The Taj Mahal as Kitsch; the Editor and the Water-Walking Guru

We head towards the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jehan for the dearest of his wives Arjumand Banu Begum whom he married in 1612 and who died bearing their fourteenth child in 1631. Shah Jehan took it hard, remaining in seclusion for two years and emerging with spectacles and gray hair. He spent twenty years supervising the construction of the Taj Mahal, joining her in the mausoleum 35 years later, having been imprisoned for a number of years by his son, Aurangzeb.

There’s a split rate for Indians and foreigners, which seems sensible: 15 rupees for the former and 110 (about $2.60) for the latter. The crowds are large, but without the air of sullen resignation, amplified by the gross corpulence conspicuous in American crowds in Disney World and other attractions. The children are mostly cheerful and the mothers animated. In all my journeys I neither saw a really fat Indian nor a skeletal one, of the sort enshrined in Oxfam posters, even though we later visited several homes with families so poor that the man of the house had killed himself from shame at the inability to pay off his debts to the banks and to moneylenders. As Sainath stresses, though you can see emaciation in the slums of Mumbai, most hunger is invisible and has been swelling since liberalization began in the early 90s. Sixty-seven per cent of Indian kids are malnourished.

I’ve never cared for the Taj Mahal, depicted on the biscuit tins of my childhood. And after seeing Akbar’s first palace compound at Fatehpur Sikri, I feel this more strongly. Kitsch is emotional blackmail and the Taj Mahal, blaring Shah Jehan’s bereavement, seems to me the very essence of kitsch. Part of the problem is Shah Jehan’s snobbery about red sandstone. Both here and a mile up river at the Fort he ordered white marble and in the case of the Taj Mahal the result is a sort of airless sterility. The manic symmetry amplifies this. Also, the Taj Mahal is just too big. Akbar’s tomb, a few leagues back down the road towards Delhi, though large, seems proportionate. But the vast Taj Mahal diminishes its skeletal contents, ensconced in two sarcophagi at its core. Shah Jehan was locked up by Aurangzeb in the Fort, a mile upstream, and spent many years looking down the river at his wife’s mausoleum, apparently squinting in a little piece of mirror at night to catch the reflection. When he died Aurangzeb shipped him downstream to join Arjumand in the comity of the sepulcher, though symmetry is for once controverted since his stone coffin is slightly larger and higher than hers. These days the river is shallow and dirty. In the mid seventeenth-century it was clear and twenty feet deep.

On the way home Sainath starts reminiscing about Karanjia, the famous owner of Blitz. Karanjia was an owner-editor who plied his trade with élan. At the dawn of the Cuban revolution he traveled to Havana where the new government took him to be the new Indian ambassador and, gratified with such diplomatic recognition, gave Karanjia the red carpet, including an interview with Fidel. Finally, after three weeks, Karanjia disclosed that he was not the ambassador but a journalist and there was a momentary chill, soon dispelled.

For Karanjia, said Sainath, impact was everything. Blitz’s stories had sizzle and the phones burned with powerful people howling libel threats down the lines. Death threats came too, in such profusion that reporters would solemnly request the callers to postpone their homicidal visits for a day or two owing to the length of the line of people preparing to exact retribution. The Hindu fundamentalists in Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army) got mad enough one time at a slur in the humor column that they sent a mob from out of town to burn three of Blitz’s delivery vehicles and break office windows. Karanjia was away at the time and Sainath, who’d let the humor column through without reading it, quaked at news of his return.

When he saw his burned trucks Karanjia trumpeted his dismay and Sainath, taking full responsibility, was under heavy fire until Karanjia noticed Blitz’s business manager, an elderly Parsee, looking undismayed. So, Karanjia asked him, were the trucks insured? No, said the manager, still calm. Then the glorious truth came out. The trucks had been rented from the local Shiv Sena outfit, whose capo soon appeared at Blitz’s office distraught at his dilemma. He could not, he told Karanjia, get compensation from the arsonists since they had been sent from out of town by Shiv Sena’s supreme commander. Karanjia told him he could offer no satisfaction.

Somewhere in the late 60s a guru made the rounds of India, saying that his spiritual powers enabled him to walk on water. And so he could, with the assistance of a German engineer who had designed a tank with a span of fiberglass rope just under the surface, along which the guru would pace, to the amazement of the rubes.

Karanjia announced that Blitz would sponsor a demonstration by the water-walking guru in a local auditorium. He ordered an extra big tank to be fabricated. Seeing trouble ahead, the German engineer made a prudent exit. In front of an excited crowd the guru faltered to Karanjia that the commotion was impinging on his powers and diluting the cosmic forces. “You’ll walk on water or I’ll break your legs”, Karanjia shouted. The trembling guru stepped off the edge of the tank and sank like a stone. When he’d dried off, Karanjia told him to try again. Once again the guru stepped and sank and fled into the night. Karanjia’s staff worried that the crowd would want its money back but Karanjia wouldn’t hear of it. “They have had their money’s worth”, he crowed. “They’re happy”.

We bowled along, hooting at the antics and impostures of gurus and fakirs, from the Maharaji on. Only months ago, JP and Sainath told me, an up-and-coming swami, Sri-Sri Ravisander, had headed into southern Tamil Nadu, vowing to project his spiritual powers to those afflicted by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, and soothe the cosmic forces. The bigwigs of the local town assembled to greet the great mystic.

But as his cavalcade of 70 cars rolled south along the highway down the coast of Coromandel, some subversive wag raised the cry that a second tsunami, even more immense in destructive potential than the first, was just over the horizon. The swami made a quick estimate of his powers versus those of the cosmic forces and ordered his car to turn round. The road was narrow, and the ensuing jam very terrible to behold as Sri-Sri Ravisanker tried to beat a retreat.

March 28

At 9.30 pm JP, Sainath and I head for Jwaharlal Nehru U for my big talk. They drive round the campus reminiscing about the good old days when they hosted Iranian students protesting the Shah’s visit and JP managed to get onto the roof of the car behind the Shah’s. The next day JP brings a black and white photo and there he is, a blurry, bearded protester. I ask why the police didn’t beat him to death with their lathis – bamboo staves – and he said that they circled him and began to whack away, but the staves clashed above his body, as in a cartoon, and he was able to roll away and flee.

The venue is the mess hall of one of the hostels. At ten Sainath gives me a generous intro and I’m off on my scheduled talk, “War on Iraq, War in America”. I go at it for about an hour, throwing everything into the pot, from Judith Miller to Abu Ghraib, to the failures of the American left. It goes down well, and questions are vigorous including a fellow who asks about the neocons and their origins in a Trotskyite groupuscule headed by Schachtman. I confirm the story and questioner, obviously a Maoist, grins with knowing approval. The Trotskyites furrow their brows.

April 2

After a few more days in Delhi and Mumbai we fly to the southwest, land in Tamil Nadu and drive over the state line into Kerala and visit a Coca Cola plant blockaded by peasants since it has destroyed their water supplies. Then we head on down into Kerala, ending up in Khozikode, aka Calicut (a few miles from where Vasco da Gama made landfall in 1498), where I give a press conference under the aegis of Mathrubhumi, the million-plus circulation newspaper daily, published in Kerala’s language, Malayalam (spoken by70 million).

After a while a fellow stands up and asks me if the CIA is active on American campuses. I allude in my response to recent pieces in CounterPunch about the new Roberts program, covertly funding graduates for intelligence work. He persists. Is it not a fact, he asks, that Professor Franke, at the state university at Montclair in New Jersey, is working with the CIA?

Scenting trouble, I immediately respond to the effect that I have absolutely zero knowledge of Franke or of what goes on at Montclair, including any possible CIA activity. The chap nods happily and sits down. A few days later I get an urgent email from Richard Franke in Montclair. Sainath and I and the fellows from Mathrubumi, traveling in Wyanad, have missed a story in the ultra Hindu nationalist paper run by the RSS, stating that “Cockburn confirms CIA presence at Montclair”. Franke, apparently an excellent anthropologist, is frantic to know exactly what I said. It turns out this is all part of a long rumor-mongering campaign of sabotage by left sectarians against Franke, who has played a creditable role in Kerala politics, and a local left leader, T.M. Thomas Isaac, State Secretariat member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which as likely as not will be leading the government of Kerala after next year’s elections

April 3

To meet India’s rural crisis face to face we drive along the lovely wooded roads of Wyanad, a district in north eastern Kerala. To our east rise the Western Ghat mountains. Last night we stayed in Sultan’s Battery, so called because it had been the last stand of the local sultan, when the British came three centuries ago.

Along this road the ancient forests have long since logged off and the state-planted young teak trees are usually cut, to judge by the piles at the side of the road, with the trunk at about 12” in diameter. Familiar follies of state-sponsored forestry have occurred. Some years ago the clumps of bamboo, often forty feet across and fifty feet high, were taken off the ridges and slopes of the western Ghats and Eucalyptus globulus put in, the same way it was in California in the 1870s. Elephants don’t like it because it replaces their natural habitat and drives them out in search of forage. As the old forest was cut, locals claim the weather cycles in Wyanad changed for the worse, putting paid to the orange groves.

We turn off the road through the woods and onto a smaller lane, guides by the area rep of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose red flags and local offices are conspicuous throughout the district. Then we walk up a path past pepper vines, bananas, cashew trees, jackfruit and some coffee bushes to a single-story concrete-block house. Here are Dinesan, two of his sisters and two little children. The mother and another sister are away. Dinesan has a job as a projectionist, though Wyanad’s farm crisis means few can afford to go to the movies any more and so the local cinema is failing. The proprietor refuses to screen the skin movies now churning out of Indian studios.

The property is a house on three acres. Livestock: one cow, one goat. Nearly a year ago Dinesan’s father, B.M. Kamelasan, took note of the collapsing price of pepper, vanilla and coffee, set the sums he’d borrowed from the banks and the money lenders against the expected yields, and decided to end it all with the one agent he could get for free, a pesticide called monocrotophos made by Ciba-Geigy. It’s a horrible way to die.

This is no tableau of beleaguered sharecroppers in a tar-paper shanty in West Virginia fifty years ago. The family is trim, the two kids clean and nicely dressed. A farmer’s desperation and suicide do not require the backdrop of a rural slum, even though, after the collapse in agricultural prices, Dinesan and his family have their backs against the wall, with a mudslide of debt (tiny by western standards) engulfing them. Amid the terrible crisis of the small family farmers in the American Midwest in the past thirty years there have been plenty of suicides or, to put it more tactfully, higher than expected deaths, in trim ranch houses, where the suicide might be reported as accidental death so the survivors get the insurance money.

Kerala has near-100 per cent literacy and a tradition of voracious newspaper reading. The libraries are stuffed with poor people catching up on local and world events. Young Dinesan talks about the reasons for the crisis, the collapse of subsidies, the role of middlemen, the World Bank’s subsidy to Vietnam whose cheap and inferior pepper comes to Sri Lanka, a free port, and then into Kerala whose Malabar pepper is the finest in the world. As with most peasants and farmers across the world, he understands the world picture. He talks about the weakness of the dollar against the Euro.

An hour later it’s time to go. The little boy climbs a cashew tree and brings me down a fruit with the large cashew shell growing out of its top. The fruit tastes a little like mango. Cashews came from the New World via the Portuguese, along with chili, tapioca, tomatoes, pineapples, cocoa, potatoes and groundnuts. That was early globalization. It was quicker in those days. The first housewives on the Indian subcontinent got chilies. a basic for what we regard as the eternal Indian diet in about 1550, and not too long thereafter it was on every household menu in the whole of India.

In 1957, in free elections, the Communists swept to power in Kerala and delivered on their promise of land reform in a decade where U.S. dollars and the CIA leagued with the local land barons and international firms like United Fruit to crush it in Guatemala and Iran. The Communists delivered on land, on education and on health. By 1959, under U.S. pressure, the central government in New Delhi struck, dismissing Kerala’s government. The long counterattack followed, with brief interruptions by left coalitions. Kerala’s still the most literate state in India. Its infant mortality rates are the lowest. Its schools are still good.

Last year Sainath wrote about a little girl whose father, working across the state line as a day laborer in Karnataka, scrapes the money together to send her back on the bus each day to get taught by the nuns in Wyanad, a devotion to his daughter’s future all the more remarkable because it’s a daughter, not a son he’s sending back. Millions of Indian parents crave sons, not daughters. When the ultrasound picks up the evidence of a female embryo in utero, the parents all too often avail themselves of choice and abort that embryo.

Wyanad is a district caught in the backwash of “market freedoms”. The Christian churches, who brought in thousands of immigrants into Wyanad after World War 2 are in trouble, with their Sunday collections down to 10 per cent of normal. Priests aren’t being paid, though bishops surely must be. Movie houses have closed down. There are less Tamil migrant laborers around and those that are can’t afford the 10-rupee ticket.

At least the Kerala State Road Transport Corp’s busses are doing a booming business, ferrying people looking for work in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Thousands cross every day. Back in 95 there were six busses a day to Kutta, in Karnataka; now there are 24 daily. On them are skilled men, masons, carpenters, electricians. These are the people who worked on the half-built houses, many of them substantial villas, one sees mile after mile each side of Wyanad’s rural roads, abandoned after farm income slid into the pit.

The state-licensed toddy shops are in trouble too. Toddy is a fermented brew from the sap of the palmyra palm. We visit Uttaman, the toddy man. He’s a genial fellow, with the slightly knowing grin, redolent of tolerance for human folly, one often finds in barkeeps and kindred providers. Uttaman pays 48,000 rupees a year for his license, 100,000 rupees for the welfare fund for his six employees. These days they’re tapping 120 liters of toddy a day. Five years ago he brewed and sold 250 bottles a day, today only 10 or 15. He’s being ruined by arrack, a spirit distilled from fermented toddy that’s illegal in Kerala but for sale just across the Kabini river in Karnataka. It’s stronger, and because it’s illegal and the distillers don’t pay taxes, cheaper.

Uttaman offers me a glass of toddy. It’s pleasant. He lets the toddy ferment for 12 hours, to get an alcohol content of 12 per cent. If he leaves it ferment for 24 hours, it will go to 24 per cent. It’s got a shelf life of 48 hours. As I sip, Uttaman describes to us the visit from the cops after Sainath’s piece on him was published in The Hindu in January. Why was he talking to Sainath, they asked him. Sainath was the man who’d personally overthrown Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Sainath gives a gratified smirk.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.