Indian love affair

Indian love affair

Enduring British fascination for India finds expression in myriad forms. It can be cynical, judgmental and sometimes hostile mocking of our culture. Some writers are bowled over by the exotic landscape, while others tend to form opinions contrary to their long-cherished notions. There are also the curious ones who are on a mission to explore India out of genuine love.

Ian Jack is a British journalist who has made a mark with his dispassionate accounts of India over a period of 30 years. Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters in 1977-2012 is a collection of essays covering a wide range of subjects including reportage, profiles of unusual individuals and unlikely places. As a foreign correspondent, his dispatches on major events are insightful and incisive. These include pieces on Emergency, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi; Bhopal gas leak, anti-Sikh riots in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and Bhagalpur blindings. Extensive travels across India, mainly north and the east, provided him an opportunity to come face to face with an
evolving nation in its many hues.

Jack’s voyage of discovery takes him to Motihari in Bihar in search of George Orwell’s birth place, to Serampur in search of the first steam engine in India, and to McCluskiegunge, in the heart of Jharkhand, chasing the shattered dream of an Anglo-Indian homeland. As a connoisseur of culture, he admires the intellectual life of Calcutta with a vibrant middle class, product of East-West interaction. He feels Calcutta middle class homes preserve a culture that has vanished elsewhere. However, he notes that the new India has bypassed the metropolis. For him, it is an occasion to compare the city with Bombay, where affluence and squalor co-exist. He is impressed with the city’s ‘share culture’, and the lure of Taj hotel.

Serampur, the longest piece, is an engaging reconstruction of the forgotten legacy of William Carey, a cobbler who became scholar extraordinaire. He had landed in India in the late 18th century to save as many Indian souls as possible for Christ, and ended up doing everything other than conversion. This missionary wanted India to become a colony of whites as North America and Brazil had become. He transformed Serampur by setting up educational institutions, botanical gardens, the first printing press, newspapers and a jute mill driven by steam engine. ‘What had changed the town…was not Carey’s religion but the puffing machinery he thought would disseminate it; not the idea but the idea’s tool.’

Jack recounts how he was once embarrassed by a lavish reception hosted by G D Birla, with the entire staff of BITS Pilani turning out to receive him. He says, ‘GD preferred to talk about anything other than how he had amassed money.’ He quotes G D Birla as describing Morarji Desai’s son Kanti Desai as ‘stupid’ and Sanjay Gandhi as ‘wicked and stupid.’ The write-up on Ruth Prawer Jhabwala brings out the predicament of the German-born novelist. He sums up her ambivalence towards India thus: ‘At first she fell in love with the country and then, by slow degrees, grew to hate it.’ In an entirely different piece, he writes about his days as the paying guest of former editor Sham Lal, after taking a sabbatical to write a book that he never wrote.

A delightful piece narrates Jack’s encounter with the unabashed apologist of British imperialism and ardent devotee of European civilisation, Nirad C Chaudhuri, who was spending his final years in Oxford in obscurity. He writes: ‘Sometimes, said Chaudhuri, he imagined he had been put on this earth simply to demonstrate to Britons how their grandfathers wrote, how they behaved, and how they drank.’ Jack could foresee the rise of Indian middle class in a 1985 piece.

He is astonished by the public support for the blinding of dacoits in Bhagalpur. ‘Train falls from bridge…’ is an indictment of the official apathy to find the exact number of casualties after an overcrowded train falls off a bridge in Bihar. As the victims were mainly peasants travelling without tickets, no one seemed interested in finding the truth.

A similar story on a ferry disaster in Bihar exposes the same insensitivity shown by the officials as well as the ferry owner. Trains act as a backdrop for the collection. Being a great lover of train journeys in India, Jack evokes the smell, the sound and sights of railway platforms in the days of steam locomotives. He is nostalgic about the era of Newman’s Indian Bradshaw, which listed every train in India and the facilities available at every station.

Ian Jack’s passion for culture and history embellishes the volume. An eye for details as a journalist with a historian’s perspective, presented in impeccable prose, raises his reportage to new heights. He is in no hurry to pass judgments after making observations.

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