IT is difficult to identify Justine Hardy. If one believes the write-up about her, she has spent much of the past eighteen years writing and reporting from (shouldn’t it be ‘on’?) India for papers ranging from The Indian Express, the subject of this book, to The Financial Times though one doesn’t remember reading her pieces. This book, we learn, was first published ten years ago and was once short-listed for the Thomas Cook Award. No wonder. Much too often it reminds one of Katherine Mayo and her shitty work Mother India. Her description of India is vivid. Katherine Mayo would have applauded it as something right in her style of writing. Samples: In Delhi Justine took a rickshaw from the airport. She writes: “The traffic began to move. An old Ambassador taxi cut us up and a cow wandered into the middle of the road, a half-chewed blue plastic bag hanging out of her mouth, fag in mouth, bag in mouth…the traffic darted around her in a disjointed, shrieking ballet…”
In Delhi Justine worked for The Indian Express. The first day she entered the Express building “a monstrous grey concrete bunker” she noticed “the marble steps leading to the entrance are pock-marked with blood-red betel stains, the fresh ones arterial in colour, the older ones a more venous hue”. She got to know the son of a Maharajah who, in 1929, when his state was in a trough of famine and drought “gave employment to 3,000 of his people by building a palace to rival Lutyen’s New Delhi”. The Maharajah, in becoming style, as is customary with maharajahs took a second, “though unofficial” wife, a 19-year old Scot nurse. Par for the course.
When Justine first visited Delhi it was “in the grip of an epidemic of dengue fever, a tropical horror that was wiping people out in medieval fashion”. Luckily for Justine she was not among them. She goes to Tezpur in Assam. It had a smell “more profound than the usual assault of spices, overflowing lavatories and stale bodies.” An old beggar woman was asleep on the railway platform. When a guard saw Justine getting down from the train, he prodded the beggar woman awake with his rifle butt. She went to the railway dining room, “huge, ugly and smelt of dead rats”. Worse, “mildew made merry amidst the swirls of the carpet”.
Staying in a hotel, she sent all her dirty clothes to the dhobi. “They returned smelling of boys’ locker room”. She went to the home of a friend. In the drawing room “a cockroach scuttled from the corner, antennae twirling”. Cockroaches seemed to be present everywhere “the entrance hall of the Express building was both a playpen and a race track for cockroaches”.
On one occasion Justine took the train, the Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Chandigarh, which took three hours. “It would have been even quicker” writes Justine “but for the first constipated push out of town past the rat-pocked banks where bloated rodents scurried in and out of the rubbish that forms the shifting foundations of the railside shanty towns”. What was Chandigarh like? Writes Justine: “Chandigarh has no soul, no pulse, in fact not much sign of life at all”. In search of a taxi she found one at a service station where several staffers were ordered to polish a vehicle. “They set about their task using spit and small handerkerchiefs.”
From Chandigarh she was to go to a religious center, a pilgrim place. She watched “travel-weary pilgrims” who did not bother “to go more than a few paces from the road to empty bladders and bowels”. Writes Justine with her photographic eyes: “Diarrhoea was rife, playing merry havoc with stomachs chilled by night…” At the pilgrimage centre she found a grain store “four mud walls, a mud floor liberally scattered with insect corpses, live relatives munching on the dead…” The pilgrims had difficulties finding a place to spend a night. One found a homestead in the dark where “they ran the stinking gauntlet of mounting piles of shit and crouched toileters straining under cover of night”. A nice picture. Justine seems enamoured of spit, shit cockroaches and dead rats”.
Then what about beggars, another of Katherine Mayo’s pet subjects? Justine does not forget them. When the rickshaw she was moving around in Delhi halted, there they were, two little girls, one pretty and pale-skinned, the other stocky and dark, both shouting “One rupee choclit, one rupee choclit”. Then, of course, there were lepers and amputees, one leper “half life, half decay” dragging himself in the traffic snarl. And finally there was also in Justine’s life, a “Hindu gurujee” beneath the cabaret of whose face “his stomach swelled magnificently through his white kurta”. One evening Justine was introduced to a member of the Delhi Polo Club who tried to explain to her why he was a member. His explanation: “We Indians are not very physical. We are not very good at following the martial arts… But while we are not very good at taking exercise, we are world champions at sitting around and just watching our big bellies grow…”
On one occasion, the editor of The Indian Express Sourish Bhattacharya asked Justine to write about lavatories in Delhi, a subject on which she is an authority, and, as she says, “the smell of which caught in everyone’s throats climaxing in the hot season when the open urinals of the city poisoned the air.” To learn about Delhi lavatories Justine called on three people, one of whom was a practitioner of Vastu Shastra. The expert, Reddy told her that lavatories must be built in the southwest or northwest corner of a house and “misplaced lavatory can cause cancer.” Justine had to laugh at Reddy’s superstition. As she put it, “few Indians appreciate having their sense of self-importance nudged.” This is a sickening book, full of shit. Every page stinks to high heavens. One supposes foreigners have a right to run down India and many of them do, God bless ’em. Cows wandering in the streets, beggars and lepers seeking alms, people shitting and urinating everywhere, pot-bellied Hindu priests muttering prayers unintelligible to everyone … this is Justine’s India.
What she has written is gutter journalism at its worst. Liberal with her adjectives, vicious in her description of India, one wonders why Indian publishers suffer such characters. Perhaps it is because Indian intellectuals enjoy self-flagellation. And there are enough foreigners who enjoy shitting on India which gives the likes of Justine Hardy shelter, uncomplainingly. Gandhi dismissed Mother India as a “gutter-inspector’s report”. Justine Hardy’s book is no better. -MV K
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