There is a wonderful book waiting to be written about Western representations of India in the twentieth century. Before and after Independence, the sub-continent attracted an array of foreign writers determined to dig up the ‘truth about India’. Many came to report on Gandhi’s struggle for freedom. If they were socialist, they tended to celebrate it; thus works like H. N. Brailsford’s Subject India, which argued that the sooner the British got out, the better for them and for us. If they were conservative they tended to denigrate it; thus Robert Byron’s An Essay on India, which suggested that it was only the British who held India together¬—let them depart, and the sub-continent would witness a thousand bloody battles over caste and religion.
Indian nationalism and British colonialism both sparked strong emotions, pro and con. In 1947 India became free. However, this did not stem or stop the flow of literary travellers from the West. To the contrary, the flow accelerated, especially after neighbouring China went Communist. Now, Western writers came not so much to praise or condemn, but to understand. Among the questions they asked themselves were: Would democracy take root in this culturally diverse and poor country? Would Hindu spiritualism be able to exist with Western materialism? Typically, these questions were sought to be answered by portraits or interviews of a range of ‘ordinary’ Indians.
I myself have a whole shelf of books about independent India by Western writers. These include accounts by the well known Beat poets Gary Snyder and Allan Ginsberg, accounts redolent with sadhus and spirits and the smell of ganja. There are books by New York Times correspondents on their time in this country, which naturally tend towards the political. There is a account by a black writer from the deep South, which asks whether caste is to India as race is to America. And there is the travelogue by the radical Swedish journalist Jan Myrdal, son of Alva and Gunnar, which plaintively announces, India Waits (for a peasant revolution).
A recent addition to this shelf of mine, picked up at Strand Bookshop in New York, is Alexander Campbell’s The Heart of India, published in 1958 by the venerable firm of Alfred A. Knopf. The author was a Scotsman who served as New Delhi correspondent of Time magazine, in between other assignments in Johannesburg and Tokyo. The book’s blurb begins in dramatic fashion. ‘There has never been a book on India quite like this’, it says, adding: ‘Not even Katherine Mayo’s horrified reports on Hindu superstitions, Mother India.’
Like Miss Mayo, Mr Campbell makes it quite plain what he does not like about India: the dirt, the heat, the smells, the sanctimonious preaching of the upper classes, speaking of socialism from their air-conditioned rooms. Still, in between the disgust and disenchantment are some most interesting cameos. Campbell’s judgement we can leave to one side, but his reportage endures. Printed in 1958, there are aspects of the book that speak directly to us in 2004. Particularly relevant, it seems to me, are his meetings with a Hindu fundamentalist in Benares and with a Muslim fundamentalist in Karachi.
The Hindu was a Professor, no less, who had travelled widely in the West. Campbell asked him what he felt about the social situation in India after Independence. ‘Bharat is still not free!’, thundered the Professor. He felt that ‘true Hindus are more vilely oppressed than they have ever been before in their history. Nehru and the Congress Party spurn Hindu ideals and the Hindu way of life. They are trying to make Bharat a mere carbon copy of the West. Worse! They are traitors. Bharat is a living organic whole. It was not shaped by human hands. It has a culture that is one and indivisible, which has flowed down to us in an unbroken stream from the Vedas. Yet the Congress Party conspired with the Socialists, the Communists, and the British Imperialists, to cut Bharat in pieces to appease the Muslims’.
Asked what he proposed to do about this, the Professor answered: ‘The Partition was a crime. It must be revoked…. First, we must take steps to recover the thousands of Hindu women who were forcibly abducted to Pakistan by Moslem rapists. Then we must work and fight for a united India: a revived Bharat. There must be undivided allegiance to Bharat’.
As we know to our cost, there are Professors who speak like this in India still: some, indeed, are even Ministers in the Government of India. But let us now move across the border, to Karachi. Here, Alexander Campbell was introduced to a Muslim religious leader. When asked about current politics, the divine answered: ‘Politics and Politicians! My concern is with higher matters. The people do not read the Koran and think only of their bellies. First they must regain their souls. Pakistan was created to be an instrument of the divine will…. Among unbelievers our deadliest enemy is the Hindu, who tirelessly seeks our destruction. Our fathers knew this well: they knew how to treat Hindus. Sooner or later there must be a jehad—a holy war against the Hindus who slaughtered our men and debauched our women’.
That was the bad news. Now for the good news. From Karachi, Campbell moved on to the city of Lahore. The day after he arrived, his host took him to the railway station to meet a friend travelling from Delhi. When told the visitor was a Hindu the Scotsman was understandably nervous. As he recalled: ‘A large crowd had gathered at the station. They were obviously on hand to meet the trainload of Hindus from Delhi, and despite Ashiq’s assurance I felt rather apprehensive. I had no wish to see a massacre of Hindus… I need not have worried. When the train pulled in and the passengers began to alight, the crowd surged forward, but only in order to shake hands. “They are all cricket fans”, said Ashiq. “Even during the trouble, cricket continued. The Indian cricket team is very popular in Pakistan”.’
To complement Campbell’s account I should supply some necessary details. This was the last week of January 1955, and the Hindus on that train had come to watch India play Pakistan in the Lahore Test. Other Hindus (and Sikhs) had come by bus; all part of what one Pakistani paper, Dawn, described as ‘the biggest mass migration across the frontier since Partition’. Contemporary accounts suggest that the camaraderie between Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani, was completely genuine. This is confirmed by the representative of this newspaper who covered the match. This was S. K. Gurunathan, who wrote that ‘great fraternization among the Pakistanis and the Indians was witnessed everywhere during the Test match days’.
As indeed it was during the Lahore Test of 2004. Now, as then, religious fanatics on either side called for the destruction of the other country. Then, as now, it was the cricket fans who spoke and acted otherwise.
Published in The Hindu, 20/6/2004