‘The past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill.’
– V.S. Naipaul


When I first came to Varanasi seventeen years ago I came by overnight train. It was only a distance of some eight hundred kilometres from Delhi, but it was not merely physical; distances in India rarely are. And the long journey made more real the other aspect of the distance, its cultural and historical dimension, the feeling of travelling across centuries. It was a big humid summer night, brightly lit and filled with mosquitoes. The train had a romantic name, the Kashi Vishwanath Express. Its carriages were striped in two shades of solid blue, the names of passengers printed and glued to the outside. The platform was crowded with travellers, now asleep on their luggage, now sharing food from polythene bags. We travelled through a darkened landscape dotted with red-brick buildings bathed in fluorescent light. In the morning, a sun of dull gold rose through tinted windows. The air in the sleeper grew close. There was the intimacy of waking up among strangers, some stirring, some belching frankly. All this had been a preparation of sorts, the slow acknowledgement of distances that were not merely physical.

Things are different now. Physical distances have evaporated even as cultural ones have deepened. The IndiGo flight takes no more than fifty minutes. The airline, with its jaunty punning – the in-flight magazine is called Hello 6E – and its air hostesses in dark blue, with matching slim leather belts and pillbox hats, is part of the spread of a modernity whose depth is hard to gauge and whose trappings suggest attitudes that aren’t necessarily there. The hostess serving me a Junglee chicken sandwich – Sweetie is her name – has a pin on her sleeve that says girl power. But that does not mean that she believes in, or even knows about, feminism. And let’s say she does: it is no guarantee of a unified world view. The same person who has come around to girl power need not believe in gay power, which might well appal her. And even if this sealed-off world of Western freedoms has come down to her whole, there’s nothing to say that she is not steeped in Indian caste prejudices. Rationality itself might have only a limited hold on her. She may alternate easily between Western values and a second consciousness made up of faith, magic and astrology.

The reverse could just as easily be true. It may well be that ideas from the West have made quiet inroads into Sweetie’s world view and that they now stand in conflict with the values of her parents, or even her own values, which she cannot justify, but which nonetheless have a jealous hold on her. The point is: there’s no telling. Surfaces cannot be trusted; they are not an accurate reflection of the country’s interior life. In this time of flux, old India roils away under the surface – Nehru’s palimpsest country in which, ‘one under the other, are written many facts, ideas, and dreams, without any of them completely covering that which is below’. And Sweetie, as if wanting to let me in on the secret, wears a second badge on the same sleeve, which diminishes the effect of the first, and speaks less to female empowerment than to some vague actressy notion of glamour. It says leading lady.

We fly through a thin light-suffused mist. The land below is parcelled out into smallholdings. A golden oval of sunlight sweeps searchingly over the cabin walls. We land among mustard fields, whose little yellow flowers are attractive against the pink and white of the airport’s boundary wall.

The studied cool of IndiGo airlines has enforced a civility on the passengers, suppressed certain instincts, which, now that the plane is on the ground and we are close to disembarking, return with force. There is a small stampede at the front and loud talking on the telephone. The South Koreans on our flight who have come to Varanasi as part of a Buddhist pilgrimage – the Shakyamuni Buddha gave his first sermon a few miles away – retreat in the face of these rough manners. It reminds me of an ugly episode a few hours before, on the ground in Delhi. A Frenchman, in grey trousers and a red sleeveless sweater, had pushed past me in the line for the security check.

‘Are you going to cut ahead?’ I said. ‘Would you do this in France?’

He gave me a Gallic shrug, a tant pis of such contempt as only the French are capable of.

I said, ‘You’re very bad-mannered.’

‘Don’t teach me,’ he replied. ‘Indian manners!’ and vanished ahead, into the crowd.

Manners are the least of India’s problems. They will come. But there is a deeper reckoning that must be had.


The hermetically sealed world of the airport falls away suddenly. With no warning we are in deepest rural India. The car speeds out into sugar-cane and mustard fields. There are clay houses with red-tiled roofs and low red-brick walls that enclose empty plots of overgrown land. The walls are covered in advertisements for mobile phones and soft drinks, for bootleg educational courses and aphrodisiacs. A line of single-storey shops, their dark fronts hung with bright pendulous packets of pan masala and potato crisps, appear along the edge of a thinly tarred road.

The city thickens around us. There are open drains, channelling gurgling streams of cloudy water, and paper kites wheeling against a grey polluted sky. The shops sell cheap clothes and kitchen things. A wheelbarrow with a pyramid of red gas cylinders blocks our way. The infrastructure crumbles; political posters and religious flags hang limp on this windless December day.

We cross a black-watered drain, garbage on the surface eddying out in a paisley shape. Degraded as it is, this is a sacred boundary: the Varana River which, along with the Asi (now poisoned too), encloses all that is Varanasi – Benares, as it is still known locally; Kashi, as it has been known for millennia.

Near the Taj Hotel the congestion eases. We enter an area of heavy trees and boulevards, bungalows and churches. This is the Cantonment – an aloof and scolding memory of the British presence, which began here at the end of the eighteenth century. There is a statue of Vivekananda, painted a garish copper colour. In 1893, when he represented Hinduism in Chicago’s World’s Parliament of Religions, he roused the West to the power of India’s greatest export: spirituality.

The sight of the statue returns me to 24 April 2014 – the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived to file his nomination papers. Modi is not from here, but he chose the city as his constituency because in the Hindu imagination it is possessed of the power of Rome or Jerusalem: not a mere political capital, but a cosmic one. It is the epicentre of Hindu pilgrimage, a point where all the holy places of Hindu India are symbolically represented. ‘Kashi is a place that gathers together the whole of India,’ wrote the historian Diana L. Eck in Banaras: City of Light. ‘Kashi is a cosmopolis – a city that is a world.’ The city is a metaphor for old India, in its entirety, and that is why it now serves Modi’s politics of revival.

On that day two years ago, Modi moved slowly through Varanasi, stopping to pay his respects at a number of statues along the way. It was a blistering morning of soaring white skies. Bits of white paper and swirling clouds of dust rose and fell over the sweltering streets. The shopfronts were shuttered; the city seemed almost to be empty. I rode pillion on the motorbike of a friend and it was only at intersections that I could see the crowd snaking its way to where Modi was. Later, when people asked me how many had come, I found it hard to say. The city did not have vistas enough for me to gauge the numbers, but it was as if all of Varanasi had showed up to see Modi.

Now the statue of Sardar Patel – India’s first home minister and recently a Hindu Nationalist alternative to Nehru (less colonised, more muscular) – is once more just a statue; no longer part of a constellation of figures that Modi garlanded on his way to filing his nomination papers. A wreath of marigolds hangs from his neck. The flowers are shrivelled, the petals a deep burnt red, a memory both of heat and the passage of time.

‘Are the good days here?’ I say to my driver, half teasingly. (‘Good days are coming’ had been Modi’s slogan.)

‘It will take time,’ he replies, his mouth swollen with the thick granular remains of a betel chew in its late stages.

The old city – a warren of narrow streets through which arteries have been forced – now begins to close around us. Soon there will be that first view of the water. During these months away, months in New York, I spent hours looking out of my window imagining that first glimpse of the riverfront. I had to actively stop myself from grafting the geography of one city onto another, imagining the Ganga in place of the Hudson, which takes a momentary turn north in Varanasi, flowing back towards its source in the Himalayas; ghats instead of piers; cremations and bathers on the West Side Highway; the tight conglomeration of the Manhattan grid replaced by the labyrinth of sunless streets. And what could be easier than to imagine, in place of New Jersey, a sandy waste delimited by a pale line of trees?

That first sight of the city curled around the river goes through me like the breath of something old and known and familiar. The city has been destroyed many times in the last thousand years, no less by development authorities than by conquerors. And yet it is so perfect an articulation of the culture that built it that the overlay of centuries has not muffled its voice. It still stands, still speaks. It enshrines a spirit that could only have belonged to old India: a temple town set along the banks of a broad river staring frankly into the void.


I wake before dawn to the loud pealing of a bell outside. A solid one-note toll at 4 a.m., without let-up. I don’t mind. It is the hour of Brahma, a time famously conducive to those engaged in intellectual work; and since that is in part what I am here for, I think, why not! I lie in bed listening to the bell. Despite the hour and the cold of the December morning, there is footfall outside my window: people are making their way down to the Ganga.

The breath of the river, which can always be felt pressing against this house, is heaviest now. A sluggish cross-weave of ripples goes over the water. The brightening of day corresponds to a quickening of activity on the riverfront. The first flecks of pink in the dark oily water bring the first bathers. The air is soon high with the sound of bells and conches. A film song, crackling and morose, carries from a radio. A broken column of orange appears on the water. The day does not so much brighten as it exposes. And there is always a little dismay, akin to what we might feel on walking into a room in a house where a party was held the night before, at the first sight of squalor. It is so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that it seems as sourceless and inevitable as the broadening of day itself. A black bitch, with flapping udders, licks clean the yellow remains of potato curry from a heap of used leaf-plates. There are white and pink plastic bags, like dead jellyfish, on the edge of the water.

The river, as with Varanasi itself, is endowed with mythical power – it runs between this world and the next. It is holy, but not out of reach; it is threaded into the daily life of the city. And there is something marvellous about seeing a grown man lose himself in the sanctity of the river. Arms spreadeagled, he splashes it repeatedly, as if preparing it for his ablutions. Then he dunks himself and pirouettes with his hands raised. He digs at the water with folded hands, pushes it away from him, as if shadow-boxing with an imaginary enemy. It is difficult for me to enter into the symbolic and ritual power that the river holds for him. He scuttles off to the bank and returns with a small clay lamp burning in his hands. He turns and turns in a clockwise motion, the smoky flame trailing after him. When his compact with the river is complete, he leaves the lamp burning in the dark earth, a testament to the vows he’s made. It is a small perishable memorial, Joycean in its beauty and banality, to how one ordinary man began an ordinary day.

I am staying at the Alice Boner House. She was a Swiss artist and scholar who lived in Varanasi for decades. She came from a wealthy Swiss family – her uncle was one of the founders of the engineering firm Brown, Boveri and Co. – and she was soon disenchanted with ‘the pert, lewd atmosphere’ of Paris in the 1920s. In 1926 she saw Uday Shankar dance in Zurich: ‘Evening in the Kursaal: a lot of kitsch, and a revelation, the Indian dancer,’ she wrote in her diary. In Shankar, she saw ‘a living source of Indian sculpture’. They became lovers and she came with him to India for the first time in 1930. Six years later she returned to live in this house on the Ganga, which is now an institution for visiting writers and painters. She lived here until a few years before her death in 1981. Her work, her library and her diary provide entry points into the deeper life of this city – where it is still possible to see an intact medieval life, full of pilgrims and students of classical grammar and language, seekers of all kinds.

It is a source of shame to me that, despite having lived most of my life in India, the world of tradition in a city like Varanasi is closed to me. And the reason is plain: I am colonised. I am part of that class which the British administrator Lord Macaulay set out to create in the 1830s: men who would act as intermediaries ‘between us and the millions whom we govern’. Indian in blood, English (and now increasingly American) in tastes and intellect. Macaulay was roughly my age – thirty-four – when he was appointed president of the Committee of Public Instruction, and he knew that he could never educate the whole body of the people. His plan was to create a class that would gradually extend modern knowledge to the great mass of the population. But that is not what happened. What happened instead was that this class grew more isolated with every generation, more deracinated – Gandhi described them as ‘foreigners in their own land’ at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University in 1916.

At the time of independence, when an old culture was being reborn as a modern nation, there was a moment when this imbalance might have been corrected. It might have been possible to profoundly reform the system of education the British bequeathed us, which had been borne out of an open contempt for Indian learning and antiquity, and which had the ultimate aim of creating ‘a nation of clerks’ to serve the British Empire.

But the opportunity was not taken. India’s elite was culturally and linguistically denuded. We had ceased, in India and Pakistan, to be bilingual. Out of a private effort, I had regained Urdu well enough to translate, and I was a student of Sanskrit; but the knowledge of these languages would forever be incomplete, and this deepened my sense of what had been lost. I grew up as one among many who lived in India but dreamed of the West.

It is difficult to fully capture the strangeness of the experience; one can really only gesture at it. I have a picture, for instance, of myself, aged eighteen, on my first trip to Varanasi. My hair is cut short and I am sitting on the stone steps of the riverfront, dressed in a flimsy black long-sleeve shirt covered in white Oms: ॐ ( I found the mystic syllable on my keyboard!). I’m wearing baggy pants and sandals. What is clear from the picture is that I have understood my mother’s desire for me to go to Varanasi as encouragement to adopt a kind of fancy dress. I am a Western traveller, a modern-day hippy in search of secret India.

It is a perfect example of what a curator friend in New York describes as the South Asian need to ‘self-orientalise’. The analogue would be a Frenchman who has lived in France all his life, but hardly knows any French. He does not know Molière or Racine or Balzac; he has never visited Chartres or Reims. Then, aged eighteen, his mother decides, just as he is going off, comme il faut, to college abroad, that it is a disgrace how little he knows of his culture, and demands he make a pilgrimage of sorts, an internal grand tour. But – since he has no model for how and why these places should be visited – he goes down to the nearest tourist shop, buys himself a PARIS, JE T’AIME T-shirt, puts on a Georgia Tech baseball cap, a pair of New Balance sneakers, straps a money belt round his waist and sets off to see the sights at Strasbourg, say, or the chateaux of the Loire Valley.

The British colonisation of India is nothing, either in scale or vehemence, with the colonisation independent India made of itself after the British left. It has pursued the aims of the colonisers with a dedication that would have surprised Macaulay. The result is a ruling class that is hard-wired to reject India. It would be the equivalent of an elite in Europe and America that was systematically steered away from all aspects of European culture, language, art and literature: bred in the bone to turn their nose up in distaste at the mere mention of Homer or Dante or Shakespeare.

The power of this class was not its own; it was an extension of the power of the West. It made India feel like an outpost, and it created an atmosphere of cultural apartheid.

In Delhi I witnessed this scene:

A fashionable woman – lunching at a new restaurant in a mall – finds her pasta is not al dente. She calls over the waiter. He is happy to replace it, though he doesn’t really know what is wrong with it, just as he would not have known what was right with it. He reaches in to take her plate, but she stops him. It is not enough that he replace her pasta. Does he understand, she wants to know, the meaning of this phrase, al dente? He reaches in again for her plate. No, she says, her cruelty now sublimated into gentleness, she wants him to learn. Does he even know the meaning of this phrase, al dente? No, he confesses, he does not know what it means and, quaking now, reaches in again for her plate. She won’t let him take it. Not till she’s done talking him down. For a moment the waiter believes the scolding is really about the food. Now he sees, as it grows in tenor and scope, what is really happening. ‘Asiatic resignation’ – Evelyn Waugh’s phrase from Vile Bodies – enters his face. He can smell the woman’s wish to diminish him. Otherwise why ask: What village is he from? What does his training consist of ? Is he really qualified to be serving this food? She has seized on this little phrase, al dente – no doubt come down to her from a holiday abroad – in order to crush him: to expose him for the servant she knows him to be.

Underlying the woman’s contempt for the man is contempt for the country he comes from – which, incidentally, is her country. Her contempt, in this case urban and class-based – India has infinite systems of inequality: exquisite composites of class, caste, language, education and wealth – prevents her from seeing that, far away from the mall, is a country that knows all that it needs to know about food – about its preparation, its serving, its quality. But in India the knowledge of foreign things does not begin with a knowledge of one’s own things; old India is not the foundation, nor ever the inspiration, for modernity: to be modern is to renounce India. The transition strips uncolonised India of its confidence, as it has this waiter. It creates a new class of interpreters, to which the woman belongs, who will impose a new tyranny of borrowed things, a new club to which ordinary Indians can only hope to be part of if they forsake much of what is dear to them, from language and dress to culture and worship. The relationship between old and new is broken: to be modern is to come empty-handed into an unfamiliar world.

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