Alexander Campbell was a Scotsman who served in the 1950s as Time magazine’s correspondent in New Delhi. In 1958, he wrote a book called The Heart of India, which was seen as so repulsive and diabolical that the government banned it in March 1959.

Campbell also wrote travelogues called The Heart of Africa and The Heart of Japan. He is now a forgotten man. Yet the ban, immutable and constant, stays exactly where it is. Has anybody read the book in the past 53 years to understand why it was banned and whether it is still worthy of being denied to Indian readers?

When D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928 it was deemed too explicit for public consumption. By the 1960s, with greater permissiveness and social freedom, uncensored copies of the book were being published in Britain and the United States.

Taboo is not an absolute. It varies with time and geography. As such, a book or a film that may be deemed outrageous in one era could be seen as acceptable and normal in another. This may take longer to achieve with criticism of religion, but what of books on social or political themes?
The question struck me this past week as I bumped into Campbell and his book.

The encounter began when a friend forwarded me a list of books banned by India since Independence. Some of them were easy enough to identify — being categorised as pornographic or insulting of a religious icon or historical character. Some of the titles were more general and spoke of a narrative that was not necessarily a critique of one religion or individual. Intrigued, I pottered around on the Internet looking for more.

Fairly soon, I found the entire text of The Heart of India on a website, and wolfed down a significant portion of the book. In parts it was outrageously funny. Clearly written by someone who didn’t think much of India, it nevertheless had a droll, deadpan style and poked fun at the government’s sanctimonious manner.

The Indian elite made pretentious claims about idealism, socialism and spirituality that were, to Campbell, humbug. The obsession with esoteric ritualism — or what Campbell considered esoteric ritualism — the hierarchy of caste, the grimy and dirty cities, and the poverty: it was all too much for the author. In his exaggerated and fictionalised account — the book’s protagonist is an American visitor to India — Campbell is guilty of what post facto analysis would term political incorrectness and racial stereotyping.

Several books of that period were equally guilty of these. The white man’s gaze, looking down on one or the other bunch of Orientals, was not unique to The Heart of India. Many accounts from the 1950s and 1960s were as trenchant and, from the vantage point of history, as unfair in deciding that, having broken away from the British Empire, India was headed down the road to disaster.

Given this, why were Campbell and The Heart of India singled out for a ban?

The answer is probably in the book’s views on the economy rather than religion and society. Campbell was in India in the period of 1954-55, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government was putting together its industrial policy, finalising the Second Five-Year Plan and talking of the state being at the “commanding heights of the economy”. Campbell mocked this. He was clear it would not work and only create a bureaucratic mountain.

Extracts from his book are revealing.

One describes a meeting with an economic policymaker: “I introduced Rud to Mr Vaidya Sharma of the Ministry of Planning. We sat down, and the chaprasi was sent for cups of tea. Sharma began telling Rud about India’s Five Year Plan. He had a responsible position in the ministry, but not at the highest level, so he spoke Welsh English. He took his job seriously, and he tended to address foreigners as if they were a hostile public audience. He told Rud severely: ‘India is carrying out a bloodless revolution. Austerity is our watchword, and we need every man, woman, and child for honest constructive work… Unlike the capitalist countries, we cannot afford flunkies, Mr Jack.’ The chaprasi brought in the tea.” Campbell used the dagger subtly.

A few lines later Sharma talks enthusiastically about building massive housing estates for “government employees, clerks of various grades”: “New Delhi is like Washington, Mr Jack, there are thousands of people here working for the government.”

Finally, he comes to the Second Five-Year Plan: “The first Plan built up our food resources; the second Plan will lay the foundations for rapid creation of heavy industry. Delhi, as the capital of India, will play a big part, and we are getting ready to shoulder the burden. We are going to build a big central stationery depot, with a special railway-siding of its own. There will be no fewer than 12 halls, each covering 2,000 square feet. They will be storage halls, and we calculate that the depot will be capable of an annual turnover of 1,400 tons of official forms, forms required for carrying out the commitments of the second Five Year Plan!”

The book is riddled with such examples. In 1959, India’s policy-framers took themselves and their model very seriously — who is to say they still don’t? — and were convinced they were embarking on one of destiny’s great journeys and were about to give the world a new economic and development model. Campbell obviously didn’t think so, and made his sarcasm plain.

Today, in 2012, Campbell’s digs at the anticipated excesses of India’s bureaucratic socialism would seem mild. Indian writers and economists have said much harsher things. Yet, in all these years nobody has bothered to ask if The Heart of India is still worth banning, and quoting those extracts above is still as contested (or as legal/illegal) as reading from The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Do we need Alexander Campbell to tell us the Indian system is strange?

(Published with permission from Ashok Malik; first carried on January 29, 2012 in the Deccan Chronicle)

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