Questions of approach

Vahni Capildeo continues her first visit to India. (The second part of a longer essay; read the first part here, the final part here)



“But how did you know who I was?”

I wanted to know. I did not look like “myself”: the rail station photobooth blur of author photo. But the young man holding the sign with my name at the airport had quickened into attention at sight of me, like a tree in sunlight in a speeded-up photo.

He blushed.

“They said you look a little like Sharmistha . . .”

Do you know that doubling? It can happen over time: sitting in a university city pub fifteen years later, I may see the reincarnated Samuel or Emma of yesteryear, arguing again inside that membrane of self-consciousness and blindness that encloses grouped youth. It frequently happens across places: instant access to a quiet depth of temporary friendship with Thea who is the Finnish Sarah, or a borrowed daughterliness to some older woman, that lasts little longer than a single train journey. In a state of relaxation, one warns oneself not to rely on these correspondences. One wonders which identity in the other person’s universe facilitates their half of the contact . . . Sometimes they say it: you remind me so much of such-and-such, and, like someone opening a locket or casket and showing you a lovingly handled miniature likeness, they give you a word-portrait of the absent-present friend whom they are viewing through you . . .

What is not supposed to occur is simultaneity, let alone that an invitee and a host are doubles. And Sharmistha is very strongly the host. I experience her personality at the same level of saturation as I do colours like indigo and scarlet, silver and black. Our motive for being present at the Almost Island Dialogues is deeply hers.

I smiled weakly, fading away from the identification; only to be asked to identify some more.

“How is it? How are you finding it?” my welcomer asked again and again, on the drive to the India International Centre in Delhi.

Finding what?


I’ve only just landed . . .


Size matters

The way of relating to the young man and the taxi driver, the face-off with heat from painted metal and asphalt surfaces, the mixture of purposefulness and straggle in the use of the road by traffic and vendors, disorientingly spoke “Trinidad” to me. So, with that running comparison displacing recent layers of England, in truth I was already finding India bigger.

The buildings were bigger than buildings I had known that resembled them: not skyscrapers, simply housing stacked up, compounded or magnified to be a greater size. I could not always tell if they were governmental, offices, or residential. There were balconies and bougainvillea.

India is this, India is that, I would not say.

Even when, walking back to the IIC one day, I encountered an elephant standing in the middle of the road, I refused to see it as particularly Indian. It was not big for an elephant and seemed aware of this, and weary. An Internet address to promote a French conversation group was chalked on its forehead and some French-style people were enjoying themselves on its back.

Even when a multi-jet fountain was playing and I was talking with poets and eating a pomegranate-jewel-encrusted mango reinterpretation of a sponge and custard pudding, I would not read into that the years of the art of service perfected under arbitrary, demanding rulers, of whom the Raj were not the most sophisticated.

India can guard its guests. Splashing in my lake of happy illusions, slow to burn through to another point in the journey, I knew myself guarded.


Seeing the wood and the trees

In my room at the IIC, I was hived off among the privileged. My own balcony opened on to a wash of trees that were, yes, bigger, as if a line of forest had danced up to the edge of the official lawn and stayed there, almost laughing at the building’s non-self-renewing materiality, its blockish assertion. Birdcries rose out of the trees at all different heights, from within all different depths of foliage or exposure. Every morning the soundscape was like being accosted by a synaesthetic tapestry in which one colour would ring out, another follow with a rush or a rattle. When, from Delhi, I went to Mumbai at the end of the trip, I would notice the trees again. They grew in some places intertwined high over the road, making wavy ceilings for a few metres of almost-arcade. They were allowed to grow, or they grew? In Oxford, city of my return for my whole adult life, the trees are being lopped for health and safety reasons: What If A Branch Falls On A Child? The Oxford tree torsos stand stubby as lizards that have cast their tails in fear, stubborn as amputees repopulating their village after coming home from war.


Auto-rickshaws at a traffic intersection in New Delhi

Auto-rickshaws at a traffic intersection in New Delhi. Photo by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo

Health and safety

The difference, I eventually convinced myself, was based on the level of common sense expected in the population, not on the local or national authorities’ sense of responsibility; the stellar exception being the new Delhi Metro, with its radio-chip tokens and feathered door-edges specially engineered to release caught saris.

Consider the auto-rickshaws. You get into the mini-carriage and sit on a hard, shiny bench. You cannot strap yourself in. One side is completely open to the road. The other side has a rail. The assumption is that you know you are in a moving vehicle, and you hold on. If you let go, you let go. It is your own carelessness that would pitch you into becoming a problem. As for the auto-rickshaw driver’s deftness, which has been documented by so many visitors, I shall merely say Yes.

Iceland, strangely, mirrors India in this respect. I recall walking on one of those paths where some of the mud is boiling. My Icelandic friends (one of whom worked as a tour guide) blithely walked up to the site of the geyser and stepped over the ropes. The ropes! I protested. Oh, we only put them there for [tourists from a nation that shall be nameless], they answered. If there were no ropes, they wouldn’t have the sense to get out of the way even if they saw it had stopped being safe. It’s safe now if you’re prepared to run when we tell you to run.

A line of retrospective anger raised itself in my memory. It took me back to Trinidad, to Port of Spain and the funfair in the early 1980s in the central Savannah. Wherever we had imported it from . . . whoever, rather, had offloaded it on us . . . had not cared to install the right equipment. I was the only person in my class to go on the sombrero-shaped spinner that tipped almost upside down. I stood inside a space with two metal poles to hold on to and a chain across those roughly at waist height, but with nothing fastened to me and nothing to prevent the chute into pure annihilation headfirst. That funfair was a Third World insult. It was designed with the design abandoned partway out of carelessness for life. It was not about holding on.

In the places regulated as if for those who indeed have no sense, thinking of holding on resembles anxiety or aggression, perhaps; bad manners, ingratitude, or ignorance . . .

I hold on. I am suspicious of being grateful.


Djinn and tonic

The temperate-country talk I left behind me, coming to India . . . Its moments of silence, where hurt and indignation froth up and ebb away, unspoken, because the other person in the conversation has, as it were, his back to the ocean, coated with certainty and unseeing. Why, at the drinks party . . . “Colonial cringe,” came the dismissive remark from a Man of Culture and Navy Blue Good Taste. Foolishly, I had been trying to describe Jamaican good manners (what felt to me like primness) and Trinidadian good manners (the streak of recalcitrance) to someone whose lived South fizzled out at the fringes of the Mediterranean. It was one of those questionnaire-conversations, in which one cannot even sign away the gold of one’s inner self in exchange for the glass beads of the other’s acquaintance, for what is wanted these days is some other social resource, I am tempted to say some kind of hard-excavated conversational oil.

At the Almost Island Dialogues, I anticipated immersion. The ocean of the unsaid would be the ocean of knowledge . . .

Time for another rap on the knuckles. Ocean of Knowledge was a phrase lifted from flowery translations of the popular medieval devotional poem, the Hanuman Chalisa. Was I any less wrapt in predetermined readings than a Catholic pilgrim seeking solace in a Tower of Ivory or House of Gold?

The atmosphere of the districts where we stayed in Delhi was powdery with modern and ancient pollution, pollen from the tall trees and the perfume of crimson, flat-centred, many-petalled roses sold to be offered at Sufi shrines. The balance of energies was in constant negotiation.


More of the same, more and other

There would be a man in a lilac polo shirt, from time to time dropping into the Delhi dialogues. This was Ashis Nandy, a leading intellectual. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (1983) is a book to which I cannot do justice in a few lines, or at all. I would have liked to quote it by the page, for it is alive with provocations. Illuminating for me was the identification that “if there is another India, there is another West.” Nandy quotes Malcolm Muggeridge’s alleged jest, “Indians are the only surviving Englishmen,” as perhaps “an unwitting recognition that the Indian society has held in trusteeship aspects of the West that are lost to the West itself.” A little further on, having left Muggeridge and about to engage with Gandhi, Nandy remarks: “while the West, in spite of all its theories of martial races and ignoble and noble savages, does not probably incorporate India, India does incorporate the West.” He clarifies:

India has tried to capture the differentia of the West within its own cultural domain, not merely on the basis of a view of the West as politically intrusive or as culturally inferior, but as a subculture meaningful in itself and important, though not all-important, in the Indian context. This is what I meant when I said that Kipling, when he wanted to be Western, could not be both Western and Indian, whereas the everyday Indian, even when he remains only Indian, is both Indian and Western.

But this is another story and will be told another time.


Continental shelved

In England, the recurrent awkward question to me is: “You didn’t go to school in Trinidad?”, i.e., “Why do we seem to have a common foundation; or do we?” In Trinidad, it is “Why do you want to live over there?” spoken in tones of domestic or artistic bafflement, the translation being: “Why do you want to make yourself a stranger?” or “Why do you want to live in the past?”

The questioning in India was a close match to Trinidad again: “Why do you live in England?” This time, though, the tone was similar to how an older and wiser friend of not entirely disinterested intentions might speak when prising a girl away from a constrictive relationship: “What do you get out of living with him? (Think what we could be like together!)” This absorptive friendliness in Delhi echoed New York, where “Come and live over here!” in as many words was the refrain of kindly disposed New Yorkers, whose sense of individualism apparently prevented immigration, in that instant of dialogue, from presenting itself as another I-word of some consequence.

Even if I have made a commitment to certain principles of living, including a non-territorialism that nonetheless resists gratuitous displacements, my recurrent sense in India was that England needn’t matter on an everyday basis. In the privileged Centre, the newspapers delivered daily to my room dealt with the rest of Asia, with Russia, with America. The medium-size island I had been inhabiting, and the continental edge against which it pressed its shoulder, seemed to have crumbled away. Sometimes it was taken as a kind of foible when I asserted Britain as an almost-origin for myself. I could take it as a point of departure.


Out of the blue

An email had landed in my inbox over a year before. It had been forwarded by the Society of Authors, who kindly capture and send on requests for contact. Who was this “Vivek Narayanan”? I liked his name: my grandmother’s surname was “Narayansingh”, and a little googling showed me that this other V was a formidable poet. Almost idly, I wrote back to V1, saying Yes to everything. Would I send work to Almost Island, the journal which V1 edited and Sharmistha Mohanty had founded? Yes. Would I send the entire texts of my recent books, published and unpublished, so that Almost Island could make a selection? A little startled, living as I do in a university city where “I don’t read poetry” is a line delivered in tones of dry-clean-only dismissal by Those Who Know Best, I had a look at the Almost Island online archive to see how much land mass was assumed under that banner. Yes.

So much for that: another web presence, another pair of interlocutors who might know fifty per cent of one’s mind and fifteen per cent of what goes into one’s life, the same as the fifteen-per-cent friendships for which a migrant settles in both old and new homes, in which one can be a this or a that but never an everything. To draw a breath that is both alive and laden with references, laden yet not burdened, of the moment yet not throwaway, untranslatable yet not a threat, and to make the utterance that such a breath might most lovingly carry, that is the dream conversation: and it is of nowhere, now/here. Even the Web has no place for such dreams . . .

More time, more emails. V1, it turned out, had grown up in Africa, attended Derek Walcott’s poetry class in Boston, and researched storytelling in . . . Trinidad. When? 1994. This was not uncanny. This was no evidence for reincarnation. V1 and V2 did not belong to “a family of souls.” (I enjoyed having, and dismissing, the thought.)

And then came the startlement, another phrase from the ether: people still move in real life, and summer would see Almost Island in England.

I was in a difficult position. I wanted to do something for these two authors, Sharmistha and Vivek: to publish them, in the old sense, to find an air into which their verbal energy could go weaving and jinking, not because they were nice to me but because their work was in itself good: but how? I had no connection with any academic institution, and my powerlessness was not credible, was disbelieved by many who could imagine no other reason than insertion in academe for living in Oxford, where I had found myself batting along the streets like a postcard with softened edges, stuck between the caramel ooze of stone and the pumpkin seepage of light, asking for books to be drawn up from the Bodleian Library’s underground stacks, largely ignored by, in ignorance of, everything behind those walls where once I had been for examinations. Imaginary India and its mail lists were indeed closer to me on a daily basis than the concrete, signed-off Faculty of English.

S and V1 had asked nothing of me. Nor did they need me to be anything more than myself: they were landing as the literary guests of another city. But my city, which I considered mine, the only city where I could find my way around on foot in the dark if necessary, a city that had held centuries of poets, how could I make it host them in more than a personal way? If not here, then where?

London might have the answers.

You know those London pubs, perhaps, their upstairs rooms, which have a few pretty items (some crockery on a ledge, something framed on the wall) fallen out of fashion; which seem to be painted in 1750–1890 colours, plumage blue or parchment brown or beating-heart garnet, even though the paint job is clearly recent? You know perhaps the atmosphere in those upstairs rooms, which, smoking ban or no, sets a heaviness and wispiness, the fumes of pub-time past, spiralling amidst any conversation that tries to be purely up-to-the-minute? At a cosmopolitan contemporary evening I sounded out a poetry organiser. Might he like to meet these two? His eyes lit up. “Almost Ireland! That sounds interesting.” “Almost Island.” His eyes got lost. “Almost Ireland would be interesting. Especially if it’s from India!” Small, small! Don’t you know how small that thinking is? ― I didn’t shout. “No, not Almost Ireland,” I said, and bit my tongue for the Irish-sounding “Ireland” rolling out of my Indian-looking face, once educated by Irish conventual sisters, cosseted by a musical Irish neighbour, a number of corners of Trinidad being almost . . .

Time to take another road. Time to not go round the bend.

Time, one day, for a return journey. For now Almost Island had a living past in Trinidad and a living present in England, I could speak of India, Almost Island-in-India, as my return . . .


Almost island

Now here I was, for perhaps the most intense days of my writing life to date. My name was one of a set of names that made use of many of the sounding ledges where breath tides up against the pronouncing mouth-cavity, teeth, lips, tongue: Sharmistha Mohanty, Tomaž Šalamun, Vivek Narayanan, Eliot Weinberger, Charu Nivedita, Xu Xi, Anita Agnihotri, and Joy Goswami . . .

I whispered these names to myself, willingly losing my accustomed speech, letting my voice find itself in being moved by their accents.

The final installment of this essay will appear in the CRB in coming weeks.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to Britain in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns (2003), Person Animal Figure (2005), and Undraining Sea (2009).