Category Archives: India ’08-’09

“Literary lessons” – a meeting with Professor Puroshottama Lal

There is one more encounter that I want to write about before I leave South Asia. It took place in Calcutta in late March.

One of the things that I have been enjoying while travelling is making fresh, interesting connections. One of these led me to an email correspondence with John Keay, the author of many books including a highly-acclaimed History of India.

John noticed from my blog that I was interested in the prevalence of the English language in India, and suggested that I might like to look up a publisher in Calcutta, Professor Puroshottama Lal. For more than 50 years, Lal has run a publishing house from his home – The Writers Workshop – championing Indian writers in the English language, helping many aspiring writers, including Vikram Seth, get into print.

The professor and a new perspective on Indian English

A round of phone-calls, some fancy footwork and frantic flattery helped to secure an appointment. Despite a warning from Lal’s son of the frailty of his father as he approaches his 80th birthday in August of this year, Lal agreed to see me. Lal still gets a solid stream of aspiring writers contacting him to arrange a meeting – Michael Buckley [author of the recently published ‘An Indian Odyssey‘] had visited the previous day – so I felt relatively privileged to be granted an audience.

Lal is a frail man, tall and gaunt, but with a presence and an energy and charisma that filled the room. His dusty study had not changed from the description I had been given from 30 years previously, with “… the stalagmites of books so finely balanced that a sneeze would have brought them down.” His English is spoken with a slight Indian accent, but is a model of clarity and precision.

I took a seat and stuttered through an explanation of my sudden interest in India, and in particular in the prevalence of the English language across India. I said that I had been told he would have a controversial and interesting view.

Within minutes, Lal had set out his stall, explaining that he believes English to be a very Indian language, possibly the only truly pan-Indian language.

“You see India is this huge mass of inclusiveness – I don’t understand why people think we can’t adopt the English language. We took the Sanskrit language from the outside, the Muslim religion as well. Indians adopt, that’s our special skill…”

When Lal talks about the English language, it is invariably in the context of literature – he has been passionately championing the potential for English to help Indians to express themselves in literature for over 50 years. It was in 1954-5, while a teacher at the Jesuit St Xavier’s College, that he first conceived of the idea of the Writers’ Workshop, to champion Indian writers in English, largely in response to a continuing paternalistic attitude towards Indian writers from the editors of “The Statesman”, a publishing hangover left behind after partition and still run by Englishmen in the 1950s.

Lal’s interest lies in in the usefulness of English in expressing India‘s identity, rather than as some business language. (While acknowledging that English has a unifying role across India as the only language spoken in every state – “I have been seen as controversial for saying that Indian is the only English language…” – he is not really interested in the use of Business English in India). He sees Indian English – in a literary context – as a separate language from British English, one that can express what he sees as India’s “pastoral sophistication”.

“We have to reinvent the language to express our pastoral identity…I mean you lot [the British] were pilferers and looters there is no doubt, but we can take what we want can’t we? You see, British English is firmly rooted in understatement and irony, both of which are totally foreign concepts to the Hindu. I mean, we just can’t understand why you would use phrases such as ‘Not bad…’, and as for saying the absolute opposite of what you mean, we absolutely can’t understand why you would do that! Indian English, by contrast, must be a language of dreams and love, not business. When we dream and make love in English then the language comes alive for us as Indians….”

This concept of “pastoral sophistication” is at the heart of Lal‘s thinking, and the (very different) role that English has in expressing India’s identity. He believes that the nature of India’s sprawling rural inland mass has led to a different basis for society, a pastoral identity that is challenging for outsiders to comprehend, particularly the idea that pastoralism could be in some ways ‘sophisticated”.

I asked him if by pastoral sophistication, he in some ways was contrasting the Indian approach to constructive dialogue – often based on teacher-student relationships based on unquestioning devotion – with the obligation to employ critical analysis that is deep-seated in Western approaches to education and discourse.

“Well yes, I do think that this is a fundamental difference in approach – in the West you have a ‘duty of doubt’; in India, we like to work on the basis of a ‘duty of faith’.”.

For Lal then, it is no surprise that outsiders often see Indian English as hyperbolic and overblown. That is just the way it is. Indian English is a different language, taking away irony and understatement from British English, and creating something sometimes lyrical and yes, sometimes over-the-top.

This concept of a pastorally sophisticated society goes well beyond just language. It strongly echoes the (somewhat controversial and still prevalent) Ghandian belief in the primacy of the village in Indian society. I asked what would happen as India rapidly urbanises. Would India develop an urban sophistication?

“Who knows? At present, we have absolutely no understanding of the nuances of urban sophistication as practised in the cities of the West – instead we are taking what we think is urban sophistication – bars, the high life, money, showing off – and pretending we are urbanly sophisticated! But who knows what will happen? I don’t make history – I just take advantage of an existing situation.”

Reflections on Life, the universe and everything

As the late afternoon drew on, the conversation shifted gear and became more personal. It felt like Lal had things he wanted to tell me.

He started recounting the story of a 1989 trip to a conference in Vancouver, when he had been taken seriously ill, and had ended up at death’s door. “I had so many blood transfusions that I don’t even know if I am a Hindu now, dammit!”

As he spoke, it became clear that this event marked a major transformation point for him.

“You know, as I lay there, I suddenly realised that my life had been wasted. Absolutely wasted. I had learnt nothing. I realised that a person is the composite of the people that he meets in life. You know the word for visitor in Hindi? Ur Ditti. It literally means ’wrong time’. Visitors never come at the right time. How you deal with these visitors is what defines you. I hadn’t really learnt from anyone I had met. So I wrote a book called ‘Lessons‘. About the lessons I had learnt from 25 people I had met.”

For the next half an hour, I sat mesmerised as he told me about the book. The passion Lal now feels for life today became abundantly clear. It was infectious, and at times felt as if the lessons were ones that were meant for me personally.

“Everything is wonderful goddamit! It is you who are losing the wonder! You lost it dammit! Don’t blame others! Remember – we are not made for doubt – we are made for exploration. It‘s better to have faith and be deceived than to doubt and be deceived…”

He started quoting poetry to me – Wordsworth first (from “Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood”):

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

And then Yeats:

When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blessed.

He paused. “I tried to commit suicide you know. Pulled out my tracheotomy… You must stay open, learn, sift…”

As Saturday afternoon turned into Saturday evening, I became aware that he was getting tired. I took my cue, and left. He had a final surprise for me, telling me that he had learnt from being with me. It was another lesson in humility.

I picked up a copy of the beautifully hand-bound book “Lessons” from the tiny bookshop downstairs, along with the volume of Vikram Seth’s poetry (“Mappings”) that Lal had published when no-one else was interested, both books that I will treasure.

Transcreating the Mahabharata

The following morning I had another opportunity to spend time with Lal. For many years, he held Sunday morning sessions to discuss poetry and literature with leading lights in the Indian literary scene.

He has maintained this Sunday morning tradition, albeit now in a slightly different format. For 30 years, he has been working on what he calls an English “transcreation” of the 100,000 verse Indian epic the Mahabharata. (The word “transcreation” is a recognition of the fact that he believes this is not translation, but creation into a new “Indian English” language, capable of bringing new light to the epic).

Sunday morning sessions are now dedicated to readings from this effort. I decided to seek him out again for the session in downtown Calcutta.

I arrived slightly late and slipped into a seat near the front, joining about 20 others, most of whom were clearly regulars. Lal was reading from clippings that he had pulled together during the week, pricking the pomposity out of hard-worked journalistic endeavours with rapier thrusts and parries. “Why is it that American writers feel a need to be both learned and hip at the same time. To be both cute and acute? I just don’t understand it…”

The reading itself started. We sat spellbound as he read out passages from Section 50, breaking off occasionally to deliver damning and acerbic analogies to modern-day life, along with comments on the futility of worrying too much.

“This is Obama and the bankers of course. Enough’s enough!” … “They’re all here of course – the politicians, the teachers” … “A mad world it is. So what are you going to do? Get Angry?”

Literary allusions to Eliot’s Wasteland and Ezra Pound’s Cantos peppered the commentary as he switched easily between highlighting the comic brilliance of the epic poem and drawing out the erotic intensity and deep symbolism inherent in some of the original language.

It was a remarkable hour. As it ended, Professor Lal left one final thought.

“You know, in the end, the message of the Mahabharata is really simple. It is ‘Transform yourselves. Go Beyond. Find out your potential.’ That’s all.”

It was a fitting finale to an intriguing and inspiring meeting with a remarkable man.

[You can read more about Professor Lal and his Writer’s Workshop in an article recently published in the Hindu newspaper, available here.]


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An A to Z of a trek in South-West Sikkim

I arrived back in Darjeeling yesterday. It was a superb experience. I covered 120 miles in 8 days of walking, with a rest for 3 days at a Buddhist monastery after the fifth day. Online maps are hard to find, but my route was vaguely circular, with the furthest point from Darjeeling being the Buddhist monastery at 7000 feet. Some of the highlights and dominant impressions are captured below.

Ascent. Since South-west Sikkim is the foothills of the Himalayas, the hillsides get impressively steep in places. Jeep tracks zig-zag back and forth with monotonous regularity over climbs of thousands of feet. Tracking down the old mule roads from the 1920s was an adventure in itself. Sometimes these were covered by new “motorable” roads. In other places, the mule tracks took a more “direct” route, and detective work by Shrada (my guide) and I with older villagers was required to establish where they were. We did this the night before the next day’s walk. By a rough calculation, there was 26,000 feet of ascent in total in 8 days walking. Because the route starts at 7000 feet and goes down to river valleys, the old adage is reversed – “What goes down, must come up”. The final day (when I covered the last two days of my grandfather’s trip) was a 6000 foot climb back up to Darjeeling.

Bhutia Busti. “From Darjeeling we descended from the Bhootia Busti to Lebong…” So starts my grandfather’s account of the 10-day route. The Bhutia and the Lepcha are two of the main tribal groups in Sikkim (both predominantly Buddhist). Busti means village. These days, the ramshackle roofs of the houses in the Butia Busti are covered with drying clothing; you are as likely to hear Hindi music as Buddhist chants. There was still, for me, a whiff of romance about setting out through the same area 87 years on.

Chakung. There is something uncompromising about the sound of the word Chakung. It didn’t take long to work out why. This was the destination Day Two, and the 1922 notes warned that “this was practically our most tiring day, partly because of the fact that our muscles were not yet used to the climbing…” It was indeed a significant challenge, over four hours of solid, unrelenting climbing. On arrival in Chakung, the guide Shrada had found a retired teacher for us to stay with, there being no hotels or hostels. It was my first introduction to the warmth of Sikkimese hospitality.

Dak Bungalows were constructed as rest houses for travelling imperialists all over the hills of Old British India. My grandfather and his companions stayed in Dak Bungalows every night they spent in Sikkim. They are simple, sturdy constructions, normally 2 mini-dorm bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Amazingly these all still exist, although not open for public accommodation. They are predominantly now in the hands of the Indian government, and still serve as rest houses/retreats for weary government servants. It was possible, however, to replicate some of his photos of these beautifully situated buildings, which was fun.

Elections are taking place across India. In Sikkim, the main effect is a number of jeeps resplendent with one or other of the party flags and packed to the gunnels with supporters careering around the hills. While snooping around the Dak Bungalow in Namchi Bazaar, two VVIPs emerged. They were official election observers, here to oversee the election process on behalf of the central government in New Delhi. No trouble is expected in Sikkim, although there is still a residue of tension from a population indigenous pre-annexation/merger with India in 1975 (Sikkim was an independent Kingdom), and a flood of Bengali immigration thereafter.

The Five Poisons. The furthest point on the route was the (Buddhist) Pemayangtse Monastery. A fascinating Buddhist monk Yapo Yongda has set up a small school close to the monastery for tribal children. Alongside teaching the traditional government curriculum, Yapo believes that it is essential to create good human beings too. This is largely based on avoiding the Five Poisons – Desire with attachment, Anger, Ego and Pride, Ignorance, and Jealousy. The children displayed a distinct lack of venom.

Guru Rinpoche is the “almost universal spiritual ancestor of Himalayan Buddhists“ (Barbara Crossthwaite, “So Close to Heaven“). He was born 1000 years after original Buddha (Shakyamuni). His life is a whirlwind of mythological tales, show-stopping miracles, and incredible feats as he brought tantric Buddhism across the mountains and plateaus of the Himalayas, travelling through the air on a Lotus flower. He is also known as the Lotus-borne Buddha, or Padmasambhava.

Hydro Projects are myriad in Sikkim. In a brief meeting with a Sikkimese man now living in San Francisco (but returned on holiday), the sense of how contentious these are was palpable. Not only are there environmental protests against them, but they are considered by some as a way for the Indian government to create dependency among the people in the North. I asked how many expats there were in San Francisco. Not that many was the response. I pushed for an exact figure. Two.

Impermanence is a concept at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. Since human beings are blessed with the ability to analyse and discover (and since we are only passing through this world), it is the duty of all humans to care for others.

Jorethang is a dusty town at the confluence of three rivers – the Little Rangeet, the Rangeet, and the Ramman. We passed it on the secind day. It does not appear in the photographs from 1922, much to the amazement of locals. The population is now approximately 5000.

The “King’s Road” or “Reza Go Bhatto” was a phrase that got me through the second half of the trek. My guide’s father was taken very ill, so she left me at Pemayangtse. The second half was therefore on my own. Identifying the old roads (often constructed by the former King or “Chogyal”) was difficult. When I asked for directions I was often told it was impossible. It never was, but often the roads were infrequently if over used, superseded by routes of longer distance but more suitability for motor transport. his made for some exciting journeys through old cobbled tracks in overgrown forests.

Lebong sits on the hillside just below Darjeeling. The final climb up to Lebong from the Rangeet river was tough enough for my grandfather and his friends to take ponies for the last 30 minutes from Lebong to Darjeeling. By then I was so tired that I just kept walking. Today, in conversation with Major Rana (the secretary at the Planters’ Club where I am staying), I found out that the army used the climb from the Rangeet to Lebong as a punishment.

Maps have always been an obsession for me. One of the wonderful things about this trek was the complete lack of them. Travelling through foreign countryside with only hand written instructions and hand drawn maps (and where available relying on local villagers vague hand gestures) is to be highly recommended.

Nuclear War. Yapo Yongda told me that there is a place on Kanchenjunga (3rd highest mountain in the world and a sacred place) which is reserved for Buddhists when nuclear war strikes. One of the sacred texts mentions this “Hidden Home” (Muyal Liang) as a refuge when the “heat of seven suns” comes to the Earth.

Oatmeal, 2 tins was one of the items on the “STORES” list in the 1922 notes. Other more obscure items included “23 tins IDEAL milk, 9 lbs sugar in tins, 1 pkt Bromo, 1 tin kippers, 1 tin Quaker Oats, [and] 4 bottles lime juice (more required)”. Everything was supplied from the Army & Navy Stores, Calcutta.

Pamionchi. In my grandfather’s pictures, there were photos of monks at a monastery called Pamionchi. Before leaving the UK, my research into this place drew a blank. It was on the train from Varanasi to Agra when it suddenly dawned on me. Pamionchi monastery was the same as the famous Pemayangtse monastery, the transliteration having changed over 90 years. That realisation gave me great hope of tracking down much of the route my grandfather took, hope that proved well-founded. The paintings on the ground floor of the monastery were called “extremely crude and pagan” by my grandfather. Of the monastery, he wrote: “The old monks take pleasure in showing it off, and for Rs10 the treasures are displayed in the room upstairs. Remembering that we were Scotch, and had a reputation to keep up, we contentd ourselves with seeing downstairs only.” Yapo Yongda was very amused to hear this – in 1997, it was he that reintroduced this “tourist charge”, now 20 rupees. The charge was waived for me. My “Scotchness” remained untested.

The last Queen of Sikkim was an American lady called Hope Cooke. She married the last Chogyal (King) in 1963. Given the heightened tensions in the region at that time (and given the “lively imaginations of Indian policymakers”) she was suspected of being a CIA plant. She left the Chogyal and Sikkim in 1973, two years before the Annexation/Merger with India.

Rinchenpong was where I spent the third night of the trek. The views in the morning across to the Kanchenjunga range were stunning. That morning, a series of strange coincidences led me to the house of the sitting Raja Sabha (India’s Upper Chamber), O.T. Lepcha. It was a bizarre hour, first with him and then with his sister and nephew. He imports flowers from Holland which he grows in greenhouses.

The SDF (Sikkim Democratic Front) is the ruling party in Sikkim. They are likely to be returned again in the current elections. Most people I spoke to were pretty apathetic about politics, but felt that at least the top man, Pawan Chamling, was trying to do the right things.

The sight of Unicycles on the seventh day came as something of a surprise. There were about 10 Australians riding in a group. For a while I thought I had been dreaming, but rumours of their existence were confirmed by a cyclist that I met the following day. Sadly I never found out what they were doing.

Varsey is a Rhododendron sanctuary above Dentam, where I spent my fourth night. The following morning I set out guideless to climb the 4000 feet to see it. April is blooming month at Varsey. After 3 hours I was on a ridge and must have boon close. However, I was thoroughly lost in a maze of paths. I decided, reluctantly to turn back. I heard later that a hailstorm a few days earlier had probably ruined the bloom anyway.

William Boyd is the author of one of the 5 books I carried with me. Mr Boyd’s Book “Bamboo” is therefore at least partly responsible for the Bleeding Blisters on my Boot-clad toes (maybe this should have been the “B” entry). The A to Z is a favourite literary device of his too, so blame him if you are bored.

I carried Xerox copies of photographs from 1922 with me, and reproduced a number of them. They were a wonderful way to engage people and draw out stories. Another route that my grandfather and grandmother did together in 1938 took them into East Sikkim and over the Tibet border. Given political sensitivities on the border with Tibet/China, there is no way that I can cross the border. However, tantalisingly I have discovered that much of the trek may be possible with some planning and a special permit. Another time.

Yapo Yongda is a Monk at Pemayangtse, and the director of a school for deprived tribal children. I was stayed in his house, on the grounds of the monastery. He is a remarkable man. He was Aide-de-Camp to the Chogyal (King) in 1975 at the time of annexation/merger with India; was imprisoned by the Indian Government, had his cause championed by Amnesty International, and now runs a school committed to integrating Buddhist philosophy, Sikkimese history and the Indian national curriculum. It was a privilege to have met him.

The Zandog Phalri is an intricate 15-foot high wooden structure in the top floor of the monastery. It is a representation of the abode of Guru Rinpoche, and was built over 5 years by Dugzin Rinpoche in the 1960s. As Pemayangtse was the furthest point from my start point in Darjeeling, and the Zandog Phalri was the highest point in the monastery, it is a suitable way to end this A to Z.

There are also some photographs (that I find amusing) here.

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You can’t change the plan unless you have a plan…

One of the great things about independent traveling is that you can change your mind at a whim. So that’s what I’ve done.

Some background…

A couple of years after coming to India, my grandfather and three of his friends all in their early 20s, took a trip up to Darjeeling. Being adventurous types, the four of them then embarked on an 80-mile trek through South-West Sikkim on foot. (Darjeeling is the gateway to the Indian state of Sikkim, formerly an ancient Buddhist kingdom, which is perched precariusly between Nepal, Bhutan and China).

My grandfather wrote the trek up in 10 fascinating type-written sheets entitled “A Ten-day tour of Sikkim, October 1922”. It has details of the route which covered 80 miles through the villages of the area, estimated distances covered each day, information on where they stayed (old style “hill bungalows”), and is accompanied by about 20 well-preserved photos.

The best-laid plans…

Naturally, on leaving London I had been excited about the possibility of following the same route. But when I arrived in Darjeeling a week ago, all the guides I spoke to in Darjeeling explained one-by-one that this trip wasn’t really practical now. “Things have changed…” they said. “There won’t be anywhere to stay…” they added. “And anyway how about this nice high-altitide trek?”

It was disappointing, but slowly I was persuaded that redoing the “Ten-day tour” was just a pipe-dream. I reluctantly convinced myself that a different trek would be just as fun.

So I hired the best guide I could find, Shradha Gissing, and made an alternative plan. Shradha (who also happens to be the only female guide in Darjeeling) would take me to her village in West Bengal for a couple of days; we would then take a jeep to a couple of the places mentioned by my grandfather. She would pass me to another guide for the popular 10-day Goecha La trek (a high altitude trip to 5000m to gaze up at Kanchenjunga) in a group with a few others.

That was the trip I proudly announced a couple of days ago.


But when we got to the beautiful village, something was still gnawing away at me. Why couldn’t the trip from 1922 be done? Surely it couldn’t be that hard?

As we sat eating by an earthenware stove, I shared my frustration with Shradha. I told her I wanted to have one more go at working out the 1922 trip. I asked for a couple of hours to think.

I went to my room, and pulled together everything I had – a 1982 Government of India map bought in Calcutta; my “Rough Guide to India” (with patchy details of the area); the photocopied pages of my grandfather’s route; and finally a book that Shradha’s father had treasured for years and that she had lent to me, entitled “Darjeeling District since 1835”. (Published in 1916, this book later proved to have valuable details of some of the villages on the route).

A couple of hours later, Shradha knocked on my door. I shared what I had found. As we worked through the details into the evening, we both started to realise that it really might be possible. Inevitably there would be a cost to cancelling the high altitude trek, but we reckoned we could still stay within the same budget. I slept on it.

By the next morning, it was so obvious to me that this was the right thing to do. So I am now back in Darjeeling, where we have spent the last couple of days excitedly planning everything. Barring one bridge which no longer exists, we should be able to follow the trek fairly faithfully. Some of the other (previously nay-saying) guides have already been sniffing around for details of how it will be done.

One last thing for amusement. In my grandfather’s type-written notes, there is a section entitled “Kit”. I reproduce it in full. It says:

“KIT. As little as possible is a good maxim. A valise with two blankets and a razai (or quilt) to lie on is all that is required up to 7000 feet. One suit case should carry all other requirements. For dress, stout boots well-dubbined are good, also serge shorts, a thick grey flannel shirt, putties (not always necessary) and a good thick topee as the sun is strong during the day. Thick socks are practically an essential, while lux and darning wool are also useful. Plenty of reading material and paper for writing should be taken. A good sharp knife and a rope are handy. As regards medicines, iodine and Eno’s are the most necessary. A sweater should be carried during the day, and put on at night, when it gets much colder. Candles are always useful as the bungalow lamps were not always in working order. It might be advisable to take a good lamp as well as the hurricane “buttis”. A kettle should be carried for mid-day tea; other useful items in the tiffin equipment are “jharrans” or dish towels, a ground sheet, and papier mache napkins, while of course cups, plates, and cutlery are required. Some small change is necessary but a small amount will suffice.”

Clearly “as little as possible” meant something different when you had a train of 10 porters, cooks, sirdars – and a couple of ponies.

We set off tomorrow morning. With a rucksack each. I will be back on 18 April.

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