While I have been at least twice to every Asian country save Mongolia and North Korea, South Asia has passed me by (vice versa, more accurately). I’ve not been to Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, I visited Sri Lanka only briefly and a long time ago, while India I’ve been to once only. There’s no good reason. I had a very bright Indian doctoral student who has remained a friend through life, my eldest daughter travelled over India on her way home from London (which made her vegetarian for a decade), I think Virat Kohli is a superb batsman, and I have Indian friends.
India is big and important, whatever criterion you use. It is the seventh largest nation by area and the second by population. India’s economy is the third-largest by purchasing power parity, and on at least one estimate its middle class numbers around 80 million people. India is a country of great importance to us as an export market (our fifth-largest), a more-or-less friendly big power in our region, the most populous democracy in the world, and a land where English is the second language of every educated person. If I haven’t visited the length and breadth of it, I know someone who has, and she has written a book about her India which is an absorbing voyage of discovery for someone like me and, I would guess many, many others.
Claudia Hyles is a woman of intelligence, elegance and perception. She is the daughter of Roy Wheeler, one of the ’49ers’, the Liberal MPs who entered the House of Representatives in 1949, many of them leaving it, like her father, in 1961, when Labor nearly won office. She married a farmer who retrained himself as an aid consultant, and moved around the world with him and their small family, without much money, but with a good eye, a good ear and a great memory. She launched my last novel, Moving On, and shortly after I went to the launch of her own book, So You Can See in the Dark and other Indian essays (Australian Scholarly Press $34.95) and bought a copy. Reading it was part of my holiday pleasure. Claudia has visited India many times and first went there as a teenager. She has worked there, and been an importer of Indian textiles and art; she has a wide set of friends and contacts. She will know just where you should stay in Jaipur (or any other city), where the best coffee is to be found, where you can buy books, where the best art is, and so on. Much of that you can find in her book, but incidentally, not in the manner of a tourist guide.
Her style is intriguing — personal, well-informed, digressive, engagingly written, always interesting and often memorable. It is chatty, yet this is not a chat, but a fluent conversation where you are the listener, while she anticipates what you might want to know. Take the first chapter, ‘Paradise Gardens’. We start with her arriving at Delhi airport at midnight. In the morning she walks to and in the Lodi Gardens, and at once we feel we are there. Then to Mughul gardens, and their logic, the British influence on garden-making and restoration, a building next to the gardens designed by Joseph Stein, who also designed the residence of the Australian High Commissioner, Claudia’s apartment in Canberra, houses she has lived in elsewhere, a conference in Delhi she went to, Stein’s other buildings, back to Mughul gardens. Oh, and by the way, ‘paradise’ comes from the Old Persian (via Latin) for ‘walled garden’ or ‘park’. I didn’t know that. Back to the essay: we learn about a sequence of Mughul emperors, all of them interested in gardens, finishing with Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his favourite consort, who died in the birth of her 14th baby. And then the work of the great Viceroy, George Curzon, and how what tourists see today at the Taj Mahal has a good deal of Curzon’s influence in the vista. Claudia quotes the Balliol doggerel about Curzon:
I am George Nathaniel Curzon
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
Curzon is a fascinating man, passed over at least twice for PM in Britain, and brilliant and self-aware in about equal proportions. Nehru thought that whatever else Curzon did, his work in restoring Indian culture was what he should be remembered for. Churchill is supposed to have said of him, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes God’, though other sources ascribe the victim of that witticism to Sir Stafford Cripps, when President of the Board of Trade.
Back to the essay again. Claudia tells us of an Indian servant she once had who like to use the scissors in mowing the lawn, then we move to flowers, and how English flowers work well in the cooler parts of India, then gardens, gardens and more gardens. She does know about gardens. Then we learn about Chandigarh, a city designed by Le Corbusier as the capital of Punjab, cut in two by Partition in 1947 (its original capital is Lahore, now of course in Pakistan). Like Canberra, Chandigarh was envisaged as a garden city. All that in 39 pages — but it’s not a helter-skelter rush so much as a really well-informed tour, not simply of gardens in India but of Indian history and geography, of Claudia’s life and her friends.
The second chapter has the title of the book. When I was a kid I did believe that eating carrots helped you see in the dark, a piece of disinformation put out during the Second World War by the British to deceive the Germans about radar. I doubt it did much good, since the Germans had invented radar themselves, though they weren’t as far advanced in the new technology as were the British. But I believed it because my mother said so (she was presumably persuaded by the wartime propaganda). And there is something to the link between night vision and carrots, since carrots are rich in carotene, which converts to Vitamin A, which is important for good eyesight. Carotene also gives the orange colour to carrots (and to some other fruits and vegetables).
You see how digressive Claudia can be! She occasionally gets urges to go into the kitchen and make something‚ in this case, a preserve of some kind. All she had in her Canberra kitchen were carrots and lemons. And out came a carrot jam. I know the feeling, since I am also a cook who gets comparable urges. But the chapter takes us quickly to India, then Pakistan, and a gas stove that might explode (I had that happen to me in London), back to India and the use of fireworks there, the sound of passing trains at night, how Master Chef Australia was a prime-time TV show in India, the terrorist attack on the Hilton Hotel in Sydney in 1978, a gentle story of marital infidelity in Canberra (not hers!), something on the history of the carrot, how a foolish person in India might be called a ‘Gajar-mooli‘, meaning ‘carrots and radishes’, quite a lot about Indian cookbooks, an account of an Indian writer and friend who is no longer with us, and some carrot recipes. Like all the other chapters, this one kept me turning the pages, and enjoying the tour.
The three hundred pages of the book keep the reader going, learning through the experiences of the author. Not all of it made me feel that I ought to catch the next plane to Delhi, but I did become intensely aware of the diversity, strangeness, gentleness and colour of the great population of India, its history and its religions. It is plain that Claudia Hyles became captivated with the sub-continent, and that her book is her way of coming to terms with her adventures. It is a great book to carry with you, since you can read a few pages and put it down, to pick up again a little later, without feeling that you are going to miss something. It is all there — art, music, travel, fifty pages on the Kumbh Mela, the great religious festival that she and a friend attended, literature, festivals, and much else besides.
I recommend it with much pleasure.