Millennium Post

India in sepia tint

For the veteran Guardian journalist Ian Jack, India is not just a subject close to his heart, but a second home. The compilation of his essays, written during his active days as a journalist/traveler in pre-liberalised India, emphatically announces at the outset the impossibility of collating India at the altar of coherence. This volume deserves far wider reading by those born after 1991, when the ‘enigma of reform’ finally arrived at the slumbering power corridors of Delhi.

India decided to go another way in early 1990s, not because of the Indian leaders’ newfound love for the verses of Victor Hugo, but to escape a wretched existence, wherein wealth creation had become really tough. So, it was then that ‘an-idea-whose-time-has-come’ kind of prose came into prominence and shifted the entire India narrative, turning it inside out as the country embarked on an unprecedented journey.

Ian Jack is no Max Mueller — he has real feelings for India. Unlike the German Indophile, Jack keeps himself at arm’s length from hypothetical arguments. However, he is a superlatively articulate journalist. Jack has seen much and the result is this volume, a treasure trove of scintillating sketches and travels by road and rail through the length and breath of India, with the spotlight on rural heartlands of Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. From metropolitan India to mofussil Bharat, he appears to be a neutral observer of a changing nation.

Going against the Western trend to look at the East through either rose-tinted glasses or shambolic poverty-goggles, Jack comes across as a moderate polemicist, especially when he’s writing on Bombay or George Orwell’s Motihari, where, to his dismay, few knew the acclaimed Englishman. Similarly, Jack’s essays on the Bhagalpur incident, or the Mansi Railway accident, break the convention of traditional journalistic reportage that eschews opinionating. Knowing it to the bone, Jack’s intuitive grasp on eastern India, which he has seen and felt like no other Western traveler, spellbinds even some of the most astute readers.

The essay on Tagore confirms it, where he diligently recognises the Bard’s unmatchable fame and how that has become a myth in itself, available for popular regression. It is another thing that now Bengalis, and other Tagore-scholars, have developed many, often conflicting, sets of opinions on the Nobel laureate, but none of those challenge his supreme authority in the cultural affairs of the clan. So, while Jack confronts their obsessive side, which hinders the dogmatic Bengalis to see merit in others, he also strikes a resonant note when he asks why Tagore has suffered in translation, and why his preeminence within the Bengali cultural superset is not without its reasons.

Jack’s essays on good English-speaking people like Sonny Mehta, or his landlord in Delhi, Sham Lal, have greater symbolic value, as they were written in simpler days, when speaking mannerisms and accents accrued greater degree of appreciation than the real content. On the Gandhi troika – Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv — his pieces seem to give primary information. I would like to believe this hardly showcases his limitation; rather, it allows us to believe, blissfully so, most of us are perfectly enlightened about the precious and trashy details of our political first family.

But Jack is an old horse at narrative journalism, and it’s humanly not possible to keep the inner perspicuous observer in him hidden behind the reluctant annalist of the Indian dynasty. On 1984 Delhi riots, he provides fresh perspective. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s an old issue and India has, unfortunately, had periodical bouts of turbulence, violence and bloodshed since then, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom being one, Jack’s eyes discover new details that had gone unnoticed in the deluge of politically-motivated accounts of the ugly chapter of modern Indian history. As a democracy, India has been ceremoniously plagued by the ‘culture of riots’ and the fertile ground of hostility is right inside the polity, and partially, Jack, too, hints at the unpalatable truth.

The book has a fleeting subcontinental touch as well. It becomes evident in his recollections of Benazir Bhutto and her mother, who once danced with a white politician, interestingly, which even Oxford-educated Benazir couldn’t do, that there was more to the embrace of modernity and Western ideas than the South Asian mind would like to admit. On Benazir’s reluctance or refusal to dance with a white man, Jack muses whether it was because she was a determined conservative who had learnt Urdu to use it for embellishing both her slang offerings and fiery speeches, which we most of us have heard at some point of time.

Jack’s essays are musings, repositories of collected memories — memories which are personal but have huge relevance for the larger audience, whether Indian or Western. At a juncture, when the incessant drone of breaking news clogs off the sieves of mind, and few are left with a proper appetite for narrative journalism, essentially, which is the better part of the trade, Jack’s work comes as a whiff of cool breeze and refreshing change. Mofussil Junction is here to buck the trend and is a delightful addition to your library, big or small.
The author is a New Delhi-based journalist and editor of India Since 1947
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