Reading: ‘Everyone has their Indian’

Here is the (rather impromptu) reading for the week of 5 July, again provided by A.  I couldn’t find it anywhere else online so I’m posting the whole reading here. It’s another one by Amitav Ghosh. I’ll post my reflections on it later…

In the meantime, enjoy.



From Chimurenga 14:  ‘Everyone Has Their Indian’

Confessions of a xenophile

by Amitav Ghosh

Next to my own country, India, there is no place in the world that has been more important to my development as a writer than Egypt. It is now nearly twenty-eight years since I first landed in Cairo, on April 19, 1980: I was then twenty-four years old, and I had come to explore what was to me a new, but not entirely unknown world. The immediate pretext for my journey was research: a short while before I had won a scholarship that took me from Delhi University to Oxford, to study social anthropology. My dream was of writing fiction, but like many an aspiring novelist I felt I lacked the necessary richness of experience. The writers I admired – V.S. Naipaul, James Baldwin and others – had gone out into the world and watched it go by: I wanted no less for myself. The scholarship was a godsend because it allowed me to choose where I wanted to go and in my case it was Egypt. Through the good offices of Dr Aly Issa, an eminent anthropologist from Alexandria, I was soon installed in a small village in the Governorate of Beheira, near the town of Damanhour: in my book In An Antique Land I gave this village the name Lataifa. My home there consisted of a recently vacated chicken coop on the roof of a mud hut; at the time there was no electricity, although there was, as I recall, a supply of piped water.

Lataifa and I were undeniably a shock to each other. There was the question of language to begin with: I spoke very little Arabic, and what I knew was of a laboriously classical variety. Thus even simple operations, such as asking for water, could cause great outbursts of laughter. In the process, however, my hosts and I discovered one medium of communication where we were on equal terms: this was the language of aflaam al-Hindeyya – that is to say, Hindi film songs. When all other efforts at communication broke down, we would burst into song – this was no small accomplishment on my part as I am a terrible singer. But many of the younger people in the village sang very well and knew innumerable Hindi songs. Indian film music thus became a shared language and opened many barriers and earned me many invitations to meals. The Hindi films that were best known in Lataifa were of the fifties vintage – films that featured such stars as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Padmini, Manoj Kumar and Babita. The good-hearted vamp and cabaret dancer, Helen, was another well-known figure. Everyone in the village had a few favourite scenes and I would often be asked detailed questions about these episodes. This was a great trial to me, as I was by no means an expert on the films of the fifties. Often children would be called out to perform, which they would do with the greatest gusto. There were even minor specializations, some boys being regarded as particularly good performers of Raj Kapoor numbers, while others were experts in reciting dialogues and soliloquies. The performers were almost always boys as I remember, and it was quite a sight to see young jallabeyya-clad fellaheen attempting to imitate the dance numbers of scantily-dressed actresses like Helen. Even more astonishing, were the recitations, for it would happen sometimes that children would recite large chunks of Hindi dialogue without knowing a word of the language. Hindi films also provided me with a certain name-recognition, for although the mega-star Amitabh Bachhan was not as well-known in the Middle East then as he is now, there were plenty of people who knew of him. It was thus not as difficult as it might have been to introduce myself.

Yet, while I had reason to be grateful to Hindi films in some respects, there were others in which they made my life exceedingly difficult. One of these was the matter of cows. I must admit that until I went to live in Lataifa I had no idea that cows played such an important part in Indian films: from the recurrence of this animal in everyday conversation, one might well have imagined that Bollywood was a veterinary enterprise, and that cows, rather than Raj Kapoor and his ilk, were the true stars of Hindi films. Every day, several times daily, I would have to deal with barrages of questions on the matter of cows: did I worship cows (inta bita’abud bi bagara? – literally ‘are you a devotee of the cow?’) At what time of day did I conduct my devotions? Could they please witness my prostrations? Was there not a risk of being splattered with dung? Had I ever considered transferring my allegiance to the camel? And so on. Although these interrogations were often wearisome, there was also something touching about the attitudes of my friends. When we were out walking in the fields they would slow their pace when we were passing a cow: it took me a while to understand that they were allowing me time to perform my secret oblations. In the ploughing season, it often happened that we would pass a field where a team of oxen was being driven on with a stick or a whip: on many such occasions my friends would run ahead to berate the poor ploughman, telling him to stop beating his animals for fear of hurting the sentiments of Doktor Amitaab. In vain would I try to persuade them that cows were frequently beaten in India: they wouldn’t believe me, for had they not seen otherwise in Hindi films?

The other principal association that rural Egypt had with India, was the matter of water pumps, which were of course very important in rural communities. In those days Egypt imported so many water pumps from India that in some areas these machines were known as makana Hindi – or simply as Kirloskar, from the name of a major pump-manufacturing company. The purchasing of a water pump was a great event, and the machine would be brought back on a pick-up truck, with much fanfare, with strings of old shoes strung around the spout to ward off the Evil Eye. Long before the machine made its entry into the village, a posse of children would be sent to summon me: as an Indian I was expected to be an expert on these machines, and the proud new owners would wait anxiously for me to pronounce on the virtues and failings of their new acquisition.

Now it so happens that I am one of those people who is hard put to tell a spanner from a hammer or a sprocket from a gasket. At first I protested vigorously, disclaiming all knowledge of machinery. But here again, no one believed me; they thought I was withholding vital information or playing some kind of deep and devious game. Often people would look crestfallen, imagining, no doubt, that I had detected a fatal flaw in their machine and was refusing to divulge the details. This would not do, of course, and in order to set everyone’s fears at rest I became, willy-nilly, an oracle of water pumps. I developed a little routine, where I would subject the machine to a minute inspection, occasionally tapping it with my knuckles or poking it with my fingers. Fortunately no machine failed my inspection: at the end of it I would invariably pronounce the water pump to be a makana mumtaaza – a most excellent Kirloskar, a truly distinguished member of its species.

Yet, even as I was disclaiming my relationship to those water pumps, I could not but recognize that there was a certain commonality between myself and those machines. In a way my presence in that village could be attributed to the same historical circumstances that introduced Indian pumps and Indian films to rural Egypt. Broadly speaking, those circumstances could be described as the spirit of decolonization that held sway over much of the world in the decades after the Second World War; this was the political ethos that found its institutional representation in the Non-Aligned Movement. We are at a very different moment in history now, when the words Non-Aligned seem somehow empty and discredited; today the movement is often dismissed not just as a political failure, but as a minor footnote to the great power rivalries of the Cold War. It is true, of course, that the movement had many shortcomings and met with many failures. Yet it is also worth remembering that the Non-Aligned Movement as such was merely the institutional aspect of something that was much broader, wider and more powerful: this, as I said before, was the post-war ethos of decolonization, which was a political impulse that had deep historical roots and powerful cultural resonances. In the field of culture, among other things, it represented an attempt to restore and recommence the exchanges and conversations that had been interrupted by the long centuries of European imperial dominance. It was, in this sense, the necessary and vital counterpart of the nationalist idiom of anti-colonial resistance. In the West Third World nationalism is often presented as an ideology of xenophobia and parochialism. But the truth is that many of these movements of resistance tried very hard, within their limited means, to create a universalism of their own. Those of us who grew up in that period will recall how powerfully we were animated by an emotion that is rarely named: this is xenophilia, the love of the other, the affinity for strangers – a feeling that lives very deep in the human heart, but whose very existence is rarely acknowledged. People of my generation will recall the pride we once took in the trans-national friendships of such figures as Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Chou En Lai and others. Nor were friendships of this kind anything new. I have referred above to the cross-cultural conversations that were interrupted by imperialism. These interruptions were precisely that – temporary breakages – the conversations never really ceased. Even in the 19th century, the high noon of Empire, people from Africa, Asia and elsewhere sought each other out, wrote letters to each other, and stayed in each other’s homes while travelling. Lately, a great number of memoirs and autobiographies have been published that attest to the depth and strength of these ties. It was no accident therefore that Mahatma Gandhi chose to stop in Egypt, in order to see Sa’ad Zaghloul before proceeding to the Round Table Conference in London. This was integral to the ethos of the time. Similarly, it is no accident that capitals like New Delhi, Abuja and Tunis have many roads that are named after leaders from other continents. Sometimes these names are unpronounceable to local tongues and then they cause annoyance or laughter, and invite dismissal as empty gestures. But the fact that such gestures are not without value becomes apparent when we reflect that we would search in vain for roads that are named in this fashion in such supposedly global cities as London, New York and Berlin. These gestures, in other words, may be imbued with both pomposity and pathos, but they are not empty: they represent a yearning to reclaim an interrupted cosmopolitanism…

Excerpted from Amitav Ghosh’s essay, Confessions of a xenophile.

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