--You've been to India? So, how did you like the Taj Mahal?
--Actually, I've never seen the Taj Mahal.
It's not the kind of exchange that inspires confidence in the questioner. So I'm off to India again, this time including the Taj Mahal. We'll be traveling in the US for about a week, thence to Delhi and thence in and around (Indian) Northwest for about a month. So, when Hillary nominates me for ambassador, it least I won't make a fool of myself at the confirmation hearings.
We'll be mostly tromping around ancient ruins--Mr. and Mrs. B have a taste for that sort of thing. It would be fun to blog it, but blogging can get in the way of life and I don't intend to spend the month trying to find functional WiFi connections. So, I'll be back around December 3 with, I assume, a backup of loose ends. Meanwhile, here is a list of some of the stuff I read in preparation, As with last week’s
Nirad C. Chaudhari, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. For 533 pages about another culture, by someone from that other culture, this was a remarkably easy read. Chaudhari has a kind of Dostoevskian incandescence—you feel like you are stepping into a conversation that started long before you got here, and will continue long after you are gone. He gives you a particularly wonderful feel for the ambivalence of thinking Indians under British rule—rage and resentment at their arrogance and presumption, coupled with admiration for British culture: how could you do this to us? You are the people of Burke and Mill!
Upamanyu Chatterjee, English, August. Entertaining as a novel, and shrewdly observed. Probably more about “bureaucracy and the failures thereof,” than about
Indiaper se—but then, an awful lot of is bureaucracy. Affecting also as story of bewildered young manhood, although heaven knows, the universe of novels has no shortage of that subset (particularly good on loneliness). Rather more fecal matter than I found to my taste, but I suppose that is part of the comedy, and maybe it is part of India , too. India
G.V. Desenai, All About H. Hatter. My friend Madhavi gave me this one on my way out to
for my first trip five years ago. I think it may have been a kind of a dare; I suspect she thought I wouldn’t read it. I can hardly blame her; it’s one of those books that plays a kind of language-game (Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is another), and either you will bear with this sort of thing, or you will not. In the end, I did bear with it; I can’t say yet that I have figured it out, but I must say it leaves a tang or a buzz in your head that makes you know that it has to be recognized and respected. I see NYRB paperbacks is bringing out a new edition. India
E.. M. Forster, Passage to
. Sorry, no. I got drunk on Forster when I was 19 or so; I no regard it as something of a youthful indiscretion, though I guess I can still save a soft spot for what you might call “the home-county novels”—Howard’s End,, that sort of stuff. But I think Passage to India is a total misfire. Forster may understand something about intimacy, about tenderness—but I don’t think he understands the first thing about the subcontinent, and he embarrasses himself by trying. India
David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste. I believe I said earlier that this would be a good pairing with English, August, supra—Gilmour seems to have a novelistic feel for life under the late Raj. He also did the superb big biography of Lord Curzon (“superior person”), the great viceroy and great not-prime-minister.
John Keay, The Honorable Company. Sometimes a bit disjointed, but a readable narrative overview of the pre-Raj period—more precisely 1600-1820, the time during which the Brits took
in (as the saying goes) “a fit of absent-mindedness.” India
Rudyard Kipling, Kim. I guess it is okay to admit to a taste for Kipling, as long as you recognize that it is a kind of guilty pleasure (Orwell endorsed him, after all). I plead guilty. I’m a total sucker for the big, booming ballads (“Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!") Kim is a more complicated affair—surely one of the most unclassifiable “novels” (if that is what it is) in the English language. But it is hard to imagine a better window into the mind of the old Colonials—what it is they loved and admired about the country they so meanly abused.
Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern
. The conventional wisdom is that The Economist has become an outlet for conventional wisdom, and that shrewd people have moved on to the Financial Times. But isn’t this an infinite regress? Meanwhile, Luce seems to have put his feet on a lot of ground all over India —not just in places with air conditioning and warm baths. He’s got a keen sense of detail, and shows great eagerness to share his insights into a country and culture where he has clearly enjoyed spending his time. India
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. I put this in here to get my card punched. I suppose it is instructive in its way and I am impressed by some of the technical tricks—and in a different way, by some of Rushdie’s enthusiasms and disappointments. But I can’t say I enjoyed it a whole lot: the magic is not that magical, the enchantment is not at all enchanting, and the humor is more tendentious than funny.
StanleyWolpert, . Some 247 pages of intro-to-everything by a leading academic. I must admit, I found this dry when I read it before my first trip to India five years ago. No, strike that, I still find it dry. But he covers a lot; he seems fair-minded and judicious. Handy to have him around. India
Oh, and one more—not read yet, but it goes in the backpack for the plane trip, if there is room: