Choice excerpts follow:
One of the temptations of world fame (I suppose), especially when it is gained early in life, must be to treat one’s own utterances with undue reverence. Their provenance becomes the guarantee not only of their truth but also of their profundity, and even the most casual meanderings or off-scourings of the mind, once expressed in public, are invested with ineffable preciousness.
I tried again in Calcutta to cure myself of my prejudice against world-famous panjandrums. This time it was Günter Grass, another Nobel Prize winner, though for literature rather than peace. He was in a panel discussion on “The Segregation of Cultures in the Contemporary World: Clash, Convergence or Co-operation?” For some reason, the very subject matter conjured up images of hot-air balloons in my mind, of which I was not able entirely to disembarrass myself.
The audience was composed of Calcutta’s concerned intellectuals: concerned, that is, with where they were to have dinner afterwards. Some of them had come with the clear intention of asking a question in public, which is to say, of making a speech.
Among the other panelists was Amitav Ghosh, billed as “the most important Indian author in English,” and Najam Sethi, a Pakistani journalist from Lahore. Ghosh spoke of an Anglophone conspiracy to dominate the world, physically, economically, and culturally, dating back at least three centuries: I half-expected him to refer to the Protocols of the Elders of Oxford. He saw the European Union—the apparatchiks’ new paradise—as the hope of the world, the one possible counterweight to the hegemony of the United States. Needless to say, as a holder of such views he lives part of his time in the United States, where there is a strong market for them, at least on university campuses, which is what counts for writers.
Grass ambled, bear-like, onto the stage, which had been arranged like the set of a comfortable living room in a well-made play, complete with sofas and bookshelves. His manner was attractively fragile, ordinary and modest, and I warm to a man who dyes his hair at the age of seventy-eight. He still cares what figure he cuts in the world, which is an all-too-human failing.
He spoke of the dangers of globalization and “economic flattening,” and of the common people as the victims of this process. He spoke of the need to resist the unique power in the world—the United States.
Grass has a special relationship with Calcutta. This was his fourth visit and he lived there for a few months in 1987 and 1988, writing a book (containing many of his pen and ink sketches) about his experiences, published in English as Show Your Tongue. The various predictions he made in that book have done nothing whatever to reduce the certainty of his current opinions and prognoses. This is the hallmark of the true panjandrum.
He tells us that all the statistics concerning India in general and Calcutta in particular point to a catastrophe or even an apocalypse (one senses that he derives an illicit pleasure from this, as highly moral and respectable masochists derive pleasure from being whipped or beaten by a dominatrix). According to Grass, the city could only get poorer and poorer and poorer until—presumably—everyone starved to death.
I have been visiting Calcutta for nearly thirty years. The reverse is actually the truth.
Grass predicted that the old and gracious buildings of Calcutta would disappear and yield to hovels as the city grew ever poorer, ever more desperate. (He also seemed to think this was a good thing, because hovels were authentic. “Once back in Germany,” he wrote, “[I] measure everything, myself included, by Calcutta.”)
Well, he was right about the disappearance of the gracious buildings, but quite wrong about the reasons for it. Increasing wealth, not poverty, now threatens to destroy the city’s architectural heritage, a process that was started by demagogic pseudo-egalitarian regulation.
The duty of intellectuals is to spell out proper distinctions as clearly and honestly as possible. The condition of being a pundit stands in the way of this, for it lends authority to a person rather than to evidence and argument.