Prime Edition

Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012

Ian Jack

Penguin / Viking

Pages: 322 Rs. 599

An engaging collection with the rhythms of a train ride

Ian Jack’s articles about India, political or otherwise, make for fascinating reading because of the author’s lightness of touch and his passion for history & culture, writes Jai Arjun Singh

JAI ARJUN SINGH  30th Mar 2013

George Orwell’s bust at Motihari, Bihar

s a foreign correspondent frequently visiting and living in India in the 1970s and 1980s, Ian Jack spent much time covering mainstream politics and addressing the large questions ("Can India Survive?") that his editors – based thousands of miles away in an era when the world was much less connected – asked of him. In some of the pieces included in Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012, one sees him trying to make sense of the country in broad terms: analysing the possible future of its growing middle class, the continuing effects of colonial rule, the veering fortunes of the Gandhi family. Writing of the attacks on Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's murder in 1984, he noted, "There is a fresh outburst of the fear, usually unspoken, that the past 36 years have been a holding operation for a British creation, a temporary nation invested with liberal European ideas which don't suit it and which is now about to assume its true shape." Another piece described the newspaper editor Girilal Jain telling Jack that the anti-corruption faction was out of touch with the realities of India. And an article about the blinding of dacoits in Bhagalpur in 1980 pondered the widespread sympathy for victims of crime taking the law into their own hands, and what this might say about a nation perched near an abyss.

But in an attempt to engage with India's inner workings – rather than merely framing the Big Picture or answering facile questions with "yes" or "no" – Jack also covered "smaller, or least less overtly political, subjects", and in the process he learnt more (about the country and about himself) than he would have if he had only lingered near the corridors of power in New Delhi. His wide-ranging interest in culture and history runs through this delightful book, the best pieces in which combine exploration, analysis and memoir. For instance, the elegiac Serampur (which is by far the longest piece here – it was also published in Jack's The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain) begins with a description of a very personal, melancholia-inducing dream and moves languidly through reflections on history and heritage before arriving at its nub: the story of William Carey, the zealous missionary who came to Bengal in the late 18th century, became an indigo planter and a linguist, and played a key role in the building of India's first steam engine. As Jack notes, "What had changed the town [...] was not Carey's religion but the puffing machinery he thought would disseminate it; not the idea but the idea's tool."

Indeed, trains – and what they reveal of the country – are a linking theme in Mofussil Junction, for Jack has a love for Indian railway journeys. Armed with a copy of the timetable Newman's Indian Bradshaw, he travels to George Orwell's birthplace in Motihari; he visits McCluskiegunge – once known as Chota London – in the Chota Nagpur Hills, originally built as a settlement for Anglo-Indians, now a testament to racial dislocation; he encounters weary record-keepers in the backwaters; and in a lovely, summarising piece written in 2008, he reflects on his hundreds of train journeys in India, and on the changing face of the railways. ("I had memories of the Frontier Mail in 1977, when the old AC compartments had polished veneer and yellow lamps: peering into one from a platform [...] was like a street-sweeper's glimpse through the doors of the Ritz. Now my compartment was done out in grey plastic and scuffed, grey-painted steel with a strip light on the ceiling. It was not so different from the life on the platform outside, though drawing wider lessons about Indian society from this diminished difference would be a mistake.")

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One of the more charming short pieces in Mofussil Junction is about a sabbatical Jack spent as a lodger in the New Delhi house of the former editor Sham Lal.

Included in this collection are essays and reportage on many subjects, some of which overlap, so that the five broad subheads ("Places", "People", etc) can't quite do justice to them. There are profiles of cities – Calcutta, Bombay – and of people such as the writer Nirad Chaudhuri, the publisher Sonny Mehta (whose black moods led his staff to call him the Ayatollah) and the film superstar MGR, who achieved in his films "what the Congress party has failed to achieve after thirty years in power" (and who was, in 1977, either sixty-five or nine years old, but you'll have to read the piece to learn why). Jack matter-of-factly mentions his association with a small-time politician trying to morally "clean up" Bombay with a pistol and truncheon. ("We spent the first part of an undignified evening creeping through bushes in public parks trying to surprise harmless homosexuals in the act of union.") And he often presents a bemused picture of himself as a white man in improbable situations: being fanned with "a damp copy of the Times of India" as he stands at the scene of a tragedy in Bihar; being told – by an old woman of Welsh origin who has lived her whole life in India – "so nice to talk to my own kind for a change"; or being on the receiving end of G D Birla's ostentatious hospitality during a trip to BITS Pilani.

"After an hour or so, a band appeared to play selections from The Sound of Music. [...] "Look," I felt like saying as I stood garlanded once again on the steps of the Dakota, waving farewell to the small multitude which had gathered on the airstrip, "Look, you are making the most terrible mistake. I'm not Princess Margaret, I'm only a journalist."

ctually, this book shows that Jack is far from being "only a journalist". Even when writing topical, news-driven pieces that might easily have been straightforward reportage (nothing wrong with that when you're working on short deadlines and feeling your way through unfamiliar terrain and situations), his individual voice shines through, revealing a mind that can make tangential yet insightful connections. In a 2011 postscript to his 1983 piece about Orwell and Motihari, he notes that the life-story of the Kaun Banega Crorepati winner Sushil Kumar (who also happened to be born in Motihari) was being rewritten by the media to present Kumar as a "real-life Slumdog Millionaire". Building on the coincidence of the birthplace, he makes a point about how the messiness of the real world is often moulded – by historians, and by the journalists who write history's first drafts – into recognisable patterns. ("Life often imitates art, but sometimes life is squeezed, bashed and bent into the shape of art because the complexities of reality are too bothersome to express, and in any case fiction has been there first with a better version.") And in so doing, he even implicates himself in a small way: after all, it was Jack's own journalistic questing that led a sign to be erected at a site where Orwell was quite possibly not born. "A kind of fiction may have triumphed over the uncertain facts," he writes, before ending on a characteristically graceful, humanist note, "Mea culpa, if so; but at least Orwell has been remembered, some townspeople feel proud, and the sign looks very nice."

While such candour is an important facet of the writing, there are also traces of impishness – as in the recurring use of "fled" (three times in three paragraphs) in an account of the tumultuous early 20 century history of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's family; the word provides an ironic counterpoint to the later life of a woman who "does not care for travel or its excitements", while also in a way helping us understand why she has come to prefer quietness and solitude. Then consider the four-page-long Train Falls From Bridge. How Many Dead?, a minor classic of reportage of its length, where Jack combines a talent for satire with clear-sighted sympathy for the hundreds of people who may have met unrecorded deaths, lost forever in a tangle of bureaucracy and politics. The longer Unsteady People is similarly a record of a disaster – the overturning of a launch near Manihari Ghat – and of the farce that followed it ("The district magistrate estimated the number of dead at over 400, the launch owner at fourteen") as well as of Jack's meeting with the steamer tycoon and his Princeton-educated son in a Patna mansion that "looked like something a Nazi cineaste might have built". This would have been rich enough material for the article, but he adds a distinctive touch by comparing the accident and its effects to a Sheffield football tragedy from earlier that year, and concludes the piece on a note very different from what you may expect of a foreign reporter tut-tutting about the underdeveloped world.

***

The Orwell piece begins by reflecting that Nineteen Eighty Four is a poor novel and an "unforgivably bleak" estimate of the human spirit. Yet the real 1984 was a bleak year for the land of Orwell's birth – with the Golden Temple invasion, a prime minister's assassination, the anti-Sikh riots that followed it, and the Bhopal gas tragedy – and Jack was there to chronicle much of it. A thread of black humour runs through his descriptions of some very dark episodes in Indian history ("We asked the youths what they thought they were doing. "Setting fire to a Sikh furniture factory," they said, puzzled that such an everyday occupation needed an explanation."), but it is done without losing sight of the larger picture or making it farcical.

Ian Jack

This is also true of the pieces about the Gandhis. After a reference to an "almost Biblical" conversation involving Rukhsana Sultana, who headed Sanjay Gandhi's family-planning drive in Old Delhi, Jack sneakily begins his own next paragraph with "And so it came to pass that Ms Sultana did indeed go into the walled city..." An account of Indira Gandhi meeting crowds outside her bungalow seems to caricature the prime minister but also, vitally, humanises her: "There she would accept the garlands (sometimes sneezing – she's allergic to marigolds), grasp small babies to her bosom, press her hands together to salute venerable men from the villages, her hair's startling white streak popping up and down like a feeding badger." And the apparent levity of some of the writing is balanced by a reluctance to indulge in the smug narrative-creation that can give even sincere journalism a very short shelf-life. (Discussing the possible effects that Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi's childhoods may have had on their subsequent lives and personalities, Jack makes a conjecture or two but then ends by saying "Families are complicated psychological organisms at the best of times, and the truth, lurking in Rajiv's subconscious, simply isn't available for public inspection.")

More than once while reading this book, I was reminded of the gentle Hindi word thehraav, which suggests quiet contemplation – the ability to observe and assess rather than to react impulsively (or to rush to bang out a thesis on a typewriter). One of the more charming short pieces in Mofussil Junction is about a sabbatical Jack spent as a lodger in the New Delhi house of the former editor Sham Lal. The book he was hoping to work on during this period didn't get written – and he regrets this – but he also found that "everybody needs and deserves such a temporary passage in their lives. To read, to talk, to listen, to befriend". This may be a clue to his strengths as a chronicler; it is the quality that gives these pieces enduring value.

 
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