An area of darkness, p.5
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       An Area of Darkness, p.5

           V. S. Naipaul
 

  But in the beginning the obvious was overwhelming, and there was the knowledge that there was no ship to run back to, as there had been at Alexandria, Port Sudan, Djibouti, Karachi. It was new to me then that the obvious could be separated from the pleasant, from the areas of self-respect and self-love. Marine Drive, Malabar Hill, the lights of the city at night from Kamala Nehru Park, the Parsi Towers of Silence: these are what the tourist brochures put forward as Bombay, and these were the things we were taken to see on three successive days by three kind persons. They built up a dread of what was not shown, that other city where lived the hundreds of thousands who poured in a white stream in and out of Churchgate Station as though hurrying to and from an endless football match. This was the city that presently revealed itself, in the broad, choked and endless main roads of suburbs, a chaos of shops, tall tenements, decaying balconies, electric wires and advertisements, the film posters that seemed to derive from a cooler and more luscious world, cooler and more luscious than the film posters of England and America, promising a greater gaiety, an ampler breast and hip, a more fruitful womb. And the courtyards behind the main streets: the heat heightened, at night the sense of outdoors destroyed, the air holding on its stillness the odours of mingled filth, the windows not showing as oblongs of light but revealing lines, clothes, furniture, boxes and suggesting an occupation of more than floor space. On the roads northwards, the cool redbrick factories set in gardens: Middlesex it might have been, but not attached to these factories any semi-detached or terrace houses, but that shanty town, that rubbish dump. And, inevitably, the prostitutes, the ‘gay girls’ of the Indian newspapers. But where, in these warrens where three brothels might be in one building and not all the sandal-oil perfumes of Lucknow could hide the stench of gutters and latrines, was the gaiety? Lust, like compassion, was a refinement of hope. Before this one felt only the fragility of one’s own sexual impulses. One hesitated to probe, to imagine; one concentrated on one’s own revulsion. Men with clubs stood guard at the entrances. Protecting whom from what? In the dim, stinking corridors sat expressionless women, very old, very dirty, shrivelled almost to futility; and already one had the feeling that people were negligible: these were the sweepers, the servants of the gay girls of the Bombay poor, doubtless lucky because employed: a frightening glimpse of India’s ever receding degrees of degradation.

  Degrees of degradation, because gradually one discovers that in spite of its appearance of chaos, in spite of all the bustling white-clad crowds which by their number would appear to defy or to make worthless any attempt at categorization, this degradation is charted, as the Indian landscape itself which, from the train no more than a jumble of tiny irregularly shaped fields, private follies of which no official organization would take cognizance, has yet been measured and surveyed and sketched and remains recorded in all its absurdity in the various collectorates, where the title deeds, wrapped in red cloth or yellow cloth, rise in bundles from floor to ceiling. This is the result of an English endeavour answering the Indian need: definition, distinction. To define is to begin to separate oneself, to assure oneself of one’s position, to be withdrawn from the chaos that India always threatens, the abyss at whose edge the sweeper of the gay girl sits. A special type of hat or turban, a way of cutting the beard or a way of not cutting the beard, the Western-style suit or the unreliable politicians’ khadi, the caste mark of the Kashmiri Hindu or Madras brahmin: this gives proof of one’s community, one’s worth as a man, one’s function, as the title deed in the collectorate gives proof of one’s ownership of part of the earth.

  The prompting is universal, but the Indian practice is purely of India. ‘And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another’s, even if it be great. To die in one’s duty is life: to live in another’s is death.’ This is the Gita, preaching degree fifteen hundred years before Shakespeare’s Ulysses, preaching it today. And the man who makes the dingy bed in the hotel room will be affronted if he is asked to sweep the gritty floor. The clerk will not bring you a glass of water even if you faint. The architecture student will consider it a degradation to make drawings, to be a mere draughtsman. And Ramnath, the stenographer, so designated on the triangular block of wood that stands on his desk, will refuse to type out what he has taken down in shorthand.

  *

  Ramnath was a clerk in a government department. He earned 110 rupees a month and was happy until Malhotra, a 600-rupee-a-month officer, came to his department. Malhotra was an Indian from East Africa; he had been educated at an English university, and had just returned from a European posting. Ramnath and his 110-rupee colleagues secretly scoffed at Europe-returned Indians, but they were all a little frightened of Malhotra, whose reputation was terrifying. He was supposed to know every paragraph of the Civil Service code; he knew his privileges as well as his responsibilities.

  Soon enough Ramnath was summoned to Malhotra’s office, and there a letter was dictated to him at speed. Ramnath was happily able to catch it all and he returned to the desk marked ‘Steno’ with a feeling of satisfaction. No further summons came that day; but one came early next morning and when Ramnath went in he found Malhotra quite pale with anger. His neatly trimmed moustache bristled; his eyes were hard. He was freshly bathed and shaved, and Ramnath could feel the difference between his own loose white trousers and open-necked, long-tailed blue shirt and Malhotra’s European-tailored grey suit set off by the university tie. Ramnath remained composed. The anger of a superior, for whatever reason, was as natural as Ramnath’s own abuse of the sweeper who twice daily cleaned out his tenement privy in Mahim. In such relationships anger and abuse were almost without meaning; they merely marked proper distinctions.

  ‘That letter you took yesterday,’ Malhotra said. ‘Why wasn’t it returned for signature yesterday afternoon?’

  ‘It wasn’t? I am sorry, sir. I will see about it now.’ Ramnath took his leave and presently returned. ‘I have spoken about it to the typist, sir. But Hiralal has had quite a lot of work these last few days.’

  ‘Hiralal? Typist? Don’t you type?’

  ‘Oh no, sir. I am a steno.’

  ‘And what do you think a steno is? In future you type out the letters I give you, do you hear?’

  Ramnath’s face went blank.

  ‘Do you hear?’

  ‘That is not my job, sir.’

  ‘We’ll see about that. Take another letter now. And I want this one back before lunch.’

  Malhotra dictated. Ramnath made his squiggles with a dancing pen, bowed when the dictating was over, and left the room. In the afternoon Malhotra buzzed for him.

  ‘Where is that letter you took this morning?’

  ‘It is with Hiralal, sir.’

  ‘And yesterday’s letter is still with Hiralal. Didn’t I tell you that you must type out the letters I give you?’

  Silence.

  ‘Where is my letter?’

  ‘It is not my job, sir.’

  Malhotra banged the table. ‘But we went through all that this morning.’

  This was what Ramnath also felt. ‘I am a steno, sir. I am not a typist.’

  ‘I am going to report you, Ramnath, for insubordination.’

  ‘That is your right, sir.’

  ‘Don’t talk to me like that! You won’t type my letters. Let me have it from you like that. Say, “I won’t type your letters”.’

  ‘I am a steno, sir.’

  Malhotra dismissed Ramnath and went to see the head of his department. He was made to wait a little in the ante-room before he was called in. The head was tired, tolerant. He understood the impatience of a man like Malhotra, fresh from Europe. But no one before had required a steno to type. Of course, a steno’s duties might be said to include typing. But that would be extending the definition of the word. Besides, this was India, and in India it was necessary to take people’s feelings into consideration.

  ‘If that is your attitude, sir, then I am sorry to say that you leave me with no alternative but to take the
matter to the Union Public Service Commission. I shall report Ramnath for insubordination to you. And through you I shall ask for a full-scale inquiry into the duties of stenos.’

  The head sighed. Malhotra wasn’t going to get far in the service. That was clear; but he had his rights, and a demand for an inquiry would at some time, though not immediately, create a good deal of trouble: papers, questions, reports.

  ‘Try a little persuasion, Malhotra.’

  ‘I take it, sir, that this is your last word on the subject?’

  ‘Last word?’ The head was vague. ‘My last word …’

  The telephone rang: the head seized it, smiling at Malhotra. Malhotra rose and withdrew.

  There was no letter awaiting signature on Malhotra’s desk. He buzzed for Ramnath and very promptly Ramnath appeared. His triumph could scarcely be concealed by his excessive gravity, his bowed shoulders, his pad pressed to his blue-shirted breast, his gaze fixed on his shoes. He knew that Malhotra had been to see the head, and that not even a rebuke had resulted.

  ‘A letter, Ramnath.’

  Pad fell open; pen squiggled above and below ruled lines. But as he squiggled, Ramnath’s assurance gave way to terror. What he was taking down was Malhotra’s request for his sacking, for insubordination, for inefficiency as a stenographer, and for insolence. This committing of a thing to paper was threatening enough. What was worse was that the letter would have to be typed out by Hiralal. For Ramnath now there seemed only a choice of humiliations. Controlling his terror, he took the letter down, waited with bowed head to be dismissed, and when dismissal came, fled to the office of the head of the department. He waited a long time in the ante-room; he went in; and in no time he came out again.

  At five that afternoon Ramnath tapped at Malhotra’s door and stood in the doorway. In a trembling hand he held some typewritten sheets; and as soon as Malhotra looked up, Ramnath’s eyes filled with tears.

  ‘Ah,’ Malhotra said. ‘Hiralal has been catching up with his work, I see.’

  Saying nothing, Ramnath shot to the side of Malhotra’s desk, placed the typewritten sheets on the green blotting pad and, in a continuation of this downward action, dropped to the floor and touched Malhotra’s polished shoes with his clasped palms.

  ‘Get up! Get up! Did Hiralal type this?’

  ‘I did! I did!’ Ramnath was sobbing on the worn floor mat.

  ‘Treat you people like people, and the net result is that you get insubordinate. Treat you like animals, and then you behave like this.’

  Sobbing, embracing the shoes, polishing them with his palms, Ramnath agreed.

  ‘You will type my letters from now on?’

  Ramnath struck his forehead on Malhotra’s shoes.

  ‘All right. We’ll tear this letter up. This is how we get through our work in this department.’

  Sobbing, banging his forehead on Malhotra’s shoes, Ramnath waited until the interleaved scraps of top copy and carbon fell into the wastepaper basket. Then he rose, his eyes dry, and ran out of the room. The day’s work was over; now, with the great jostling crowds, home to Mahim. He had yet to accustom himself to the humiliations of the new world. He had been violated in the tenderest area of his self-esteem, and fear of the abyss alone had given him the strength to endure such a violation. It was a little tragedy. He had learned to obey; he would survive.

  Countless such tragedies are marked on the hearts of those whom one sees in those brisk white-clad crowds, hurrying to and from their homes like city-workers in every city of the world, people for whom all the advertisements are meant, all the electric trains run, to whom the film posters are directed, all the extravagantly coloured women with big breasts and big hips, descendants of those figures of old Indian sculpture which, until separated from the people who created them, are like a tragic folk longing.

  *

  For Malhotra, too, with his Italian-styled suit and English university tie, the society and its violations were new. East Africa, the English university and the years in Europe had made him just enough of a colonial to be out of place in India. He had no family to speak of. He was only a 600-rupee-a-month man, and his place was therefore with 600-rupee-a-month men. But at that level there were no outsiders, no one who, like Malhotra, had rejected the badges of food and caste and dress. He wished to marry; it was also what his parents wished for him. But his colonial eye made him aspire too high. ‘Don’t call us. We will call you.’ ‘We thank you for your interest, and we will let you know as soon as the numerous applications have been gone through.’ ‘We don’t appreciate 600 rupees a month.’ This was what the son of one family said. And below that there was, in Malhotra’s view, little more than village society. No marriage, then, for him; and the years were going by, and his parents were breaking their hearts. He could only share his bitterness with his friends.

  Malik was one of these. He too was a ‘new man’. He and Malhotra were bound only by their common bitterness, for Malik was an engineer and earned 1,200 rupees a month. He lived in a well-appointed flat in one of the finer areas of Bombay. By the standards of London he was well off. By the standards of Bombay he was overprivileged. But he was miserable. European engineers less qualified than himself earned three times as much for their services as experts and advisers; the mere fact that they were Europeans commended them to Indian firms. This was his story. A new man, he remained a stranger in Bombay, more of an outsider than any visiting European technician, to whom many doors were open. Malik’s qualifications for the young business executive or ‘box-wallah’ society seemed high, but at our first meeting he told me of the probing by which he was continually rejected. He was an engineer; that was good. That he was Scandinavia-returned was impressive. That he worked for an established firm with European connexions made him more than promising. Then: ‘Do you own a car?’ Malik didn’t. The probing was abandoned; no one was even interested in his parentage.

  He spoke sadly in his passé modernistic flat, which he was beginning to let go: the irregular bookshelves, the irregular ceramics, the irregular coffee table. For all this there was no audience, and it was like the scrupulous preparation for going out of a girl whom no one will notice. It is with contemporary furniture as with contemporary clothes: sad unless there is someone who notices and cares. On the irregular coffee table there was a large photograph in a gilt frame of a pretty white girl with dark hair and high cheekbones. I asked no questions, but Malhotra told me later that the girl had died years before in her Northern land. While we talked and drank the tape-recorder played songs Malik had recorded in his student days in Europe, songs which even I could recognize as old. And in that Bombay flat, surrounded by the dramatic squares of light and darkness of other metropolitan blocks, below us the glittering arc of Marine Drive, in that room with the central photograph of the dead girl and the sour background of dead songs, we looked through the well-thumbed photograph albums: Malik in overcoat, Malik and his friends, Malik and the girl, against snow- or pine-covered mountains, against open-air cafeés: Malik and Malhotra sharing the past (Ibsen in the original on the irregular bookshelves), 600-rupee-a-month and 1,200-rupee-a-month men temporarily forgetting their humiliations in memories of a past acceptance, when to be a man and a student was enough, and to be Indian gave glamour.

  *

  Jivan was thirteen or fourteen when he left his village to look for work in Bombay. He had no friends in the city and nowhere to go. He slept on the pavements. At last he found a job in a printery in the Fort area. He earned fifty rupees a month. He did not look for lodgings; he continued to sleep on that stretch of pavement which custom had now made his. Jivan could read and write; he was intelligent and anxious to please; and after some months he was chasing advertisements for a magazine his firm printed. His wages steadily rose and it seemed he was set for success and high responsibility in the firm. Then one day, without warning, he went to his employer and gave notice.

  ‘It is my luck,’ his employer said. ‘I can never keep good people. I train
them. Then they leave me. What’s this new job you’ve found?’

  ‘I have none, sir. I was hoping you would find one for me.’

  ‘Oho! It’s another rise you’re after.’

  ‘No, sir. It isn’t money I want. It’s this cycling about. It was all right when I was younger. But now I would like an office job. I want a desk of my own. I will even take less money if I can get an office job. I hope you will help me find one.’

  Jivan’s mind was made up. His employer was a kind-hearted man and he recommended Jivan for a clerkship in another firm. Here, as a clerk, Jivan rose fast. He was as loyal and hard-working as he had been in the printery; and he had the magic touch. Soon he was almost running the firm. After some time he had saved eight thousand rupees, slightly more than six hundred pounds. He bought a taxi and hired it out at twenty rupees a day: Malhotra’s salary. He still worked for his firm. He still slept on the pavements. He was twenty-five years old.

 
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