In an essay on Kipling in his A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, T.S. Eliot wrote:
“As a man grows older, he may turn to new subject matter, or he may treat the
same material in a different way; as we age we both live in a different world,
and become different men in the same world.”
Sage words from a
Nobel laureate. They haunt me as I write a third novel. I’ve had to pluck many
people and pictures out of the thin air of a memory of some passage in my life.
As I recall characters and incidents I clearly perceive the warp that time and
age have created. This is perplexing as at times I find myself a different man
in the earlier world in which they existed. At other moments the characters
have taken a different colour and I am as I used to be.
I hope to illustrate the experience with two characters from my novel: a low caste girl, Roopkali, who was a vivacious and enterprising young thing, a fruit vendor in the late 1960s, and a contemporary gentleman who was a judge in a moffusil district say two or three years ago. The time of action could be today or any time in the past few years or even in the future. But before I deal with that situation let me give a simple example from everyday life of the experience we have with the passage of time.
When one was in college at Delhi University Rs. 40 pocket money per month got you a monthly bus pass, the coffee house chat , a flick and a surplus to pointedly buy a girl you were “scoping” for, a hamburger. Today one can hardly get return fare to college on the Delhi Metro for that.
I’ve had to pluck many people and pictures out of the thin air of a memory in my life. As I recall characters and incidents I clearly perceive the warp that time and age have created. This is perplexing as at times I find myself a different man in the earlier world in which they existed. At other moments the characters have taken a different colour.
The cost of public travel shocks me when I look at it as the student I was. However, when I use the metro and look back I find those fares unbelievably inexpensive. This kind of warp assumes very complex forms as one ages. Let me spice up this rather basic experience and bring in the girl one was scoping for. All of a sudden the story assumes a new dimension with the masala of a first love—“and though sitting beside me” in a student’s special bus and the wonder and envy this created among one’s friends and hers. Strains of the Rubaiyat—how does one treat this now?
That long-gone love will have to be treated in a different way. And for the writing to progress and come to a conclusion the persona and matter of the past have to offer some resolution of the irrational curve that has led them to one’s table today. That warp has at least four if not more dimensions on one plane. There are many planes. Here lies the fascination of what Eliot said. To write from imagination, as poets and fiction writers do, is not quite the same as writing a smashing good, well researched history about Henry VIII and his Seven ( or were they six, see, I forget) Wives. The data on which this would be based are given. Material for a novel is ephemeral and liquid. It takes the form of the vessel that the writer creates for it.Semantics? Not quite.
Hopefully by the end of this piece the two characters named above will have given some insight into the complexity that novelists face as they age and “both live in a different world, and become different men in the same world.”
Enter the girl who sold bananas at a railway crossing in Balasore and referred
to as BG hereafter. In the European tradition of disposing of the debris of a
collapsed affair I was sent on a tropical equivalent of the Grand Tour (the
lives of Romantics such as Byron influenced us in the immediate aftermath of
the British Raj) by my late elder brother (who worked for an oil distribution
company) with one of his sales representatives. I will code name him D. He was
ebullient and earthy and lived for the sense of touch. My sibling obviously
hoped that the carnal pleasures of tribal Orissa, its idyllic forests and the
roseate sands and seas of the Bay of Bengal would be a more trustworthy
medicine for the down mood than rum and socialism at the Olympia bar on
Chowringhee. A bad liver was not the right cure for a bruised heart.
I found Roopkali (all characters are fictitious and any resemblance etc), the
above mentioned BG of the railway crossing at the after-dinner table of D’s
bachelor establishment on first night of the journey. My host seemed to think
this was an irresistible offering, a delectable innocent right out of the
Lean and smiling and lusty she was —but did sahibs get on with it with ghulams? Sensing my hesitation, ‘To hell with it,’ D said, ‘if not you then I.’ About an hour later she emerged back to the dining room obviously mated, and well bathed and fresh, jolly and relaxed and re-draped and barefoot, carrying her slippers in her hand.
Putting them down, she ate a hearty plate of curry-bhat. D loaned(!) her running capital to add oranges to bananas in her fruit mart the next day and saw her to the door, an urbane gesture she didn’t understand. He said he hoped lots of trains would run late so that the level crossing remained shut for long and sales boomed as bored and hungry truck drivers and motorists stopped to fortify themselves with vitamins during the unscheduled delays. It was his way of saying: Bless You. He obviously enjoyed her.
As she left she
paused, looked at me over her shoulder and smiled, as if saying an impish ‘Poor
you.’ I couldn’t help but add a small sum to help her expand her retail
business. She then stepped into the balmy Balasore night and vanished.
It was an intriguing snap shot and one that logged itself to be recalled. In Fooling Around, The Girl Who Tied the Golden Noose, The Girl Who Cooked the Golden Goose or whatever title the fiction will finally take, the Balasore episode is now being animated. As I develop my theme she, and other characters, are taken across the trenches of my present urban setting of morals and counter morals, of political and plutocratic swindles and middle-class compromises, of submissions and replications, of arguments and rebuttals. However, she must remain unselfconscious and puckish. What after all does all this sophistry and dross have to do with the girl who poor-youed me as she exited to expand the customer’s choice on the fruit pannier while having some fun on the side?
If only life and writing were that simple. One wishes. One horses around. On
Wednesday evenings I go to the bar at my club sometimes to sit with a group of
members who are all former government servants from one high service or
another. Often, this is a real pleasure for me. As a former newspaperman I am
delighted that all of them scan the press as an occupation and watch telly to
digest their meals. I find this satisfying; all the more so because I find them
painstakingly credulous and inwardly depressed, the depth of depression varying
between two-large-whisky manic to four-large-whisky manic depending on the
headlines and breaking news that’s settled on them in the past 24 hours.
Presumably they are gripped because they’ve been behind the news at some stage
in their lives or even made the news but as discreetly as a prompter in the
wings of a stage.
They are good-hearted people who wonder whether the BG is still a Below-the-Poverty-Line (now a noun, “Are you a BPL?” is standard usage), an emaciated statistic in Balasore or whether she is in line to be the next Gucci-bag swinging, diamond-soled shoes wearing, French-coiffed political goddess who has made her mega-fame and giga-fortune as a Manuvadi-baiting firebrand?
For a writer there is a fascinating perverse mirth in the heads-we-lose and
tails-she-wins toss spinning before the eyes of these pained imbibers. If she’s
a destitute, scrofulous crone still beckoning customers with her “Kela lay lo”
in Balasore, then that only brings home the truth of a former prime minister’s
finding that they soaked up 85 paise of every rupee directed to BG by the
government while writing notes on social justice “in the service of the
nation”; if she’s wearing diamonds on her shoe soles, she’s got past the law
and sponged up 85 per cent of the budget directed for her BPL kith and kin—why
is she not in some jail?
They rue that it was because of the minister that they weren’t able to improve the human condition or able to enforce the law. The point is that comfort lies in seeing everything in one’s own image. These former civil servants would be mighty pleased if BG had defected to their side, burnt midnight oil, passed the UPSC exam and made it in the merit list—no-no to reservations—to their kind of strata: faceless with middle-class morals, Government-Health- Scheme treatment for menopause and pensionable job. No need for tension. But for a writer it is unfair to treat Roopkali as a UPSC-pass upper middle class septuagenarian looking back at life with a pathologist’s report on a UT infection in her hand.
“Unforgiveable, Mr Handa,” I hear BG saying, “Get me out of the loo on time.” Refrains from My Fair Lady. Like Madurai Mani Iyer singing ‘English’. She places a “Sa ga ma ga nee gasa” between its rendition in vernacular lyrics. “Swing it. Nee pa nee ga pa ma, swing it,” she hums. Happy.
I comply. I release her from the captivity of the bureaucratic vision. Her wish
is mycommand. After all my fate as a writer is in her hands. But where do I
take her? I am not the young man I was in Balasore half a century ago.
Before I seek a refuge for her in the world of my novel, I must break out of
the prison of the friends I have. If I remain with them my characters risk
sinking her into the dismal world of people whose principal means of
communication is agitprop and hierarchical you- are-directed- to orders. One’s
theme requires rapacious politicians, conniving or pliant civil servants, a
compromising and compromised middle class and all the rest of it, but at a time
and place and pace of one’s choosing. BG won’t allow me to push her around.
One does not necessarily have to limit oneself to the world of sound. There is the world of the arts. Perhaps it would help me create the right setting. But the evidence is that this road too is fraught. Our budding artists have the gusto and gumption to mount exhibitions of inchoate paintings that come up in irrepressibly rapid succession, say, in spaces like in the foyer of India Habitat Centre.
Since they lack the virtue of being able to judge between the beautiful and
ugly or between form and chaos, I risk seeing my literary mannequins as
pulverised fragments splattered on urban walls that want to make a statement
about belonging to the cultured, art-appreciating classes somehow, anyhow .
“Not all the king’s horses, not all the king’s men could put BG together
again.” I need to keep them off that wall. I cannot risk a great fall.
BG belongs to the spirits and jadoo of the forest. She must enter the narrative while she is still lusty, young—and single and make us say hurrah for her mischievous sense of freedom, even on an empty stomach. But to let her hunger lead her to The Dirty Picture or the “Tum What Ho” set of contemporary pop cinema is to squeeze her in a tube from which she will ooze out a gooey phantasmagoria. She is not the extra who does in the same jerk in a standardised Saroj Khan dance routine whether in Sheila ki jawani or the week’s new FM hit... Such caricature we are past—cartoons are casus belli. Ah! It is Ramchandran, yesteryear’s expressionist painter of slaughter houses and dissected cadavers aged into subtle creator of seductive tribal women, that I need. But his world too has changed. It isn’t as taut as it used to be. She needs the stretch to show her curves and her allure.
Where do I place her? The high- speed-highway-taking-young speed king of
today won’t get the railway-crossing scene. Clearly BG cannot be brought in as
a failed BPL or an opulent charlatan with the vote-catching Manuvadi mantra who
torments the conscience of earnest retirees or is made a hideous contemporary
figurine that offends the aesthete.
Even though times have changed there is no escape. I have to retreat in alarm from my world and take her back home, where she belongs—to a rural setting on the outskirts of a small town, only now the population explosion has blown out all habitation’s innards and the undigested muck and effluvia is strewn out right up to its edges, which is where she lives.
I wish I could sit her at the railway crossing in clean air and under blue skies and cover her bare, nut brown tropical breasts with the innocence and logic of thin, cool, muslin but that would be a travesty. The end of the environment has already passed us. The vultures are gone. The sparrows are dead. We live in the pollution age. And missionaries don’t approve of thin muslin, it’s all written down in the Savage Commandments!
I have to treat the old as new material and somehow get her to keep her smile. I remain the young man, the demurring idealist I was. Her world alas has warped. Time past and time present are both, perhaps, present in time future. and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable.
The idealised Roopkali comes to harm. That is ordained. And redeemed she has to
be. Will the magic of a court case to lead to a glorious decision and with luck
to clarity ?
For a trial I need a judge. But before I go further let me say that whereas
BG found me I have had to construct him, bit by bit, like one of these
cardboard puzzles for children in which you have to fit in pieces to make the
picture. Age and the time warp have a different effect on this required jigsaw
character than on the flesh-and-blood girl.
I had two judges in mind when I started. Both wisps of the past. If I found Roopkali by way of a friend, so it was with the first judge also. During the innocence and credulity of my early child hood. Age 6. In fact he remained for many years my “family” judge. Like the family doctor Dr Bawa. Or the family pandit, Swamiji. Or the family teacher, Subhash.
He was the father of my first friend, Michael, who lived in the compound opposite ours in Civil Lines in Gujranwalla. Those were British days and there was an awe about British names. I imagined A.L. Fletcher Esq, I.C.S. was in the king’s cast: George VI’s portrait hung on the wall of my father’s office. Straight and sailoryly. Lots of medals.
Michael mostly came to play in our compound. After a while I too started to venture past his gate. One day as I got to the house that was on a raised platform, I saw him, a white woman and a girl child standing beside a Kerala-dark, European-tall, Pathan-strong man, apoplectic with rage, shouting at a shivering sais who held a lame horse by the reins.
After taking the man apart the sahib said: “Bloody man. Memsahib ka ghoda ka tang tord diya. Idiot. Ab is ko goli marna pade ga. Aur tum ko? Tum ko phansi chadha they ga.” (Bloody man you’ve broken memsahib’s horse’s leg. Now he’ll have to be shot. And you. You’ll be hanged.) At this threat the sais fell on his knees. I did not know what the drama was about but it had obviously put the sais in a bad way.
Later I mentioned this to our driver who unscrambled the scene for me. The
dark man was Michael’s father. It was not only white men who had a name like
Fletcher. Some Indians, mostly dark and not even sahibs, had British names too.
Yes, but only dark sahibs had mem wives—very few. Some children came out white.
It could happen.
He was the Sessions Judge and he did indeed have the powers to put a rope around a man’s necks and let him drop so that the neck broke. Dead. I did not know what dead meant. He explained this as well. Dogs that did not have a tag were shot dead, had I not seen, in civil lines. Bang. ‘YELP, Yelp, yel...’ They fell, kicked their legs once or twice in the air and Kaput. Dead. Men dropped from a rope. Gulp. Dead. That is what it was.
In the words I have today, at innocent six Michael’s father was: Aloof. Terror- striking. Dark. Orgulous. I don’t have my childhood words with which I summed him up any more. They would have been in Punjabi. But sum judges up I did.
Next Michael came over I saw him differently. Perhaps his father was also the man who had the dogs shot. So add Dog Shooter to the list above. We parted company shortly after as my father got transferred. We caught up again in Simla, now 8, in the summer of 1946 and by an odd coincidence saw a dog shot on Forest Hill Road just above the house he lived in. That confirmed my worst suspicions. Sensing this, my friend told me that his father was not a judge anymore. No. He was on the civil side now. It was the municipality that shot the Alsatian. ‘No tag. Come on, men.’ The horse had been shot. The sais had not been hanged. Did I know his father went mahseer fishing in the Beas and caught a 62- pounder? He was Punjab’s master angler. Not a dog shooter, then.
Till my thirties I had this family judge. A person one could call “Uncle F”
except that in those days English was not so loosely used and protocol demanded
“Sir”. The person one would to turn to if one wanted some outrage to one’s
dignity or harm to one’s property set right.
It is in this image that I expect to see the second judge. My brush with him
came in the 1970s when an ESI inspector concocted a report and got an
unsuspecting clerk in my firm to sign it. It would have been easy enough to
have it cancelled or quashed by the usual monetary methods prevalent. But I let
it go to court, to see whether the judge would admit it or throw it out. Uncle
F would have. He’d have seen through the inspector’s trickery. Definitely, he’d
have punished him for leading false evidence.
I partly won the case as I was ordered to pay the demand but thereafter exempted from the ESI Act. I couldn’t help wondering, though, how something that was valid for the present could be declared invalid for the future. My lawyer told me that the case would have been thrown out in its entirety but for the fact that I was innocent of the material requirements of the judicial system for a 100 per cent verdict. I thought he lied.
I watched Judge 2 closely, the picture I had in my mind of a dispenser of
justice was of that my family judge. Fair minded and firm but irascible. One
who regretted harsh words.
Elegant in court and out. But Judge 2 turned out to be a kind of interpreter of dull clauses of legislated legalese and the Indian Evidence Act. I pitied the man and thought that he really ought to get some sexy cases as well, like of a horse with a broken fetlock.
“Too sedentary,” I concluded. “Probably has flatulence, which he contains till
he gets to his chamber. No wonder he’s written the compromise order he has. No
style. Needs to add some soda-fizz to his sober life.”
For Rookali’s case I needed someone imperious like Uncle F who could make the
culprit tremble. There’s been infanticide. A firm order is required. The
flesh-and-blood judge from the ESI bench may let the matter chug along. I
needed to put the two together. Possible? Up to a point, yes: I try a fit by
sitting them both on the bench—alas, the large canvas shows that time has
sundered their worlds. The new material cannot be treated in the old way.
On Saturdays I sometimes sit with lawyers for a morning coffee at one of the capital’s gossip centres. This is a who-fixed-who place in which the most scurrilous slander can be heard. Those who have lost cases will tell you that they were underfunded. Not only do they swear that they know the sums required, but even the favourite tipple of pliant judges. Once at a dinner in Shimla, an honourable member of the bar submitted that it was Blue Label—and he was prepared to act as a courier to complete these in-kind transactions. So where does this place my placid judge of Tis Hazari?
The point is that while I am in BG’s hands for her story, the judge has to be in mine for her sake. I have to make him deliver a one-sided judgement. I cannot negotiate like my lawyer did. I also cannot let him become enmeshed in the lawyer’s exchequer bond. BG needs my protection. Her counsel may be a rogue but I am still the gentleman I was.
While in this quandary, luckily the trial for mega-heist of public money in the 2 G case was at an exciting stage in Patiala House courts. I went to the court for many hearings. Here was where one would get a whiff of the big game. The kind ofodour newspapermen sniff for and novelists find difficult. My eyes and ears and all my senses were on alert to get an inkling of the kind of deal (s) that my coffee-mates swear about. I didn’t get one and didn’t expect to.
I was mightily relieved, in fact I believed in God for a whole week. So placid and sedentary and a little humourless the judge remains, with the human frailties of flatulence and strengths of self-control. It is those who appear before him who grovel even as they strut calculating their fee for debit to their clients. Time doesn’t allow me to treat him as new material. While BG allows me to both live in a different world and become a different man in the world as it was when she found me the judge I hold still, refusing to admit the world according to the lawyers. Some hope?
If not I’ll speak to Uncle F. Tomorrow.