By then I had moved to Benares, and one day, while looking for something else in the same section of the stacks, I came across the book again. This time I took it to the reading room.
I had always lived in small towns where libraries and bookshops were few and far between and did not stock anything except a few standard texts of English literature: Austen, Dickens, Kipling, Thackeray. My semicolonial education had made me spend much of my time on minor Victorian and Edwardian writers. Some diversity was provided by writers in Hindi and the Russians, whom you could buy cheaply at Communist bookstores.
As for the rest, I read randomly, whatever I could find, and with the furious intensity of a small-town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding, the larger world. You had to be resourceful; you had to be perpetually on the hunt for books. Among this disconnected reading, I had certain preferences, a few strong likes and dislikes, but they did not add up to coherent standards of judgment.
I knew little of the social and historical underpinnings to the books I read; I had only a fleeting sense of the artistry and skill to which certain novels owed their greatness. I had problems too with those books of Edmund Wilson I had found at the library, some of which I read in part that winter, others from cover to cover. They were a struggle for me, and the ignorance I felt before them was a secret source of shame, but it was also a better stimulus to the effort his books demanded than mere intellectual curiosity. Over the next few months it became clear to me that his powers of summary and explication were often worth more attention than the books and writers that were his subjects.
There was also a certain idea that his lucid prose and confident judgments suggested and that I, at first, found so attractive, the image of a man wholly devoted to reading and thinking and writing. I thought of him at work in his various residences—Provincetown, Talcottville, Cambridge, Wellfleet—and in my imagination these resonant names became attached to a promise of wisdom and serenity. Sectarian tensions were particularly intense in North India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the province with the greatest population and second-highest poverty rate in the country, where caste and political rivalries spread to the local universities.
The main political parties, eager to enlist the large student vote in their favor, had begun to put money into student union elections.
The tensions were so great that academic sessions were frequently interrupted by student strikes; arson, kidnapping, and murder among students became common features of campus life. Miraculously, the library at Benares had remained well stocked. Subscriptions to foreign magazines had been renewed on time; you could find complete volumes of the TLS, Partisan Review , and The New York Review of Books from the s in the stacks. Catalogs of university presses had been dutifully scrutinized by the library staff; the books, as though through some secluded channel untouched by the surrounding disorder, had kept flowing in.
The library was housed in an impressively large building in the style known as Hindu-Saracenic, whose attractive pastiche of Indian and Victorian Gothic architecture had been prompted by the same Indian modernist aspirations that had created the university.
But by the late eighties chaos reigned in almost every department. Few books were to be found in their right places; the card catalog was in complete disarray. In the reading room, students of a distinctly criminal appearance smoked foul-smelling cigarettes and noisily played cards. Some of them chose to take their siestas on long desks; bored young women spent hours scratching their initials into tabletops.
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I was, however, allowed to sit in the reading room, and I was there almost every day from the time it opened in the morning. Since I had little money, I walked the four miles to the library from my house. For lunch I had an omelet at a fly-infested stall outside the library and then a glass of sticky-sweet tea which effectively killed all hunger for the next few hours.
In the evening I would walk home along the river and sit until after dark on the ghats, among a mixed company of touts and drug pushers; washermen gathering clothes that had rested on the stone steps all afternoon, white and sparkling in the sun; groups of children playing hopscotch on the chalk-marked stone floor; a few late bathers, dressing and undressing under tattered beach umbrellas; and groups of old men, silently gazing at the darkening river. Many of my days in Benares were spent in this way, and when I think of them, they seem serenely uneventful.
But what I remember best now are not so much the clear blue skies and magically still afternoons, glimpsed from my window-side perch at the library, as the factors that constantly threatened to undo that serenity.
For a radically different world existed barely a few hundred meters from where I sat reading about Santayana. The university in those days was the scene of intense battles between students and the police. Anything could provoke them: a student who was not readmitted after being expelled; an exam that a professor refused to postpone. A peculiar frenzy periodically overtook the two sides, whereupon the students would rampage through the campus, smashing furniture and any windowpanes left unbroken from their last eruption of rage.
Challenged by the police, they would retreat to the sanctuary of their hostels and fire pistols at the baton-charging constables. In retaliation, the policemen would often invade the hostels, break into locked rooms, drag out their pleading, wailing occupants, and proceed to beat them.
I once saw one of their victims, minutes after the police had left, coughing blood and broken teeth, his clothes torn, the baton marks on his exposed arms rapidly turning blue. Another time I saw a policeman with half of the flesh on his back gouged out by a locally made hand grenade.
Anxious colleagues watched helplessly from behind their wire mesh shields as he tottered and collapsed on the ground. The grenade thrower—a scrawny boy in a big-collared shirt and tight polyester trousers who, I learned later, had targeted the policeman after being tortured by him in custody—stood watching on the cobblestone road, fascinated by his handiwork. These two groups tended to be allied with different ends of the caste system: The lower castes tended to be Communist; the upper castes tended to be Hindu nationalist.
But frequently now the violence came for no ideological reason, with no connections to a cause or movement. It erupted spontaneously, fueled only by the sense of despair and hopelessness that permanently hung over North Indian universities in the s, itself part of a larger crisis caused by the collapse of many Indian institutions, the increasingly close alliance between crime and politics, and the growth of state-organized corruption—processes that had accelerated during Mrs. Most of the people I knew were deeply cynical in their attitude toward their future.
You could work toward becoming a member of either the state or national legislature and siphon off government funds earmarked for literacy and population control projects; if nothing worked out, you could aspire, at the other end of the scale, to be a lowly telephone mechanic and make money by selling illegal telephone connections.
Most of the students in this traditionally backward area of India came from feudal or semirural families, and aspired to join the Civil Service, a colonial invention that even in independent India continued to offer the easiest and quickest route to political power and affluence. But there were fewer and fewer recruitments made to the Civil Service from North India, where the decline in standards, as well as the cheap availability, of higher education had made it possible for millions to acquire university degrees while they had less and less prospect of employment.
Bribery and nepotism had played a major part in the disbursement of the jobs in the minor government services. My own situation was little different from that of the people around me. I had recently spent three years at the nearby provincial university at Allahabad, where I was in even closer, more unsettling proximity to the desperation I saw in Benares. Like many others in my family who laboriously worked their way into the middle classes, I had to make my own way in the world. Looking back, I can see my compulsive pursuit of books, and the calm and order it suggested, contrasting so jarringly with the rage and desperation around me, as my way of putting off a grimly foreclosed future.
So, during my months in Benares, I was able to live at a slight tangent to the chaos of the university. And I was able to do this, I now see, partly because of Rajesh.
A visit to Allahabad, birthplace of Jawaharlal Nehru, occasions a brief history of the tumultuous post-independence politics Nehru set in motion. In Kashmir, just after the brutal killing of thirtyfive Sikhs, Mishra sees Muslim guerrillas playing with Sikh village children while the media ponder a largely irrelevant visit by President Clinton. And in Tibet Mishra exquisitely parses the situation whereby the Chinese government—officially atheist and strongly opposed to a free Tibet—has discovered that Tibetan Buddhism can "be packaged and sold to tourists. Mishra, a Hindu Indian journalist and novelist The Romantics , here provides first-person reporting of major turmoil in eight Asian countries in recent years.
These are standalone chapters: covered