Mumbai's The Word

THEODORE DALRYMPLE

I once stayed at the Taj Mahal in Bombay (as it was then still called). I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have done, because I was recovering from the hepatitis I had contracted in the South Seas.

But I still recognised the magnificence of the institution, even as I regretted the modern excrescence that been added to the original building that ruined its architectural unity.

One morning as I left the hotel, a middle-aged man with a black umbrella and a medium-clean dhoti said to me, 'Come with me.' His teeth were stained with betel, but I thought to myself, 'Why not?' and so I went with him. I don't know whether he recognised in me a man with a taste for the unusual and the bizarre, but if so he was a man of sound judgement. As for me, I guessed that he was odd rather than bad, and I proved to be right as well.

Before long, we were winding our way through narrow alleys (I cannot think of a better word for them) through slums in which the shacks were made of every cast-off material, and I must have appeared like an apparition. The mud was not merely mixture of earth with water, but of every fluid known (alas) to man.

Our first port of call was a special crematorium, where Hindu rites were carried out. It was only for legs: and not just any legs, but those that were amputated by trains when the people riding on their roofs (as untold thousands, perhaps millions, did, every day) fell off and a passing train severed their lower limb or limbs. The crematorium never lacked for activity -- I hardly like to call it work or business.

Was my guide -- for so I now considered him -- merely ghoulish, or was he trying by subtle indirection to convey to me the desperation of the life of the Indian poor? (Of course, the surfers of the trains were not the poorest of the poor: they had definite work to go to.) Was he, perhaps, a reader of Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

The truth to be conveyed here was not superb, perhaps, but it was, in certain sense, dazzling, or would have been had I never visited India before.

We did not linger long over the legs, however, but progressed on to the babies. As we continued to thread our way through the noisome alleys my informant told me, whether or not accurately from the purely doctrinal point of view I was no position to tell, that those that died before a certain age were not cremated but buried.

Doctrinally correct or not, we soon reached a small piece of ground in which babies were buried. My guide began to poke about in the soil with the tip of his umbrella, and soon came across the delicate skull of an infant.

'You want for souvenir?' he asked, with a total absence of sentimentality about human remains.

For me, it is the most profoundly human place on earth, the glory and desolation of human existence being constantly before one there in a way that is matched nowhere else.

I declined, and our tour was over. Having completed my education (if that was what it was), he guided me back to the Taj and left me at the entrance. He did not ask for money but I gave him some that immediately, in a kind of balletically smooth movement, disappeared into a fold in his dhoti. I think that if I had not given him any he might not have protested, but simply put it down to fate.

It had been a strange morning, to say the least, of the kind that could happen only in India. I have loved the country ever since I first went there as a student aged 19, and think I would be perfectly happy to live there, though I recognise that what attracts me about it repels others. For me, it is the most profoundly human place on earth, the glory and desolation of human existence being constantly before one there in a way that is matched nowhere else.

One of the strangest things about the episode I have just related, however, was that at no moment did I ever feel frightened, at risk or in danger. I knew perfectly that India sometimes erupted into the most hideous intercommunal violence, but in between times it seemed more peaceable than almost anywhere else on earth, certainly anywhere else on earth with such large conglomerations of people living in proximity to one another. The obvious fact of my (relatively) enormous wealth in the midst of such obvious impoverishment aroused no hostility in the slum-dwellers and no fear in me.

Since then, of course, Bombay has become much richer, more populous and more dangerous. (In my day, India was still in the throes of Nehruvian socialism, no doubt economically disastrous but, dare I say it, preservative of a great deal of the charm of the country.) But the latest outbreak of terrorism eclipses all that has gone before.

 

It is never long, when a group of terrorists behave in this hideous fashion, before someone finds, if not quite a justification for their actions, at least an explanation that slides or slithers into such a justification. And so it was in the British liberal newspaper that a well-known and distinguished writer on Indian history and affairs, William Dalrymple, wrote an article with a heading (not chosen by him, in all probability), 'India's poor human rights record in [Kashmir] has ignited the wrath of a new brand of terrorist -- well-educated and middle-class.'

And this view, it seems to me, genuinely implies an almost total absence of knowledge of world history, to say nothing of an inability to make fairly obvious connections.

This heading accurately conveys the message of the article: that well-educated, middle-class terrorists (one of them wearing a Versace tee-shirt) were so angered by the situation in Kashmir, and India's determination to hang on to the territory, as well as elsewhere, that they resorted to mass killing in Bombay. The article says of the terrorists that:

These were not poor, madrasah-educated Pakistanis from the villages, brainwashed by mullahs, but angry and well-educated, middle-class kids furious at the gross injustice they perceive being done to Muslims by Israel, the US, the UK and in India in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir respectively.

It would take an entire book, perhaps, to disentangle all the assumptions and misconceptions that this passage implies, or on whose connotations it depends for its force.

In the short space available, let me refer first to the surprise that it should be educated, middle-class young men who perpetrated such acts. The assumption underlying this surprise is that there is some direct connection between poverty and ignorance on the one hand, and extreme political violence or terrorism on the other. Well-to-do people are not driven to the desperation of terrorism. And this view, it seems to me, genuinely implies an almost total absence of knowledge of world history, to say nothing of an inability to make fairly obvious connections.

Although I am not an historian, it has long seemed to me that some acquaintance with the history of Nineteenth Century Russia is absolutely crucial to understanding the modern world, for it was there that the various forms of modern revolutionary terrorism, and politics as the pursuit of an ideological end, first developed. And the first terrorists were certainly not downtrodden peasants brainwashed by religious or other leaders: they were either aristocrats suffering angst at their own privilege in the midst of poverty, or members of the newly-emerged middle classes, angry that their education had not resulted in the influence in society to which they thought themselves entitled by virtue of their intelligence, idealism and knowledge.

 

This pattern has been repeated over and over again. Latin America is a very good example. Castro was the spoilt son of a self-made millionaire who had a personal grudge against society because he was illegitimate and sometimes humiliated for it; in other words, he was both highly privileged, with a sense of entitlement, and deeply resentful, always a dreadful combination. Ernesto Guevara was of partially aristocratic descent, whose upbringing was that of a bohemian bourgeois, who was too egotistical and lacking in compassion for individual human beings to accept the humdrum discipline of medical practice.

The leaders of the guerrilla movement in Guatemala (a country, oddly, with many parallels to Nineteenth Century Russia) were of bourgeois and educated origin; one of them was the son of a Nobel-prize winner, not exactly a true social representative of the population. The leader and founder of Sendero Luminoso of Peru, a movement of the Pol Pot tendency (and Pol Pot himself, of course, studied in Paris), was a professor of philosophy, and his followers were the first educated generation of the peasantry, not the peasants themselves. Peasants are capable of uprisings, no doubt, even very bloody ones, but they do not elaborate ideologies or undergo training for attacks on distant targets.

Let us now take the supposed anger at the injustices or human rights abuses committed against Muslims worldwide by various countries, including India.

I do not want to imply that no one is capable of being moved to anger by injustices committed against others, or that it is impossible to care deeply about the fate of some section of humanity remote from oneself. It would be cynical, unjust and simply unhistorical to deny that, for example, William Wilberforce was not genuinely moved by humanitarian motives to bring about the abolition of the slave trade.

But Wilberforce did not demonstrate the depth of his feeling or resolve by killing anyone, nor is it possible to imagine him having done so.

How can outrage at the supposed lack of humanity of others, at their violation of human rights, lead to killing people at random?

There are, I suppose, two possible answers to this: that the people killed were not selected at random, and (or) that no other resort was left to the angry young men. But neither of these defences can possible work, or extenuate what they did by so much as a jot.

And their manipulators probably knew that there are always fools enough, at least among intellectuals in the west, to assume that if you go to extreme lengths, you must have some 'cause' -- which is to say some good cause -- that impels you to go to them.

They could not argue that in attacking the Taj Hotel and other such targets they were striking at those responsible for the policies and actions that supposedly infuriate them, simply because they were the resort sometimes of rich citizens of the countries that they hated. To argue like this would be to make every Moslem convenience store owner in the north of England guilty of Osama bin Laden's acts, which is both absurd and morally repugnant.

Moreover, you don't have to know much about how grand hotels work to know that if you start spraying machine gun fire in them you are going to kill a lot of poor people as well as some rich ones (somehow, it is always the poor who get killed first).

Therefore, making the justified assumption that the terrorists were not actually deficient in raw intelligence, it was not the target that was important to the young killers, it was the act of killing itself. And their manipulators probably knew that there are always fools enough, at least among intellectuals in the west, to assume that if you go to extreme lengths, you must have some 'cause' -- which is to say some good cause -- that impels you to go to them.

The second possible justification, that no other resort was left to them, is likewise absurd. The article in The Observer that I have cited claims that neither the Indian state nor the Indian press has investigated or publicised human rights abuses in Kashmir, but this is simply not so. It is not difficult to find articles about such abuses in the Indian press; but even if this were not the case, there is no evidence that the terrorists, who were quite obviously willing to die, had tried anything else before they tried random killing. In their case, they killed not as a last but as a first resort. It was the answer to their need for significance.

It is highly likely, of course, that the young men's immature or adolescent angst was manipulated by older men with a clear and strong, if intellectually nugatory, ideological outlook. That outlook has absolutely nothing to do with the good of humanity, any more than did Lenin's. Indeed, the article in The Observer quotes the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba movement in Pakistan as saying that, Christians, Jews and Hindus being the enemies of Islam, the aim of the organisation is to 'unfurl the green flag of Islam in Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.'

The significance of this passed him by, because we also learn from that article that 'there is unlikely to be peace in South Asia until the demands of the Kashmiris are in some measure addressed and the swamp of grievance in Srinagar somehow drained.' As the Duke of Wellington replied when a stranger said to him, 'Mr. Jones, I believe': if you can believe that, you can believe anything.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Theodore Dalrymple. "Mumbai's The Word." The New English Review (December, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.

THE AUTHOR

Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2008 The New English Review




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