officers' mess to a pious grace, they cry in Calcutta over their starvation dead. "We are fighting for the freedom of all peoples, everywhere." Like hell! We are fighting for our steaks and our baths!
The boat is loaded from bow to stern with praying missionaries and swearing soldiers, the mystical pedantics and the disinterested military that are America's most numerous representatives in Asia. I am comfortably berthed with the latter group, with the ranking troop officer on the boat, for a fact. There are six of us in the cabin, but it is large and pleasant, nothing like the rafter-stacked bunks below. My companions have thus far been stiff and formal, but two weeks on the equator will sweat out the starch. And then, who ever heard of six men in a cabin maintaining the rules of military procedure?
Andy is a major in the Medical Corps, and the only leaven yet to appear in the loaf. With the realism and humor characteristic of his profession, he is utterly unmindful of the niceties of rank. He insists on calling the colonel "old sahib," a term which at first seems one of respect. But lest we cherish such a sweet delusion, he tells us that we should spell it "s.o.b."
"The old s.o.b." is partially deaf, but he refuses to admit to any infirmity. So we all have to shout at the top of our lungs lest we be hailed, "Speak up there! Stop that mumbling!" Andy is least mindful of this constant exhortation. Often he uses it as a starting point for one of his own. "Why, you deaf old bastard," he is apt to shout, "why don't you get an ear trumpet so you can hear?"
I find it hard to phrase my judgments about India, hard to state them in the quick vernacular. Oh, it is easy enough to insist that "Britain must leave India," but that is not so much a judgment as a vote. It is not that I don't have decided opinions, but that I hate to reduce them to mere theories and arguments. It is like being asked whether you approve of murder or not. The truth is so basic that to question it is an indignity.
I shan't trust myself at afternoon teas where well-fed matrons will want to discuss India. The smell of Calcutta is too strong in my nostrils, the laughter of its sahibs too loud in my ears. I shan't trust myself in argument with anyone who begins with the assumption of the raj's sincerity. I recall too well the "slogan of the Empire ... .. Britain wants India but she doesn't want the Indians." I shan't trust myself to deal with those people who blithely assume that India is progressing under Britain. The statistics of her decline are too easy to obtain for any such rot as this to be tolerated.
One of the missionaries who came out of Burma has shown me his collection of rubies and jade. I should assay its value at about five thousand dollars, though he probably got it for a fraction of that. When I warned him of the heavy duty he must pay, he insisted that he need not declare it to the customs. "I am not bringing these home as wealth," he said, "but only as examples of God's Great Handiwork!"
I have just been accused of a blind idealism because I argue the case for India's freedom. Idealism indeed, to insist that a nation must shape its future in its own two hands! Is it I who am the idealist, or is it those who believe that progress can be synthesized and given in transfusions? Is it I who am blind, or is it those who suppose that a nation, like a baby, matures through spoon-feeding?
Could I ever, indeed, be a blind idealist after knowing the price of life in Calcutta? Could I be an idealist, when my hands have been foul with the rotting flesh of that city's people? No, those experiences have left me the bitterest of bitter realists, and I base my conclusions upon a bitter realism. I base my conclusions upon the cold, hard fact of a poor, dirty India, full of poor, dirty people.
But what do you base your conclusions upon, you who argue for a British-ruled India? Upon the vapid nonsense that while the Indians sit back, they are absorbing modernity from England, by osmosis. No nation can avoid paying a price for freedom. No nation can ever get "something for nothing." No nation can find a short cut to the future. The correspondence school course in self-government is a fraud!
"But is India ready for independence?" The most foolish question that was ever asked! "Is India ready for independence?" Was any nation ever "ready" for independence? Our nation wasn't; that much I know. I have read it in the history of our Civil War. I have read it in the abandoned Articles of Confederacy, in the chronicles of disunity and of interstate conflicts. Was Britain "ready" for independence, when she deposed her Roman and Danish rulers? Or was Britain just a host of warring tribes, who were sooner to shed than to fuse their blood?
"Is India ready for independence?" Is she ready for anything but independence? It is like asking a man who is about to be run down whether he is "ready" to jump out of the path of the car. What does it matter whether he is an athlete or not, whether he is properly trained in the western roll? He had just better be ready to jump out of the way. He had just better try, whether he is ready or not!
What has India to lose by trying? What could she lose that Britain guarantees? Security? Liberty? Life itself? Ask the six million people who have been lost in the last two famines!
Yes, I am the bitterest of bitter realists. I see no patent solution of India's problems. I see only the usual, long painful course of friction and dissension that leads to unity. Idealist? I believe in civil wars, when they are the only alternative to continuing factionalism. Idealist? I believe, like the American I am, that the tree of liberty must be nourished with blood. Idealist? I believe that governments are made to cope with the disputes that necessarily arise between men. Idealist? Not half so much an idealist as those who say that unity precedes self-government.
We've taken a number of troops aboard who are returning to the States from South American assignments. The war and India seem far away from them, and they frequently question us about one or the other. I've noticed that most of them have a rather narrow point of view; they lack the enforced broadening that comes from overseas service. They despise the peoples of the countries just left in the petulant, irresponsible way that connotes an inability to distinguish between the perpetrators of their exile and cosufferers in it.
Our British major is a different man now from the calloused, heavy-handed fellow who boarded. In the presence of these many "strangers to the Empire" he adopts a sickeningly pro-Indian guise. He deplores the starvation that he was wont to joke about when there were only "insiders" about to hear him. He "earnestly hopes for Indian freedom" where he previously cursed "those dirty black wogs." Strangest of all, he is hardly embarrassed to face the rest of us who know his game. With an ingratiating smile he regularly reminds us that "they wouldn't understand if we told them the truth."
When I have made it my business to "tell them the truth," he has generally insinuated that I am simply "anti-British." Assumptions which once passed between us without question he now denies in the most offhand and polite manner. I have come close to striking him several times when he has boldly called me a liar to my face for repeating stories which I heard from him, for quoting more candid utterances which he has made. I have always hated the subterfuge of empire, but only now have I met its full weight, only now, in this smooth, polite, unprincipled, and shameless officer who can say that black is white without losing his apparent dignity.
The rest of the men on the boat have come to hate him, even those who are not sympathetic to the Indians. As one American lieutenant colonel said within my hearing, "He just changed overnight like a damned chameleon."
What will I do when I am home at last? Everything that I left seems unimportant. And then, it will not really be returning home. Much will have changed, in me and in it.
I was ready to save the world when I left; just me and the earnest young liberals I knew. But I never fully realized how much needed saving. A glimpse has robbed me of much of my buoyancy.
"At the bottom, all our troubles are economic," we would mutter, nodding wisely over foolish words. "Give us the stimulus and the current interest rate, and we'll tell you what any human being will do." Oh, God, if we'd known the Indians then! If we'd known any people who believed their morality. It would have saved a lot of this backtracking. But perhaps the lesson in humility is good for me.
What will I do when I am home at last? The prospect is a little less pleasing than it was. What, and with what attitude?
The atmosphere is a foggy gray, the color of our ship that passes through it. And with mist damply settled upon the hull and the handrails, we blend as a part of the whole dismal scene. In spite of the weather we are all walking the decks, straining our eyes to peer out at nothing, for we know that out of that nothing ahead the shapes of Boston Harbor will appear. Our speed has been cut to three or four knots, a maddening pace for this homesick crowd, but the blowing of tugs and the ranging pilot boats announce the end of our restless trip. All of us are clean-shaven, and our cabins are tidy; we fondly suppose that we won't have to return to them. It would be the most dangerous heresy for anyone to admit the truth, that we will probably be aboard for another night.
The Australian brides are a little timid, but anxious for a glimpse of their new homeland. The GI's from Panama are licking their chops and rubbing their palms at the thought of New York. But the rest of us, the personnel from India, are strangely in a reflective mood. For some foolish reason which I cannot articulate, my stomach is heavy when I think of walking down this ten-thousand-mile gangplank.
We are still in India, essentially. We have shipped some foreigners, but they are visitors in India. Somehow this boat seems a part of India, the water, somehow, the Arabian Sea. Yet on it we are nearing the beaches of America, the shores of a half-remembered land. On it we are riding the gentle swells that roll in to Boston, New York, Detroit. Oh, Lord, I wish we had taken a plane, so that we could see the thousands of miles pass beneath us. This travel by boat is too brutally swift. To run down a gangplank from Asia to America.
A thick, gray fog between India and Boston, obscuring the sight of each from the other. A thick, gray fog between Asia and America, amorphous, intangible, yet heavy and uncompromising. How symbolic in its shifting, subtle presence! How suggestive in its mocking invulnerability! We pass through it, we feel it, yet we cannot quite see it. We know it only as the absence of what it obscures.
Stories can be carried, in minds, through the fog, but their characters are bleached, soaked of much of their color. The smells and the sounds that come along with them are likewise faded in their passage through the mist. Das and Raman become "The Hindu-Moslem Problem" (much cleaner and more predictable than their mortal selves). And the little girl crying over her dead, decaying mother becomes "The Calcutta Famine" (more quickly forgotten).
The moisture irritates my nose and throat. I toss my head, hoping to rid myself of it. But the mist continues to sting and burn. The fog closes in where I have walked.
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