An area of darkness, p.6
An Area of Darkness, p.6V. S. Naipaul
Vasant grew up in a Bombay slum. He was very young when he left school to look for work. He took to hanging around the stock exchange. His face became familiar and the stockbrokers sent him on little errands. They began to use him as a telegraph-runner. One day a stockbroker gave Vasant a message but no money. ‘It’s all right,’ the stockbroker said. ‘They’ll bill me at the end of the month.’ So Vasant discovered that if you sent telegrams in some number the telegraph office gave you credit for a month. He offered a service to stockbrokers: he would collect all their telegrams from their offices, file them, and he would ask for money only at the end of the month. He charged a small fee; he made a little money; he even managed to rent a little cubby-hole of a ‘telegraph office’. He read all the stockbrokers’ telegrams: his knowledge of the market grew. He began to deal himself. He became rich. Now he was old and established. He had a respectably furnished office in a suitable block. He had a receptionist, secretaries, clerks. But this was mainly for show. He continued to do all his important work in his cramped little ‘telegraph office’; he could think nowhere else. When he was poor he had never eaten during the day. The habit remained with him. If he ate during the day he became sluggish.
The worker in leather is among the lowest of the low, the most tainted of the tainted, and it was unusual, especially in the far South, where caste distinctions are rigid, to find two brahmin brothers making leather goods. Their establishment was small and self-contained: house, workshops and vegetable gardens on a plot of four acres. One brother, lean, nervous, hunted orders in the town and with his quick eyes observed foreign designs in briefcases, diary bindings, camera cases; the other brother, plump, placid, superintended the work. The greatest praise, which made both of them smirk and squirm with pleasure, was: ‘But you didn’t make this here. It looks foreign. American, I would say.’ They both had progressive views about what the lean brother, in khaki shorts and vest on this Sunday morning, referred to as ‘labour relations’. ‘You’ve got to keep them happy. I can’t do the work. I can’t get my children to do it. You’ve got to keep them happy.’ An ‘ar-chin’, picked off the streets, got one rupee a day; when he was fourteen or fifteen he could get four rupees a day; the ‘maistry’ got one hundred and twenty rupees a month, with a yearly bonus of about two hundred and forty rupees. ‘Yes,’ the other brother said. ‘You have to keep them happy.’ They were proud that everything in their workshops was made by hand, but their ambition was to create an ‘industrial estate’ which would bear their name. They had come from a poor family. They had begun by making envelopes. They still made envelopes. In one corner of the workshop a boy was standing on a neat stack of envelope sheets; a ‘maistry’, wielding a broad-bladed chopper, chopped the paper close to the boy’s toes; elsewhere boys were folding up the paper that had been cut to the pattern required. The brothers were worth seventy thousand pounds.
Adventure is possible. But a knowledge of degree is in the bones and no Indian is far from his origins. It is like a physical yearning: the tycoon in his cubby-hole, the entrepreneur clerk sleeping on the pavement, the brahmin leather-goods manufacturers anxious to protect their children against caste contamination. However incongruous the imported mechanics of the new world – stockbrokers, telegrams, labour relations, advertisements – might seem, they have been incorporated into the rule of degree. Few Indians are outsiders. Malik and Malhotra are exceptional. They are not interested in the type of adventure the society can provide; their aspirations are alien and disruptive. Rejecting the badges of dress and food and function, rejecting degree, they find themselves rejected. They look for Balzacian adventure in a society which has no room for Rastignacs.
‘When unrighteous disorder prevails, the women sin and are impure; and when women are not pure, Krishna, there is disorder of castes, social confusion.’ This is the Gita again. And in India there is no social confusion, no disorder of castes, no adventure, in spite of the bingo on Sunday mornings in the old British clubs, in spite of the yellow-covered overseas editions of the Daily Mirror which the ladies in their graceful saris seize with eager manicured hands, and the copy of Woman’s Own which the dainty shopper, basket-carrying servant respectfully in her train, presses to one breast like a badge of caste; in spite of the dance floors of Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta: those sad bands, those sad Anglo-Indian girls at the microphone, and the air full of dated slang. ‘Oh, just bung your coat down there.’ ‘I say, by Jove!’ And the names fly: Bunty, Andy, Freddy, Jimmy, Bunny. They are real, the men who answer to these names, and they answer them well: their jackets and ties and collars and accents do make them Bunty and Andy and Freddy. But they are not wholly what they seem. Andy is also Anand, Danny Dhandeva; their marriages have been strictly arranged, their children’s marriages will be arranged; the astrologer will be earnestly consulted and horoscopes will be cast. For every man and woman on the dance floor is marked by destiny, on every one Fate has its eye. The Parsis, perhaps Freddy’s lesser friends or relations, in their enclosure between decks on the holiday steamer from Goa, might loudly sing, their pleasure heightened by the confusion of the native crowd, Barbara Allen and The Ash Grove and I Don’t Have a Wooden Heart. But that little corner of merry England which they have created in Bombay is also Druidical. It worships fire; its ways are narrow and protective, and at the end lie the Towers of Silence and the grim rites behind those walls whose main portals are marked with a symbol from the ancient world.
The outer and inner worlds do not have the physical separateness which they had for us in Trinidad. They coexist; the society only pretends to be colonial; and for this reason its absurdities are at once apparent. Its mimicry is both less and more than a colonial mimicry. It is the special mimicry of an old country which has been without a native aristocracy for a thousand years and has learned to make room for outsiders, but only at the top. The mimicry changes, the inner world remains constant: this is the secret of survival. And so it happens that, to one whole area of India, a late seventeenth-century traveller like Ovington remains in many ways a reliable guide. Yesterday the mimicry was Mogul; tomorrow it might be Russian or American; today it is English.
Mimicry might be too harsh a word for what appears so comprehensive and profound: buildings, railways, a system of administration, the intellectual discipline of the civil servant and the economist. Schizophrenia might better explain the scientist who, before taking up his appointment, consults the astrologer for an auspicious day. But mimicry must be used because so much has been acquired that the schizophrenia is often concealed; because so much of what is seen remains simple mimicry, incongruous and absurd; and because no people, by their varied physical endowments, are as capable of mimicry as the Indians. The Indian Army officer is at a first meeting a complete English army officer. He even manages to look English; his gait and bearing are English; his mannerisms, his tastes in drink are English; his slang is English. In the Indian setting this Indian English mimicry is like fantasy. It is an undiminishing absurdity; and it is only slowly that one formulates what was sensed from the first day: this is a mimicry not of England, a real country, but of the fairy-tale land of Anglo-India, of clubs and sahibs and syces and bearers. It is as if an entire society has fallen for a casual confidence trickster. Casual because the trickster has gone away, losing interest in his joke, but leaving the Anglo-Indians flocking to the churches of Calcutta on a Sunday morning to assert the alien faith, more or less abandoned in its country of origin; leaving Freddy crying, ‘Just bung your coat down there, Andy’; leaving the officer exclaiming, ‘I say, by Jove! I feel rather bushed.’ Leaving ‘civil lines’, ‘cantonments’, leaving people ‘going off to the hills’; magic words now fully possessed, now spoken as of right, in what is now at last Indian Anglo-India, where smartness can be found in the cosy proletarian trivialities of Woman’s Own and the Daily Mirror and where Mrs Hauksbee, a Millamant of the suburbs, is still the arbiter of elegance.
Bunty the box-wallah. He is envied and ridiculed throughout India. Much is made of the name, and even Bunty, from the security of his aristocracy, sometimes pretends to find its origin in the box of the street pedlar, though it is more likely that the name derives from the Anglo-Indian office box, the burden in the old days of a special servant, of which Kipling speaks so feelingly in Something of Myself. Bunty is envied for his luxurious company flat, his inflated salary and his consequent ability, in an India which is now independent, guiltlessly to withdraw from India. For this withdrawal he is also ridiculed. He is an easy target. He is new to the caste, but the caste is old and, though essentially engaged in trade, it has been ennobled by the glamour of the conqueror, the rewards of trade, and now by Bunty himself, whom these two things in conjunction have attracted.
Bunty comes of a ‘good’ family, Army, ICS; he might even have princely connexions. He is two or three generations removed from purely Indian India; he, possibly like his father, has been to an Indian or English public school and one of the two English universities, whose accent, through all the encircling hazards of Indian intonation, he strenuously maintains. He is a blend of East and West; he is ‘broad-minded’. He permits his name to be corrupted into the closest English equivalent, like place names in the mouth of the conqueror. So Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny. Bunty knows it will count in his favour, as a mark of his broadmindedness, though at this level it requires a minimum of heroism, if he makes a mixed marriage; if, say, as a Punjabi Hindu he marries a Bengali Muslim or a Bombay Parsi. Freed of one set of caste rules, he obeys another, and these are as nice: to introduce Jimmy, whose air-conditioned office is shared and has hard furnishings, into the home of Andy, who has an office to himself with soft furnishings, is to commit a blunder.
Bunty’s grandfather might have conducted his business over a hookah or while reclining on bolsters in a dreadfully furnished room. Bunty discusses business over drinks at the club or on the golf course. There is no need for the golf course: the box-wallah circle is tiny. But it is a condition of Bunty’s employment that he play golf, in order to make suitable ‘contacts’, and on the golf courses of clubs all over the country he can be seen with an equally unhappy Andy, who, as he goes out into the drizzle of Bangalore, might remark that it is rather like the rain of England. There are other traditions, which vary from city to city. In Calcutta there is the Friday afternoon revelry at Firpo’s restaurant on Chowringhee. In the days of the British this celebrated the departure of the mail boat for England and marked the end of the four-and-a-half-day week. Letters to England now go by air; but Bunty is caste-minded; he maintains the tradition, unembarrassed by its origin.
It is easy for Indians to make fun of Bunty for being called ‘daddy’ by his English-speaking children; for his imitated manners: he rises when ladies come into a room; for his foreign interest in interior decoration; for the spotless bathroom and adequate towels he provides for his guests (such attentions in India being beneath the notice of all but the latrine-cleaner: the Indian lavatory and the Indian kitchen are the visitor’s nightmare). But Bunty is no fool. He has withdrawn from India, but he does not wish to be a European. He sees the glamour of Europe; but, being in almost daily contact with Europeans, he is compelled by his pride to be Indian. He strives too hard perhaps to blend East with West; his patronage of Indian arts and crafts is a little like that of the visitor. In his drawing-room, hung with contemporary Indian fabrics, the odd sketch from Kangra, Basohli or Rajasthan or a piece of the bright bazaar art of Jamini Roy stands beside the Picasso lithograph or the Sisley reproduction. His food is a mixture of Indian and European; his drink is wholly European.
But this mixture of East and West in Bunty’s home tells more of the truth about Bunty than either his friends or enemies believe. For Bunty is only pretending to be a colonial. He sees himself as every man’s equal and most men’s superior; and in him, as in every Indian, the inner world continues whole and untouched. Bunty might relish the light, attractive complexions of his wife and children. He might be at especial pains to draw your attention to the complexions of his children, and he might do so by some flippant denigratory assessment. But their paleness is not a European paleness, which to Bunty is reminiscent of the Indian albino; and indeed about the European, however to be imitated, fawned upon and resented, there still remains some stigma of the mleccha, the unclean. Bunty’s caste is European; but Bunty carries within himself a strong sense of aryan race and ancientness as exclusive possessions. It is for this reason that the Anglo-Indian half-breed, however pale, however anglicized, can form no respectable part of Bunty’s society unless graced by some notable family connexion; for this group there can be no room in India except as outsiders and not at the top. (Nor would they wish there to be room. Their dream is of England; and to England they come – the paler go to Australia, white – and they congregate in sad little colonies in places like Forest Hill, busy churchgoers in short dresses which, in India anti-Indian, in London are un-English and colonial; and they read Woman’s Own and the Daily Mirror on the day of publication: a dream of romance fulfilled.) Towards Europe Bunty is like the puritan seducer: he despises even while he violates.
On Sunday morning Bunty entertains his friends to drinks in his flat. This might be on Malabar Hill if it is in Bombay; if in Calcutta, it will be well hidden from the bustees which provide factory labour.
‘I had a round of golf yesterday with the Deputy Director …’ This is from Andy.
‘Well, the Director told me …’
Bunty and Andy are not discussing business. They are talking of the Chinese invasion. Even now, however, they appear to be taking delight in their new closeness to power. It is not for this reason alone that their gossip is disturbing. It is a unique type of gossip. How can it be described? It is unslanted; it states facts and draws no conclusions. It makes one long to shake them by the shoulder and say, ‘Express your prejudices. Say at least, “If I had the power I would do this”. Say that you are on the side of this and against that. Don’t just go on calmly reporting unrelated little disasters. Get angry. Get excited. Get worried. Try to link all that you have been saying. Make some sort of pattern out of it, however prejudiced. Then at least I will understand. Right now you are behaving as though you are talking of well-known history.’
It is with this gossip that one begins to doubt what Bunty and Andy show of themselves and one begins to feel that they are not what they seem, that there are areas to which they can retreat and where they are hard to get at. The flat now seems to hang in a void. India is a stone’s throw away, but in the flat it is denied: the beggars, the gutters, the starved bodies, the weeping swollen-bellied child black with flies in the filth and cowdung and human excrement of a bazaar lane, the dogs, ribby, mangy, cowed and cowardly, reserving their anger, like the human beings around them, for others of their kind. The decoration of the flat is contemporary; many of its ingredients are Indian; but it is based on nothing. On the shelves there are novels that might be found on shelves in a dozen other coun
Somewhere there has been a failure of communication, unrecognized because communication seems to have been established. In the cafés there are earnest groups of the young who talk about ‘theatre’ and the need for bringing theatre to the ‘people’. They are like their counterparts in England, whom, like the army officers, they even manage physically to resemble; and like their counterparts in England, by theatre they mean Look Back in Anger, professionally abbreviated to Look Back. A willingness to accept, an underlying, unwitting rejection of the values implied: in Bunty’s rooms, the irritating gossip going on, the Chinese about to break through into Assam, the mimicry is no longer as funny as the sight on that first day in Bombay, after the exhaustion and hysteria, of the banner hung across the hot, squalid street advertising the Oxford and Cambridge Players’ production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Withdrawal, denial, confusion of values: these are vague words. We need more direct evidence; and a little, I feel, is provided by a recent Indian novel, The Princes, by Manohar Malgonkar, published in London by Hamish Hamilton in 1963. The Princes is the medieval tragedy of a medieval Indian petty prince who loses power with Independence and feels the humiliation of his fall so deeply that he goes out unarmed after a wounded tiger and is killed. It is an honest book, and the writing is not without skill. Malgonkar has a feeling for outdoor life and his descriptions of hunting and shooting can convey the enchantment of these pastimes even to those who do not practise them.
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