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High and Low

from the magazine

High and Low

Calcutta Diarist Spring 2005
Cities

Calcutta is the most literary city in India. The Bengalis have long prided themselves on being in the country’s artistic and intellectual vanguard—which explains, perhaps, why West Bengal has a Marxist government and why Calcutta, until recently, has lagged at the rear of the economic transformation of India’s cities. A disproportionate number of India’s well-known writers in English hail from this terrible and wonderful place, where reality itself has a hallucinatory quality.

Calcutta’s annual book fair must be among the world’s largest. It takes place on the Maidan, the dusty central park, on which stands the Victoria Memorial, a monument that looks as if a mad confectioner had decided to build the world’s largest structure out of sugar lumps. The crowds surging into the fair show an enthusiasm that in the West only a rock concert could kindle.

India is the world’s third-largest publisher of English-language titles—about 50,000 a year—and is also home to several languages that have more native speakers than most European tongues do. It is not surprising, then, that the number of publishers is immense.

The standard of book production in India has risen enormously since the last time I
attended the fair, seven years ago. This is one small consequence of the end of the Permit Raj, or Rule by Permit, under which bureaucrats parceled out economic activity to privileged companies: with what results for the quality of goods produced, and the honesty of all concerned, one can imagine. Indian books, however interesting or important, would come printed on paper of the worst quality, and appeared even when new as if they had long dwelled among the cockroaches; but now Indian books are fast approaching international standards. If the government does not reinstitute the Permit Raj, India could soon become printer to the world. Its mix of technological competence and cheap labor would be hard for other countries to beat.

The books range from abstruse scholarship to collections of jokes to model questions for the West Bengal Civil Service entry exam. The contrast between the latest textbooks on information technology on the one hand, and the guides to astrology palmistry and numerology on the other, is startling.

Why should it startle, though? In California, after all, the greatest technological sophistication coexists happily with the grossest superstition, and Isaac Newton himself
valued his numerological and alchemical researches over his optical and astronomical ones.
Still, India’s contrasts are starker than those almost anywhere else in the world. The exquisite taste in clothing of the Indian upper class is in sharp contradistinction to its complete indifference to the external
appearance of houses and streets. The friend with whom I stayed is a doctor who spends part of his professional life in the highest of high-tech intensive-care units; but at home, his servants will not clean the bathroom because that is work for untouchables, one of whom he employs for this purpose alone.

To counter the effects of a
social order that the Indian
government officially considers unjust, policies reserve half
the admissions slots at Indian
universities for the “scheduled castes and tribes,” whatever the exam results. This discrimination has had a powerful effect on my friend’s life, because standards at Indian universities have fallen drastically as a result, and his children have thus longed to study abroad. He has devoted much of his adult life to earning enough for them to do so, no easy task in India.

Is untouchability a manifestation or consequence of the deep and pervasive spirituality of Indian life, or is it merely a religious smoke screen for illicit hereditary privilege? Or both?

As we were driving through Calcutta, my friend pointed to a little shrine to a god embedded in a wall just below waist level.

“Do you know why that idol is there?” he asked. I was about to say something pious about wayside shrines and the spiritual consolation of passersby, when he said, “It’s to stop people from taking a leak there.”

Was this a manifestation of spirituality, or materialism, or both? If you disrespect your gods, do you end up disrespecting your walls? Or do you make your walls your gods? I don’t know.

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