issue 245 - July 1993
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES
Where I grew up we had two kinds of tourists. One wore very few clothes, was usually unwashed and asking us the way to the Gateway of India, to get dope or girls or boys or snakes or god. In Bombay ecstasy was easy to find. The other walked through our minds, wore rather more clothes, was often as unwashed and had names like Jane Eyre or Sarah Woodruff or Fatty or Sunny Jim or Margaret Thatcher. They gave us our poetry and our pictures on the wall and on the screen.
When I came to Britain for the first time, four years ago, it was this second sort of person that I hoped to meet. The brave and hot hippy was too unreal for me, someone to whom I pointed the way and wheeled on. What I didn’t quite realize was that in Britain I was that hippy, wearing thermal underwear on my first day here just as he slipped into his leather sandals and funny beads in India.
And from that first day I was riveted by the idea of reversing the river, moving through Britain as so many from the West passed through my land. The mirror had changed hands. I would hold it up and breathe on it every now and then, wipe off the dirt from the past which obscured the images I saw.
For I had come from a world where Britain was thought of as an old and trusted friend who had got up in the middle of a centuries-long conversation and walked away, leaving behind her furniture, buildings and Keats, Parliament and memories of marmalade. I was a Parsee. My ancestors had come to India a thousand years ago from that ancient Persian empire ruled by Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes. They had become the most trusted allies of another empire. When the last British troops left Bombay my small community gathered at the docks to weep their farewells – or so the story went. Half of me was Anglophile. The other half had grown up with the reality of post-colonial India, the daily tirades from television about the devastation that imperialism had wreaked over our nation.
The colonials had come to India with a film of heat and dust clinging to their eyes. I came into the dark of the night and fog in Britain. But by the time I arrived it was April, the clocks had made their great leap forward and London’s sky turned the colour of smoked salmon as the evening wore on. As for fog we were headed straight into the ‘summer of a century’. If those were the stereotypes under which we subcontinental creatures lived we could only be grateful that we were not West Indians who, I was told – gently and firmly all over the country – were lazy, dishonest, rowdy and downright dangerous.
I found it strange that this untouchability had never recognized its twin brother in India where men were born into castes so low that their shadows polluted the high-born. I could remember the horror on the faces of Western visitors when they first heard of the concept, saw the sweepers carrying rubbish on their heads, sons and grandsons condemned to the putrid profession of their forefathers. Yet I knew there was a measure of sophistry to my argument. Things were not the same. Untouchables in India were burnt alive for drinking from a high-caste well or daring to send their children to schools.
Speaking of schools, how deeply Western tourists mourned the gigantic illiteracy of India, the children untaught, the adults unteachable. And I, sunning myself in those first few days in literary circles, was aghast as time went on at how little the English knew; how Macbeth was confused with Hamlet and Yeats with Keats. I was a strange kind of tourist, someone who knew more about the culture of the country he was visiting than of his own.
In India, I would be looking at an old fort or palace with tourist friends who would turn and say hesitantly: ‘It’s all so spectacular but don’t you think you Indians live too much in the past?’ With that I could perhaps agree. But the other way was surely worse.
Divorced from their past the British were floundering, like a man so ashamed of his youth that he cut all the connections with his early life, living without memory and therefore without a future; those who cannot remember cannot imagine. To me it seemed that the best thing the British could bring themselves to imagine was life in another land, much as someone might want to be somebody else.
What a furious teenager I used to be, listening to tourists telling me how ‘you Indians might be poor but you are happy. You never see people smiling like that in the West.’ I would want to scream – and sometimes I did – that we would rather have food and shelter from the uncaring sun, the over-generous monsoon, than the wide smiles we had found inside ourselves to keep our pain in its secret place. How lovingly the visitors from the West had admired our acceptance, our passive ‘yes’ to every sorrow. Did they ever stop to ask why we did not stand up and stamp our feet and roar our fury?
Now that poverty was visible once again in their own land the British had become decidedly unromantic about it. They met it with shame or aversion or advice to get off one’s backside and look for a job. I could only grin as I saw some middle-class woman accosted by beggars in the Strand. This, I wanted to wheel up and say to her, was what I grew up with. This has calloused my heart as surely as the feet of the poor in my sun-seared land. Do you know what it is to be desiccated by the sight of too much pain? Even while I was thinking that, I could feel the rough skin unpeel. The beggars here were closer. They spoke the language in which I thought and wrote, and wore trousers like me instead of loin-cloths or nothing at all.
Most often I patted the dark underbelly of my visit and whizzed on, knowing there would be time enough to stroke it into words later – much later. For now there was the matter of baths and toilets. At home we had no bathtubs. I would love standing in the doorway and watching the astonishment of Western friends faced with a bucket, tap and plastic jug. When I discovered my first disabled loo at a shopping centre in London I swept in with all the panache of a horse on a winning streak. Once inside I discovered things were a little more complicated. The loo would not flush because there was nothing to flush it with. Limp with embarrassment I began to flap my arms in exasperation. Somehow, wondrously, my hand touched the magic tile and the water whooshed.
‘Incredible!’ they used to say to me, English friends touring India. ‘We met on a train and they invited us home and asked us to stay. And when we left they wrapped us a... a hamper, I suppose. This would never happen at home, in England.’ And so they added their tuppence-worth to the storehouse I had grown up with, a granary of hearsay that said no one in Britain ever talked to each other outside of novels – not to neighbours, not in the Tube, not in the shops, not even children to parents. An old uncle had told us how he had asked the man across his garden fence to come in and have a cup of tea. ‘What for?’ had been the frosty response.
‘But the British are so friendly,’ said an American woman to me. I for one never stopped talking from the moment I landed. The pleasantries that the English scattered like Hansel’s breadcrumbs could be picked up, returned – sometimes there would be a little pause before they put out their hands – and a conversation was off. Silence was like shoes they longed to kick off. Perhaps it was easier because I looked small and my wheelchair seemed to make me unthreatening. But then the American woman was tall as a Californian palm and she had a lovely pair of legs.
‘They used to come hunting for tigers. Now they come hunting for god,’ said a dowager aunt to me in Bombay, disapproval curling her tired lips. Bombay – the city where I lived, fleshpot and money market – was left behind quickly as the tourists climbed into speedy trains that took them to the right ashram but perhaps the wrong guru. Temples thronged with white faces. Pink scalps showed up when lovely blond locks were shaved in penance. Soles turned tough and eyes shot heavenwards. Nirvana was easier to locate in the hot sun, amongst a people who turned to religion to salve a millennium of wounds done to their souls by history. What a line! No wonder the tourists looked so dazed. They might as well have stayed at home. Looking for magic I had found incense.
Even as I laughed I was thinking of Yeats (no, not Keats), how he had said we had to love one another or die. Perhaps more important was to forgive one another – and that would have to start with forgiveness for all the tourists in our wide-eyed heavens.
Firdaus Kanga, author of Trying To Grow and Heaven on Wheels is a writer and critic based in London.