India

Amitava Kumar: In praise of Ian Jack's small town India

In this photograph taken on December 30, 2009, a signpost announces the birthplace of British author George Orwell in front of a dilapidated residence in Motihari
Image caption Ian Jack reported from Motihari, George Orwell's birthplace, in India's dirt-poor Bihar state

Leading British journalist Ian Jack has reported on India extensively. A collection of his essays on his travels in the country has been published recently. Author Amitava Kumar explains why Jack is a rare writer, chronicling India's neglected, small towns.

A lifetime of reporting from the Indian subcontinent - that is one way to describe a recent anthology of journalist Ian Jack's writing, collected under the evocative and accurate title, Mofussil Junction.

Perhaps I can get to a central truth of Jack's reporting by recounting a story he tells in one of his earlier pieces.

It is the year 1977. Jack is travelling in the air-conditioned coach in the Taj Express, "one of the last great steam-hauled expresses in the world".

After having been served dinner he is asked by the steward, a man named Kushmar Singh, to write in an exercise book.

"Please, sir, sign this book," said Mr Singh. "It is to show my wife and children."

'Colloquial approach'

Jack notes that the remarks inside the book, written by visiting Europeans, have about them a stiffness "in the manner of visitors' books in dull, private museums". He decides to try "a more colloquial approach".

"An excellent meal, excellently served - all thanks to Kushmar Singh," I wrote. "No, no, sir. You must write 'To the catering manager, Central Railways. Service excellent. Kushmar Singh, steward, number 11'."

Didn't this lack a little grammar somewhere? "Sir, it is the proper remark."

I like reading Jack for his style of observation and writing for which "the colloquial" is an inadequate shorthand.

Where others sound ponderous, he only appears perceptive; in a country like India where even reporters often speak like bureaucrats, Jack is brisk; instead of dressing up his sentences in the armour of false solemnity, he is content to let them wander out with a light cover of irony.

Indian readers like him partly because what is already familiar to us is revealed anew in a language that, while unadorned, is always elegant.

Here is his description of the slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's funeral: "His garlanded body moved on a gun carriage through a great crowd; by the river Yamuna it was raised to a pyre of sandalwood and was there consumed by flames; smoke rose into the evening sky over Delhi."

Image caption Jack describes a brush with death in the city of Patna

But part of the reason Jack is attractive as a writer is that he deftly reduces grandeur to a human scale.

Here he is again, ending his piece by telling his readers that splendid funerals aren't death's reward for most Indians - and that this is how it should be: "Sandalwood, which perfumes the stench of the burning flesh, is now in the realms of luxury. Wood of any kind is expensive. All along the holy Ganges, and at many other places in India, electric crematoria have been built to do the same job in a more Western way. They are unpleasing blocks, but ecologically as well as socially essential. Forests stand a better chance of survival, the rivers contain less charred flesh and bone."

During recent weeks, travelling first through Bihar and then through other cities in the country, going as far south as Bangalore, I carried the book in my backpack.

A tweet I sent out last month read: "Driving across Bihar is easier if you are reading Ian Jack's Mofussil Junction each night right up till the power goes."

Why was it such a comfort, and such delight, to have Jack as my companion during my travels?

I was travelling though small places like Bodh Gaya and Jadugoda. These were precisely the kind of places that Jack had written about.

Working especially in the 1970s and the 80s, when various parts of India were not so well-connected by quick modes of transport or even communication, Jack was unusual in that he reported from small district towns.

Historical oddities

Sharp writing, edged with irony and humour, with a particular interest in historical oddities - it is a surprise to find these qualities in reports from places that usually enter national newspapers only in the form of dull, perfunctory copy filed by stringers.

Here he is, in 1983, reporting from Motihari, recording for us an old lawyer's memories of opium farming in Champaran: "'The smell of those poppies is still in my nostrils and the rattle of the poppy seeds is still in my ears.' He said it was a lovely sound, 'softer, more sonorous than a baby's rattle,' which came from the poppy fields in the lightest breeze."

How did Jack end up writing about such less-noticed places: "Travelling by train, because I was meant to be writing a book on the railways, I became a frequenter of the neglected and obscure."

I am especially struck by the fact that so many pieces in Mofussil Junction are reports from towns in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

My favourite reports are those that were written in Patna, the capital of Bihar.

It is not only because I grew up in Patna that I like those pieces; rather, I celebrate them for their quiet and intelligent humanism.

When Jack describes his brush with death in Patna as a result of a sudden and unexpected illness, and then the care shown to him by people there, some of them near-strangers, his writing acquires a luminous charm and a warmth that is to be found only in very refined strains of journalism.

Image caption 'Very little good writing is to be found on small town India'

So many of the essays in Mofussil Junction have a prophetic tone to them, anticipating, for instance, the fates of Indira Gandhi and her sons.

But the writing also seems to belong to another time, and to another India, when small towns hadn't yet acquired their ambition or their assertiveness.

In politics, in sports, in education, and in business, men and women from the hinterland have wrested a place for themselves on the national stage.

Such people have dramatically altered the character of the metropolises but it can be argued that they have left relatively unchanged the places they have left behind.

One of the aspects that remains unchanged is how little good writing is to be found in English about those "neglected and obscure" places.

Western commentators and urban Indian readers never cease to exult in the quaint charm of eminent novelist RK Narayan's fictional southern Indian town of Malgudi.

Among the literati of a certain vintage in places as far apart as Delhi and Chennai (Madras), you can hear lamentations over expensive liquor about the Nobel Prize for literature that was unfairly denied to Narayan.

But all of that is empty nostalgia.

To read Mofussil Junction is to feel a hunger for contemporary reports from the rest of India - not just stories of backwardness, or, for that matter, of blazing progress, but something more complex and richer, a report on the human caught at the crossroads.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna

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