When Ravi Shankar broke a string here in mid-concert the other day, a woman sitting nearby leaned over and whispered to me: "It's the Indian weather you know. It makes the strings awfully brittle." If ever I needed to be convinced that Ravi Shankar and his fans have become almost wholly Westernized, that did it.
Not that Shankar comes home very often. He is said to find the comforts - and the climate - of California far more to his taste. When he does restaged in a vast tent behind a local school, all of the capital's high society turns out. The event is only superficially Indian. The garlands of marigolds, the softly smoking incense sticks, the lulling, ethereal sounds of the tabla and the sitar - these only serve to garnish an event that is as recognizably Western as a Kennedy Center first night.
"The women are only here to show off their new saris," our host said tartly. "And look at all those high commissioners," he said, pointing to a bank of inscrutable Nigerians and Poles. "They only come as part of their job. I doubt if they've realized that he broken a string. They probably think it's part of the music."
The Westernization of Indian is a sad thing to watch. And it is not just the obvious - that you see far fewer saris on the Delhi streets these days, and plenty of Levis and crudely lettered T-shirts in their place.
(One friend believes that sari to be symbolic of all that is bad about India: "It's hopelessly impractical, it's uncomfortable, it's totally non-liberating and it has not evolved one little bit," she says. She wears jeans.)
THE INFLUENCE of the seamier sides of London and New York can be seen everywhere, sometimes astonishingly and unexpectedly in the dustiest old crannies of rural India.
Only last week, in Vijayawada, for example, we came across a peculiarly pathetic scene. Half the town was under water, telegraph poles were bent double and refugees from the flooded regions ravaged by the hurricane two weeks ago were settling down on the pavements each night. Yet, the Marsun Bar, Restaurant and Cabaret was still doing a flourishing trade - and not just the tame bump-and-grind routines of what once were the rather selfconsciously "naughty" Indian night spots. Here, in the middle of the devastation, good old-fashioned Soho striptease was performed, featuring three sad-looking girls from the Punjab, West Bengal and Madras. The later weighing at least 165 pounds, was irrepressibly friendly - though within the decorous Indian limits, I'm happy to say, that we all expect.
What was so saddening about the dreary little Marsun Bar was that it might just as well have been in Old Compton Street, London, rather than in the deepest bazaar of some grubby little city on the Coromandel coast. Whatever relics there were of the "nautch girls" of old, they've long since vanished in favor of the raucous and totally unaHuring meat-markets of the West. Even the music came from Liverpool, or Nashville, or somewhere horribly un-Indian.
THIS SHABBY trend keeps on striking the newcomer. A few days ago a child tripped and split his head open. The local doctor, who had a sign saying "consultation, 40 rupees" (about $4,50) fixed above his desk, pointed us in the direction of the Delhi Plastic Surgerv Clinic, an outfit run by a man who claims the Indians invented the art "because in the old days the Moguls kept chopping people's noses off and we had to fix them up."
The doctor, who used instruments made in England, finished his work in 10 minutes. His nurse instantly presented the bill - 400 rupees, to be paid on the spot. It was just like America, I said. Ah yes, he said, well, it's an expensive lie. All the golf I have to play, and I throw away a scalpel each time I use it. Did he do many face-lifts? "Oh yes, we do all that sort of thing for the rich women here. They are very vain, so we do quite well." I said it seemed rather a luxury in a country where there is hardly any primary health care for 500 million people." Well, as I said, we invented plastic surgery. It's a matter of pride."
Animals fare rather better, though. Biggles the beagle fell under a car two weeks ago, and was treated with immense care by the veterinarian to the president's bodyguard - a soldier who deals principally with the magnificent horses used by the elite cavalary corps. He missed a dinner to operate on Biggles; he saw the dog six times during the following week, gave five injections, half a ton of pills and yards of bandages - and charged just about $11 for everything. "It's just a pleasure to make an animal well again," he said.
IT TENDS to be in the older institutions - the army, the railways, the upper ranks of the civil service - where the courtly, old-world charm that Britain associates so strongly with India is still permitted to surface. Elsewhere - in the cities at least - all the new and charmless attributes of the outside world are being discarded on an Indian population that is happy to assimilate anything that smacks of progress and the West.
No one would be happier than I to see India make majestic advances - but not in the direction of striptease, face-lifts, and doctors who care more for gold than for their patients. It all seems as wrong as the assumption that the native home of the sitar is now the suburbs of Los Angeles.