Adil Jussawalla, poet and archivist extraordinaire, told me about how he had first heard of Dom Moraes in the 1950s, when both were at school, Adil at Cathedral & John Connon and Dom at St Mary’s, a Jesuit institution.
“I had a friend who had also been to St Mary’s who told me about this prodigy whose essays were legendary,” Jussawalla said.
I thought about this when I saw a certificate Dom had won at St Mary’s (Cambridge Section) on 1 December 1951. It was for the “The English Essay Prize”. Only the certificate was for a scholarship; the word “scholarship” had been scored out and The English Essay Prize inserted in its place.
That was what The Cambridge Section of St Mary’s was like; that was what the city was like; that was what the country was like. It was a time of making do. And so both young men of promise left and went to England to study. They had very different experiences there with very different results.
In 1959, Dom Moraes would come back to the city of his birth to write about it and about India.
He was by now a certified prodigy; he had won the Hawthornden Prize in 1958, established by Alice Warrender for a work of the imagination, to be awarded to a writer under the age of 41. Other winners were Vita Sackville-West and David Garnett. The very next year Alan Sillitoe would win it for The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner; later V S Naipaul, Ali Smith and Jennie Uglow would all win it.
Later in a book of poems called John Nobody, Dom would write, “My agent tells me that I have a name / An audience waits for what I say.” The confidence of this is already clear in Gone Away. His prose is clean and clear; his lines are shapely and elegant. His writing could be a how-to manual for the young writer – and here Speaking Tiger is owed a huge debt of gratitude for bringing us When Some Things are Remembered and Under Something of a Cloud in recent times.
But the young writer might also see that the elegance, the clarity is hard-won; and these qualities make a beautiful carapace for his discomfort.
It was this divine discomfort that shaped Dom’s writing. I might go as far as to say that it was what produced most of it. His poems are precise and beautifully shaped. For a man who had no time for music, they were metrically correct, just as his prose sentences played to an inner beat. Both are saved from the bloodlessness of only-beauty by the underlying inferno of emotion that is only hinted at. It is impossible to consider what these might be, so well are they camouflaged in the presentation of reality we see here. (For a Rashomon moment, you might want to read Ved Mehta’s Walking the Indian Streets which deals with much the same moment and many of the same events but tells another story altogether.)
There is in this telling as much of Dom as there is of India. (He says with fetching self-irony: “I found myself very interesting.”) We would call this self-implication today, the belief that you cannot tell the story without also presenting the prism through which it is told.
Dom’s father was Frank Moraes, one of the greatest Indian editors ever. This must have eased Dom’s path and made some contacts easier. He had only to pick up the phone for Mulk Raj Anand to suggest that he come over right away. And when he went to Delhi and got to meet Khushwant Singh, he could get drunk and conflate Beowulf and William Blake without a care in the world because everyone would only be gently amused. (Of Singh, he says, “He is a rich-natured Sikh, with a curious fierceness and quickness of manner, shading down to a tender understanding.” I don’t know how anyone could have put it better.)
Likewise, Narayana Menon was available to give him the latest army gossip and to play the veena for his young guest, begetting an interesting description, a strange description, of a kind I have not read before or since:
“The veena is shaped like half a pumpkin on a stick. The strings are of silver, and strung crosswise across the pumpkin-face. Narayana twiddled a few keys, tautening the strings, then bent over the instrument and began to play it. The long, very flexible fingers of his left hand struck the strings slowly, and a long-drawn-out succession of notes, like the calls of a mechanical bird, filled the room. Each faded out and was imperceptibly replaced by another, or overlapped and sang at different ends of the same golden bough.”
Sometimes, you get the feeling you’re climbing a set of stairs. First Mulk, then Nissim Ezekiel, then Khushwant Singh, then Narayana Menon....and drumroll! Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru!
More than anything you feel in all this the sense of a watchful alien, not unsympathetic to local life forms but not quite understanding them either.
Physical unease is easy to describe; the heat, the humidity, the air-conditioning “spreading a coolness as unhealthy as the heat”, the squishy feeling under his feet at the country liquor bar; however the unease of the mind or the spirit, is often best when it is only suggested. In each portrait, in each interview, there is a sense of mismatch.
In the best traditions of journalism, Dom Moraes is not expecting something but he seems unsure whether what he does encounter is what he should be encountering. He is in free fall through India, and the only thing that will steady him is to put everything into deadpan prose. And so there is no judgement made here, and the reader can make her own decisions as she goes along.
She may choose to reject Dom-as-Virgil on the grounds that he has been colonised only too well. She may choose to look at this book as being a precursor of India: A Wounded Civilisation by V S Naipaul in which another brilliant prose stylist turned his gaze upon the enigma of this country. But she cannot claim that the author has been anything but honest in his revelations of himself.
Now that we know who this Dom is, we can tell why he is so ill-at-ease in the country of his birth.
We know it is not just a matter of privilege. He has had his fair share of knocks; a peripatetic childhood in the shadow of a famous father, a mother whose mental illness left scars of all kinds, early success which can be a cross to carry, the constant feeling of disconnectedness. We know it is not just a matter of belonging to a nation or to a nationality; no creative person can conjure up an unquestioning sense of belonging, except at great cost. (And it is the art that suffers first and most.) If you consider that this was the 1950s, a time when most people refer to as the honeymoon period of the Indian Republic, you can see how it can only have gone downhill from there.
There is something strange about reading this book now. I began by thinking of it as a period piece, for that country seems sometimes to be very far away. However when Dom is on his way to Nathu La in Sikkim, his conversations with his driver seem to be the stuff of today’s world. The Sikh gentleman who is the first voice we hear – other than Dom’s own – is still to be found in airport bars and will still be saying much the same things.
The Tibetan Dom is interviewing says, in the voice of the interpreter that “he has lost his home. His home is in the country where the Dalai Lama stays, but he is not at home here. If he goes back to Tibet now the Chinia will shoot him. His brother went back and him the Chinia took and shot.”
And through the veil of Dom’s impeccable British accent, through the veil of his translator’s inadequate English, we can still hear the plangent voices of these men, with their freight of love and despair.
Somewhere up in the mountains, somewhere in an airport, they are still saying the same things. That’s what makes a book timeless.
Gone Away was first published in 1960, when Dom Moraes was barely 22. It has been re-issued by Speaking Tiger Books with an introduction by Jerry Pinto.
“The Introduction”, by Jerry Pinto, excerpted with permission from Gone Away: An Indian Journal, Dom Moraes, Speaking Tiger Books.