Indian mosaic

Editor's note: During the 1995-96 academic year, Associate Professor of English David Lynn and Associate Professor of History Wendy F. Singer, his wife, lived and worked in India--the long-time subject of Singer's work--with their son, four-year-old Aaron. Both Singer and Lynn were supported by Fulbright grants, she as a researcher on the role of women in the Indian electoral process and he as a lecturer in American literature. The following are excerpts from the journal Lynn kept during that sabbatical year, in which he was something more than a tourist but something less than an insider.

August 1995

T he servants in our new household have quickly become, for better or worse, an intimate part of our lives. As I write this, we are trying to help our ayah, who's four years behind in the monthly mortgage payments on her flat; our cook is ill with fever (having insisted on working yesterday though we'd have preferred she stay home); and the son of one of our sweepers also has fever (not uncommon in Delhi this time of year), and so the sweeper will be here only briefly as well.

We inherited two "sweepers" and a mali (gardener) from our landlords; an ayah we needed to help care for our four-year-old son Aaron; the ayah produced (at our request) a cook; a driver came along with the car we decided to hire in lieu of hunting down and dealing with expensive and unreliable taxis and scooters.

But why do we have them in the first place? The very word servant makes liberal Americans rather squeamish. We have been trained to treat others as equals; our wondrous late-capitalist economy produces endless gadgets to forestall the need for servants. But need them we do. And it's not just that we're a two-professional couple.

Dust. Ashes to ashes, and all that. That's the place to begin. I have never really encountered dust before Delhi. Dust is Delhi. Fine, invisible, yet ever-present. The individual grain can't be seen, can't be grasped without the most delicate tweezers. In isolation there's something pure and absolute and irreducible about the very thinginess of it. But you rarely find it so solitary. It gathers like magnetic shavings, grey and brown, scudding across sidewalks and gathering in the elbows of pavements and the lee of outer (and inner) walls.

When you rise in the morning it's a fine layer on the floor--you feel it scraping on your sandals or bare feet. It's flitted through the screens. It's crept under doors. It's fallen from the air and the heavens.

Dust afflicts tables and counters. Dust sneaks into closed cupboards, covering plates, blackening books; it slips up your nose and into your pores. You chew it in your teeth.

So dust demands attention--but why two sweepers? Caste, I've discovered, also provides a division of labor.

Muni is low-caste or may not belong to a "caste" at all; she is a harijan or an untouchable--there are many such names or euphemisms. Small and very talkative, she is one of the few people here who make me glad I understand so little Hindi, because there's hardly any stopping her in any event. Every morning, seven days a week, unless she's had to return to her village for an illness, a wedding, a funeral, a festival, she bangs loudly at the big metal door at the back of our house that opens onto a dirt alley.

Barefoot, she enters. A sari is pulled over her head, but there's nothing demure about Muni. "Namisday," she says to me, her voice a hoarse cackle. Already she's talking to my wife, Wendy (a historian of India who speaks fluent Hindi), looking about for Aaron, calling out to our landlady upstairs to let Asha know she's arrived. Muni's duty is to clean our two bathrooms and to sweep the back hall. Period. No further is she permitted to go.

For an American this restriction represents another tricky, delicate dance. Because it's not just a matter of trust--not (simply) that Muni or others like her are assumed to be dishonest. It's that, especially for Brahmins like the Nehrus, someone of Muni's caste doesn't belong in bedrooms or kitchens or front rooms--their presence would be distasteful, even polluting for many traditional Hindus. These are habits and expectations not easily toyed with; when we, whether out of principle or ignorance, violate them, the servants themselves are shocked and dismayed.

Gunga is of a higher caste than Muni. Gunga enters the front door, leaving her plastic flip-flops just outside. Gunga will have nothing to do with the bathrooms. Her job is to sweep out the rest of the flat, hunkered down on her haunches and flailing a long sheaf of a broom. Each day we are astonished to see how much dust, sand, and grit she collects. Using a rag and bucket she then washes the stone floors as well. Of course, if I am in the house trying to read or write, I am shooed about like an errant bird before her; I am in her way; I ought not to be here unless supervising. And because I tend not to supervise, she tolerates me with a kind of disbelief or condescension that sometimes approaches contempt.

Gunga also does our laundry, soaking it in buckets in the back entrance when she arrives, and later, after her sweeping, she uses a long cricket-bat of a paddle to beat the clothes against the stone floor. Out of self-defense the fabric yields its soil. The life expectancy of cloth is rather less than in the West.

A aron needs an ayah--a nurse or, in contemporary lingo, child-care giver--during the day when he isn't at school.

Through a service provided by the American Embassy, Wendy interviews and hires Reena, a widow, who clearly would like a longer-term position. But she is willing to give us a try; we're willing to do the same. Initially a noticeable lack of enthusiasm exists on both sides.

Cooking remains a problem. It's not just an issue of preparing food, but of the time-consuming proposition in India of daily marketing and watching for street vendors of vegetables--the subji-wallah--and those of fruits, of eggs and bread, who wander along the street from dawn until after dusk, each with a flat-bed pushcart, shouting and singing their wares. Lentils must be soaked; flour formed into chapatis. Convenience foods are rare, though a Domino's Pizza shop has recently opened in the Greater Kailash Market a few blocks away.

A few days after she has begun working for us, Reena arrives with Rani, a woman who belongs to the same Christian church. Give Rani a week's try and then decide, Reena suggests as if the decision's already made. Okay, we shrug, happy for even an interim solution.

But we quickly discover that Rani, rail thin, almost emaciated, and quiet--she speaks no English, doesn't want to speak to a man in any event, communicates with Wendy or through Reena--is a great treasure. Her cuisine, so to speak, is entirely north Indian, which suits us wonderfully well. Soon we are feasting on a variety of vegetable dishes--eggplant, spinach, beans--on chapatis and pakoras. She gives us lists of spices she needs. And she cleans the kitchen as it's probably never been cleaned before.

Fragile as a bird, there's something childlike about Rani. Indeed, she and Aaron hit it off with an immediacy lacking in his relationship with his ayah. And yet at other moments, from other angles, she seems older, almost wizened. She could be anywhere from early forties to sixty--there's no easy clue.

1 September

D arjeeling, the famous tea-growing hill country north of Calcutta, has been the site of a seminar on American literature--my first gig for the U.S. Information Service (USIS)--attended by Indian scholars from around the region. But why, I wondered in advance, were we not flying into Darjeeling itself, but into Bodegra, a dusty, grimy patch on the vast Gangetic plain? For hours we rove through rice paddies and the first fields of tea bushes and, abruptly, up into the first row of mountains. Switchback followed switchback relentlessly. The climb was steep, exhilarating, not a little terrifying as we veered around the outer lip of the narrow road.

"Foothills of Himalayas" I'd been told to expect. Well, as with so much in India, it's a relative judgment. We didn't fly into Darjeeling because there's no level plot of ground for a runway longer than a Paris designer's. Darjeeling is perched precariously on a ridge about eight-thousand feet in the air.

Along the winding road first paved by the British, hardly more than a path, waterfalls coursed down rocky gullies as we climbed; at each, people huddled for (cold!) bathing, drinking, clothes washing. And these folk hardly looked "Indian" as we usually mean it; many had migrated from Nepal and Tibet.

We arrived at the resort hotel in Ghoom (sort of a suburb of Darjeeling, along the same ridge) in the middle of the afternoon, and we had lunch while gazing out over the narrow valleys and adjoining mountains of this range. The Himalayas themselves are supposed to be visible in clear weather, but a heavy haze blocked any such view and soon descended, a cloud rather than a fog, enveloping us in white gauze that lasted more or less for the next two days, along with ceaseless rain.

On the second day we took a break from my lectures, "Contemporary American Literature" and "Postcolonial Issues Applied to American Lit," for a short excursion into Darjeeling itself, frustrating because of the rain. I strolled up to the mall at the top of the town's ridge, poked into a Buddhist monastery, did a little shopping. And just as we were about to pile back into the four-wheel drive Jeeps that navigate this treacherous territory, the clouds lifted partly and for a moment we had a brief--perhaps five-minute--view of snow-capped mountains in the near distance. Clouds still drifted across the view; we were stealing glimpses of the mountains, pink and dramatic in the late-afternoon light. I was grateful for at least this brief taste of Himalayan glory.

Next morning, our last in Ghoom, I'd asked to be called early if the weather had cleared. Perhaps I'd have one more view of the mountains. Sure enough at 4:30 the call came. Somewhat reluctantly in the cold air of my spartan hotel room, I crawled from the covers, dressed quickly, and walked out onto the crest of the ridge. Turning the corner of our building, I nearly cried out. For there indeed was the full Kangchendzonga range of the Himalayas, the third-highest in the world. Yesterday's glimpse had been fool's gold, had lowered the guard of my expectations. What I'd mistaken for the real thing was merely--merely--an intermediate range in the lap of the Kangchendzonga.

The peaks before me, above me now were sharp, sharp. The solid snow cover and deep shadows in the brilliant dawn light only heightened the drama of angles. The Kangchendzonga loomed above me--remember, I'm already standing on an impressive tuft of mountain--nearer than I'd imagined, higher than I'd imagined, and also more massive; that's what I hadn't fully expected or taken into account. Awe is not too strong a word, not even in its rare sense as pure as the mountains and air and light about me.

I stood on the ridge for about twenty minutes, switching my view from binoculars to unaided vision which gave the fuller effect. At last, arm weary, I retreated to the dining room and sat in a comfortable chair for an hour or so by the plate-glass windows, just watching. By nine-thirty we'd lost first the distant peaks, and then fog and drizzle closed in upon us once more. Still, the sense of dazzle remained for hours.

With still a short while before our departure, I strolled down the muddy track (steep!) to the Ghoom monastery, perched incongruously just below the new hotel, almost a strut or foundation. This monastery is the oldest in the Darjeeling area, dating to 1850, and is still very much a working institution. As workers, young and old, male and female, wandered down after me from night shifts at the hotel they make their way deliberately through the temple grounds to spin the bronze prayer wheels ringing the walls of the prayer hall itself. Inside, I discovered, the largest of many Buddhas has blue eyes!--a representation, I'm told, of his next incarnation, expected to be in the West. Lucky West.

While I was watching, two of the monks--very casual, very work-a-day--hauled out their immense trumpets of brass and leather, horns stretching perhaps twenty feet before them. Next, casually, they propped helmet-like headdresses on their heads. And then they blew, first awkward squawks, then long, resonant, reedy blasts, announcing to the heavens that prayer was underway and that attention should be paid.

15 September

M y six-day visit to Pakistan is hard work and not much fun. I fly into Lahore, transfer to Islamabad, and arrive so late that the only dinner available is a slapdash affair of rice and cold chicken the (very spartan) guest house throws together in my room. Next morning I lecture at Federal Government Women's College. The students all wear either white kameez bordered in light blue, or khaki uniforms as part of some connection as cadets with the Pak military. The principal, a woman who hardly pauses long enough to draw breath, is friendly and excited to have me there nonetheless and insists on presenting me with a ceremonial plaque after my talk.

The afternoon is free in Islamabad, a place created ex nihilo and still revealing lots of nihilo. A saying I've already heard a dozen times: "Visit Islamabad, only fifteen minutes from Pakistan." For a capital it's a small city, less than half a million. But money abounds, yielding plenty of huge homes and parks and trees. But the city still feels closed, numbingly so.

Since my presence has increased the Jewish population in the locale by some substantial percentage, and since this is the day before Yom Kippur, it seems fitting to visit the al-Faisal Mosque, the area's one great showpiece, built as a gift of the Saudis. It sits tucked into the sharp hills that form a spine along the city, dry, rugged, dramatic. But the complex itself reminds me of the "Crystal Cathedral" built by one of those California television evangelists. El-Faisal is big all right, and it cost plenty. But unlike other mosques I've visited in India, it feels oddly sterile. The marble and concrete soar, with four huge minars. The main prayer hall looks rather like a large space ship, with a globe-like crystal chandelier. Hilton splendor. Against the far window sits a huge stone model of the Koran. Yet after all, this is dedicated to the same God with whom I've had my own off-and-on affair over the years. A brief, a quiet chat here seems oddly appropriate, since I won't be in synagogue tomorrow.

Islamabad's other main tourist spot is an overlook in the hills above the city. Well, it's hot, the hill isn't very high, and the city isn't very much to see. But in the restaurant I settle at a table by the windows and decide to indulge myself with good local food while enjoying the view as best I can. The meal, my first real meal in the country, is a foretaste, literally, of everything I am in for over the next several days. A buffet, it consists of various preparations of meat. There is mutton (goat). And there is chicken. And there is beef (strange, having not tasted any for a couple of months while in India). And then there's another version of mutton. And more chicken too. All spicy, but not well spiced. All greasy. Token gestures towards vegetables are soggily half-hearted. As I pause for breath, to make sure I don't miss out the waiter fetches over a tray of fresh kebabs.

Next morning on to Peshawar. I'm met by David Mees, the American consul, and taken to lecture at the university. Middle of nowhere. Nice, eager, desperate faculty and students. Couldn't be more welcoming. I do my song and dance. The weather is hot. After the talk I'm marched back to the principal's office, surrounded by colleagues, and offered the local thin green tea and cookies.

As we slip away I confide in David Mees. If I knew the secret handshake I'd offer it. Mees, I've been assured by USIS folk in Islamabad, is the just the contact I need for my private mission, and he doesn't disappoint. In the afternoon we pay a call on one of his friends. Through a maze of back alleys, unmarked, dusty, dirty, littered with children and paan sellers and donkeys and crumbling bricks, the American car veers between walls seemingly narrower than its width, climbing ruts, going where no sane voyager has gone before. At last, through a final dusty gate, we discover the unmarked workshop of Mohammed Farooq, a Frenchman previously called Marc Roy.

Roy has lived in Peshawar ten years. Recently, indeed, he has converted to Islam, and he is about to marry the sister of one of the men who work for him. For Roy is a master craftsman. And he trains refugee Afghans and Turkomans to weave gorgeous rugs. He dyes his own wool, uses only the best materials. His rugs aren't cheap by local standards, but their quality is astonishing--I've never seen anything so fine in modern rugs, with the whimsy and color and life of older tribal specimens. Six months from now, back in the States, I will open a J. Peterman catalogue. There before me will be a spread on Farooq of Peshawar. Our modern-day Stanley will have penetrated into the wilderness and found another of his Livingstons. Smiling--having checked out Peterman's price--I will close the catalogue, tickled that I've made the find first.

My brief impression of Peshawar is that it's wild, truly a frontier. The faces of people are varied, sharp, and dried, and hard, beautiful, young, and fresh, a melange of all possibilities.

24 October

I 'm a bit shell-shocked this morning--and I use the phrase precisely. Yesterday was Diwali, the climax of the Indian festival season. Dusshera was the defeat of Evil; this is the creation of Good, a festival of lights. And, like so much else in my experience of India so far this year, my reaction is complex, ambivalent, confused, oh yeah, and exhausted.

In cultural "feel," Diwali is surprisingly close to Christmas in the United States. There's a long build-up of anticipation and excitement; it's a time of traditional gift-giving and thus, inevitably even here, mass consumer hype and advertising; markets and homes are strung with bright and colored electric lights; families gather together and there's also a continuous round of parties and dinners; the world shuts down for something more than twenty-four hours; and, like Christmas, the religious origins of the holiday are pretty well absorbed or disguised by all the secular activities, although in India such distinctions are never clear, never consistent. Many families offer puja, a ritual to specific Gods, either at home or at brightly ornamented public temples. Of course, it's also about ninety degrees during the day, making the Christmas resonances somewhat disorienting.

But the most stunning--literally--aspect of the holiday is aural. In this it's closer to the American Fourth of July than Christmas. Firecrackers are Diwali. And I don't mean tame little things from the drugstore. Nor the grandly arching and colorful public fireworks of every American town, city, and golf course. No, these firecrackers are meant to explode, to make noise, to rattle teeth, eardrums, nerves, bones, walls.

Diwali evening the city looks lovely. In addition to the electric lights, candles and oil lamps (diyas) have been lit everywhere, in windows and on sidewalks, candles in little earthen bowls. We drive out to a dinner party at the home of Kailash and Abha Jha, where I lived for a month before my family joined me in India. Kailash works in the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy. He has spent the last three months stationed in Kashmir, where he is monitoring the fate of the American who is being held hostage by separatist fighters. The other guests at this small party are an American couple, a German couple, a single Brit, and the three of us.

At 8:30 the world erupts. Now there's been steady--steady--fireworks exploding all day and all night. I'm pretty well inured to it by now. Hah. Suddenly, as we are eating Abha's marvelous fare, the pitch and violence and percussions rise so that it feels as though we are under attack. Every second multiple explosions rock us, near and far, loud and then louder, amazingly loud. I have never heard or felt such an unrelenting barrage. Several of the other guests, in fact, have experienced military fire, even recently in Kashmir. Their faces are pale. One or two eye the tables for possible shelter.

Eventually, battered and curious, we follow the Jhas' children into the little courtyard/parking lot of the apartment complex to witness the local scene. The high walls of this complex make the huge sounds echo and reverberate. Children light bombs that are illegal in the United States. We watch, shaken, as they flirt with disaster, while their parents observe casu-ally, even wistfully. By now I have a full-blown headache, my ears are ringing, even my jaw hurts. And Wendy and I are grimacing as other children hand Aaron sparklers to hold--sparklers more vivid, more, well, frightening than anything I've ever seen. He, of course, is in heaven, dancing and spinning and jumping with delight throughout the entire Walpurgisnacht.

Late February

F or Shimla, the capital of Himachel Pradesh where I will give the last of my USIS lectures, I take an overnight train from Delhi to Kalka, arriving t 5:00 a.m., where I move my gear in darkness onto a narrow-gauge train--really a bus on rails on this particular run--for the long climb into the mountains. For nearly five hours we switch back and skitter along and around hills and then mountains. This vast territory seems all but deserted. Some of the ridges are covered in firs, many have been denuded. Yet much of the country seems merely arid, bare stone. Steadily rising, we round from one breathtaking view into another more stunning still.

Shimla itself, the old summer capital of the British Raj, sits along a ridge with a sharp central peak. As we approach we finally spy patches of snow in the shadows, though not the heavy drifts I've envisioned trudging through. Shimla is very much a city, complete with hot exhaust, traffic noise, and the dangerous swerving of trucks and buses, through which I wade for twenty minutes with a porter from station to hotel. I arrive puffing because Shimla is 7,200 feet high, and it doesn't take much activity to remind you.

Lunch is still a couple of hours off, and so once I've checked in I set off on a first brief stroll to become oriented. The town stretches across its mountain in a series of shelves or terraces, one street, one set of buildings twisting back and slightly above the last. Along the upper reaches winds the mall, a paved and largely open area, barred to vehicles of most any sort and, during much of the Raj, actually barred to Indians themselves. There's a city hall along here, police headquarters, even a handsome greystone theater from the days when vacationing Brits would mount amateur productions of the Bard.

Towards the top of the mall, the ridge opens out on both sides. To the north, beyond towering statues of Indira Gandhi and, farther on, the Mahatma too, several distinct lines of mountains spread away, two or three sets of ridges and, on the horizon, some hundred kilometers away and still looming high and snow-capped, stretch the great Himalayas. Almost every step along the pavement changes the view.

And this is one of the striking aspects of Shimla: shifting perspectives. As in movies where directors move the camera rather than simply zoom a shot, perspective changes dramatically in the mountains. Within this town one confronts an endless series of terraces and folds and backdrops. One step rearranges the view entirely. And with one range of mountains backing against another, again and again to the Himalayas themselves, different views, surprising twists and turns and sudden emanations of snow and rock thrust themselves before you constantly, unexpectedly.

Because the mall keeps winding, climbing, turning back on itself, I follow it along. Plenty of time for lunch. Public buildings soon give way to official houses and wealthy estates. And I notice signs for a temple ahead. I check a guidebook: yes, this is a must-see, an ancient temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. That explains the growing number of wild and not-so-wild monkeys scrambling about the path and in the trees. The temple must be just round that next bend. No? Okay, look, see where there's that last rise? It must be there.

By now, I'm in a full sweat and breathing hard. The houses have fallen away. I'm in a forest of pines and firs and some large version of, I guess, rhododendron. The path has become so steep that stone steps have been hewed along the side for the frail, the elderly, the westerner. Snow and ice are becoming more treacherous. Monkeys, cadging for food, are growing more aggressive. Some are large and fearless and, from the look of them, mean. But I've come too far to turn back.

I stagger with the quick thud on my back. Almost in the same instant a small arm is scrappling round my neck, its hand snatching my glasses from my nose. The monkey, shrieking and hooting, scampers away, chased by one of the local boys who serve/offer themselves as "guides" but are more accurately body guards. The boy scrambles up the bank after the monkey--now only a ragged blur, one among a gang, as far as I can make out--shouting and flinging sticks and dirty turds of snow at the desperado. I'm already imagining my lecture t the university next day, brazened out near-sightedly, followed by a dizzy, humiliating retreat to the plains of Delhi.

A shout, a flurry, and now it's the boy's turn to come scrambling back, my only-slightly-marred glasses clutched in his fist. I'm so relieved, so grateful, that when one of his friends generously suggests I cough up fifty rupees I don't even hesitate. Only later do I wonder what share will fall to the monkey.

Peanuts, no doubt.

David Lynn, who holds a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia, is the editor of The Kenyon Review.

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