If you can’t look them in the eye, if you can’t lean close to them, if you can’t see the authenticity in the penury, you lose.
If you can’t stand others encroaching on your space, breaking through the wall that you’re used to having between you and them, you lose. If you can’t stand others touching you, handling you, laying their hands on your shoulders, so that when they retreat, there is nothing but smoke and noise that comes between you, you lose.
And then on to the largest market of seasonings in the world, where everyone is coughing and spitting, in the bales vaguely familiar seasonings, the smell so thick it’s impossible not to spit and you spit too on the cobblestones on top of the other spit. Nobody hides the phlegm in their handkerchief here. Suck it down from your nose to your mouth and spit it out.
You shoo off the rickshaw men and the self-appointed tourist guides. They’ll show you everything practically for free, palaces carved from marble hidden in narrow alleyways, here and there the water pipes break through the medieval walls, tangled electric cables run in disorder above your head, the 220 volts might crash down on you at any time, men in dim corners are working on machines that remind you of the time of the Industrial Revolution, the museum industry in action, further off they’re smelting gold in small crucibles in a thousand year old stone furnace.
The guide who has attached himself to you in the meanwhile takes you inside various shops to buy something; he’s working on commission, but you say, No. If you can’t say No or can’t accept the consequences of saying Yes, then you’ve joined a chaotic system where you’re passed from hand to hand in an attempt to get you to part with your money, you lose. If you always want to end up the winner, if you don’t know that being in India already means that you’re a winner, you lose.
If you grew up in a sterile environment, you lose. All those Indians laugh at you and look you in the eye, because they dare to look you in the eye, and if you don’t dare to look back, you lose. If you keep your distance they look down on you, they don’t consider you anything but a foreign object with money. If you can’t look them in the eye, if you can’t lean close to them, if you can’t see the authenticity in the penury, you lose. You’re a tourist, and India is a favorite tourist destination. You will remain a stranger in a strange land.
They rob you, they cheat you, you bargain and haggle from morning to night, what should be how much cheaper, whereas it’s already cheap enough as it is. You become part of the world that has humiliated and abased two thirds of the globe. You are one of the rich who do not think about the neo-colonization that the world’s arrogant half engages in to this day.
You consider leftist ideology a thing of the past, you think that the terror of white supremacy has ended with the liberation of the colonies. You don’t take into account that nothing has come to replace the destroyed economic and social traditions except servitude and poverty. You are part of the world that feeds off of the fat of the lean East.
The Asian mode of production failed even back then, except they didn’t notice, because Europe hadn’t made an appearance among them yet. They should have realized that the only goal worth aiming for is material progress, in other areas, such as spiritual improvement, progress is hopeless anyway.
A new metro, new industrial parks, new shopping centers, if you don’t see that India has caught on and is learning, you lose. It is forging ahead like a tank.
According to Darwin’s theory, they won, provided that we consider the survival of the species a primary goal. Multiply and multiply some more, the Bible says, and they are multiplying. Every sixth person in the world is Indian, whereas only every six-hundredth is Hungarian. We don’t even have enough offspring to pay for our pensions. Of course, in Hungary, most of us know about pensions only from hearsay.
This is no longer the Europe of 30 years ago. Turks speak Turkish-German on the streets of German towns, it’s their lingua franca. London’s retail trade is in the hands of Indians and Pakistanis. While we are fighting for a shorter workweek and a life more worthy of a human being, longer summer vacations, but time for a bit of winter skiing as well, they are working.
Of course, India is not what it was 30 years ago either. Gandhi’s non-violent revolution has been replaced by intense financial activity. India’s time has come, the posters say. Three countries are on the playing field: China, Russia, India, the rest were disqualified in the semi-finals. In Delhi people say India will win, in Beijing they’re betting on China. Europe and America are regarded only as possible markets and the hated world that is the source of their humiliation. But they’re tired and have had their day, they can’t be counted on in the future, though it’s hard to tell at this point in time what would happen to the eastern economies without our conspicuous consumption.
Religion is an institution that applied spiritual pressure to preserve the caste system, ignorance, and keeps people in poverty. There is no free democracy, democratic principles stand in the service of capital, a man from Kerala says. The Hungarians just changed horses and not their political system, and he is gung-ho for socialism. He brings up the state as an example, meaning Kerala, where there is a communist government and they have in fact eradicated illiteracy. Thanks to positive discrimination they were able to move those from the lower castes to the elite proportionately, and to obliterate all sorts of principles based on prestige and authority.
India is an alliance of states with independent governments. From the Congress Party conservatives to the out and out commies, the political palette is colorful. The people, too, are colorful. The women wear colorful saris. Here, even the intellectuals are not loath to wear traditional Indian garb. Nobody thinks about them what I think about those Hungarians who appear in public in a peasant vest or a Bocskai jacket. The skin color varies from the very light to the very dark. They say that India is a paradise for racists as well as human anthropologists, because for thousands of years tradition has kept society static and retained the various cultures and blood groups intact.
The people of Kerala talk about solidarity in an English that conforms to the acoustics of the local language (Malayala). They talk about how a member of the elite is bound to care for those who have no say in decision making, those who are in need of someone else’s help.
Social thinking is ruled by the “solve it yourself and rule your own life” movement, and if you fail in the process of solving it, it was your fault. No one reflects on the extent to which responsibility and duty are bound to the individual and to what extent they are bound to society. It takes a crisis, the loss of middle class security, for people to realize, on an emotional level at least, that anyone might lose anything, whether it is his fault or not, that no one has the right to anything by virtue of birth — thoughts that force their way into the light of day while the middle class is still worried about next summer’s vacation and next winter’s skiing trip, the children’s language school in England, the risky bank accounts, and not their dinner.
Indian intellectuals feel lousy surrounded by so much misery. They feel lousy because they know perfectly well that the leaders of India are also to blame for the misery.
I am in Jaipur in the palace of the maharajah, looking at the photographs of one of the last rulers. Polo was his favorite pastime, and in England he was considered one of the best players. He was most proud when he received a visit from the viceroy. There he stood ceremoniously by his side, his clothing and his palace speaking of fabulous riches, and he didn’t care how many were moaning outside the gates. He would have liked to be English, but he could only be Indian. The elite of Europe are as pleased with themselves in their good life and provincialism as the maharajah of Jaipur, and the more insignificant the country we visit (for instance, our own, which — need we add — is still close to our hearts), the more we show off with what we’ve got and the more glaring the provincialism.
And nobody cares that there should be mobility in the country, whereas the feeling of getting ahead is capable of releasing incredible energies in every stratum of society. Also, the introduction of the new energies into the elite would be as necessary as a piece of bread. We’re not fazed by the newly emerging caste system, whose walls were first put up out of money, though by now schooling too is part of the mortar. We’re surprised only if all hell breaks loose among the strata deprived of opportunity, and without thinking, driven by emotion, they rally behind the proponents of shameful and intolerable principles.
The middle class is the same everywhere. Provided you have enough money, you can pay for the same services all over the world. This family is just like a family back home living in the Buda hills. They radiate the comforting feeling of security. They are good people, but they’re just like the people I know throughout the world.
It is always the poor who are interesting, because they are forced most keenly to live according to local conditions. The good life standardizes people, it turns them into a dime a dozen. They’re different only in comparison to the poor; in comparison to the world, they are alike. And yet there is a difference after all: even these wealthy people are open and above board.
It is the curse of European culture that it has made the immediate experience of life impossible. We’ve cut ourselves off from the origin of things; every product is an abstraction. We don’t know how it was made or of what ingredients. We have chosen comfort over the elemental level of the understanding of the world. The basis of the world is like a simple lever, a clearly defined system of causes and results, whether we’re on the terrain of physics or of biology. In India if you don’t know the simple structures of everyday life, you die of starvation, you’re dead, and in a non-reflective culture, a dead man is just a lifeless corpse that’s of no use for anything.
The girls sip their tea, an Indian type boiled with buffalo milk, sugar, and spices, and which, despite the English domination, is called chai and not tea, and they’re deliberating whether they should go to Nepal, which is even cheaper and where the people are even nicer than the Indians. Because they’re so poor, they have no reason to be bad. In a 100 years from now, one wonders, who will be the cheerful girls and who the Belgian religious historian, who will make up the happier half of mankind? Will the exotic tours head from West to East, or from East to West? No one knows what the poverty and dominance map of the world will look like then.
I get off the train. Narrow streets, cows, dogs, monks, dung, the early Middle Ages. In the hotel I realize they’ve stolen my money, a quickly won material experience in the center of spirituality. They try to palm hashish off on you wherever you go, cheap, and of the best quality, needless to say. In their eyes the white men are idiots, they come to gape over a religion they haven’t the vaguest idea about. They’ve heard of only a handful of the nearly 3,000 gods, and even get that handful mixed up. They come to put on Indian garments, to meditate on the banks of the Ganges, and to get a cheap fix of coke. A couple of ageing European faces among the mendicant monks, they came with the first flood in the late sixties, they were hippies back home, or just got tired of the good life of the middle classes and went in search of spiritual deliverance, which brought them here; and they stayed, possibly because the paternal inheritance sufficed to finance life only in India, possibly because something really touched them deep down: Vishnu, Prince Krishna, Ganesh with the elephant’s head, or the cocaine.
I am sitting on the hotel’s terrace and the sun is just going down. I can hardly believe that I have reached my destination for the day, and that even the setting sun is adding to the experience. You never know what bus you should take and whether it will take you where you want to go; it may very well let you off at another station from where you must proceed on a motorized tricycle. Or it may not take you anywhere, because it would take a miracle for it to start up at all. And yet India seems to be functioning, and if you pay attention, you can actually feel it.
I am sitting on the terrace, I even got hold of some whiskey to help me turn inward. What a great thing it is, I thought, to believe in a society, and my father came to mind, who had a positive worldview, for whom human history was progressing toward something, and for whom that something was good. And also that the community will punish those who would harm it, and that the leading elite, to whom he also belonged on the village level by virtue of being the director of a large cooperative, should be busy 24 hours a day thinking up ways of improving the lives of those who don’t have the answers, and who cannot act on their own. Though he hadn’t read either, Marx and Toynbee made fortuitous companions in my father’s head. He only read books on gardening, but for him Modern Blackcurrant Cultivation was enough, it seems, to have the proper attitude toward the community he lived in.
Reprinted with permission from the author, Magyar Lettre Internationale and the translator Judith Sollosy.
János Háy is a renowned Hungarian poet, playwright and novelist. His published works include Between Father And Mother, The Beauty Of The Heart, I Will Go By Foot To You On The Passage, and The Stonewatcher.