I am in the middle of reading R K Narayan’s My Dateless Diary which is a book on his trip to America. As the name suggests Narayan does does not reveal the date of his journey, but one can make out this is early 1960s – interestingly Narayan is 50 years old & this is the first time that he has gone out of India. Obviously much has changed in America since. But the real surprise of the book is the enormity of change in India that it reflects. Narayan muses about various things in America in relation to how they are in India. And many of his observations on how things are in India are no more true.
Funnily enough for a book written about America, the book reminds me of my childhood in the late sixties and early seventies in a small town in the deep south of India. Life was ordered, with predictable values and even more predictable events. Other than my neighbour, a boy who had moved to India from the US, my only touch with a wider world was ‘Span’, a thinly-veiled propaganda magazine produced by the US Information Service which they circulated to all bureaucrats (among others) across the country. My dad having been in the Indian Administrative Service got a copy and my view of the world is now forever colored by that. I discovered many things of great beauty and interest in that magazine. The most lasting impression was of an artist they profiled who did abstract paintings in oil. I have forgotten everything about that artist; but, the colours of those paintings were so alive in the glossy paper of Span, they remain with me to this day and continue to fuel my interest in abstracts in oil. The magazine closed down with budget cuts in the Reagan years (I think). They should have continued it. It did more for American super-powerdom than all the nukes they have combined. And maybe there would still be little kids across the globe who would look at those glossy sheets and wonder at the American way of life.
Interestingly, there was another book I got in my childhood that came from the Russians. It was a large coffee table kind of book called “This is my native land” and I remember buying it from a bus-converted-to-a-bookshop, run by the USSR cultural centre, which was the communist propoganda wing. Much less slicker than Span, but very intriguing too. Covering various parts of the vast expanse of the old Soviet Union, the book brought alive another kind of wonder, that of a vast and untamed land.
If India wants to have more influence in the wider world over the coming years, I would suggest our very own ‘Span’ equivalent. Even in today’s world of hyper-communication, bound glossy sheets in the hands of a curious child is still an extraordinary device of influence. And, of course, there are many little children across the world.
Click here for all my posts on Travel Writing.
Click here for my posts on North America.