Bombay Notebooks | Granta

Bombay Notebooks

V.S. Naipaul

August 20

The monsoon rain was blown on the concrete by the aeroplane as it landed. I had never been in Bombay during the monsoon and began to grieve for the plastic mackintosh I had left behind at London airport. I remember the dread with which I had arrived at Bombay [by ship] in 1962; the excitement of my early morning arrival, by aeroplane, in 1967. With each successive arrival in India my dismay and apprehension lessen. It may be that I have learned a new way of seeing or know better now what to expect; it may also be that one’s sense of dissolution has now spread; that there are no longer places where one can retreat; that I am now aware of a more general insecurity and am, perhaps importantly, less of a colonial.

The taxi stuttered through the sleeping city, the flats, the blackened concrete tenements, the bright cinema posters. Yet even on this night drive the vitality of Bombay was something that could be sensed; the creativity in the midst of dereliction & decay, so that perhaps dereliction & decay can no longer be opposed to creation, that all is in a state of decay & making. Buildings I had seen only as models or as architect’s elevations were now full grown. At the Intercontinental it was all light and glitter, the glitter that suggests imminent tarnishing. But there was order in the galleries of the Taj Mahal [hotel], arch answering arch down long vistas, gallery answering gallery down & up. The room was white and cool, too cool. In the monsoon in an air-conditioned room the bed feels damp.

The East is strange indeed now. Beirut is the centre of a new world: Arabs, Japanese, Indians. The Indian press that refers to the Middle East as West Asia has the right emphasis.

So now to other images of the day: the Sikh workers, sunburned, returning in new shoes by Gulf Air. Indians are now going to these places in numbers now, as clerks, accountants, vegetable sellers. So I was told by the girl – an Anglo-Indian, as I learnt, and a former model – whom I met at the flat of the photographer, with Rahul Singh. She herself has been working in Sharja for two years and is back on holiday. The rats playing at night around the Gateway of India. At first they had seemed to be scuttling: but then I realized that they were playing like baby rabbits; they were not looking for shelter.

It is tenser in Delhi, they say. Here people still talk openly. But the newspapers are to be read in a special way. They are full of stories of raids on grain merchants who have been hoarding grain, cinema managers who have been holding back on entertainment tax, brothel keepers who have been arrested, civil servants who have been dismissed. The journalists are demoralized. The Illustrated Weekly which sold 260,00 (rising in 1969 from 80,000) is now going to decline.

The photographer and the model: the Picasso theme.


August 21

The Express this morning; more cryptic paragraphs about arrests and raids. But the people arrested seem small fry. A dull paper. There is a quality about censored newspapers; it can be amusing to decipher them. But this is as boring as the news on AIR [All India Radio]. In between the [main] news, though, there are items that are more interesting: engineering exports last year up to 375 crores of rupees; the steel plant at Rourkela made a profit for the first time. It was a holiday, Rakhi Bandan; when brothers are given wristlets as tokens of regard by sisters. The Prince of Wales Museum was full of ordinary people; people like these polish the breasts of goddesses smooth and touch the groins of Shiva and Uma. The collection was grander than I had expected, the range of miniatures quite fantastic. It takes time to learn & look at India; to enter the art, the sculpture, the architecture. I had never before studied the architecture of Bombay: this Victorian-Indian-Gothic which now seems to have a great charm. The crowds wandered around the Gateway of India in the afternoon, a drumming & trumpet band (a curious mixture of trumpet, drums and temple bells) and a religious puja of some sort going on below the arch. The white crowd of India, the whiteness picked out by the occasional bright reds & greens & yellows of saris. The naked divers. But the holidays of Maharashtra have been cut down to three now. There is a package tour in the hotel, which as a result seems fuller than yesterday. It is a European package tour. At seven we went to the Bombay Gymkhana Club. In the pearly, half-livid light of dusk this overcast day. And sat in the veranda that lies almost flat to the level green expanse of playing field (full of players in the half light) below the fans that whipped up my muscle aches. Prem Jha of the Times of India was there. He is fatter now than he was seven years ago. His wife died two years ago in Damascus, during an Israeli air raid on the city; she was a dancer and had been asked to spend a day or two extra in the city. She left a daughter, who is now aged six, and Prem Jha said that for the past two months or so he had been thinking of getting married again. He said that democracy had begun to breakdown three years ago; people had lost confidence in the ballot box and had begun to take to the streets. Until the other day, he said, the road outside the Times of India office was regularly blocked by processions, trade union agitations. Things had begun to decay economically sometime ago; the statistics were being twisted. There was a ‘package’– the main point of which seemed to be the abolition of price controls, which damaged industry – but though the people on top knew this, they were also aware of opposition from the people – small traders etc – who benefited from price controls and were able to present the case for controls as the case for socialism. But PJ’s attitude was as negative as it seemed to me eight years ago. The newspaperman’s frenzy, the non-doer’s frenzy. He said there was great cynicism in the civil service, that people puffed on their pipes and smiled when ideas were put to them, and showed the reasons why nothing should be done. This is an attitude I understand too: it was exemplified for me sometime ago by R_T_, who always knew why things would fail, like teaching villages by satellite.

The other man said, when I asked him: Yes, we all criticize the system, but it is what keeps us here, living like this. The third man was a box wallah, who had very good reasons for Indian inaction over issues like East Africa. Dinner afterwards with Rahul and Pinkyat Kebab Korner in the Nataraj.


Friday August 22

Awoke 10.30 and went for a fitting to Burlingtons’ in the Taj. The trousers were far too narrow around the waist & hips. At 12.30 Shirish Patel came, small & attractive, and at first I thought him younger than myself. He was dressed in white and carrying the rakhi that had been presented to him . . .


Image © mini malist

V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul was a Trinidadian-born British writer. His breakthrough novel A House for Mr Biswas was published in 1961. Naipaul won the Booker Prize in 1971 for his novel In a Free State, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.

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