Of a nation in a sling
Dom Moraes's recent book, Out of God's Oven, is an effort to look contemporary India in the eye, without brushing any dirt under the carpet. He spoke about his concerns for `a fractured land' during his visit to Bangalore.
On an ever-exciting journey: Dom Moraes with co-author Sarayu Srivatsa Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P
"I have preferred to take risks in my life, and let them lead me... As a result of this, my life, whatever else it has done to me, has very seldom bored me. And I think it is essential to avoid boredom between birth and death. The boredom can come from circumstances or from other people. It is worst when it comes from oneself..."
IT IS, perhaps, this dread of boredom that makes Dom Moraes an avid traveller literally and metaphorically. He has visited every country in the world except Antarctica, which, he has said elsewhere, "is not a country, anyway". He has written poetry, prose, newspaper articles, biographies, and scripts for television productions. He has edited magazines from London, Hong Kong, and New York. He wrote his autobiography, My Son's Father, when he was 30. Incidentally, he wrote his first book, on cricket, when he was 13!
How does one manage to traverse such vast spaces in one lifetime? "One doesn't manage it, it sort of happens," says the 65-year-old writer in his very soft, very English style. He adds, as an afterthought: "If you are in a position to slightly manipulate events, you should do so." He was once in Jakarta to interview Suharto, the then President. It was Ramzan and the whole town was shut. Suharto refused to give an interview until after Ramzan. Dom heard, from another journalist, about a prison island called Buru, which had 10,000 political prisoners. Reaching there was not easy. But Dom and his photographer did, and as a result of what he wrote, 7,000 of the prisoners were eventually released. Papua New Guinea was not too far from Buru, and so, they went there too and spent two weeks with a cannibal tribe! "I, fortunately, had a publisher who paid for all this," says Dom, with a hint of smile.
His recent book, Out of God's Oven (co-authored by Sarayu Srivatsa) also documents a journey a journey through India, "a fractured land". It is not a "feel good" book, but more an attempt to look the nation in the eye, warns Sarayu. As a reviewer puts it, it is "an uncompro-mising look at the drama of contemporary India based on the author's personal memories and first-hand accounts of terrible landmarks in Indian history... Recording the voices of several Indians, including the anonymous and the famous, the dispossessed and the privileged, the sane and the fanatical... " And Dom is not very positive about what lies ahead of us either. He calls it "only the first act" and that many "treacherous things" are in store.
Doesn't he sound like the prophet of doom? Did he always feel that way? "I have grown very sceptical now," he admits, and goes on to trace what he sees as the "mistakes" in Indian history. "Early leaders made a big mistake in assuming that India was a secular country... If you assume that this is a Hindu country in which minorities live, I think it would be better than assuming that it is a secular country in which everyone lives happily together. Because they don't, I don't think they ever have. Gandhi and Nehru presupposed that Hindus and Muslims liked each other. The idea that they lived as friends is a total myth."
But isn't that a rather perfunctory dismissal of a great ideal? Aren't we, by saying this, playing into the hands of the communal forces? "I am not saying that India cannot be a secular country. I am just saying that it is, by definition, not a secular country... In any Indian town or village, you can see that that the communities live separately. There has always been a ghettoisation of the minorities..."
But many would dismiss Dom's views as those typical of a carping "outsider". Hasn't he himself, said that there are three categories of Indians and he belongs to none of them? Doesn't he write at length about his resistance to learning Hindi and his horror when his father's Communist-turned-Gandhian friend, D.G. Tendulkar, advised him to see "his country, his people"? Doesn't one see traces of a certain shock and amusement for the "alien" as one reads his interview with Laloo Prasad Yadav? The half-smile returns: "Anyone who goes to Bihar, wherever he comes from, would feel a bit astounded. I got along pretty well with many people in Bihar, but Laloo seemed like someone from another planet!" He goes on, on a more sober note: "People have accused me of being Western. But I don't think I belong anywhere. I feel no loyalties to either England or India. But I don't feel disloyalties either. If you criticise anything they say, they just say I am Western and I don't know. That is the kind of chauvinism that has done a lot of damage."
Sarayu adds that most of us are, anyway, "outsiders" in very large parts of India. She was travelling in Rajasthan with a friend, and she overheard a villager talk about them: "Dekho e vilaiti log hamare desh me aakar kitne kaale pad gaye!" Sarayu and her friend spoke English between them and that had made them vilaiti.
But Dom does not in the least sound vilaiti as he talks of the progress of Indo-Anglian writing. "Much of the publicity in India has been of Indian writers in English getting large sums of money from publishers. If you work like a normal writer, you don't make a great deal of money, but you produce what you want to produce. Those who get tied down by two or three book contracts have to keep producing stuff to satisfy their publishers..." What really pains him is that no one has ever made the effort to translate and distribute Indian writings in regional languages. What does he have to say about Salman Rushdie's damning remarks on regional writers? He retorts: "He should either read them or meet them." It's tragic that someone as enormously talented as Asoka Mitran "appear and feel out of place" in literary conferences where English writers are hogging the limelight. Though Dom never, eventually, learnt Hindi or any Indian language, he has travelled to every corner of India (with interpreters, of course) to meet and write about a number of Indian writers, including our own Kuvempu, Bendre, and Karanth.
Dom's next book too, predictably, is about a journey - of a very different kind, though. He and Sarayu are together working on the story of Thomas Coryate, a poor Englishman with a passion for walking. He walked all the way to India in the early 17th Century and travelled all over the country on foot. He fell sick in some remote village and walked 300 kilometres to Surat to catch an East India Company ship back home. The captain of the ship offered him some fine Spanish sherry, which he hadn't even smelled for five years. An excited Coryate drank so much of it that he died before he boarded the ship!
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