Peace, love and misunderstanding

Yesterday, Peter Popham considered the effects of Empire on India. Today he reflects on the illusory insights that the Sixties generation brought home from the subcontinent
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Getting a drink in Delhi can be a bit of a pain. It's not actually impossible, as it is in the Haryana (which surrounds the capital on three sides) and four other states, where prohibition laws are in force. But it requires planning and timing. There are very few bars. In the few restaurants where drink is served, last orders are at 10.30 pm. Off-licences selling domestic beer and whisky are squalid, teeming holes with a scrum of frantic customers. At the stores selling foreign groceries, you mutter your desire to the manager - Heineken or Bell's or red wine - and late at night, under cover of darkness, he delivers it to your door, like drugs.

Cigarette smoking is strictly speaking illegal in public in the capital. This ordinance became law last year. It seems unlikely that it is ever enforced, but it exists.

The puritanism of India extends from manifestations like these across the whole field of social relationships. Families have a strength and integrity - a fierce grip on the fates of individuals within them - that is foreign to us. More and more young people go in for love marriages, but most will take the trouble to ensure that their choices do not offend caste propriety. Casual sex remains highly exceptional. Dating is a racy new idea. Young middle-class Indians, however Westernised in appearance, taste or ambition, continue to follow the dictates of a social order more stringent and austere than anything the West has seen since the early Sixties.

These things are known. Any good guidebook will spell them out. Cursory acquaintance with people of Asian origin settled in Britain bears them out. But encountering them at first hand in India today is nevertheless a slight shock.

This is not simply because Indian practice is so at variance with our own. It's also because it is out of kilter with the images through which India and its culture have been borne home to us over the past 30 years. Indian practice is such a denial of all the lessons we imagine we have learned from India since the Sixties - to do with looseness, relaxation, inner liberation.

It takes an effort to remember how different Britain was back then, before the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles' first LP (to use Larkin's benchmarks), before we fell under the spell of what we supposed to be India - because the influence changed us so much.

Nearly 30 years had passed since India's independence, long enough for a generation to grow up - my own generation - that knew little and cared less about the romance of Empire, with its concomitants of starch, Christianity, stiff upper lip and racial purity. To the extent that we did know about that history, we rejected it, so when young travellers began swarming across the subcontinent, it was all those Indian things that Empire had scorned - religion and philosophy, clothing, food, style - that lured them like flies to honey, and that they stuffed into their rucksacks and brought home.

In retrospect, the extent to which I lived out my late-Sixties adolescence in the shadow of this India of the mind amazes me. Everyone remembers Ravi Shankar's friendship with George Harrison and the Beatles' affair with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but there was much more to it than that.

At the Middle Earth in Covent Garden, my best friend and I, aged 14 and 15, he in gabardine mac and crewcut and I looking little better, took our first faltering steps in this strange new world, the gloom dappled by coloured oils, full of sandalwood and hashish smoke, among people draped in velvet and tie-dyed silk and homespun cotton, amid the pingings of finger cymbals and the languid pluckings of sarod, sarongh and sitar. The unknown David Bowie was on stage, not yet embarked on his singing career, still a dancer and mime artist, protege of Lyndsay Kemp, miming the Fall of Tibet. The acoustic T-Rex, Marc Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took, followed, playing so incompetently that they contrived to sound exotic, followed by the Third Ear Band, bowing archaic oriental instruments, droning mystically on for hours. Only the aggressively awful poet Pete Brown, with his band the Battered Ornaments, brought a whiff of bitter beer and London rain to the proceedings.

It was a painfully naive sort of orientalism, it seems to me looking back, that had us in its grip. Orientalist painters and writers in the past had fabricated a mysterious, elusive, seductive, feline personality for the East, which, as Edward Said has argued, was a way for the imperialist West to evade acknowledging the human reality of what it encountered and exploited in Asia. They counterposed a cliche of the virtuous, transparent, upstanding Christian white man to the dark and mysteriously unknowable Other of the colonised peoples. This excused them the task of trying to see what was really before their eyes.

Now my generation - my elders by a few years - were attempting a different and even odder sort of prestidigitation: borrowing those orientalist clothes for themselves, seeking to efface the hateful image of the jingo imperialist, our legacy from the immediate past, with fancy dress, fancy noise, fancy smells and smoke.

Such a childish game: as if the momentum of centuries could be reversed by a change of style. But the idea held us in its grip. My favourite music for years and years was by the Incredible String Band, originally a folk duo from Edinburgh, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. They embodied this mid-Sixties trajectory: moved swiftly from playing folk blues and playful guitar ditties with gentle wry lyrics on their first album to the attempted cosmic profundities of "The 10,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion", and "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter", playing an amazing range of Middle Eastern and Indian instruments and painfully aping (it seems to me now) the swooping sinuosities of Asian singing.

What enthralled us, their fans, was that this was so much more than just another singing group, Peter, Paul and Mary with oriental knobs on. The Incredibles, with their hair to their chests, their layers of gorgeous rags, their stage like a gypsy encampment full of wonderful instruments, and with their girlfriends (one of them was called Licorice) playing finger cymbals, dancing clumpingly and grinning like loons - they offered to take us with them to a cultural never-never land where we would be reborn as mystical blond orientals, just like them.

All very odd, in retrospect, yet very persistent, persisting not just through the years of the Incredible String Band's great success (who could forget the great double album Wee Tam and the Big Huge, with songs such as "Maya":

Maya, Maya,

All this world is but a play,

Be thou the joyful player - but through their break-up and descent into obscurity; surfacing recently in Trance and the work of groups such as Kula Shaker.

In retrospect, what is remarkable about the work of Williamson and Heron and others like them was how gleefully fake it was: even more so than British blues, to which it is in some ways analogous. For while most British blues fans probably preferred listening to Clapton, Beck and Peter Green than the real thing, at least the musicians were open about the influences, and even helped to gain them audiences of their own. The Incredibles and their ilk were by contrast gifted magpies, stealing from all over the East without attribution, and mixing it all together. One had heard of Shankar and Ustad Villyat Khan, perhaps even been to one of their solemn concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But none of my friends was in much doubt that it was the blond orientals who had cornered the charisma.

What they had alighted on was an image that vividly repudiated everything straight and square. It was not concerned with the realities or traditions of India at all; its real subject was the dull, straight old British Fifties, to which the imaginary Orient offered the headiest antidote. And because the image was a thing of shreds and patches, it didn't matter that the sexual morality or the attitude to intoxicants of the real Orient was even more narrow-minded than that of the Fifties. That was one of the details you could ignore.

The Sixties, then, bequeathed an image of India that was orientalist in the most insinuating way, enormously attractive but completely wrong. Numerous people probably got some good out of it all: those for whom it sparked an interest in meditation or yoga, for example. But that doesn't alter the fact that at bottom it was a well-wrought illusion. It was a way for my generation symbolically to expiate the imperialist sins of our fathers without having to go to the trouble of engaging with Asian realities. It was a thoroughly sybaritic, escapist exercise, lots of fun at the time, but pretty embarrassing to look back on.

Perhaps the lesson to draw is that cultures really only get to grips with the essentials of other cultures under the pressure of dire necessity. In my article yesterday I attempted to trace how India developed a modern sense of itself through the medium of English, and transformed itself in the process.

Lord Curzon predicted that with the loss of the Indian Empire, Britain would drop "straight away to a third-rate power". The loss was probably a bigger shock to the national psyche than we ever acknowledged. Perhaps it was this shock that prompted a new generation's reappraisal of the subcontinent we had ruled for so long. But it turned out to be a shallow, flashy, trivial return to the subject, a magpie's return. The result is that we probably know and care less about India today, despite the two million people of subcontinental descent now living in Britain, than our perfidious imperialist ancestors did a century ago.