We went to Ratnagiri today, the regional capital: a dirty, noisy frustrating town. For the first time I was homesick for first world cleanliness, ease of maneuvering, and availability of products. John talks a lot about corruption and incompetence in India, especially in construction: huge apartment buildings built with sewer pipes big enough to handle two or three years worth of waste while the units are sold but no actual sewer connection. (With no outlet, they overflow during the rains.) At a hospital the Martins stayed in a few years ago, they found the skeleton of a dog in the drinking water tank; they said that the man who had been in charge at the time now heads up an initiative for clean water.
The Martins are getting old. I wonder if John has become more irascible with age and as his health has deteriorated. He obviously doesn’t feel well much of the time, which must be frustrating for a man of such energy and drive. But there is always shouting, always something to complain about. I’ve been here only four nights and I’m already bored of hearing about how everything in the world is cocked up and how so-and-so did something stupid or tried to screw them. And there is no room for disagreement or discussion. John is right about everything, and everyone else in the world is an idiot. Pathetically, he’s an autocrat who really believes he respects other people – he loves telling me about how well he treats his wife and how much he wants to help people, yet his help is that of a feudal landowner who is supremely generous as long as he’s worshipped. The misty-eyed reverential conversations about God and the human capacity for good already sound tinny to my ears.
This seems to be my year for learning to deal with volatile personalities. I’ve always avoided people like John: I’m overly sensitive to other people’s moods, so it affects my well-being when someone I have to deal with constantly misbehaves. Equanimity requires learning how to detach from other people’s demons, and staying here will give me practice. But I’d rather not. I’m lucky to have choices. The people here don’t: he provides steady work, and they can’t afford to refuse. I feel almost sorrier for them for that than I do for their poverty.
I’ve been wondering for many years about the personality required to accomplish difficult tasks. It seems that so many people in charge of the world are frankly real assholes. Do you need to have an enormous ego in order to run things? Is it possible to be a reasonable, polite, happy soul and still rise to the top of a major organization or receive acclaim for your work? I can’t believe John hasn’t given himself a heart attack yet. I suppose I feel sorry for him too. How tiring to always be unhappy about things.
I don’t know how long I can stay here. I had thought to stay five weeks, until my course in Kerala begins at the end of February, but I know I won’t last that long. And it’s my experience that when a person is in the habit of ranting about everyone else even while they praise you, eventually they will get around to you as well. John has said a number of times over the past few days that I’m the answer to his prayers, but it won’t surprise me when he decides I’m an idiot. I will do the drawings for his initial planning permission and I will do some preliminary sketches for the college / hotel, and then I will leave. I’ll have to figure out some excuse; telling them the truth would serve no purpose and might leave me walking miles to the next town.
Since I’ve been in India I’ve been reading a lot. I find that my concentration even for heavy works is deep and easy. Fewer distractions, I guess. I began with a book my friend Eric sent me, Soft City, about the ability and necessity of shifting identities in cities, particularly London. In Mumbai I picked up V.S. Naipaul’s chronicle of a trip around India in 1988, India: A Million Mutinies Now; I went on to Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian; and now I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. All of them are excellent books. It may be trite to concentrate on literature about India or by Indian writers while I’m here, but I’ve also learned an incredible amount about the history and culture already. Stuffing it into my head at the same time it’s seeping into my pores.
What’s also interesting is that all of the books, including the one about London, have had in common the thread of cultural and personal multiplicity. Sen’s basic theme is that India has a tradition of heterodoxy: it has always encompassed many religions (including agnosticism and atheism) at the same time, and had a healthy appetite for debate. Violence between adherents of different religions is not the way that the vast majority of Indians live today or have lived in the past. Westerners tend to assume that they have a monopoly on rationality. I have certainly been guilty of that when hearing accounts of suicide bombers and bride burnings. But Sen convincingly argues how Western media and literature have set up this false opposition by concentrating on authoritarian and mystical properties. He raises the point of the Moghal emperor Akbar who, in the late 16th century, organized moderated debates between members of all the religions residing in India, proclaiming that one should be free to choose one’s religion (including none whatsoever), and freed all his slaves – while at the same time in Europe Giordano Bruno was being burned at the stake for heresy and the major powers were beginning their quest for colonial domination.
In a paragraph that relates both to culture and to individual, he writes: “In particular, we have to resist the two unfounded by implicitly invokes assumptions: (1) the presumption that we must have a single or at least a principal and dominant identity; and (2) the supposition that we ‘discover’ our identity, with no room for any choice… Each of us invokes identities of various kinds in disparate contexts.” I have more to write about this, but no time.