In 2004, on a summer morning hotter for the expectation of monsoon rolling in from across the sea, I got a call from Dom. He said he had cancer. I felt nothing. We planned to meet. He had by this time moved from his large and lovely apartment — in a red brick building on Colaba Causeway, Bombay, the drawing room of which is on the cover of one of the volumes being reviewed here — which he shared with his actor wife Leela, Man Friday, Selvam, and a cat. A few days later, we met at his modest but well-kept ONGC flat in Bandra Reclamation, a place set up by his partner, Sarayu Srivatsa, an architect and a writer. Too late, I realised it was a dry day, one of those institutionalised Indian perversities, which often involve banning things that may entail pleasure, or at least the numbing of pain.
But Sarayu, ever resourceful, had got hold of a bottle of Old Monk. I can’t recall if Dom drank that day. He had a lump in his throat, he said. He had refused chemotherapy. When he said this, in his low rumble-mumble, the window curtains sailed out into the air. And then it clawed at me like a corkscrew in the heart that I would not see him again. Just as he would not me. We were two absences talking. I experienced the same sharp ache while reading these two books.
Dom’s voice in these essays is unmistakable, unflinching, ironic, haunting. It is like he is around, the smoke he exhaled blueing the air with its warm poison.
On that day, we spoke about politics. About Godhra, which Dom wrote about. The essay is included as the last chapter in Under Something of a Cloud, and titled, The Rattle of Bones, a good starting point to understand Dom’s predicament as a journalist.
In Dom’s peculiar case, the predicament was that of truly gifted but shy people. Journalism requires a certain extroversion of spirit. Dom came across as an introvert. He needed constant translation. Not just because he was at ease only in English, though he knew Italian and French; but his reticent sensibility demanded mediation. A lot of people who met him tended to think he needed protection, and a few offered him that instinctively, though Dom had a talent for turning around and baring his fangs. Writers with integrity do. It is an act of assertion that they can’t be taken for granted. These days you would be in the wrong to crave such indulgence.
Both Under Something of a Cloud (Selected Travel Writing) and Where Some Things Are Remembered (Profiles and Conversations) explore landscapes and people. The volumes are well produced though typos nibble at the eyes now and then. In Among Naxalites (Where Some Things Are Remembered) a character is called Samir and, then, soon after, Samar. In Winnowing the Wind (Under Something of a Cloud) Dom is referred to as “Dominie” by Ved Mehta when it should be “Dommie.” The story of a dacoit, Lachchi (Where Some Things Are Remembered), is substantially repeated in The Company of Dacoits (Under Something of a Cloud).
In Dom’s profiles, whether of Indira Gandhi or Laloo Prasad Yadav, the objective of rendering them human is achieved with greater facility because they are characters. And Dom does this without effort. He makes the sharp implication that Gandhi is a highly controlling person, when she instructs Sonia that she could keep the flowers Dom brought for her in her room, but that she, Gandhi, would do the arrangement herself.
Unlike Naipaul, Dom tends to refrain from acerbic
judgements. But how not to judge a people already condemned, in his eyes, by
their own fate? Dom’s profile of Laloo Prasad brings home the tragicomic nature
of the politician; most of India is used only to the comedy: “Finally I asked
about his childhood. ‘In the childhoods,’ he cried, ‘throwing up his hands, ‘I
had no clothesies! I had no foodsies! I had no bootsies even!’ That is by and
large, still the condemned Indian we are talking
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway says: “I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them… but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” The secret, now well known, is telling the tale of a room from which a man has just exited. This room was Dom’s terrain. But the story, the exodus of one, that explained the emptiness of the room, was a part of the larger political and social matrix. Only the description of the impact, the forlorn room, not the typical investigation into its delusive causes, or truth(s) made the experience sensible to him. Dom’s profile of Namdeo Dhasal, the great Dalit poet, concludes: “In the end, what was truth? Pilate would never have found the answer in India. Here events took on diffused shapes that overlapped and faded into each other. Sometimes the truth could be glimpsed briefly, from the corner of an eye, like a rat that streaks across the floor and disappears. It was glimpsed and it has gone; nobody can tell you where it may now hide. The truth about Namdeo was like this.”
And so we return to the Godhra story, with which we began. As is his method, Dom sort of parachutes himself into the middle of the strife, and sitting at the dining table of his host (Mallika Sarabhai) thinks kindly: ‘All the women at the table spoke English naturally… All their reactions were those of Western liberals… They were the kind of people my parents, and Sarayu’s, were like… They were not at all like the killers who lived outside their gates and gardens; the killers were Indians also, but from a different India.’ Aside from the considerable implication that Dom is like none at the table, he seems at a loss to figure out the India milling outside the gardens, because more than words are needed.
And not least because his sensibility did not allow for the rough and tumble. He was already a man in full; just as a man Never at Home (the title of his autobiography) was likely to be. Race, language, family, his was just another kind of mixed up hell. Sarayu writes: “I remember the time in London, when we were getting out of a taxi and Dom fumbled in his pocket to get change for a tip. Another customer, a white man, was waiting on the curb for a ride. “Get the fuck off, you Paki,’ the driver roared… Dom walked quickly ahead…When I caught up with him he muttered. ‘That’s my problem. In my mind I am English… but regretfully in my skin I remain Indian.’”
Not even in the skin. He remained Dom, a fairy child lost in a demon world with a talisman of words tied around his heart, on the lookout of other lost children. Prodigiously gifted, and always in the wrong place, he hid behind his acquired arrogance the treasure and kindness of his innocence, the thing that made him hurt, the source really of his poetry for which he lived and, eventually, died — without much ado, in his sleep, soon after that day in Bandra, when the curtains sailed in the air briefly and fell back to place.