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An Area of Darkness


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Waiting for our food – ‘No rice,’ he had said, as though stating a caste restriction: rice was the staple of the non-aryan South – he turned the pages of the Illustrated Weekly of India, wetting his finger on his tongue. ‘Look,’ he said, pushing the paper towards me. ‘See how many of these South Indian monkeys you can find there.’ He showed me a feature on the Indian team at the Asian Games in Djakarta. They were nearly all Sikhs, unfamiliar without their turbans, their long hair stooked and tied up with ribbon. ‘Indian team! Tell me how this country is going to get on without us. If we sit back, the Pakistanis can just walk in, you know. Give me one Sikh division, just one, and I will walk through the whole blasted country. You see any of these punks stopping us?’

Contact had occurred and there could now be no escape. A journey of twenty-four hours still lay ahead of us. We got out and walked together on station platforms, enjoying the shock of heat after the air-conditioned carriage. We ate together. When we smoked I watched for other Sikhs. ‘I don’t mind, you understand,’ the Sikh said. ‘But I don’t want to hurt them.’ We talked of London and Trinidad and coffee-houses, India and the Sikhs. We agreed that the Sikhs were the finest people in India, but it was hard to find anyone among them whom he admired. I dredged my memory for Sikh notabilities. I mentioned one Sikh religious leader. ‘He’s a bloody Hindu,’ the Sikh said. I mentioned another. ‘He’s a damned Muslim.’ I spoke of politicians. He replied with stories of their crookedness. ‘The man had lost the election. And then suddenly you had these people running up with ballot-boxes and saying, “Look, look, we forgot to count these.” ’ I spoke of the energy of the Sikhs and the prosperity of the Punjab. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The sweeper class is coming up.’ We talked of Sikh writers. I mentioned Khushwant Singh, whom I knew and liked; he had spent years working on Sikh scriptures and history. ‘Khushwant? He doesn’t know anything about the Sikhs.’ The only person who had written well about the Sikhs was Cunningham; and he was dead, as all the finest Sikhs were. ‘We’re a pretty hopeless bunch today,’ the Sikh said.

Many of his stories were overtly humorous, but often, as in his references to the Sikh religious leaders, I saw humour where none was intended. Our relationship had begun in mutual misunderstanding. And so it developed. He grew more perceptibly bitter as the journey went on, but this answered my own mood. Shrill railway stations, poor fields, decaying towns, starving cattle, a withered race of men: because his reactions appeared to be like mine it did not occur to me that they were unusual in an Indian. As it was, their violence steadied me; he became my irrational self. He became more violent and more protective as the land grew poorer; he showed me that tenderness which physically big men can show to the small.

It was nearly midnight when we came to the junction where I had to leave the train. The platforms were like mortuaries. In the dim light prostrate men showed as shrunken white bundles out of which protruded bony Indian arms, shining stringy legs, collapsed grey-stubbled faces. Men slept; dogs slept; and among them, like emanations risen from the senseless bodies, over which they appeared to trample, other men and other dogs moved. Silent third-class carriages turned out to be packed with dark, waiting, sweating faces; the yellow boards above the grilled windows showed that they were going somewhere. The engines hissed. Trains running late are likely to make up lost time. The fans spun urgently. From everywhere dogs howled. One hobbled off into the darkness at the end of the platform; its foreleg had been freshly torn off; a raw bloody stump remained.

The Sikh helped me with my luggage. I was grateful to him for his presence, his wholeness. We had already exchanged addresses and arranged when and where we were to meet again. Now we repeated our promises. We would travel over the South. India yet had its pleasures. We would go hunting. He would show me: it was easy, and I would enjoy the elephants. Then he returned to his air-conditioned coach, behind the double glass. Whistles blew; the train moved mightily off. Yet the station remained so little changed: so many bodies remained, awaiting transportation.

My own train was due to leave in about two hours; the coaches were waiting. I changed my third-class ticket for a first-class one, picked my way down dim platforms past the bodies of dogs and men, past third-class carriages which were already full and hot. The conductor opened the door of my compartment and I climbed in. I bolted the door, pulled down all the blinds, trying to shut out the howls of dogs, shutting out intruders, all those staring faces and skeletal bodies. I put on no lights. I required darkness.

*

I did not expect it, but we met again as we planned. It was in a town where the only other person I knew was a prosperous sweetshop-owner. I had learned to fear his hospitality. At every meeting it was necessary to eat a selection of his sweets. They were corrosively sweet; they killed appetite for a day. The Sikh’s hospitality was easier. He sought to revive my appetite with drink and he gave me food. He also gave me much of his time. I felt he was offering more than hospitality: he was offering his friendship, and it embarrassed me that I couldn’t respond. But I was calmer now than I had been on the train, and his moods no longer always answered mine.

‘They’ve let this cantonment area go down,’ he said. ‘In the old days they didn’t allow niggers here. Now the blackies are all over the place.’

The anger was plain, and was not tempered by the humour or self-satire I had seen, or made myself see, in his outbursts on the train.

‘These people! You have to shout “Boy!” Otherwise they just don’t hear you.’

I had noted this. At the hotel I was shouting ‘Boy!’ with everybody else, but I couldn’t manage the correct tone. Both boys and guests wore South Indian dress, and I had already more than once shouted at the wrong man. My shouts therefore always held muted enquiry and apology.

The Sikh was not amused. ‘And you know what they answer? You might think you are in some picture with American darkies. They answer, “Yes, master.” God!’

In such moods he was now a strain. His rage was like self-torment; he indulged it to the pitch of soliloquy. I had completely misunderstood him. But by this misunderstanding I had encouraged his friendship and trust. We had parted sentimentally and had had a sentimental reunion. I had fallen in with all his plans. He had made arrangements for our hunting-trip. It would have been as difficult to withdraw as to go ahead. I let him talk, and did nothing. And he was more than his rages. He showed me an increasing regard. As a host he was solicitous; he placed me under a growing obligation. He was disappointed and bitter; I also saw that he was lonely. The condition of India was an affront to him; it was to me, too. The days passed, and I did not break away. He was giving me more and more of his time, and I became more and more involved with his bitterness, but passively, uneasily, awaiting release.

We went one day to the ruins of an eighteenth-century palace which had been cleaned up into a picnic spot. Here India was elegance and solidity; the bazaars and railway stations were far away. He knew the ruins well. Walking among them, showing them to me, he was serene, even a little proud. There were older temples in the neighbourhood, but they did not interest him as much as the palace, and I thought I knew why. He had been to Europe, had suffered ridicule if only in his imagination for his turban, beard and uncut hair. He had learned to look at India and himself. He knew what Europe required. The palace ruins might have been European, and he was glad to show them to me. We walked in the gardens and he talked again of our hunting trip: I would marvel at the silence of the elephants. We dawdled by the tank, ate our sandwiches and drank our coffee.

On the way back we visited one of the temples. This was at my suggestion. The derelict beggar-priest, bare-backed, roused himself from his string-bed and came out to meet us. He spoke no English and welcomed us in dumb show. The Sikh gave his chuckle and became remote. The priest didn’t react. He walked ahead of us into the low, dark temple, raising his shrivelled arm and pointing out this and that, earning his fee. Carvings were scarcely visible in the gloom, and to the priest they wer

e not as important as the living shrines, lit by oil lamps, in which there were bright images, gaudily dressed in doll’s clothes, of black gods and white gods: India’s ancient mixture of aryan and Dravidian.

‘This is how the trouble started,’ the Sikh said.

The priest, staring at the gods, waiting for our exclamations, nodded.

‘You’ve been to Gilgit? You should go. They’re pure aryan up there. Beautiful people. Let a couple of these Dravidians loose among them, and in no time they spoil the race for you.’

Nodding, the priest led us back into the open and stood beside us while we got into our shoes. I gave him some money and he returned silently to his cell.

‘Until we came to India,’ the Sikh said sadly, as we drove off, ‘we were a good race. Arya – a good Sanskrit word. You know the meaning? Noble. You must read some of the old Hindu books. They will tell you. In those days it was unclean to kiss a very black woman on the lips. You think this is just a crazy Sikh talking? You read. This aryan—Dravidian business isn’t new. And it’s starting up again. You see in the papers that the blackies are asking for their own state? They are asking for another licking. And they are going to get it.’

The land through which we drove was poor and populous. The road was the neatest thing about it. On either side there were small rectangular hollows where peasants had dug clay for their huts. The roots of the great shade trees that lined the road were exposed and here and there a tree had collapsed: pigmy effort, gigantic destruction. There were few vehicles on the road, but many people, heedless of sun, dust and our horn. The women wore recognizable garments of purple, green and gold; the men were in rags.

‘They’ve all got the vote.’

When I looked at the Sikh I saw that his face was set with anger. He was more remote than ever, and his lips were moving silently. In what language was he speaking? Was he speaking a prayer, a charm? The hysteria of the train journey began to touch me again. And now I felt I carried a double responsibility. The Sikh’s anger was feeding on everything he saw, and I longed for the land and the people to change. The Sikh’s lips still moved. Against his charm I tried to pitch my own. I felt disaster close; I let reason go. I tried to transmit compensating love to every starved man and woman I saw on the road. But I was failing; I knew I was failing. I was yielding to the rage and contempt of the man beside me. Love insensibly turned into a self-lacerating hysteria in which I was longing for greater and greater decay, more rags and filth, more bones, men more starved and grotesque, more spectacularly deformed. I wished to extend myself, to see the limits of human degradation, to take it all in at that moment. For me this was the end, my private failure; even as I wished I knew I would carry the taint of that moment.

On the pedestal of a high white culvert, PWD-trim, a man stood like a statue. Rags hung over his bones, over limbs as thin and brittle-looking as charred sticks.

‘Ha! Look at that monkey.’ There was a chuckle in his voice, instantly replaced by torment. ‘God! Can you call that a man? Even the animals, if they have to live … even the animals.’ Words were not coming to him. ‘Even the animals. Man? What does that – that thing have? You think he even has instinct? To tell him when to eat?’

He was reacting for me, as he had done on the train. But now I knew my hysteria for what it was. The words were his, not mine. They broke the spell.

Peasants, trees and villages were obliterated by the dust of our car.

At times it seems that to our folly and indecisiveness, and to our dishonesty, there can be no limit. Our relationship ought to have ended at the end of that journey. A declaration would have been painful. But it could have been avoided. I could have changed hotels; I could have disappeared. This was my instinct. But the evening found us drinking together. Peasants and dust were forgotten, black gods and white, aryan and Dravidian. That moment on the road had grown out of a sense of nameless danger, and that had probably been the effect of the heat or my own exhaustion. The leaden Indian beer had its effect, and we talked of London and coffee-houses and the ‘funny little fellow’.

Dusk turned to night. Now there were three of us at the glass-crowded table. The newcomer was a commercial Englishman, middle-aged, fat and red-faced. He spoke with a North Country accent. From my alcoholic quietude I noted that the talk had turned to Sikh history and Sikh military glory. The Englishman was at first rallying, but presently the smile on his face had grown fixed. I listened. The Sikh was talking of the decline of the Sikhs since Ranjit Singh, of the disaster that had come to them with Partition. But he was also talking of Sikh revenges in 1947 and of Sikh atrocities. Some of the talk of atrocities was, I felt, aimed at me; it carried on from our drive back to the town. It was too calculated; it left me cold.

Dinner, we wanted dinner; and now we were on our way to the restaurant, and the Englishman was no longer with us.

It was very bright in the restaurant.

‘They are staring at me!’

The restaurant was bright and noisy, full of people and tables.

‘They are staring at me.’

We were in a crowded corner.

I sat down.

Slap!

‘These bloody Dravidians are staring at me.’

The man at the next table had been knocked down. He lay on his back, his head on the seat of an empty chair. His eyes were wide with terror, his hands clasped in greeting and supplication.

‘Sardarji!’ he cried, still lying flat.

‘Staring at me. South Indian punk.’

‘Sardarji! My friend said, “Look, a sardarji.” And I just turned to look. I am not a South Indian. I am a Punjabi. Like you.’

‘Punk.’

Something like this I had always feared. This was what my instinct had scented as soon as I had seen him on the train: some men radiate violence and torment, and they are dangerous to those who fear violence. We had met, and there had inevitably been a reassessment. Below all the wrongness and unease of our relationship, however, lay my original alarm. This moment, of fear and self-disgust, was logical. It was also the moment I had been waiting for. I left the restaurant and took a rickshaw to the hotel. The whole city, its streets now silent, had been coloured for me, from the first, by my association with the Sikh; I had assessed it, whether in contempt or straining love, according to the terms of his special racialism. It was as much by this that I was now sickened as by the violence I had witnessed.

I made the rickshawman turn and take me back to the restaurant. There was no sign of the Sikh. But the Punjabi, his eyes wild with humiliation and anger, was at the cash-desk with a group who appeared to know him.

‘I am going to kill your friend,’ he shouted at me. ‘I am going to kill that Sikh tomorrow.’

‘You are not going to kill anybody.’

‘I am going to kill him. I am going to kill you too.’

I went back to the hotel. The telephone rang.

‘Hallo, punk.’

‘Hello.’

‘So you ran out on me when I was in a little trouble. And you call yourself a friend. You know what I think of you? You are a dirty South Indian swine. Don’t go to sleep. I am coming over to beat you up.’

He could not have been far away, for in a few minutes he appeared, knocking twice on the door, bowing exaggeratedly, and staggering in theatrically. We were both more lucid than we had been, but our conversation see-sawed drunkenly, and falsely, between reconciliation and recrimination. At any moment we could have become friends again or agreed not to meet; again and again, when we tilted to one of these possibilities, one of us applied a corrective pressure. There still existed concern between us. We drank coffee; our conversation see-sawed more and more falsely; and in the end even this concern had been talked away.

‘We were going to go hunting,’ the Sikh said, as he left. ‘I had plans for you.’

It was a good Hollywood exit line. Perhaps it was meant. I couldn’t say. The English language in India could be so misleading. Exhaustion overcam

e me: for all our coffee and play-acting talk, the break had been violent. It brought relief and regret. There had been so much goodwill and generosity there; my misunderstanding had been so great.

In the morning horror was uppermost. I had seen photographs of the Punjab massacres of 1947 and of the Great Calcutta Killing; I had heard of trains – those Indian trains! – ferrying dead bodies across the border; I had seen the burial mounds beside the Punjab roads. Yet until now I had never thought of India as a land of violence. Now violence was something I could smell in the air; the city seemed tainted by the threat of violence and self-torment of the sort I had seen. I wanted to get away at once. But the trains and buses were booked for days ahead.

I went to the sweetshop-owner. He was soft and welcoming. He sat me at a table; one of his waiters brought me a plate of the sweetest sweets; and master and servant watched me eat. Those Indian sweets! ‘Serves them in place of flesh’: a Kipling phrase, perhaps altered by memory, came and stayed with me; and flesh seemed a raw and fearful word. For all that was soft and feeble and sweet-loving in that city I was grateful; and I feared for it.

In the sweetshop the next evening the owner introduced me to a relation of his, who was visiting. The relation started when he heard my name. Could it be true? He was reading one of my books; he had thought of me as someone thousands of miles away; he had never dreamed of finding me eating sweets in the bazaar of an out-of-the-way Indian town. But he had expected someone older. I was a baccha, a boy! However, he had met me, and he wished to show his appreciation. Could I tell him where I was staying?

Acrid white smoke billowed out of my hotel room when I opened the door that night. There was no fire. The smoke was incense. To enter, I had to cover my face with a handkerchief. I opened doors and windows, turned the ceiling fan on, and hurried out again to the corridor with streaming eyes. It was minutes before the incense-fog thinned. Great clumps of incense sticks burned like dying brands everywhere; on the floor the ash was like bird droppings. Flowers were strewn over my bed, and there was a garland on my pillow.