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September 06, 2013

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Great description of the daily contradictions and messiness that is life in Delhi. I hope you write a piece on the Humayun tomb, Sunder Nursery Nizamuddin area that is being redone into a large park.I look forward to reading more posts on the charming frustration that is Delhi.

JM Coetzee made similar observations about animals in public spaces in India. They appear in the following letter he wrote to Paul Auster, which appears in a recently published collection of their letters to each other, Here and Now. This was Coetzee's first visit to India.

Dear Paul,

I’ve been wanting to write to you about India, but then thought I ought to let enough time pass for my thoughts to settle and perhaps grow more mature, more interesting. Now I find that they aren’t growing at all, merely settling, so there is no reason for procrastinating any longer.

I was invited to the Jaipur literary festival, which I thought I would use as an entrée to a tour, if not of India then at least of Rajasthan. If Rajasthan worked, I thought, I might at some future date explore another part of the country, perhaps Kerala, with a little more confidence.

About the Jaipur festival I had mixed feelings. I had heard it was large and noisy, which didn’t recommend it to me. On the other hand, there would surely be sympathetic souls there, Indian and foreign, and I would have time to consult with them about good and bad, advisable and inadvisable, ways of seeing the country.

I don’t think I distinguished myself at the festival. I was determined not to subject myself to the rounds of public questioning that have become a standard feature of festivals nowadays. Interrogation is not a medium I do well in. I am too brief in my responses, where brevity (clippedness) is all too easily misread as a sign of irritation or anger. So I announced that I was simply going to read a piece of fiction. This was what I did. The fiction wasn’t amusing (it was about life and death and the soul), so it was probably a bad choice for that kind of occasion. The audience response: respectful but puzzled.

Anyway, after five days the festival was over and I had gathered no particular wisdom from sporadic conversations about how to approach India. Worse, I had picked up a low fever which left me feeling lethargic most of the time.

So Dorothy and I set off on a one-week, fixed-price tour of Rajasthan in a car with a driver named Rakesh. Rakesh drove us from Jaipur to Pushkar to Jodhpur to Udaipur to Bundi and back to Jaipur, and when the tour was over put us on a plane out of the country.

I suppose I could at this point list the sights along the way that made an impression on me. But I suspect you will want more from a letter than that. So I will limit myself to two observations on what I saw, and then perhaps reflect on the question of why I am such a poor reporter, not only on India but on all of life.

My first observation was that this was the first country I had visited where human beings and animals seem to have worked out a decent modus vivendi. The range of animal species I actually observed was limited— cows, pigs, dogs, monkeys— but I have no reason to think that only these animals are accepted into the human sphere. I saw no sign of cruel treatment, no sign even of impatience, though the cows wander in among the very busy traffic and hold people up.

It is commonplace that cows are worshipped in India. But worship seems to me the wrong word. Relations between people and animals are much more mundane than that: a simple tolerance and acceptance of an animal’s way of being, even when it intrudes among men.

Behind this observation lies my experience in Africa, where animals are also omnipresent but where an unthinking cruelty toward them is common, an attitude of contempt toward them as a lower form of life.

My other observation concerns poverty, and again the contrast with Africa was at the back of my mind. “The poor” in India do indeed seem to be living perilously close to subsistence level, to be scraping a bare existence from day to day. But the more I saw of this bare existence, the more I was impressed by the reservoir of practical skills people were drawing on, as well as by their sheer industriousness. Whether one was looking at men chipping building blocks out of quarried sandstone or at vendors preparing food at the roadside, these were dextrous people with what I can only call intelligent hands who, in another kind of economic setup, could be prosperous artisans. In other words, there seemed to me to be vast human resources that are only very partially tapped at present.

And now we come to the observer himself, the man who emerges from a two-week immersion in a foreign culture (and a foreign civilization) with nothing to show for it save a handful of trite and rather abstract observations. Why am I incapable of travel writing in all its splendor— of the vivid evocation of strange sights and sounds? I know you will say, “But surely you are in good company. Where are the vivid evocations of strange sights and sounds in Kafka? Where are they in Beckett?” But is it good enough to rely on that kind of consolation? Isn’t it plain old inadequacy that one is exhibiting— an inadequate response to the beauty and generosity of the world? What is praiseworthy in trying to turn a native poverty into a virtue?

Questions, questions.

Yours ever,
John

If Mr. Coetzee wanted to observe an attitude of contempt toward a lower form of life, all he had to do was to hear the Anglophone elite talk about those who, on account of a congenital moral flaw, cannot speak English.

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