Daffodils in Gaya

The strange mix that marks small-town bookshops. Photo: Nagara Gopal  

It was only when I started teaching literature in bigger cities, especially in the West, that I realised I had grown up as a cosmopolitan in a provincial town in what was then called — and probably still is — the ‘most backward and crime-ridden state of India’. Wordsworth’s daffodils never presented a problem to me (and my classmates) though I had never seen a daffodil (there was no TV, let alone Internet, in my town in the 1970s) and I even managed, as I graduated to (local) college, to read the Russian classics without bothering to decipher a samovar. As such, when metropolitan kids in London or Copenhagen complain about the difficulty of encountering a Hindi word in an Indian-English novel, I have to hide my surprise.

Small towns are associated with provincialism, and the charge is undoubtedly true. V.S. Naipaul sees the colonial peripheries as largely inauthentic and mimic; Aravind Adiga’s narrator in the Booker-winning novel, The White Tiger, calls small towns in post-colonial India (including the exact one where I was born and spent the first 24 years of my life) ‘half-baked’, and the big city narrator-protagonist of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s cult-classic English, August can only survive his posting to a small town in a haze of weed smoke. The list is long. And it is not incorrect.

Gaya, the town in Bihar where I grew up and taught myself the rudiments of writing, was a place set in its ways. Once when a high school friend and I got an ancient rickshaw-puller to sit in his rickshaw while we took turns pulling it, the news of this breach of decorum reached my parents’ house before the rickshaw got there. The mothers and grandmothers of Gaya were industrious pickle-makers, and I often commiserated with all those bits of lemon or mango in glass jars out on sunny verandas: we were just as thoroughly pickled in traditions. Around the age of 24, when I wrote one of those world-changing articles that young people write at too-frequent intervals, and a mob of religious Muslims descended on my father’s clinic, I felt the full brunt of the provincialism of my community. My father refused to call the police — he was afraid Hindu policemen and Muslim mob would equal a riot — and, a believing Muslim himself, spoke to the protesters for three or four hours. They went away, muttering. But I was also sent away. I caught the first flight of my life and went to Delhi, where I started working as a journalist. Despite my ignorance and apprehension of the outside world, I was relieved to be out of Gaya.

If I had stayed there, I might never have seen Gaya as anything but provincial and backward. Having been forced to leave, I came to see other stories, which I had taken for granted. I suspect, now, that it is in the nature of small towns to be resistant to change, just as it is in the nature of the vulnerable to be conservative. The latter is something that metropolitan Marxists never seem to understand, surprised as they always are by the European working classes letting them down and the non-European ‘religious classes’ following suit. It does not seem to strike them that change is always easier to contemplate when you have something to fall back upon.

The people of Gaya did not like change, and yet they lived with change. They lived with change more than the people of metropolises like New Delhi, London, Copenhagen or Tokyo. Just as change affects the poor differently from the way it affects the affluent, it also affects small towns differently from big cities. A small town can be choked by a single change. Or it can blossom. One new highway or a closed factory can mean life or death to it. In metropolises, however, change is less momentous: a bank is turned into a mall, a department store becomes a theatre. The essential selfhood of the metropolis survives such changes — survives anything short of war, actually.

Gaya feared change. And yet, change lay in its heart — more so, in some ways, than in most metropolises. It is also in the very nature of provincial towns to look outwards — to other places. In this sense, too, they are more cosmopolitan than self-contained metropolises: for what is cosmopolitanism but openness to the other?

I grew up looking outwards. It was difficult. Books were almost the only option for me, as my parents disliked travelling. It was hard to find new books. There were no bookshops where one could browse freely. There was just a kiosk at the railway station and Sahitya Sadan, the shop in town that stocked textbooks but also had a selection of ‘classics’. The books were a strange mix (which is in keeping with the provincial’s character). Dale Carnegie jostled with Charles Dickens; a glossy Robert Ludlum sat cheek by jowl with a dog-eared Robert Lowell. The provincial bookshop is not exclusive, and hence the small-town reader has to scramble from Archie comics and Reader’s Digests to Victor Hugo and Pushkin, and suddenly, in some cobwebbed corner, he can discover, as I did in my grandfather’s library, a complete set of Nikolai Gogol and Franz Kafka. Kafka I had heard of; Gogol never.

When I think of Gogol, I also recall Gagan. I had been sent to Nazareth Academy, the best (and only) ‘English-medium convent’ in town; only kids from middle-class families attended it. But after school, I went to the local Gaya College, which taught in Hindi and attracted a wider selection of students, many from neighbouring villages. Gagan was one of them. A small pock-marked man, he had, for some reason, decided to study English. He loved to practise his English on me. I was frightened of being forced to converse with him, as I could not understand most of it; so thick was his rustic accent. But I discovered the reason he was reading English: he knew entire scenes from Shakespeare by heart! Where in his village had Gagan picked up his love for Shakespeare? And I now wonder whether all those lines that he recited were not the only English conversation he could have had in his village? Gagan had grown up speaking English to Shakespeare only.

Typically, Gagan disdained Urdu poetry (though his Urdu was much easier to understand) and so did I in those days. My ability to read Urdu was limited; the ‘convent school’ taught only English and Hindi. Urdu was associated, also in my mind, with religious Muslims. I wanted to keep both at an arm’s length. But my ears were opened to the possibilities of Urdu poetry in my college years, during a train trip to Patna. The train was packed and running late. As there was no elbow room to read, all one could do was talk — and overhear conversations — as soot settled on our clothes and faces. On that trip, I overheard an argument over Asadullah Khan Ghalib, the early 19th century Delhi poet. Someone quoted a sher (couplet) by him:

Khuda ke waaste parda na kaabe se uthaa zaalim

Kaheen aisa na ho yahan bhi wahi kaafir sanam nikle

(For God’s sake, do not lift the veil of the Kaaba, O Cruel One;

There too may lie hidden the same unbelieving Beloved.)

His interlocutor, both were dressed in provincial garb, objected to the last word of the first line. It is not ‘ zaalim’ (cruel one); it is ‘ vaiz’ (preacher), he said. I realised with shock that the difference revealed another and far more radical interpretation of the couplet. If you switch ‘ zaalim’ to ‘ vaiz’, the dominant interpretation would become this:

“For God’s sake, Preacher, leave the veil on the Kaaba alone.

There too may lie hidden an infidel idol of stone.”

In other words: sacrilege, from the early 19th century! Were the debaters in that crowded, smelly, slow train aware that they were discussing a sacrilegious verse? Were they aware that their slight difference over a word collected in itself centuries of debate about faith? Were they aware of the cosmopolitan provenance of the verses and the thought — for cosmopolitanism is also an ability to live with differences and nuances.

I could not tell. But that is also the point about the cosmopolitanism of provincial places: you can never really tell. Which is why it is so easy for metropolises to tag and claim cosmopolitanism in their own image.

Tabish Khair is a poet, novelist and critic based in Denmark.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 1:07:58 PM |

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