INDIA: Labyrinths in the Lotus Land. By Sasthi Brata. William Morrow. 330 pp. $19.95; VENGEANCE: India After the Assassination of Indira Gandhi. By Pranay Gupte. Norton.368 pp. $16.95.
PUBLISHERS in America are clearly expecting the Festival of India to start an avalanche of tourists headed to the subcontinent. The result is a flood of books destined to fill airport bookstalls, to be purchased by the tourist and added to the sunglasses, sun tan lotion and anti-diarrhea pills that form his equipment, and to be opened and read, with a dutiful sigh, during those cramped, uncomfortable hours on long distance flights in order to prepare him for what he will meet when he lands.
It is doubtful if "prepare" is the operative word for Sasthi Brata's India: Labyrinths in the Lotus Land since it is so chaotic, confusing and contradictory. Brata was obviously commissioned to write a readable (i.e. racy) book about India, and he did not heed Nehru's warning: "To endeavor to understand and describe the India of today would be the task of a brave man -- to say anything about tomorrow's India would verge on rashness."
He set out visiting his family, staying at the best hotels if not always their finest suites, and collecting the material that he has put together with the greatest speed, even considerable efficiency, but in a manner that leaves one breathless and dizzy. He flings clich,es and bromides around like so much confetti. Abstractions are jumbled with pithily demotic truisms. Subjects are picked up and tossed aside or dropped. One wonders if any editor attempted to deal with it all or simply gave up.
The latter might explain why so much mangling of the language was permitted: Brata writes of a view that is "both jaundiced and romantic," describes Mrs. Gandhi as looking as if "she were born yesterday" when he surely means rested, fresh. He writes of political "handymen" when he means henchmen and it is impossible to know what he means by such phrases as "his eyes will curl into his forehead" and of Mrs. Gandhi's "astute perception that Indians will wear a Nehru or a Gandhi."
In a foreword that manages to combine pomposity with this tumbling style, he claims his book will take on the whole of India. With a lordly wave of his hand he dismisses minutiae and tells us he will paint for us "a general picture in broad brushstrokes." Thus he means to present to us India's "myriad aspects of despair and splendor, of destitution and opulence, of majestic modernity and primitive superstition." The result reads as though he had set aside the brush and flung buckets of paint at the canvas instead. One is somewhat surprised to find that he sees himself as a latter-day Cavafy "standing at a slight angle to the universe,' which he attributes to his having left India to live in England, a position he finds a valuable vantage point.
His position, in fact, is a matter of some fascination to him. In at least three places he mentions that he is a Brahmin, and in two explains that he lopped off his family name, Chakravarti, so that "no one would know what caste or family or geographical region I came from." But then he goes on to divulge, unasked, that its exact translation is "suzerain of the realm."
IN CASE HIS readers are still not sufficiently instructed, he tells us, "Like the WASP's consciousness of effortless superiority, most Hindus, especially Brahmins from the highest caste, who have any direct knowledge and experience of their religion, inherit a whisper of this legacy. The late Indira Gandhi did, as does her son Rajiv . . . and so perhaps do I." There, now we know exactly where we are and, more important, where Sasthi Brata is in the bewildering hierarchy to be encountered on Indian soil.
Actually, he is very good when describing the minutiae of this hierarchy and its cumbersome burden of ritual and custom. His language takes on a crispness, his power of observation an acuteness which is just right when dealing with arcane and anachronistic rituals in a modern and contemporary setting. His description of his parents' marriage, for instance, is full of insight and sympathy while remaining coolly objective. It is when he dismisses the minutiae and takes on the general picture that he begins to pour on generalities and superlatives by the bucket. The colors run together and turn into a riotous mess.
The chapters have such catchy titles as "Caste Typing" (the one in which he deals with the subject of so much fascination to him and, yes, to most Indians), "Desserts in the Barren Kingdom" (a quick run through the arts, music, architecture, etc. of all regions and all times), "Rituals at Wounded Knee" (those of birth, marriag and death), and "Black Hole and Bubbling Brilliance" (on his native city, Calcutta). In "Deities and Devotees" he gives us: 13 pages on Hinduism, rattling over holy men, the Ganges, the city of Benares, the epics, the caste system (once again) and other basic Aryan concepts, as if on rollerskates and at top speed; 13 lines on Zoroastrianism (and its "most strange and macabre way of disposing of their dead"), and dismisses Islam by saying it is "much like what it is anywhere else in the world," which is hardly the truth.
If the punchdrunk reader manages to catch and take in all that Brata sends spinning his way, he cannot say, on stepping off the plane to meet the reality, that he has not been warned.
PRANAY GUPTE'S Vengeance: India After the Assassination of Indira Gandhi is an altogether more sober and staid piece of investigation. He and his publisher have had the good sense to limit its scope to the political and economic sene. His exposition of the Punjab crisis, what led to it, and its aftermath, is concise and lucid -- although at the expense of being simplistic. Certainly he gives the foreign reader all the information required to understand it, in handy capsule form, although the reader may in fact find it rather like encountering six months' newspaper headlines at one sitting.
His interpretation is not without bias. Mrs. Gandhi is named the sole instigator, creator and culprit of the crisis and all its horrors, instead of being one more symptom -- and victim, more visible and prominent than any other -- of a far more widespread, deeply rooted and dangerous malaise. Atrocities by Hindus on Sikhs are listed. (He calls the murder of 2,000 to 3,000 Sikhs in the aftermath of Mrs. Gandhi's assassination a holocaust, which is surely a misuse of the term since there are some 14 million Sikhs in India). But little is made of those committed by Sikhs on Hindus. Of course, the Air India crash and the murder of Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal after he signed the accord with Rajiv Gandhi were events that occurred after the writing of this book. But such crimes as the stopping of buses and slaughtering of all males of one community or the tortures and murders committed within the Golden Temple or the planting of transistor bombs in the hands of innocent people, many of them children, are left unmentioned.
Pranay Gupte is being naive if he imagines the old priest in the Golden Temple who blessed him with "a gentle smile" is in control of the Khalistan movement, or if he actually expects us to believe in the Sikh woman encountered on a plane who is reading a volume of verse, conveniently marked at Tagore's famous poem "Where the Mind Is Without Fear," that every schoolchild in India knows by heart. To separate the communities into the goodies and the baddies as in a Bombay film will neither elucidate nor edify. On the contrary, it creates more of the communal tenon that he deplores and we, in India, fear.
Mrs. Gandhi comes in for such harsh and bitter criticism in his commentary on the political scene, whether in Punjab, Kashmir or Andhra Pradesh, that one feels it is the raison d'etre of this book. It takes one by surprise, therefore, when he goes on to describe India's industrial and economic front in the most glowing terms. Apparently this is because he chose to interview only those at the helm, as they say, of industry: such luminaries as the chairman of the Great Eastern Shipping Company, the editor of India's leading magazine, India Today, the chairman of India's Nuclear Power Board, a senior member of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, etc. Although initially dubious about Rajiv Gandhi's ability to rule, Gupte, on seeing his first budget with its massive tilt away from the public towards the private sector, exults, "I was disbelieving at first because no Indian administration had ever been so bold in rooting for the private sector; and, of course, I was delighted at the new economic direction in which Rajiv Gandhi was now taking India."
It is clear Gupte did not share the shock or dismay of those who searched the budget to see what was being done for the poor and the weak. It is telling that he interviewed no single labor union leader, let alone a laborer. Instead of seeking out those who live and work in the fields, the slums and mills, he met and mingled with, overwhelmingly, the beautiful people.
One wonders, also, why it did not occur to him that such a blossoming could not have taken place during the few months of Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership had an awesome infrastructure not been laid by Mrs. Gandhi and Nehru before her that is now beginning to bear fruit -- luscious in the hands of the few that Gupte met and spoke to but bitter and shrivelled to those voiceless ones he did not meet.
One discovers the need of the expatriate to retain his image of the forsaken land, whole and intact and shining. It is in this mood that Gupte walks away from the big public rally in Bombay that has just been addressed by Rajiv Gandhi, musing that all the clich,es he had just heard could as well have been mouthed by his mother. But then he goes on to end the book on a note of faith and promise by repeating those words of Nehru that have become the most tired and ironic of all, "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge." It is at this predictable point in every speech to which the long-suffering Indian nation has been subjected that the audience opens wide its collective mouth and yawns.
Curiously enough, the more cynical Brata traces exactly the same arc from revulsion to criticism to emotionalism, sentimentality and praise. There are other similarities between the books: both claim to despise Hindu superstition, then go on to recount tales of their own encounters with holy men and proclaim their astounding mystical powers (although Brata goes still further by making the preposterous claim that there are no cholera germs in the Ganges), both describe in detail Hindu rituals in which they took part (Brata with cynicism, Gupte with respect), and both throw in a chapter on the arts. In fact the perceptive reader may find out more about the Indian character from reading between the lines of these books than he does from the enormous quantity of facts and figures they marshal.
He could do even better by turning back to books that have become classics of their kind and are yet to be surpassed -- V.S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, and Nirad Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and The Continent of Circe -- for these were written not to meet any publisher's deadline or capitalize on a government's new policy of diplomacy and publicity, but are accounts of the most intensely personal and private voyages of discovery, pursued with a sensibility, an acuteness of thought and perception that go as far beyond the reach of these two younger writers as a university is from a kindergarten.