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  • The Cosmopolitanism of Small Towns
  • Tabish Khair (bio)

In his journey from village to city, from Laxmangarh to Delhi, the entrepreneur’s path crosses any number of provincial towns that have the pollution and noise and traffic of a big city—without any hint of the true city’s sense of history, planning, and grandeur. Half-baked cities, built for half-baked men.

(Adiga, The White Tiger, 2008)

This is a line many years and thousands of miles away from the novels of V. S. Naipaul, but it shares a certain vision of the peripheries with them. If, for Naipaul, the opposition was between the authentic center and the mimic peripheries of colonization, for Adiga the opposition is between the big cities and small towns of globalization. The half-mythical center and “home” of the colonial, “pre-national” experience metamorphose into the half-real metropolises of the national era, at least in their relationship to the “peripheries” and “provincial towns.” Adiga and Naipaul are essentially talking about the same thing: history, planning, grandeur also belong to the center in Naipaul’s fiction. And the fictional observations of both these excellent novelists carry the unmistakable ring of truth.

Having grown up in the colonial peripheries and in one of those half-baked towns described by Adiga’s narrator—well, actually, the exact town mentioned as the narrator-protagonist’s place of birth, Gaya—I recognize the truth of such observations. And at the same time, I feel that they miss much about towns like Gaya. What is it they miss about these half-baked towns on the peripheries of the empire or the nation state? I will be honest: they miss people like me.

I grew up in Gaya—the half-baked town from which Adiga’s powerful narrative begins—and I was educated in its schools, colleges and university. I was in my mid-20s when I left the town, to work as a “staff reporter” in the Delhi edition of The [End Page 4] Times of India. I was almost 30 when I left India for the first time. When I look back on my formative years—the first 24—what I see is the half-baked town of Gaya, with its half-baked opinions and aspirations. I recognize them. There is much truth in how Naipaul and Adiga—or, for that matter, a very different writer like Salman Rushdie—conceive of these spaces.

But I see certain other things and people too. For instance, I see “Shaiwalji,” a bearded Hindi writer—working as a schoolteacher in the suburbs of this half-baked town—who was an astute reader of Indian literature and politics, and one of whose stories had been turned into an award-winning film in Bombay. Of course, hardly anyone “significant” in Gaya had heard of him—or cared about his achievements. I see Kalam Haidri, incidentally married to my aunt, who ran an Urdu weekly for decades, and had read everything one could read of French literature, and Marxism. I see people who, despite their half-baked ideas, would suddenly refer to Pushkin, or Shakespeare, or Ghalib, or Kalidas.

There were only two bookstores in Gaya in the 1970-1980s. One of them was a kiosk on the main platform of the railway station that, years later, I identified with Raju’s station stall from R. K. Narayan’s The Guide (1958)—a rare novel set in a half-baked town, though in a very different part of India. The other one was a bigger shop—Sahitya Sadan—which thrived mostly by selling course books, but also ordered “literature” and “science books.” Both places sold across scratched counters; I first experienced the pleasure of browsing in a bookshop when I visited Patna, the state capital, in my late teenage! Despite the half-baked books they stocked—the Hindi and Urdu pulp, the self-help readers, the IQ-quizzers, the Dale Carnegies and Robert Ludlums—they were capable of springing surprises. Of all sorts, I will confess: what would my childhood have been without the Archie Comics, Alfred Hitchcocks and Enid Blytons that they sold? But there were other, heavier, surprises too: Shakespeare, Hardy, Kafka, Dickens...