An area of darkness, p.13
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       An Area of Darkness, p.13

           V. S. Naipaul
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  I suffered with him. But the thought of egg and oil nauseated me further; and I was surprised by the rise within myself of that deep anger which unhinges judgement and almost physically limits vision.

  ‘Aziz,’ I said, ‘will you ask this person to go?’

  It was brutal; it was ludicrous; it was pointless and infantile. But the moment of anger is a moment of exalted, shrinking lucidity from which recovery is slow and shattering.

  Some time later the khansamah left the Liward. It occurred without warning. He came up with Aziz to my room one morning and said, ‘I am going, huzoor.’

  Aziz, anticipating my questions, said, ‘This is happy for him, sahib. Not worry. He get job family Baramula side.’

  ‘I am going, huzoor. Give me certificate now.’ He stood behind Aziz, and as he spoke he squinted one eye and wagged a long finger at Aziz’s back.

  I typed out a certificate for him right away. It was long and emotional, of no use to a future employer; it was a testimony of sympathy: I felt he was as inadequate as myself. While I wrote Aziz stood by, dusting from time to time, smiling, seeing that nothing went wrong.

  ‘I am going now, huzoor.’

  I sent Aziz outside, and gave the khansamah more money than was necessary. He took it without softening. All he did was to say slowly and with passion, ‘That man Aziz!’

  ‘This is happy for him,’ Aziz said again afterwards. ‘Two three days we get new khansamah.’

  So the vision of the hotel as doll’s house altered.


  ‘Sahib, I request one thing. You write Touriasm Office, invite Mr Madan to tea.’

  ‘But, Aziz, he didn’t come the last time.’

  ‘Sahib, you write Touriasm.’

  ‘No, Aziz. No more invitations to tea.’

  ‘Sahib, I request one thing. You go see Mr Madan.’

  Another plot had been hatched in the kitchen. Every week Ali Mohammed had to apply for a permit to enter the police-guarded compound of the Tourist Reception Centre. This wasted some of his tourist-catching time. What he needed was a permit for the entire season, and the kitchen felt that I could get one for him.

  ‘Do they really give these season permits, Aziz?’

  ‘Yes, sahib. Lotta houseboat have season permit.’

  My lake hotel, unorthodox, unrecognized, was being discriminated against. Without further inquiry, I made an appointment with Mr Madan, and when the day came Mr Butt and I rode into town on a tonga.

  And they knew about me at the Tourist Office! My previous letter had made the Liward Hotel famous. There were smiles and handshakes from several officials who were delighted, if a little puzzled, by my interest. The Indian bureaucracy has its silences and delays, but it never loses or forgets any document; and it was with pure geniality that I was hustled, as the writer of an unsolicited letter of praise, into the picture-hung office of Mr Madan, the director.

  His waiting visitors, his grave expectant courtesy, almost made me change my mind. Now the greetings were over; something had to be said. So: Would Mr Madan please see that Ali Mohammed was given a permit for the season, if Ali Mohammed was entitled to such a permit?

  ‘But permits are no longer required. Your friend, I imagine, has a British passport.’

  I could not blame him for misunderstanding. Ali was not a tourist, I said. He wanted to meet tourists. He was a Kashmiri, a hotel servant; he wanted to get inside the Tourist Reception Centre. I knew that tourists had to be protected. Still. My trivialities burdened me. I became more and more earnest, anxious to get out of the encounter with dignity.

  Mr Madan behaved well. If Ali applied, he said, he would consider the application.

  I bade him good morning and walked briskly out with the news to Mr Butt.

  ‘You see head clerk now,’ Mr Butt said, and I allowed myself to be led into a room of desks and clerks.

  The head clerk was not at his desk. We found him later in the corridor, a smiling well-built young man in a pale grey suit. He knew my letter; he understood my request. Let the hotel apply tomorrow; he would see what he could do.

  ‘Tomorrow,’ I said to Mr Butt. ‘You come tomorrow.’

  Hurriedly, I left him and made my way through the grounds of the Government Emporium, once the British Residency, to the Bund along the muddy Jhelum River. The elaborate Kashmiri woodwork of the Residency had decayed here and there; next to it a dingy little shack – very English, very Indian – proclaimed itself as the Emporium Café. But the chenar-shaded grounds remained grandiloquent, carefully irregular patches of daisies dramatizing the vast lawn. The Residency stood at one end of the Bund, on which, I had often been told, no Indian was allowed in the old days. Now the turnstiles were broken. Signs forbade cycling and walking on the grass bank; but there was constant cycling, and a deep path had been worn into the bank. Cows nibbled at the front gardens of buildings which, though in reality no more than an adoption of the Kashmiri style, at first sight appeared a type of mock mock-Tudor. Some old-fashioned shops survived, roomy, dark, with many glass cases; they still seemed to hold the anticipations of a thousand Anglo-Indian ‘leaves’. Faded advertisements for things like water biscuits, no longer obtainable, could be still seen; boards and walls still carried the names of British patrons, viceroys and commanders-in-chief. In a taxidermist’s shop there was a framed photograph of an English cavalry officer with his polished boot on a dead tiger.

  One type of glory had gone. The other brightness, of the bazaar, had not yet come. But it was on the way. ‘You needn’t tell me, sir. I can see from your dress and your speech that your taste is English. Step inside and let me show you my English-taste rugs. Observe. This is English taste. I know. Now on the other hand observe this. It is heavy, Indian and of course inferior …’

  Kashmirs Most Extraordinary Entertaining Rendezvous



  Hey-Fellers-Tony is At the Mike

  With All the Five Bops

  Fellers enjoy the 36 Varieties of Icecreams



  That was what the leaflets said. Now the rendezvous itself, new, contemporary – ‘most gayest’, according to another leaflet, ‘most delicious in tours’ – was before me. It was too early for Tony and the Five Bops. I had a quiet, expensive litre of Indian beer and tried to put the morning’s encounters out of my mind.

  Later I walked down the dusty Residency Road and talked with the old bearded bookseller. He was a BA, LLB from Bombay, and a refugee from Sind. He said he was eighty. I challenged this. ‘Well, I say eighty so as not to say seventy-eight.’ He told me of the Pakistani invasion of 1947 and of the looting of Baramula. In this very city of Srinagar, this city of tonga-wallahs, Ali Mohammed and Yap – Let’s go to Premiers, five hundred rupees were being paid for eight-rupee bus seats to Jammu. ‘Now there is nothing to do but laugh, and I often just sit here and read.’ He read Stephen Leacock, and was addicted to the stories of Major Munro. Why did he say Major Munro? Well, he had read that Saki was Munro and a Major, and he felt it was a discourtesy to deny a favourite author his rank.

  I was riding back to the hotel ghat on a tonga when I saw Mr Butt. I took him on. He was utterly wretched. I had left him too hurriedly. He had not understood my words and had spent all morning at the Tourist Reception Centre waiting for me.

  Next morning I typed out the application for the season permit and Mr Butt took it into town. It was hot and it became hotter. Towards midday the sky darkened, the clouds lowered, the mountains became dark blue and were reflected in the water until the winds started to rage across the lake, kicking up the lotus leaves, tormenting the willows, pushing the reeds this way and that. Soon it began to rain and, after that very hot morning, it became quite cold. It was still raining when Mr Butt returned. His fur cap was soaked into mean, glistening kinkiness; his jacket was dark with wet; his shoulders were hunched below the turned-up collar; his shirt-tail was dripping.
I watched him walk slowly down the wet boards in the garden to the kitchen. He kicked his shoes off and disappeared inside. I returned to my work, and waited for the sound of happy bare feet on the steps. But there was nothing.

  And, as before, it was I who had to ask. ‘Did Mr Butt get the permit, Aziz?’

  ‘Yes, he get permit. One week.’


  One morning some days later I was having coffee in the sitting-room when the painter in the overalls pushed his head through the doorway and said, ‘You typewrite give me painting certificate sahib?’ I did not reply.

  6. The Medieval City

  THE LEVEL OF the lake dropped to the last step of the landingstage; the water became muddier and swarmed with black colonies of summer fish. The snow on the mountains to the north melted and the exposed rock looked bleached and eroded. On the cool parkland of the foothills the firs became darker blobs of green. The poplars on the lake lost their fresh greenness and the willows scattered spinning leaves in high wind. The reeds became so tall they curved, and when the wind blew they swayed and tossed like waves. The lotus leaves rose crinkled and disordered out of the water, thrust up on thick stalks. Then, like blind tulips, the lotus buds appeared, and a week later opened in explosions of dying pink. In the garden the Californian poppies and the clarkia grew straggly and were pulled out; the French marigolds, which had taken the place of the pansies, thickened and put out buds. The petunias in the shade of the dining-room wall were failing; they, like the geraniums, had been discoloured and weighted down with distemper from the painters’ brushes. The godetias were at their peak: a mass of whipped colour, white and pink and pale violet. The sunflowers, seedlings when we arrived, were so tall, their leaves so broad, I could no longer look down into their hearts to examine the progress of the star-shaped buds. The dahlias put out one small red bloom, a touch of vivid colour against the green of reeds and willows and poplars.

  We still had the kingfisher. But other birds appeared less frequently in the garden. We missed the hoopoe, with his long busy bill, his curved black and white wing stripes, his crest fanning out as he landed. With the heat the little flies died, as Aziz had said; and their place was taken by the house-fly. The flies I had known so far were shy of man; these settled on my face and hands even while I worked, and for several mornings in succession I was awakened before six by the buzzing of a single, Flit-surviving fly. Aziz promised mosquitoes; they would rout the flies. To him a fly was an act of God; one afternoon I saw him happily asleep in the kitchen, his cap on, his face black with still, contented flies.

  I had asked for Flit, and more Flit. Now I asked for ice.

  ‘Anybody don’t like ice,’ Aziz said. ‘Ice is heating.’

  And this reply led to one of our silences.

  On very hot days the mountains to the north were hidden by haze from morning till evening. When the sun began to go down an amber light filled the valley and the mist rose slowly between the poplars on the lake. Each tree was distinct; and from Shankaracharya Hill Srinagar, smoking, appeared to be a vast industrial town, the poplars as erect as chimneys. Against this the fort of Akbar, standing on its reddish hill in the centre of the lake, was silhouetted: the sun to the left, a white disc slowly turning pale yellow, the mountains fading from grey to nothing as they receded.


  Beyond the Bund it was a medieval town, and it might have been of medieval Europe. It was a town, damp or dusty, of smells: of bodies and picturesque costumes discoloured and acrid with grime, of black, open drains, of exposed fried food and exposed filth; a town of prolific pariah dogs of disregarded beauty below shop platforms, of starved puppies shivering in the damp caked blackness below butchers’ stalls hung with bleeding flesh; a town of narrow lanes and dark shops and choked courtyards, of full, ankle-length skirts and the innumerable brittle, scarred legs of boys. Yet much skill had gone into the making of these huddled wooden buildings; much fine fantastic carving and woodwork remained, not at first noticeable, for everything had been weathered to grey-black; and there were odd effects of beauty, as when every brass and burnished copper vessel in a shop of brass and copper vessels glinted in the gloom. For against this drabness, an overwhelming impression of muddiness, of black and grey and brown, colour stood out and was enticing: the colours of sweets, yellow and glistening green, however fly-infested. Here one was able to learn again the attraction of primary, heraldic colours, the colours of toys, and of things that shone, and to rediscover that child’s taste so long suppressed, which is also peasant’s taste, erupting here, as in the rest of India, in tinsel and coloured lights and everything we had all once considered pretty. Out of these cramped yards, glimpsed through filth-runnelled alleyways, came bright colours in glorious patterns on rugs and carpets and soft shawls, patterns and colours derived from Persia, in Kashmir grown automatic, even in all their rightness and variety, and applied with indiscriminate lavishness on a two-thousand-rupee carpet or an old blanket which, when worked, would sell for twelve rupees. In this medieval dirt and greyness beauty was colour, equally admired in a fine rug, a pot of plastic daisies or, as once in Europe, in a fantastic costume.

  As complementary as colour was gaiety. The town slept during the winter. The tourists went away, hotels and houseboats closed, and in their dark, small-windowed rooms the Kashmiris wrapped themselves in blankets and idled over charcoal braziers until the spring. The spring brought sun and dust and fairs, colour and noise and exposed food. Nearly every fortnight there seemed to be a fair in some part of the Valley. Each was like the other. In each might be found the picture-seller, his stock spread out on the ground: thin wall-scrolls with violently coloured drawings of Indian and Arabian mosques, objects of desired pilgrimage, flattened out of perspective; photographs of film stars; coloured pictures of political leaders; innumerable paperbacked booklets. There were stalls of cheap toys and cheap clothes; there were tea-tents and sweet-trays. A Hindu holy man of terrifying aspect sat in the dust behind his small dry vials that contained charms of ‘eye of newt and tongue of dog’. And always there was amplified music. On the lake, too, the playground now not only of the tourists but also of the people of the town, there was music: from the doongas, smaller unpainted houseboats, hired complete with kitchen-women and pole-man. He walked slowly back and forth past the cabins, now carrying his pole, now leaning on it, separate from the revelry within but seemingly content; a woman, possibly his wife, bundled in dirty skirts and heavy with silver jewellery, sat solitary at the high stern, steering with a long paddle. It was movement for the sake of movement. The doongas went nowhere in particular and were never beyond shouting distance of gardens or houses; they called here, moored there for the night. A doonga party could last for days; people might get off at some point to attend to their affairs on land and might rejoin the boat later at another point. A dull, strenuous entertainment it seemed to me; but my winters were full. The fair in the grove at Ganderbal, a few miles to the northwest, climaxed the season. All the doongas and shikaras made their way there and moored for the night: movement for the sake of movement, crowd for the sake of crowd, noise for the sake of noise.

  And in this medieval town, as in all medieval towns, the people were surrounded by wonders. About them in Srinagar were the gardens of the Mogul emperors. The pavilions were neglected but they were still whole. On Sundays the fountains of Shalimar still played, with here and there a bent or broken nozzle. But the builders had receded beyond history into legend: fabulous personages of whom little was known except that they were very handsome or very brave or very wise, with wives who were very beautiful. ‘That?’ said the Kashmiri engineer, waving towards Akbar’s late-sixteenth-century fort in the Dal Lake. ‘That is five thousand years old.’ In the Hazratbal mosque on the lake there was a hair from the beard of the Prophet Mohammed. It had been brought through untold dangers to Kashmir, the medical student told me, by ‘a man’. Who was this man? What did he do? Where did he come from? My student couldn’t say; he knew only that once, whe
n this man was in an especially dangerous situation, he had gashed himself in the arm and in the gash had concealed the holy hair. It was an authentic relic, there could be no doubt of that. It was so potent that birds never flew over the chapel in which it was kept and cows, sacred to Hindus, never sat with their backs to the chapel.

  God watched over them all, and they responded with enthusiasm. Mohurram was the month in which for ten days they mourned Hussain, the Prophet’s descendant, murdered at Kerbala. The wails and songs of the Shias came to us over the water at night. Aziz, of the Sunni sect, said with a smile, ‘Shia not Muslim.’ Yet on the seventh morning, when on the radio the well-known story of Kerbala was being told, tears came to Aziz’s eyes, his face grew small, and he hurried out of the dining-room, saying, ‘I can’t stop. I don’t like listen.’

  There was to be a Shia procession at Hasanbad; there would be people whipping themselves with chains. Aziz, recovered from the morning’s emotion, insisted that we should go, and made the arrangements. We went by shikara, quickly penetrating into the green-scummed, willow-hung water highways of the lake town, past the dirty yards terminating in broken concrete steps, gutters running down their sides, on which men and women and children were washing clothes, our own washerman, I was sorry to see, among them. The highways were altogether foul, smelling of the sewer; but at every yard children, miniature adults, rushed out to greet us: ‘Salaam!’

  At Hasanbad we moored among dozens of shikaras, many brilliantly canopied, walked past the foundations of a ruin of which we had never heard, and found ourselves in the middle of a dusty summer fair. The streets had been swept; water-carts laid the dust. There were awnings and stalls. The well-to-do among the women in the crowd were veiled in black or brown from head to well-shod feet; they were in groups of two or three, and through the grilled netting over their eyes we felt ourselves scrutinized. It was the poor who were unveiled; here, as everywhere else, to be conservative and correct was the privilege of the rising. We passed a father and his daughter; he was letting her play with his whip, as yet unused.

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