Snakes and Ladders: A View Of Modern India By Gita Mehta, Secker and Warburg, #163;14.99
Midnight's children are now midnight's wrinklies, and 50 years of freedom from British colonial rule will be commemorated endlessly this year in books, magazines, exhibitions, films and television seasons. Jawaharlal Nehru's speech, delivered on August 14, 1947 to the constituent assembly, is quoted in Granta as an epigraph to Sanjeev Saith's collection of photo portraits of witnesses of the special midnight moment. It begins: "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom."
The first tune that this commemorative bandwagon should play is a dirge for the partition of the sub-continent. Perhaps hidden in that phrase about "not wholly" is Nehru's regret that India was not being born whole, but into three warring parts. The second should be a lament for fallacies in our prose: at midnight in India, it's only 6.30pm in Britain and high noon in America, so the world isn't quite asleep.
Pakistanis may see the anniversary as a double celebration: of liberation from colonialism, and of partition. Granta is aware of the dual nature of the anniversary, but Ian Jack probably took the decision to leave Pakistan and Bangladesh for another day. The brief memories of the witnesses to partition and an extract from a forthcoming book about memories of partition, by Urvashi Butalia, are the token allusions in the pack.
The Granta collection is an anthology rather than a progression. Ian Jack's introduction is a reminiscence of his first acquaintance with India in the days of Indira Ghandi's Emergency, and his subsequent romance with the country and its phenomenal, bewildering progress charted in anecdotes and quotes. For example: "It is said - one of those uncheckable things - that villagers in the remotest part of India know who Bill Gates is, would recognise him if he stopped by at the well one day to beg a glass of water."
I have news for Ian Jack. It is not uncheckable and I have checked it, having travelled to the remotest parts of India and held up a picture of Bill Gates. Not one of the guys or girls with buckets knew who he was. I wonder whether this evidence of gullibility on Mr Jack's part is intentional or whether his choice of other pieces only extends it.
Take for instance the poem from Vikram Seth called Sampati and subtitled "A Petrarchan sonnet based on a character in the Ramayana". I reproduce the poem in full:
"Whydoyoucry? Iflewtoohigh Un-doneallseemefall. "
Er, that's it. Except that where the obliques occur, as is the convention, the line changes, so the poem is laddered over 14 lines. There are then 11 lines of footnotes telling us that the poem is about the king of the cultures who, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Fifty Years of Indian Independence or E J Thribb? Mr Jack, of course, wants famous names, and Mr Seth is a name and a considerable poet. Accompanied by other conceits from the Ramayana, it may pass. But there, on it's own, was it worth the trip?
Four or five trips in the anthology are certainly worth it. There is William Dalrymple's searching dramatic piece on caste wars in Bihar; there are Mark Tully's characteristically candid and down-to-earth memories of his father and his childhood in India; there is James Buchan's bold venture into Kashmir exposing the cruelties and cackhandedness of the Indian army and authority in the state; there is the fragment of Philip Knightley's forthcoming autobiography about how he unwittingly worked for the CIA's influence and information mill in India in the 1960s; and there is Jan Morris's terse account of Clive's castle near Welshpool in Wales.
Before I'm accused of concentrating on the white contributors, let me add that the extract "Kabir Street", from R K Narayan's work in progress, is as always a delight to read, and also that the most diligent and penetrating traveller through India, the master himself, V S Naipaul, is represented by extracts from his travel diary from the journey that produced A Wounded Civilisation. I would it were instead, at much greater length, extracts from the diary that produced his latest work on India, A Million Mutinies Now, which is the single most fascinating, representative and comprehensive compilation of discovered real-life stories on modern India, worried into life by Naipaul's questioning.
Gita Mehta's Snakes and Ladders is aptly named. One moves through several squares of her autobiography, starting with her being a pre-Midnight's Child to having a child of her own who is quoted in the penultimate piece. The game may then move on to a square of mythological recall, or a rapid elementary lesson in India's progress and politics. To call the 35 pieces that make up this book essays would be misleading. They are throws of the dice which lead us through meditations on whatever in India takes Gita Mehta's fancy. There's the ironic, personal anecdote about charity, a story about being asked to speak to an international gathering of "young presidents" - people who owned their own companies by the age of 40 - on a list of speakers including Kissinger, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. There's the ramble through her life of reading; stories of elections; laments about India's showing among the Tiger economies of Asia - and much more. An Indian or an old India hand reading these pieces may feel that he or she is traversing trodden territory, because there is an explaining mission clearly on the board. My advice is to move on. The next snake or ladder takes the reader on to a new patch, funny and sometimes fresh because reverence is not Mehta's strong point - except for India. One gets the feeling that everything can be knocked, mocked or undercut, but not the mother country itself.
Farrukh Dhondy is commissioning editor for multicultural programmes at Channel 4