Friday, January 1, 2016
with a note of parallel passages
and a final note on the endlessness of interpretation
Chapters are named in the text and numbered in parentheses.
Poetry in the old broad sense, referring to all aesthetic or literary texts, shares with other works of art the distinction of being the densest information-bearing codes humans have devised. Other sorts of writing aim at transparency, allowing the reader to efficiently grasp the content without being distracted by sound or form or associations or paradoxes. The fact that poetry uses these resources and more allows it to embody simulacra of any variety of the immensely complex human consciousness and to convey not only information and ideas and opinions but also emotional states, ambivalences, contradictions, and mysteries far more precisely than other forms of discourse. The poet’s use of rhetorical figures of all sorts, connotations, verbal texture, melody, etymology, and a host of other elements which are not exploited in non-aesthetic writing allows the expression of subtle shades of thought and feeling that would be impossible for the author who aims at direct statement. In fact there is no end to the interpretation of a piece of writing as each image, sound, and theme generates an ever-expanding semantic field in which waves of signification react with other waves in patterns of subtle accuracy and, in the end, fabulous complexity. The critic must decide without prescription where to begin and end a reading of any poetic passage, for, just as in a larger philosophical sense all phenomena are interlinked and ultimately one, all writing is part of one immense book. The whole is deducible from every part. With the use of the resources of figures of speech and other literary devices, what passes for rationality expressed in the sort of unequivocal exposition freshmen learn to use for practical purposes is left far behind, stalled on the ground, while poetry mounts to the sublime and strives more or less successfully to embrace the cosmos.
Melville’s Moby Dick has always seemed to me the one novel that might challenge Huckleberry Finn as the single greatest work of American fiction. Like Emerson and Thoreau Melville is a master stylist and rhetorician, a poetic thinker ideal for demonstrating the density of the aesthetic text. Rereading Moby Dick on a trip to India I focused on a single brief passage chosen very nearly at random as I trundled along on a bus from Jaipur to Jodhpur from the beginning of the “Sunset” chapter (37).
"I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass."
In my mind Melville excels as a philosophical writer, more an allegorist led by theme like a super-sophisticated Bunyan rather than a poet marking concrete particulars like Keats or constructing enigmatic symbols like Mallarmé. Melville’s indeterminancies are indeed present -- Pierre is rightly subtitled The Ambiguities – but intellectual, and thought takes the lead in the subtle yet sensual delight in the Confidence Man's playing hide-and-seek with the reader's consciousness. His rhetoric, the palpable syntactical architecture of his sentences, their music and design, I have always admired, and the dance of his phrases is as worthy of attention as the quality of his thoughts.
The first thing the reader notices about this passage from the beginning of the "Sunset" chapter is the perfectly regular iambic pentameter.  The first "and" is semantically unnecessary but required for the meter and not distracting. This cadence forms the regular background beat, the rhythm section of the composition against which melodic and harmonic elements play. The ocean waves are embodied sonically and graphically in the repetition of the letter w in the first sentence. Before that pattern has faded the word "pale" is repeated, making a sort of ghostly whitecap on the sea. The phrase "where'er I sail" so liquid with vowels for eight of its twelve letters and its only consonants the smooth sounds of wh, r, s, and a concluding l, lacking a single plosive, further the replication of the ocean on the printed page. The rhyme of sail and pail brings the clause to an end like a couplet at the end of a scene of Shakespeare.
The decisive monosyllables of the final two clauses with less differentiation in accent provide the steady footsteps along time's lane. A disturbance is signaled by the compression of "envious" to two syllables and the b sound, rougher than what had preceded it, and this is then resolved when it is succeeded by the alliteration in s, as the sea’s surface becomes smooth once more after the speaking subject moves on.
In tone these lines suggest an elegiac and vulnerable resignation, a sort of soft lament for the human condition. The speaker proceeds through time without expectations or hopes, but also without hesitation, never slowed though always defeated. The final words “but first I pass” suggest a sort of self-assertion or, at any rate, a heroic existential acceptance.
I approach theme with this characterization, since for Melville as for each of us in lived experience, ideas are less logical conclusions based on evidence than moods and subjective impressions, subject always to the flickering alteration of the moment, for which we then invent adequate reasons. Melville is by temperament a thinker, and I have often qualified his literary standing by thinking him more a philosopher than a poet. In this intellectual realm he is great indeed, primarily after the manner of Plato and Nietzsche, not for the rigor of his reasoning but for the resonant chords he sets to vibrating within the reader. He is not one to settle on a thought made attractive by succinctness or clarity, much less by authority or tradition. Rather one finds near as many enigmas, contradictions, and mysteries in him as in one's own observations, should one be in the mood to look closely enough and not to scant a telling detail for the sake of ease. In this way his ideas remain as fresh as the reader’s own morning musings.
Among the reductive formulations of the thoughts set to mingle and struggle with each other in these twenty-nine words are the following.
1. Life is a process, a pilgrimage, a journey, though one with neither destination or reward.
2. The human being must contend constantly with everything else, an effort signaled by turbidity yet followed by the blankness of entropy that erases all events. The pale seas are the source of the paler human cheeks because sailing (which is to say living) is so inevitably rigorous and our tender human perspective sees ourselves as unique sufferers. Nature is not merely indifferent. It is actively hostile.
3. Nonetheless, one somehow goes on regardless, suggesting parallels with Camus and Sartre.
4. A further heroic response to the recognition of the human predicament is evident in the construction of lovely verbal patterns expressing our woe. Such artifacts prove in part redemptive, in part an all-too-human way of passing the time while awaiting death.
I have not begun to explore the passage in terms of its associations within the novel, Melville’s other work, or links to earlier or later literature. I can only here offer a few signposts for fruitful exploration. Paleness, of course, is central to the book. Even before the first chapter the “pale Usher” associated with mortality opens the book. His “queer handkerchief queer, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world” signifies the veil of maya that obscures the appalling emptiness of Ultimate Reality.
And who can forget the similar pattern of deceptive surface over terrifying whiteness in the magnificent crescendo that closes the chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale” (42)?
"All deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge--pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?"
Moby Dick is a classic because it reproduces a convincing projection of human consciousness, complete with affect, taste and sensibility, Weltanschauung, and experience in the most densely significant symbolic code available to our species. One might continue its interpretation as endlessly onward as the sea-waves themselves, and, like the waves, such readings are dynamic and ever-evolving. I have treated only the tiniest fraction of the great novel. Fortunately, the consideration of the text can be at any moment truncated and whatever work has been done on it may result in a rich and satisfying share, leaving always appetite for more, but no necessity to say another word.
A Note on Verbal Parallels
Even confining one’s attention to Moby Dick, there is no end to these internal clusters of images. For example, “envious goblins” appear in “The Funeral” (69), and the billows are “destroying” as the denouement approaches in “The Chase – Third Day” (135). Related images appear in Melville’s other works. Paleness is linked to whiteness and the word “whelm” and the entire complex to mortality as a green plant dies with the coming of cold in Pierre: “the drifting winter snows shall whelm it” and, in the same chapter the reader finds a reference to “pale cheeks” (Ch. 23). Life itself is “nobly envious” in Pierre, Chapter 12. “Evil- minded, envious goblins” emerge from the sea in Mardi, Chapter 69. But there is no point in cataloguing such associations without making something of the verbal recurrences. I mean only to suggest the unlimited process of semeiosis.
The semantic field expands immensely when one considers works by other authors. Given the fact that Melville explicitly refers to his story as a tragedy and consciously models elements of it on Shakespeare the critic might pursue parallel usage in that writer such as Pistol’s curse “ocean whelm them all!” (Merry Wives of Windsor, II, 2) or Andromache’s vision of “bloody turbulence” (Troilus and Cressida, V, 3), not to mention the hundred and forty-eight occurrences of the term “pale” in his plays.
Had Melville ever come across Robert English’s 1777 “Elegy” for Sir Charles Saunders that includes the line “in vain the envious billows round him beat”? (Note here that unlike in Melville the hero is stronger than the billows.) Or perhaps the line “The envious billows choak’d my struggling breath” in Charles Lloyd’s 1819 collection Nugæ Canoræ in which, on the other hand, the sea is altogether triumphant. He may even have happened upon Miss E. M. Allison’s poem on Columbus “The Genoese Immigrant” which includes a reference to “envious billows angry play” published in New York eight years before Moby Dick. Whether or not any of these played a role as a source, they cause Melville’s own usage to stand out in higher relief.
Among the most obvious relevant routes for further analysis are image systems of whiteness, water, ships, and life as a journey. Nor have I touched on etymology or connotation. Nor on parallels with epic which Melville explicitly had in mind in his use, for instance, of Homeric similes or the Biblical references suggested by names such as Ishmael and Ahab. The reading of the few lines I have selected illustrates the rich stores of meaning borne by literary texts.
A Final Note on the Endlessness of Interpretation
What is the meaning of Moby Dick? What Eco called “unlimited semiosis” (in A Theory of Semiotics) can be traced in all writing, but especially in poetry. Though generally applicable, some limited version of the idea is a commonplace in Melville commentaries. Thus Van Doren says “Ahab has a hundred symbolical or allegorical interpretations.”  Author David Gilbert notes, “It's been called a whaling yarn, a theodicy, a Shakespeare-styled political tragedy, an anatomy, a queer confessional, an environmentalist epic; because this novel seems to hold all the world, all these readings are compatible and true.”  In her introduction to an edition of the novel Elizabeth Renker observes “ascertaining the whale’s ultimate meaning is a project [one] could pursue forever.” To John Bryant readings of Moby Dick include an extraordinary range of “seemingly flat contradictions and simultaneously co-existing divergences.” 
To D. H. Lawrence, speaking of the whale,
Of course he is a symbol.
I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That's the best of it. 
The catalogue of such responses could be extended indefinitely.
The fact is that literary texts are peculiarly polysemous; it is one of their foremost characteristics in contradistinction to all other sorts of writing. The best of them are often the most underdetermined. Yet they not only bear multiple meanings, their decoding goes on and on indefinitely just as our experience of time, but, like a life, or like these remarks, it is initiated and terminated suddenly and arbitrarily.
1. Carl Van Doren found Melville’s tendency to fall into blank verse “irritating.” See his essay “Mr. Melville’s Moby Dick” in The Bookman for April 1924, pages 154-6.
3. “The Endless Depths of Moby Dick Symbolism,” The Atlantic, August 20, 2013.
4. in “The Versions of Moby Dick” in The Book as Artefact, Text and Border, edited by Anne Mette Hansen. p. 258.
5. In Studies in Classic American Literature. Among Lawrence’s other comments are the identification of Moby Dick with “the deepest blood-being of the [doomed] white race.” He found the book brilliant, though its author was “hopelessly au grand serieux.”
Howard’s End (Forster)
I had thought it seemed a lot of fussing around in the secondary elaboration of values expressed in the troubled relations of the upper-class intellectual Schlegels and the bourgeois Wilcoxes. Their initial bridling at each other was amusing, but it had then no sooner begun to seem to me unnecessarily strung out that I began to think that there was something in it, and I found myself wondering if I myself may have taken artistic and progressive values a bit for granted and that there might be something valuable in those of straight people (by which I mean not heterosexual but unhip). Hmm.
The opening of Chapter XX is a magnificent piece of rhetoric, itself sufficient reason to read the book. I can do no better than to quote. The disturbances due to love are in fact “welcoming the new generation, and chafing against the ultimate Fate, who holds all the seas in the palm of her hand. But Love cannot understand this. He cannot comprehend another's infinity; he is conscious only of his own--flying sunbeam, falling rose, pebble that asks for one quiet plunge below the fretting interplay of space and time. He knows that he will survive at the end of things, and be gathered by Fate as a jewel from the slime, and be handed with admiration round the assembly of the gods.”
All Passion Spent (Sackville-West)
Sackville-West’s novel is a very pleasant book full of wit and satisfaction. The satire is bracing; the eccentrics (Bucktrout, Gosheron, and FitzGeorge) not only amusing but individually characterized. Sackville-West mounts a few lovely rhetorical flights, though perhaps it is significant that one of the grandest, the notable butterfly passage, is meant to convey precisely the sort of instinctual flurry of mind the author presumably recommends. The theme is only too comforting, a bit overdetermined and then slightly problematized by the author’s and the main character’s insistence that they are by no means feminists. How nice to think that “once common sense rarely laid its fingers” her, all went well. And how unexpected and apt to introduce the implication of romantic feelings to the superannuated matriarch.
I must be especially liable to swooning over style this season, because I will also quote this breath-taking passage which may seem rather long, but which I have cut off with half the single sentence still to come.
"She remembered how, crossing the Persian Desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting round this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life . . ."
Whew! More succinctly, in Twelve Days she remarks of keeping a travel journal, “How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment?” And at that Virginia Woolf could do no better a job, either in the superabundantly exuberant style or the laconic.
The Grass Harp (Capote)
Those who enjoy Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” (and they are many) will like The Grass Harp yet more. It is equally quirky and sweet and has, after all, more pages, more Southern oddballs, and a more casual structure -- Ida Honey intrudes and lingers for a surprisingly lengthy spell. The minor characters earn their way: Morris Ritz, Riley Henderson, the courageous Judge Cool who is cool indeed. The sentiment is unapologetic and mixed with sufficient humor and darkness to be digestible. The reader feels immense sympathy for Catherine, for example, while accepting the fact that she was difficult indeed for anyone on earth with the exception of Dolly. Strange to say, much of the unlikely machinery of the story is more or less factual. The oddly mismatched sisters and the grand treehouse are well-documented from the author’s childhood even if one suspects that his character Collin is a bit more a regular boy than Truman may have been. One need not speculate about what he and Sooky or he and Harper Lee may have spoken of while up among the green of tree-leaves. This book is doubtless better, though the plot is hardly credible. The thought of the bumbling vigilantes defeated by a cascade of rocks from the Honey family above seems entirely fabulous, but so do a good many actual events.
Whether it is discernible to readers or not, I generally edit a bit before posting even in material drawn from my travel journals. Below, though, I have transcribed my notes from a few weeks in India complete with lists of monuments, complaints about hotels, and descriptions of a meal or two with no attempt to shape a coherent essay. In spite of the often casual nature of the blog genre and the frequently discursive quality of travel writing, I don't plan to repeat this practice, which was suggested to me solely by the time pressure of two weeks of travel followed by the holiday season. The observations below were written in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Ranthambore Park, Udaipur, and Mumbai. Six years ago we toured India independently after intentionally devising an itinerary that avoided the touristic Golden Triangle. This time we went with a group -- this explains the relatively plush accommodations, the elephant ride, tiger-spotting (unsuccessful), and the like.
Photograph by Patricia Seaton
Upon disembarking in Delhi the traveler feels the eye-burn of acrid air and smells the faint but pervasive foulness of the Industrial Revolution's decay. Ah Delhi! What promises might this stink of acquisitive desire first make and then frustrate or keep before the return home?
As we were staying at the Holiday Inn, we found ourselves in one of those peculiarly uncongenial locations only money can buy. Such structures are grand and self-sufficient. Guests are meant to venture out only by taxi, But I did have a look around the neighborhood that seems so little like a neighborhood. Homeless people had built a fire right by the road beneath the elevated highway (here called a flyover). A wandering cow stared blankly at a few off-kilter feral dogs. Dusty boys playing cricket in a grass less field paused in their game to watch me pass. Seeking a place for supper I walked to a mall only to find that most of its shops were liquor stores though it did boast a Domino's Pizza and a Chinese restaurant. Street vendors offered momos for 20 rupees and "famous Kolkata egg rolls."
We headed then together across a broad canal on a bridge without a real sidewalk. In the dark a mad maelstrom of traffic rushed by, half the drivers honking repeatedly. The headlights of the cars, many ignoring lanes and passing too close to ignore combined with the noise and what seemed real danger of being struck to create a temporary nightmare. Once over the canal, crossing the next street with continuous traffic but no signals seemed simple. Fortunately almost at once we found a modest place beneath the metro station where we shared a creamy paneer dish, garlic nan, jeera rice, raita, small whole onions that had been marinating in red vinegar (beet juice?), along with the lime and soda water so popular here.
We visited again the Jama Masjid built by Shah Jahan with its huge courtyard and exceedingly shallow interior. They say that 25,000 believers can all salaam at once in this outdoor space with its two auxiliary pulpits for relaying the imam's words to the masses. Somehow, when we entered no other visitors were present, just a dozen of the pious praying, doing ablutions at the central pool, and reading the Koran. A white shrine in one corner is thought by the credulous to hold a hair from the prophet's beard and other relics. The massive domes are top heavy though the minarets in every corner strive to balance the composition.
We rode a cycle rickshaw through the lanes of old Delhi and then turned onto the Chandni Chowk near the Red Fort and the Jain bird hospital. A zebu pulling a cart, its hump slanted rakishly to the side, turned its head my way as though sharing a secret.
A government-sponsored Disability Day was being held near India Gate. Walking through a crowd of people conversing with each other in highly animated sign language felt oddly like flying through viscous air.
We visited the Gandhi Smirti where the leader spent his last days trying to halt the communal violence that followed Partition. Here the skinny old man wrapped in a white cloth was assassinated. His politics and personality contained great contradictions which were then multiplied by those of this vast land. He put his mission before his personal life, yet, unlike Ho, he had a family. His use of the sadhu tradition led him to ascetic practices such as celibacy and fasting. Nonviolent satyagraha may have succeeded in the independence struggle only because the British, who had imprisoned him several times, were ready to abandon their empire due to other historical forces. (Armed struggle was unnecessary in Africa.). Yet in the end Gandhi remains an immensely moving and impressive figure, that rarest of things, a political actor with principle.
The Laxmi Narayan Mandir, extremely popular with visitors, was built in the 30s by the Birlas, a wealthy industrialist family, and has the extravagant imagery in which Hinduism is so rich, including a number of representations of Buddha and a baroquely decorated chapel for Krishna. The Birlas had supported the self-rule and self-sufficiency movement and thus Gandhi participated at the temple’s dedication. The garish figure of Laxmi at the altar is associated with money, so it is clear why the Birlas and the general public might adore her, yet more uncertain how the great preacher of the extinguishment of desire would react to his inclusion. The temple was built with modern materials and includes such showy features as artificial waterfalls.
The Qtub Minar complex with its enormous but bulbous and ugly minaret was built at the beginning of the 13th century by Qutb-ud-Din after wrecking some twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples that once stood on the spot. Should there be any doubt, the mosque beneath was called Quwwat-ul-Islam or "the might of Islam." When one wishes really to conquer a people, it is doubtless good policy to conquer their gods as well. Now, apart from the slightly absurd tower, many of the victor's buildings, the Khalji Madrasa for example, are likewise ruins. Strolling among the remains of once mighty contenders induces an elegiac mood. Ozymandias again!
The Akshardham Mandir is very modern, constructed only a bit over ten years ago, but it is extraordinary in a manner as arrogant as the Qtub minaret with as little true spirituality. While the medieval minaret was meant to awe the defeated with a display of temporal power to which religion was attached almost incidentally, this twenty-first century structure has a pushy sort of vulgar ambition that tastes foully of capitalist conspicuous consumption. Much more than the Birla temple built seventy years earlier, its ambitions toward grandeur are expressed in insistent artificial excess somewhat like Las Vegas or Dubai. It is described by its promoters as though by a real estate sales agent: seventy thousand figures carved during three hundred million man hours, as though such numbers could generate greatness. I did not witness the attractions that have led more than one observer to call it a Disneyland-style temple: the son et lumiere show, the animatronics. I suspect the Hindu nationalists of the BJP were critical to the grant of land for its creation, though its guru Swami Narayan lived what was probably a very holy life two hundred years ago. Yet it does bludgeon its way to the visitors' attention and even to a sort of admiration akin to that one feels for art brut builders or kitschy fifties formica.
We drove then to Agra, first passing through endless miles of high rise apartments and a great many more under construction, the cancer-like growth of the modern metropolis, before emerging to fields including patches of mustard grown more for oil and greens than for the seed, past beehives and small-scale brick kilns.
On the outskirts of Agra, we stopped at the tomb of Jahangir's vizier Mirza Ghiyas Beg, the onetime refugee who managed to be named "the pillar of the nation,’ Itimad-ud-daulah. The so-called Baby Taj struck me as elegant (though not sublime). The two mausoleums have in common the white marble facing and the striking petra dura work with Persian motifs of vases, flowers, and trees.
In Agra we stayed at the Agra Trident.
Though we arrived at the Taj Mahal quite early crowds had come yet earlier. The dreadful smelly smog, only marginally less intense than in Delhi, here made the iconic structure appear as a dream or a vision. What can one say about such a sight? Like the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or the Great Wall it is so familiar from images that it can scarcely be seen in person. Still, it is evidence of the refined aestheticism of the Mughal court, reflecting that of Persia. I suppose it is cheering in a way that this beauty is not confined to a small circle of aristocrats, but is available to the mob daily, including myself. Though popular opinion would like to view the structure as a testament of love, it is doubtless still another statement of arrogant power, eloquent long after its builder was ousted and confined by his own son (who murdered his brothers as well). At least that ruling class valued cultivation of the sensibilities as a sign of their nobility, just as the courtly Elizabethan sonneteers did. In these latter days hustling photographers pose couples in Bollywood postures and the glorious building has been reduced to mere backdrop.
The red sandstone fort in Agra is protected by two and a half kilometers of ramparts. Furnished with high walls, drawbridges, moats, and a zig-zag main entrance to prevent a rapid rush of invaders and the use of battering rams, it looks virtually impregnable. The larger part is still a military base. This is where Shah Jahan served his house arrest. When not killing family members or other foes, this brutal bunch enjoyed such refined pastimes as bathing with concubines in a porphyry tub amid flower petals.
Today's drive was lengthy, broken only by a stop at the Abhanagari step well (or baori), a huge hole dug in the 9th century or so with geometric patterns of rock descending in a sort of dizzy op art pattern. Next to it are the ruins of a large temple where local residents lounge and chat and goats leap, perhaps imagining themselves in the mountains. Today the village of Abhaneri is small and humble, but a thousand years ago it must have been a center of regional power. Some sort of harvest festival was in progress, heralded by a sound truck bearing more passengers than one would have thought possible riding along with the companionable gods and blasting music with a heavy beat. Behind followed a procession of women, many balancing tall terra cotta urns on their heads topped with sprigs of greenery. Some merely walked along while a considerable knot gyrated ecstatically. Patricia joined the dancers, imitating their moves expertly and swinging more rhythmically then many of the Indians. They seemed delighted with her and grins spread all around while small children strove to touch the foreigner who had mysteriously materialized to grace their celebration.
A short time later we encountered a funeral with the somber line headed by pall-bearers carrying a body in a white winding sheet on a board. They were making their way to the crematorium. So life inevitably evokes death and it is surely salutary to avoid lingering too long amid the joys of food and children and love and all the affairs of life lest one deceive oneself and entertain the thought that Yama has been outdistanced.
After nine hours on the road we pulled off onto a one lane dirt track, then a smaller one, bumpier yet and arrived at the Pugmark just past the village of Sawai Madhopur outside the Ranthambore National Park.
As the park is a former maharaja's hunting grounds, there is a large fort on the hilltop in the park with temples and a mosque as well as occasional lodges, tombs, and shrines on the grounds. Pilgrims visiting the temple give food to the local monkeys so they congregate along the road in trees waiting for likely patrons, rather like the vendors that rush to the side of the paused vehicle at the park's entrance offering Chinese-made tee shirts and stocking caps.
We failed to sight a tiger during our morning and afternoon drives through different areas of the park, though we saw tracks and heard the monkey's danger calls when they, with better vantage point than ours, spotted their antagonist sleeping or creeping through the high grasses. They, the jungle cats, leopards, and the hyenas had sense enough to dodge the attention of the visitors though we carried cameras rather than firearms.
We did, however, see plenty of fallow deer, sambar, blue bull antelope, wild boar, black-faced langur, macaque, crocodile, and countless birds including egret, ibis, teal, cormorant, red wattle lapwing, woolly-neck stork, snakebird, whistling duck, tree partridge, parakeet, various herons, jungle crow, weaver bird (with nests), and bulbul. There were a great many wandering peacocks, and the tree pies came begging for handouts.
The ride was a bit rough and dusty, yet glorious as every beast has its virtue, and the alarmed cry of the monkey is no less a marvel than the tiger's roar, and though Blake wrote of the latter, it was only to combat the prejudice born of fear. We were told that the Ranthambore tigers have killed not only livestock but a good half dozen of our own species as well in recent years, so the hostility of villagers who live nearby is judicious and well-founded.
On the way to Jaipur we stopped at a small government school and witnessed the students' routine for opening the day. Lined up in size order and in classes, they executed a few moves reminiscent of military drill and sang the national anthem. Holding their hands in prayer position they then chanted petitions to Sarasvati for educational success. An older girl then read headlines from the newspaper and "thoughts for the day" along the lines of "do not spit or use tobacco" and "mind your parents."
In Jaipur we are told that over half the population of something over four million are employed in the gem trade. The astrologers tell people what stones are beneficial for them, so this metaphysical benefit coincides with the Indian taste for conspicuous consumption and gaudy over-the-top decoration.
After a lassi served in a disposable pottery cup we entered the Raj Mandir movie house to see a Hindi film with the usual sharply drawn heroes and villains and nonstop alternation of thrilling action, song and dance, romance and comedy. Not knowing the language was no impediment to following the story. The place was not old but was vulgarly opulent with more levels of ticket price than a Broadway theater. Why is it that in this land where arranged marriages are still the rule, all the films are about romance?
We ate perhaps the best Indian meal of the trip ever had at Tulsi, a small vegetarian restaurant located, surprisingly, in the Ramada hotel where we were staying. I had strolled the nearby streets without finding a likelier place, but I am glad that this time I did not follow my preference for a hole-in-the-wall. Sharing a thali we had more than we cared to eat. We particularly enjoyed ker sangria a combination of "desert beans," which look rather like strands of seaweed or long evergreen needles prepared with fresh capers and a good deal of oil.
We engaged in the most touristic of experiences riding a painted and gaily draped elephant to Jai Singh's Amber Fort with its lengthy fortifications snaking over the hills to protect a luxurious palace. The visitor heard flute music and came upon a snake charmer with two cobras. Then the gauntlet of the undiscourageable hawkers begins
The City Palace, one-third of which is still occupied by the family of the last maharaja, had some marvelous gates, each with different decoration. The so-called museums here displayed little more than the remains of royal wardrobes and paintings of some of the men who wore them. One could see as well the huge silver urns in which the ruler in 1901 brought with him when visiting Britain. He had thought it prudent to carry his own water, unsure of the safety of what would be available in the West and probably thinking his own had curative powers.
The complex of eighteen large devices built by Jai Singh for astrological calculations (the Jantar Mantar) is an abstract spectacle apart from its intended use. A very large sundial here (the Samrat Yantra) can indicate the time correct within two seconds while the complementary marble hemispheres in holes in the ground can indicate an individual's horoscope. This meticulous observation and ingenious invention in the service of superstition recalls to me the Chinese invention of the compass which was used not for navigation but for Germany and of gunpowder, the use of which was confined for centuries to fireworks.
We drove to Jodhpur and encountered numerous military convoys coming from the posts along the border with Pakistan.
We visited first the fifteenth century Meherangarh Fort (the Sun Fort), one of the grandest fortified palaces in the world. In order to build here, on the hill called Bhaurcheeria (the mountain of birds), Rao Jodha evicted a sadhu known as Cheeria Nathji (the lord of birds), constructing a dwelling and temple for him on the grounds. He then sought to ensure his security on the spot by burying a man alive in the foundation. The man’s family still occupies a home in Raj Bagh (Raj’s Garden) provided them in compensation four hundred and fifty years ago. Entering the gates one may see the damage left by cannonballs and the handprints of the maharajah's wives made before they committed suttee in 1843. At a temple dedicated to Chamundi, in 2008 249 people were killed in a panicked stampede during the Navratri festival. The goddess is depicted as aged and skeletal, wearing a garland of human skulls (mundamala). Liquor and animal sacrifices are offered (and, in the past, human sacrifices) to this fearsome one-time tribal goddess.
Apart from the associations with class and gender exploitation, war and ferocious religious imagery, the fort as a whole is a magnificent witness to human engineering, aestheticism , and ingenuity. Pleasingly asymmetrical and endlessly various, it offers new marvels around every turn and on every level. At the present time there is also an exhibit of miniatures which mostly feature goddesses, though there is one of a polo game, and several of maharajas. Among the breathtaking rooms are the Flower Palace or Phool Mahal, used by the ruler for his private recreation with its stained glass and gold-decorated ceiling, the Takhat Vilas with its European Christmas tree balls hanging from above, and the Pearl Palace (Moti Mahal) whose walls are covered with some sea-shell preparation. The stone lattices or jali are intricate and elegant, though testifying to the system of purdah which the Rajputs adopted from their Muslim enemies.
We then checked into the Ranbanka Palace Hotel, a "heritage" hotel in what had been the palace of Maharajadhiraj Sir Ajit Singh ji, a prince in 1927 when the structure went up. Apart from the Ottoman Legacy in Istanbul this is surely the grandest place in which I have ever stayed. Our accommodations consisted of a sitting room with marble floor and fine carpet separated from the spacious bedroom by columns and drapes, again with fine carpets, then another room holding two large wardrobes and little else, and an unnecessarily spacious bathroom. Excess, but a pleasant surprise for a single night.
The Jaswant Thada is an early twentieth century marble memorial to Jaswant Singhi II and subsequent maharajas by the Dev Kund used for ritual bathing after cremations. As it was only just opening time, the only shoes outside were the pointed ones from the attendant who lit incense before the altar which had no deity but only a photograph of the big man. He then assumed a stylized posture and began playing a flute, though I am not sure whether his aim was to offer the melody as he had done the incense or to elicit a tip. Perhaps both.
On the way to Udaipur we stopped at the fourteenth century Ranakpur Jain temple and meet the weirdly fascinating gaze of Adinath and the other tirthankaras. Though many describe Jainism as a religion without a god, the temple designers were not inhibited from including numerous Hindu deities as well as worshiping the fully realized beings, the last of whom lived over two and a half centuries ago. Not only did the visitor have to shed all leather including wallets; in addition drinking water and menstruating women were forbidden. We were most interested in the reliefs on the way in illustrating a variety of sexual practices. Like many other moralistic works, these conveniently managed to titillate while condemning.
We arrived at the so-called Royal Retreat outside Udaipur. Though the scenery was fine, the place was a four-star prison in that it lacked even gardens or walking paths. Above, on a high cliff a resort made to resemble a fort was under construction. We were a half hour outside of town and the nearest village seemed to lack a restaurant. As it turned out the place (about which we had already complained -- the original hotel was on the shore of Lake Pichola) was disastrous. I can scarcely begin to enumerate the complaints which every traveler there seemed to have. Among them though was service in the overpriced restaurant so very slow that one was advised to order at least forty-five minutes in advance (though this led to cold plates being brought to the table), lack of hot water or, in some cases, of water at all, failure to clean the rooms or replace towels during the day, exile to the chilly verandah restaurant for breakfast while Indians there for a wedding party and an anniversary celebration ate in comfort indoors. We were stuck, our only compensation being accommodation in a separate cottage-like room off by itself near an imposing Jaganath cart, though to reach it we had to pass the swimming pool area by the side of which many men seemed to have a habit of peeing. We grumped over a shared dish of grisly mutton bones in a tepid sauce of cashew and rosewater. So close to one of the most picturesque cities of India and yet be confined to this sorry place.
Udaipur is certainly beautiful at least on the lake or on its shores. Pichola and the smaller lakes, all joined by canals, were created in the fourteenth century by a gypsy Banjara tribal chief and expanded by generations of maharanas. The view includes three royal mansions as well as numerous somewhat less lavish havelis once occupied by aristocrats. One grand residence, the Jag Niwas, was built on an island as a summer palace though unfortunately today it is a hotel, while on another island is the Jag Mandir, likewise today a private hotel. Thus the Rajput warrior aristocrats of the past have yielded to the plutocrats of today.
Even today in hot weather the visitor can appreciate the luxury of the eighteenth century "garden of the maids of honor," the Sahellion-ki-Bari with its shady lanes, its flowers and palms, and its later fountains,one of which features four monolithic elephants in marble. With an almost Heian refinement, these fountains are designed to generate different sounds, a powerful monsoon or a gentle forest rain.
We took a boat around the lake from which none of the funky cluttered streets were visible, but only the grand homes of the nobility and the equally grand landscape beyond. We paused on the island of the Lake Garden Palace, the Jag Mandir where the reigning Maharana had sheltered Europeans during the Mutiny of 1857 and admired the frescoes in the Gol Mahal.
Not far from the City Palace, the Jagdish temple, built in 1652, enshrines the black stone image of Jagannath an irregular deity considered by some an avatar of Vishnu (replacing Buddha) though not included in the standard Dashavatara. The primary association of this deity for nonbelievers is the Ratha yatra or chariot festival in which high carts bearing his image are pulled through the streets be devotees with speed and force that are implied by the word juggernaut. He is often depicted in idols carved of tree stumps, featuring huge eyes and no legs and looking archaic indeed flanked by similar figures of his brother and sister Balabhadra and Subhadra.
In the evening we were not inclined to make the hour-long round trip to town, leaving us no option other than to eat in the restaurant. At first we were told that we could not enter the restaurant which had been reserved for the parties but when we objected we were then allowed a table. Looking for something modest and bland, she ordered a lamb burger which arrived looking quite nice with tomato, lettuce, and egg, but which proved to lack lamb. When she questioned the waiter, he shook his head enigmatically, saying, "Yes, no lamb, ma'am, correct." After another fifteen minutes, she received a separate plate with pieces of lamb.
We sought sleep as the parties continued into the night, culminating with midnight fireworks.
We arose at 3:45 for the flight to Mumbai about which we had been reading in Suketi Mehta's overpraised book Maximum City. In spite of its prizes, I consider it indifferently written and poorly edited. Many specific ideas are repeated again and again and anecdotes illustrating them are piled up till they become tiresome indeed. When the author strives for rhetorical drama, the result is almost always second-rate. Still, it provides information on the underside of the city unavailable elsewhere. Mehta may be unique in his acquaintance with the metropolis' gangsters, bar dancers, and general corruption.
The Mahalakshmi dhobi ghats are visible from a bridge above. This slum in the middle of expensive real estate includes a large number of concrete sinks into which water is diverted, this had been the center of the city's dhobi-wallahs, but, since the advent of the washing machine, it is less essential to many whose parents sent their laundry. To compensate, some of the neighborhood's residents have solicited "first wash" work, especially for makers of school uniforms. The collection of discarded clothing for resale is another means of livelihood. Still, those who live here tenaciously hold on to their rights -- the land is not privately owned but rather city property --and have sued to provide their ouster. Given what Mehta says about the interminable unfolding of court cases, reminiscent of Bleak House, they may have a good while yet before being moved. In spite of the miserable shanty-town construction, every hovel had something I do not, a satellite dish.
In the Maru Bhavan Gandhi Museum, once the home of a friend and supporter who offered Gandhi a room when he was in Mumbai, one can see odd little dioramas depicting critical moments in the leader's life. His room is preserved complete with spinning wheels, bed, and bookstand and nothing else. There is a small balcony where he spoke to visitors. The photographs on display include scenes with Tagore, several with British Quakers, and a delightful one with Charlie Chaplin in which both are grinning widely. Among the letters displayed are notes to both Adolf Hitler and FDR seeking to forestall war.
The Oval Maidan was filled with white-clad cricketers and lined with British buildings reminding me again of Malcolm Muggeridge’s comment that the last true Englishman would be an Indian.
From our twenty-first floor room at the Trident one could see the water and the cityscape, including the Rajabhai clock tower, while wheeling birds circled and dived. At one point a wedding party below drummed and danced and marched.
The Chhatrapatra Shivaji Museum, once the Prince of Wales Museum before its rechristening by the reactionary Shiv Sena party, is fronted by a handsome garden and crowned with a fine dome. It was designed by George Wittet (who also did the Gateway of India) in a mixture of Gujarati, Islamic, and British styles. Though the building lacks air conditioning, the collection is excellent, including a fine sculpture hall which includes a good share of Gandharan Buddhist work and first-rate Hindu sculptures. I particularly liked the dramatic representations of Durga killing the bull, a motif called mahisasuramardini. On the next floor are examples of many schools of miniature painting and a hall of works featuring Krishna. The cafe in a shady courtyard full of plants had a full "special lunch" for 90 rupees, but the hour was too late, and we made do with hearty a pair of samosas for 35.
On the way back to the hotel we got peanuts from a street vendor while another whacked at a coconut and inserted a straw. As evening fell, we drove out to the airport to begin the thirty-some hour trip back home.