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A file photo of author Jan Morris. Photo: Bloomberg
A file photo of author Jan Morris. Photo: Bloomberg

A Welsh critic of India’s ‘unimaginable bureaucracy’

Jan Morris (1926-2020) led a writer’s life so remarkable that few of us can possibly emulate it

For a lengthy magazine article on Delhi, written in 1975, Jan Morris stood in the bylanes near Jama Masjid as the Shahi Imam was arrested for challenging Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the government’s forced sterilizations during the Emergency. On another day, she visited the kitchens of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Seeking to overturn the prevailing Western perception that India was “emaciated by poverty and emasculated by philosophy", and to show that it made warships and railway engines, she even visited an industrial fair.

Morris, who died last week aged 94, wrote this essay for Rolling Stone, rather than as a World Bank report, but its achievement was to outline decades ago how crippled India was by its bungling, verbose bureaucracy and by the ivory-tower aspirations of its political class. “There was never a capital like Delhi for planners… Big Brother is everywhere," Morris wrote, going on to quote the small print on a Delhi map: “This map is published for tourists as a master guide and not as legal tender." “There in its mixture of the interfering, the pedantic, the unnecessary and the absurd, speaks the true voice of Indian officialdom," Morris observed.

It is a testament both to Morris’s gifts as one of the world’s greatest non-fiction writers and New Delhi’s inability to change that these criticisms still ring true. Decades on, business people complain about how incomprehensible many covid directives from the government are. Raghuram Rajan told Boom recently he cannot explain what a “self-reliant India", a cornerstone of the Narendra Modi government’s economic policies, actually means. Morris’s declaration that in Delhi “every day’s paper brings news of some new failure, in diplomacy, in economics, in sport" might sound Naipaulian in its despair, but retired Delhi chief justice A.P. Shah’s critique in The Wire this week that India’s “courts lack humanity and fundamental concern for the human rights of the accused" raises similar questions of widespread institutional failure today.

In books such as Venice and Hong Kong, Morris emerged as a hybrid of the foreign correspondent she had started her career as and a biographer of cities. Before a gender change in the 1970s, Jan was James Morris, a correspondent for The Times, London, who became famous for breaking the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Everest in May 1953. Anticipating that a cable sent via an Indian Army post near the Himalayas to The Times in London was likely to be leaked, Morris devised an elaborate code for the message, and then, from 23,000 feet, raced, slithered and occasionally fell in the haste to deliver it. Also as James, Morris covered the Suez Canal crisis and the trial of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann. The compendium of her reportage, A Writer’s World, is a brisk history of the second half of the 20th century. Her book on her journey from man to woman, Conundrum, was revelatory in many ways, not least because she continued to live with her partner Elizabeth and their four children.

Morris was both a classical Mughal miniaturist and the inventor of an inimitable 3D genre, an accumulation of images that seemed like photography dressed up as prose. Her essay on New York begins with a view through binoculars of a polar bear in the Central Park zoo, a metaphor for the loneliness of that metropolis, and concludes with a homeless man. Fifty years after she wrote it, it remains the best essay on the city as is her takedown of Lutyen Delhi’s bureaucracy: “[A] power sucker, feeding upon its consequence or sustained intravenously by interdepartmental memoranda, triplicate applications, copies and comments and addenda and references to precedent–a monstrous behemoth of authority, slumped immovable among its files and tea-trays." If reforming the civil service remains on the to-do list of successive governments, Morris’ metaphor will be hard to beat.

I was a fan of Morris long before I edited her pieces for the Financial Times in the early 2000s. Our friendship amounted to a generational role reversal. She remained impishly energetic into her eighties, still dreaming of driving to Darjeeling and subjecting herself to uncomfortable long-distance train journeys across the breadth of Europe. I fretted and fussed to no avail, worrying about her partiality for driving fast and asking her to allow luxury travel companies to organize her trips for the newspaper.

At London’s stuffy Traveller’s Club, which allows only males to be members, about a decade ago, Morris told me she had been practising the only yoga pose she knew because she was feeling sluggish. It was simhasana, which involves sticking one’s tongue out. I unwisely joked it would make a dramatic start to her talk that evening. At the podium, she pantomimed an MGM-styled lion’s roar and then, delighted by the shock among the audience, did it again.

When we last met, Morris discussed the worrying turn in Hong Kong’s politics and spoke, with almost total recall, of concerns that China would not abide by its agreement to adhere to the city’s liberal laws when she had researched her book on the city decades earlier. She was almost 92 at the time, but had recently published an illustrated history of a doomed Japanese warship in World War II. She then drove me 25 minutes on a highway back from lunch by a lake in Portmeirion. Negotiating a highway hardly constituted a challenge.

Morris was, in many ways, immortal.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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