An area of darkness, p.20
An Area of Darkness, p.20V. S. Naipaul
Aziz reported, ‘He say I overcharge. He say, “Why you tell other sahib I married?” I say, “Why you want secret? Man get married. This is for good. He give party. He invite. He not hide. And why I not tell? You wake up my sahib and he complain.” ’
‘Are you sure you are not overcharging them, Aziz?’
‘O no, sahib.’
‘But he doesn’t have a lot of money, Aziz. He wasn’t expecting to get married when he came to Kashmir. How much did they spend on their marriage?’
‘O sahib, how much they spend? Some people give Mufti five, some give fifteen, some give fifty.’
‘How much did they give?’
‘You are a brute. You shouldn’t have let him. He couldn’t afford a hundred rupees. No wonder he can’t pay you now.’
‘But this is for good, sahib. You get married American memsahib, you give big party. You give Parsi khana, bangola fireworks. You not hide. They not give party, they not give nothing.’
‘The memsahib is American, but they don’t have money.’
‘No, sahib. They hide. Lotta people come Kashmir, feel what do here not matter. They feel Kashmir wedding not matter. But wedding paper get show in court, sahib.’
And Ali Mohammed came up with a copy of the marriage certificate, on which I saw the signatures of Zenobia, Rafiq and Mr Butt.
‘They not hide, sahib,’ Aziz said. ‘They married good.’
It wasn’t only money. They had been hurt in their pride as Kashmiris and Muslims. They had welcomed a convert; now they feared they were being made fools of.
‘He not pay,’ Aziz said, ‘I take away sitar.’
But Rafiq chased through Srinagar and borrowed the necessary rupees. By midday he and Zenobia were ready to leave. We were having lunch when Zenobia came in to say good-bye. A man hovered behind the door curtain.
He came in and stood a few paces behind her.
Self-possession momentarily deserted her. She knew that we knew the Gulmarg story.
‘This,’ she said, with acute embarrassment, ‘is my husband.’
I had expected someone more tormented, more wasted-looking. He was of medium height and powerfully built, with a round, blunt-featured face. I had expected someone wild-eyed, defiant. He was dreadfully shy, with sleepy eyes; it was as if he had been caught smoking and was trying to hide the burning cigarette behind his back and to swallow the smoke without coughing. He was a musician and an Indian: I had expected long hair and a wide-sleeved white tunic, not an army-style haircut and an Indian-tailored fawn suit.
He was not the man I had imagined who would make his sitar cry out his anguish; he was only the man who would object to his marriage being known. Poor Rafiq! He had come to Kashmir for a holiday; he was going back exhausted, broke, married. I had thought of passion as a gift, a faculty with which human beings were unequally endowed. Now I felt that it was something which, in a complex conjunction of circumstances, might overtake us all.
He gave me a military handshake. He pulled out an unimpressive fountain-pen from his inside pocket and in a flowing, clerklike hand wrote down his address, now Laraine’s, now Zenobia’s.
‘You must come and see us,’ she said. ‘You must come and have dinner one evening.’
Then they went through the curtained doorway, and I never saw Rafiq again.
It was time for us, too, to pack up and go, to say good-bye to the mountains and the room with the two views. The reeds had turned brown; in the afternoons shikara-loads of cut reeds went down the water highways. The sunflower plants – so thick their stalks now, and the birds pecked at the seeds in the black, burnt-out flowers – were all cut down in one afternoon and thrown in a bundle outside the kitchen. The garden seemed exposed and ravaged, the sunflower stumps showing as white as wood.
Aziz gave us dinner one evening at his tall brick house in the lake, paddling us there himself (together with a napkin-covered pitcher of tap-water from the hotel). Night, a lantern in the shikara, silence, the house approached down a willow-hung water alley, and Aziz behaving with an ancient courtesy. Details were obscured; it might have been the beginning of a Venetian entertainment. We ate sitting on the floor of an upper room that had been cleared of all furniture and people, whose presence we could yet detect in close whispers and the sounds of movement; and Aziz knelt before us, talking, no longer a hotel servant but our host, grave, independent, a man of substance, a man of views and, when the women and the babies flooded in, a responsible family man. The walls were thick, comfortingly grimed, full of arched recesses; windows were small. The room promised idleness and the warmth of charcoal braziers in winter, when the lake would freeze so hard a jeep could be driven over it: we would follow the weather in Srinagar.
After our last dinner in the hotel Mr Butt assembled the servants for the tipping ceremony: Aziz, Ali Mohammed, the cook, the gardener, the odd-job boy. They had been disappointed in a wedding; I hoped I wasn’t going to disappoint them further: their smiling faces carried the conviction that the age of style was not yet over. They acknowledged my gifts and typewritten testimonials with graceful Muslim gestures; they continued to smile. Perhaps they were merely being courteous; perhaps they had learned to accommodate themselves to the lesser age. But Aziz was pleased. I could tell that from the indifferent manner with which, after a lightning assessment, he thrust the money into his pocket. He became morose, active, a man harassed by duties that were never done: money was not as important to him at that moment as setting the dining-room to rights. He would relax as soon as he left the room; they would all relax. And going to the kitchen later that evening for a last pull at the hookah, I surprised them giggling over the testimonial I had written, with some care, for the odd-job boy.
We left early in the morning. Mr Butt paddled us over to the lake boulevard. It was not yet light. The water was still; on the boulevard the tonga waited. We went past the closed houseboats, the lotus beds. On the balustrade of the boulevard a man was exercising. The tonga roof sloped low: we had to lean forward to see the lake and the mountains. The town was awakening from minute to minute, and the Tourist Reception Centre, when we got to it, was infernally alive.
‘Three rupees,’ the tonga-wallah said.
In four months I had established among the lakeside tongas that I never paid more than one and a quarter rupees for the ride into town. But the circumstances were extraordinary. I offered two. The tonga-wallah refused to touch the notes. I offered no more. He threatened me with his whip; and I found, to my surprise – it must have been the earliness of the hour – that I had seized him by the throat.
Aziz intervened. ‘He not tourist.’
‘Oh,’ the tonga-wallah said.
He dropped his whip hand, and I released him.
Our seats on the bus had been booked, but it was necessary to scramble, to fight, to shout. Aziz and Ali Mohammed scrambled and shouted for us, and we withdrew to the edge of the crowd.
Then we saw Laraine, Zenobia.
She was alone, and was peering short-sightedly at buses. She wore a chocolate skirt and a cream-coloured blouse. She looked thinner. She was not happy to meet us and had little news to give. She was off to her Hindu ashram after all; later she would be joining her husband. Now she was busy: she had to find her bus. It was a bus of the Radhakishun service. She turned this name to the more familiar ‘Radha Krishna’; her mind still ran on the Hindu legends. Krishna was the dark god, Radha the fair milkmaid with whom he sported.
And, asking for Radha Krishna, peering at the number plates on buses, she disappeared into the crowd.
Our own seats had now been secured, our bags placed below the tarpaulin on the roof of the bus. We shook hands with Aziz and Ali and went inside.
‘You don’t worry about tonga-wallah,’ Aziz said. ‘I settle.’ There were tears in his eyes.
The engine started.
‘You don’t worry,
The driver was blowing his horn.
‘Morning fare, sahib.’
He was right; I knew that.
‘Two rupees, three rupees, what different? Good-bye, goodbye. You don’t worry.’
I dug into my pockets.
‘Don’t worry, sahib. Good-bye.’
Through the window I pushed out some rupee notes.
He took them. Tears were running down his cheeks. Even at that moment I could not be sure that he had ever been mine.
She wore a chocolate skirt and a cream-coloured blouse. Rafiq would remember those garments; perhaps he had seen her lay them out the previous evening. He never saw her after that morning. She went to her ashram; and then she left India. He wrote; she replied; then his letters were returned unopened. Her parents had been separated and lived in different countries. He was supported by one, rejected by the other. Still he wrote; and months later he was still grieving.
But I heard this in another season. And in the Poste Restante of another town this letter awaited me:
Advance Arrangements for
Trecking, Shooting, Fishing,
Gulmarg Hut & Pahalgam Experienced Guide
Prop: M. S. Butt
My dear Sir,
I beg to acknowledge your kind favour of the 7th inst. and find that you had to face a lot of trouble en route to your destination, since the bus in which were you travelling broke. However I am pleased to find that you have reached safely your destination by His Grace.
I quite realize how the Kashmir view and other things of this place don’t go out of your memory. I wish you to be here again and thus give me a chance to serve you.
In your room there was one client from Bombay and other from Delhi.
The whole family of ours send their best compliments to you.
Hoping this would find you in the best of health and cheerful spirits.
Thanking you in anticipation,
M. S. Butt
(Mohd. Sidiq Butt).
8. Fantasy and Ruins
THE BRITISH HAD possessed the country so completely. Their withdrawal was so irrevocable. And to me even after many months something of fantasy remained attached to all the reminders of their presence. I had grown up in a British colony and it might have been expected that much would have been familiar to me. But England was at least as many-faceted as India. England, as it expressed itself in Trinidad, was not the England I had lived in; and neither of these countries could be related to the England that was the source of so much that I now saw about me.
This England had disturbed me from the first, when, sitting in the launch, I had seen the English names on the cranes of the Bombay docks. It was partly the disturbance we feel – the abrupt moment of unreality in which fleetingly we lose our powers of assessment – at the confirmation of a bizarre but well-established fact. It was also for me a little more. This confirmation laid bare a small area of self-deception which, below knowledge and self-knowledge, had survived in that part of my mind which held as a possibility the existence of the white Himalayan cones against a cold blue sky, as in the religious pictures in my grandmother’s house. For in the India of my childhood, the land which in my imagination was an extension, separate from the alienness by which we ourselves were surrounded, of my grandmother’s house, there was no alien presence. How could such a thing be conceived? Our own world, though clearly fading, was still separate; and an involvement with the English, of whom on the island we knew little, would have seemed a more unlikely violation than an involvement with the Chinese or the Africans, of whom we knew more. Into this alienness we daily ventured, and at length we were absorbed into it. But we knew there had been change, gain, loss. We knew that something which was once whole had been washed away. What was whole was the idea of India.
To preserve this conception of India as a country still whole, historical facts had not been suppressed. They had been acknowledged and ignored; and it was only in India that I was able to see this as part of the Indian ability to retreat, the ability genuinely not to see what was obvious: with others a foundation of neurosis, but with Indians only part of a greater philosophy of despair, leading to passivity, detachment, acceptance. It is only now, as the impatience of the observer is dissipated in the process of writing and self-inquiry, that I see how much this philosophy had also been mine. It had enabled me, through the stresses of a long residence in England, to withdraw completely from nationality and loyalties except to persons; it had made me content to be myself alone, my work, my name (the last two so different from the first); it had convinced me that every man was an island, and taught me to shield all that I knew to be good and pure within myself from the corruption of causes.
Before the reminders of this England of India, then, I ought to have been calm. But they revealed one type of self-deception as self-deception; and though this was lodged in that part of the mind where fantasy was permissible, the revelation was painful. It was an encounter with a humiliation I had never before experienced, and perhaps more so to me than to those Indians who hurried about streets with unlikely English names, in the shadow of imperial-grand houses, as others might have felt for me the colonial humiliation I did not feel in Trinidad.
Colonial India I could not link with colonial Trinidad. Trinidad was a British colony; but every child knew that we were only a dot on the map of the world, and it was therefore important to be British: that at least anchored us within a wider system. It was a system which we did not feel to be oppressive; and though British, in institutions and education as well as in political fact, we were in the New World, our population was greatly mixed, English people were few and kept themselves to themselves, and England was as a result only one of the countries of which we were aware.
It was a country to a large extent unknown; a taste for English things was something a cultivated islander might affect. To the majority America was more important. The English made good tiny cars for careful drivers. The Americans made the real automobiles, as they made the real films and produced the best singers and the best bands. Their films spoke universal sentiments and their humour was immediately comprehensible. American radio was modern and marvellous and at least you could understand the accent; you could listen to fifteen minutes of news on the BBC and not understand a word. The American soldiers loved a fat backstreet whore, the blacker the better; they packed them into their jeeps and raced from club to club, throwing their money about; and they could always be enticed into unequal brawls. They were people with whom communication was possible. Beside them the British soldiers were like foreigners. In Trinidad they were incapable of hitting the right note. They were either too loud or too withdrawn; they spoke this strange English; they referred to themselves as ‘blokes’ (this was once the subject of a news-item in the Trinidad Guardian), not knowing that in Trinidad a bloke was a term of abuse; their uniforms, their shorts in particular, were ugly. They had little money and little sense of propriety: they could be seen in the Syrian shops buying cheap women’s underwear. This was the England of popular conception. There was of course the other England – the source of governors and senior civil servants – but this was too remote to be real.
We were colonials in a special position. The British Empire in the West Indies was old. It was an empire of the sea and apart from a square here and a harbour there it had left few monuments; and because we were in the New World – Trinidad was virtually without a population in 1800 – these monuments appeared to belong to our prehistory. By its very age the Empire had ceased to be incongruous. It required some detachment to see that our institutions and our language were the results of empire.
The England of India was totally different. It remained an incongruous imposition. Fort St George, grey and massive and of an eighteenth-century English taste known from day trips, cou
Distinct from this was the England of the Raj. This still lived. It lived in the division of country towns into ‘cantonments’, ‘civil lines’ and bazaars. It lived in army officers’ messes, in the silver so frequently given, so reverentially polished and displayed, in uniforms and moustaches and swagger sticks and mannerisms and jargon. It lived in the collectorates, in the neat fading handwriting of those settlements which add up to a Domesday book of a continent: suggesting endless days in the sun on horseback, with many servants but few real comforts, and evenings of patient effort. (‘The effort exhausted them,’ a young IAS officer said to me. ‘After this they just couldn’t move on to anything else.’) It lived in the clubs, the Sunday morning bingo, the yellow-covered overseas edition of the Daily Mirror in the manicured hands of middle-class Indian ladies; it lived in the dance-floors of city restaurants. It was an England more full-blooded than anyone coming from Trinidad might have thought possible. It was grander, more creative and more vulgar.
Yet it did not ring true. It had never rung true to me in Kipling and other writers; and it did not ring true now. Was it the mixture of England and India? Was it my colonial, Trinidad-American, English-speaking prejudice which could not quite accept as real this imposition, without apparent competition, of one culture on another? With one part of myself I felt the coming together of England and India as a violation; with the other I saw it as ridiculous, resulting in a comic mixture of costumes and the widespread use of an imperfectly understood language. But there was something else, something at which the architecture of the Raj hinted: those collectorates, in whose vaults lay the fruits of an immense endeavour, those clubs, those circuit houses, those inspection houses, those first-class railway waiting rooms. Their grounds were a little too spacious; their ceilings a little too high, their columns and arches and pediments a little too rhetorical; they were neither of England nor India; they were a little too grand for their purpose, too grand for the puniness, poverty and defeat in which they were set. They were appropriate to a conception of endeavour rather than to endeavour. They insisted on being alien and were indeed more alien than the earlier British buildings, many of which might have been transported whole from England. They led to the humourlessness of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta and Lord Curzon’s gifts to the Taj Mahal: a humourlessness which knew it was inviting ridicule but which derived from a confidence that could support such ridicule. It was embarrassing to be in these buildings; they still appeared to strive to impose attitudes on those within and those without.
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