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An Indian View of an Indian View: Durrell’s India

Perspective indienne d’une perspective indienne: Laurence Durrell
Gulshan Taneja
p. 121-142


La dimension indienne de Durrel a toujours été un des thèmes de prédilection de la critique. Après tout, il est né en Inde. Ses deux parents eux-mêmes étaient nés en Inde et parlaient l’Indi et l’Urdu. Tout au long de sa vie, il évoqua l’Inde avec nostalgie. Il consacra de nombreuses pages à sa fascination pour l’Inde, dans sa correspondance, et l’Inde se retrouve dans la plupart de ses écrits. Des mythes, icones et motifs indiens se retrouvent généralement dispersés dans ses récits. Plus particulièrement, Durrel succomba à l’idée de l’Inde telle qu’elle avait nourri l’imaginaire anglais pendant des siècles: l’Inde orientale. Il alla jusqu’à écrire un récit autobiographique dont un bon tiers est consacré à l’évocation de la vie ordinaire d’un personnage ordinaire vivant dans un pays ordinaire, mais bercé par son expérience indienne. Il serait donc naturel de s’attendre à trouver une vision critique cohérente de l’Inde et de ses habitants dans la critique consacrée à Durrel. Mais pareille quête s’avère difficile et les conclusions en sont plus que décevantes, frustant toute attente.

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1Readers and scholars of Lawrence Durrell have always made much of his India connection. After all, he was born in India. There were other British authors who were born in India. George Orwell was born in Motihari, Bihar in 1903 where Eric’s father, Richard Walmesley Blair, worked for the opiumdepartment of the Civil Service. His mother, Ida Mabel Blair, brought him to the United Kingdomat the age of one. Thackeray born in Calcutta in 1811 where his father Richmond Thackeray worked as secretary to the board of revenue for the British East India Company. William was sent to England at the age of five. Kipling of the Kim fame was born in Bombay in 1856 where his father was professor of architectural sculpture. Virginia Woolf’s mother, a famous beauty, Julia Stephen, too, was born in Calcutta in 1846. She later moved to England with her mother where she served as a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones.

2Many others spent long innings in India. And many had other claims to be called India hands for a variety of other reasons. Somerset Maugham came to India in 1938—his grandfather, Major Shell, was killed in the first Indian war of Independence in 1857. The Razor’s Edge, Points of View and A Writer’s Notebook reveal ample evidence of Maugham’s fascination with Hindu mysticism. E. M. Forster visited India in 1914 and againin the early 1920s as the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewasin central India. The Hill of Devi is his non-fictional account of this trip. After returning from India, he completed A Passage to India, which was published in 1924.

3However, Durrell’s association with India has always been considered special. Durrell’s parents were both born in India, too, and spoke Hindi and Urdu. Durrell’s father, a railway construction engineer, was bin Calcuttain 1884 and had studied in the prestigious Thomason College of Civil Engineering (later renamed as Indian Institute of Technology) at Roorkee in North India. He is buried in the English cemetery at Dalhousie.

4Larry’s mother, Louisa Fletcher Dixie, was also born, in 1886, in Roorkee where Larry’s parents met and married in 1910. Unlike a large number of Englishmen who ruled the colonized Indian nation from inside administrative citadels, elite clubs, and regimental messes, the Durrells lived their life in India like ordinary people. Even like some Indians. They were, one might say, close to the soil. They built, bought, or rented houses, made homes, looked for jobs, worked hard to earn money, and fretted about their children’s health and education, their lives and careers and future. They went through bad times and succumbed, fought, or survived illness, want, and penury. Samuel Durrell was notable for his anti-racism stance and his opposition to racial discrimination in British India. He is known to have given up his club membership when his proposal to include an Oxford-educated Indian doctor, who had saved his son’s life, was turned down. Louisa was actively interested in spiritualism and cookery. She would freely mingle with locals to learn of spirits and cuisine and, much like her husband, did not conform to the commonly held views on segregation and racial divide among the English.

  • 1 Pied Piper of Lovers, ed. James Gifford (1935; Victoria: U of Victoria, 2008).

5Larry, we are told, had India on his mind all his life. He wrote a great deal, too, about his fascination with India in his letters. India lies scattered throughout his writings. Indian myths, motifs, and icons are sprinkled throughout his narratives. He even wrote an autobiographical novel1 with a full third of the book describing the ordinary life of an ordinary young man in an ordinary country.

  • 2 Several writers have written on this aspect of Durrell: See Ian MacNiven, ‘Lawrence Durrell: Writer (...)
  • 3 See James A. Brigham, ‘Afterword’.
  • 4 Lawrence Durrell, ‘Overture’ (Begnal 13). These are edited transcripts of his remarks that Durrell (...)

6Durrell scholars, readers, and interpreters share this widespread perception of an Indian aura surrounding the author with a great deal of enthusiasm.2 The notions of ‘the spiritual sickness’ and ‘the English death’ and ‘rejection of England’ were invoked early with reference to Pied Piper of Lovers.3 Anna Lillios tells us that Durrell’s goal in writing is to ‘sum up in a sort of metaphor the cosmology of a particular moment in which we are living’ (Lillios 2334)—a goal, most people would agree, would go with Larry’s life-long bond with the land of his birth with its India connection. Larry once wrote, ‘If you live in a Buddhist country, it is so extraordinary. . . . The whole of nature seems permeated by a sense of harmless goodwill’ (Lillios 2334).4 As an author, his focused interest, we are told, was in ‘the universe outside man, and the universe inside’ (Lillios 2334). Often among his critics, he is characterized as a metaphysical writer who, through his characters, asks philosophical questions concerning, for example, ‘the nature of reality.’ It is seriously believed that Larry’s interest in the topography of the Indian mind was apparently only as strong as in the geography of the Indian sub-continent. Larry’s occasional comments to the effect, one must concede, encouraged such a view of Durrell’s work. In his Paris Review interview, Durrell had observed: ‘Eastern and Western metaphysics are coming to a point of confluence in the most interesting way. . .’; ‘ego as a series of masks, which Freud started, a depersonalization which was carried over the border by Jung and Groddek and company to end—where . . . but in Hindu metaphysics?’ (Plimpton 1986, 278, 279). Such was his reputation that to some he, in appearance, looked like a Hindu. Even more so, Durrell succumbed to the idea of India as it had been nourished and cherished over hundreds of years as part of the English imagination, the India of the Orient: India as it was imagined or presumed to be, or grew in the distant fantasies of the western European minds and thinking.

7One would, thus, expect much substance in Durrell’s view of India. One would, in fact, hope to be able to put together a meaningful critique of India and its people based on his writings; a critique similarly perceptive, vivid and illuminating as one finds in the writings of many English, French or other European writers who wrote about India for one reason or the other. However, an attempt to construct a Durrellian India is fraught with many difficulties. And the conclusion, in my opinion, is more than disappointing.

8Lawrence George Durrell was born on February 27, 1912, in Jullundur in northern India. His English father, Lawrence Samuel Durrell, and, as I have mentioned earlier, his Irish-English mother, Louisa Florence Dixie, had also been born in India. This mix of nationalities marked Durrell’s creative imagination. He would claim in later years that he had ‘a Tibetan mentality’ (Lillios 1995, 2334).

9At the age of eleven, he was sent to England to be formally educated. A decade later, when he was about twenty-three, he moved to Greece in 1935 with his mother, siblings, and wife, Nancy Myers, to live more economically and to escape the English winter. Another five years and he would move to Cairo. The following year, in 1942, now separated from his wife, Durrell moved to Alexandria and became press attaché in the British Information Office. He met Eve Cohen who became his second wife in 1947 after his divorce from Nancy Myers came through.

10He then spent two years in Rhodes as director of public relations for the Dodecanese Islands. He left Rhodes to become the director of the British Council Institute in Cordoba, Argentina, during 1947–48. He later moved to Belgrade, where he was press attaché from 1949 to 1952. ‘You know’, he told an interviewer, ‘I am so travel-stained’ (Plimpton 266).

11Durrell returned to the Mediterranean in 1952. He was then forty-three years old. He bought a stone house in Cyprus and earned a living teaching English literature. Finally, years later, he finally settled in Sommières in the south of France in 1957. Durrell married twice more. He wed his third wife, Claude-Marie Vincendon, in 1961. He was devastated when she died of cancer in 1967. His fourth marriage to Ghislaine de Boysson in 1973 ended in 1979. His later years were shadowed by the suicide of his daughter, Sappho-Jane, in 1985. His final work, Caesar’s Vast Ghost, was published in 1990.

Lawrence Durrell died in the same year on November 7 at Sommières.

  • 5 Hill stations were a typical British invention. Small towns were set up in the hills to enable Engl (...)

12By any account, Durrell’s was a long and variegated career and a life of much complexity, diversity, and experience. Larry spent about eleven years of his life—the first eleven years of his life!—in India. Once uprooted, he never went back. Yet India, it seems, was always an intrusive presence in his mind. When he was born, as the doctors attended to his mother, he had been left for ‘dead among the bloody towels, where he was later discovered, he fervently hoped, reciting the Bhagwat-Gita’ (MacNiven 1998, 14). There were occasions in Corfu, when he sat down to one of Luisa Durrell’s characteristic Indian curries redolent with the scent of herbs. Anaïs Nin described her first encounter with Larry in Paris thus: ‘In body he is short and stocky with soft contours like a Hindu, flexible like an oriental, healthy, and humorous’ (Nin). In Rhodes, he was constantly reminded of Kurseong in India where he went to school (1998, 307), or ‘Kharsang’ which in Lepcha means ‘Land of the White Orchids’, is a hill station,5 located at an altitude of 1500 metres and is just 30 km from Darjeeling. It has a pleasant climate throughout the year and the town thrives mainly on schools and tourism. In Cyprus, he met Diana Gould and her celebrity husband, Yehudi Menuhin, who was later to associate himself with Ravi Shankar, the Sitarist and the father of Norah Jones, and became widely known in India.

13Larry wanted Justine translated into Bengali by Budhadev Bhattacharya (MacNiven 1998, 460). When Fiddle Viracola accepted his invitation to come to Sommières in April 1970, she got Larry to chant her Buddhist mantra, nam myoho range kyo—‘Reverence to the sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law.’ She had been raised a Catholic and, unlike Larry, she had kept her Christian faith, simply adding Buddhism to her spiritual stock. ‘You are a spiritual being’, she told him then and over the following years. ‘Fiddle, keep chanting’, Larry would write at the back of a post card to her. Fiddle’s visit, Larry recalled to Harry, was ‘such a perfect experience’ (1998, 577). In trying to explain the importance of The Black Book as a forerunner of the Quartet, Larry explained how valuable poetry had been to him to learn finesse. When he had been at school at Darjeeling, only one boy had been able to catch the large green lizard intact without its tails falling off. ‘That strikes me as the best analogy that I can give you’, he told an interviewer. ‘To try and catch your poem without its tail falling off’ (Plimpton 270).

14In Sommière, France, La Maison de M Tarte had a glassed-in back verandah (bright with huge expanses of clear glass softened by the green tinted panes around the edges) which he said was straight out of Darjeeling in India where Larry had been sent in 1921 to join St Joseph’s College a day after his ninth birthday. The rampant overgrown garden itself Larry simply called Darjeeling. The Darjeeling Room was going to be referred to fairly regularly in his correspondence in future (MacNiven 1998, 620, 546, 553).

15Once when Larry opened a linen cupboard, he found himself staring at a large cobra, with its hood fully spread. During Durrell’s visit to Egypt, a cobra or two appeared as if to remind him of his bond with India (Durrell to Miller, 25 Nov., 1977, MacNiven 1988, 491).

16In Sommière, he compared a house that he visited to attend a Buddhist event as ‘precisely the country house chateaux that might be inhabited even today by a hill-rajah’ (Durrell 1980, 34). Sometimes Larry cooked a flamy Madras curry ‘fresh from the armpits of Krishna’ (Durrell 1980). He recollected later in life: ‘The taste of those jelabys [an Indian sweetmeat] still remains with me. Only my mother could make them quite as well’ (MacNiven 1998, 40). In 1986, at the Pennsylvania State University conference which focused on his writings, Larry began his lectures by tracing his Indian and Greek roots. He at one point remarked:

If I could have done one Tibetan type novel, and one European type novel, and left them to marry each other, and made a poetic equation, which is a challenge which might offer a toehold to young poets and young thinkers, my job will have been done. (Durrell 1990, 20)

17Larry had often said that he wanted ‘to die “on [his] feet, with all systems working”: this would be the ideal Buddhist death, with the dying person alert and fully conscious of the process of death’ (MacNiven 1998, 688). In Blue Thirst, Durrell remarks, ‘You have two birth-places. You have the place where you were really born and then you have a place of predilection where you really wake up to reality’ (Durrell 1975, 24). In his Pennsylvania address, he admitted that ‘I had not been at all conscious, being so British, that India had been rubbed off on me at all until I became fifty years old . . .’ (Durrell 1990, 11).


But all through this period I had been unconsciously doing yoga, having watched my father do it . . . . But the Buddhic and yogic function seemed to me to tie in somehow with this poetic function, and I suddenly realized—I had not conceptualized the whole matter—it seemed to me that the whole poetic function, the poetic equation, was, what in fact, what my yoga teacher was trying to sell. (Durrell 1990, 13)

18Of his mother he said: ‘I think really at heart she was a budhist. . . . I have a vague memory of two lamas kissing her feet’ (MacNiven 1998, 11). Gordon Bowker tells us that the Buddhist priests who instructed Larry believed that he had reincarnated and was living as a vineyard keeper in Burgundy (Bowker 425).

19As I have mentioned earlier, Larry’s narratives are dotted with Indian myths, motifs and icons. What amazes one is the casual ease with which these bits and pieces of India find themselves strewn over such a vast body of writing. The following is from Justine:

  • 6 All quotations from Justine (London: Faber, 1957), Clea (London: Faber, 1960), Balthazar (London: F (...)

From the dark platform comes the crunch of the rifle butts and the clicking of Bengali. A detail of Indian troops on some routine transfer to Cairo. It is only as the train begins to leave, and as the figure at the window, dark against the darkness, lets go of my hand, that I feel Melissa is really leaving; . . . Beside me a tall Sikh shoulders a rifle he has stopped with a rose. (Justine 91)6

In Balthazar, Mountolive’s father is reported as having been

a judge in India. When he retired, he stayed on there. He is still there; foremost European scholar on Pali texts. I must say Mountolive has not seen him for nearly twenty years. He dressed like a sadhu [mendicant saint] he says. (Balthazar 220)

20On Balthazar’s mantelpiece is an Indian woodcarving of monkeys, which neither saw, nor spoke, nor heard evil (Balthazar 220). Balthazar quotes Pursewarden writing to D. H. Lawrence: ‘I am simply trying not to copy your habit of building Taj Mahal out of anything as simple as a good f – k’ (Balthazar 220).

  • 7 About the time Goa is referred to, the sea shore resort with wonderfully sandy beaches and great we (...)
  • 8 Pāli is a Middle Indo-Aryan language (or prakrit) of India. It is best known as the language of man (...)

21Clea refers to the beach resort of Goa in Central India (Clea, Quartet 103),7 familiar to all those who took interest in the lives of the flower children of the sixties! Mountolive’s father’s study of the Pali texts is referred to and a quotation is produced with some surprise (Mountolive 97).8 A comment on ‘Egypt today’ in Mountolive is annotated thus: ‘ . . . the abyss that separates the rich from the poor—it is positively Indian’ (Mountolive 104). India as a point of reference occurs again in Monsieur:

One of the dervishes brought a large flat wicker basket which he placed at the feet of Akkad, who lifted the lid from it and disclosed a very large snake—a species of Cobra that I had not seen before. It was much bigger than the ordinary Egyptian cobra and could have perhaps been Indian. (Monsieur, Quintet 118)

  • 9 ‘Yet in her slow and thoughtful description it was all there: the whole Indian Ocean around the cou (...)

22The Avignon Quintet contains references to ‘Piers’ posting in Delhi’ (Monsieur, Quintet, 28) and his return from India, the Ganges (154), the Indian Ocean,9 the lotus pose and Indian meditation (205), Lokesvara (255), which literally means the Lord of the universe, ‘a book about India’ (267), and Buddha (269). Sutcliffe wants to come ‘to India. Learn Sanscrit [sic], write out a cheque for a million, apologize to God’ (281). Sylvie writes to Bruce about India (28). Bombay Duck makes an appearance in Monsieur (121), so does ‘an Indian tea’ (Livia, Quintet 525).

23Livia has Blanford pronouncing a sutra: ‘The Kismet for novelist with cook-housekeepers. But I have only Cade and he can’t cook’ (Livia, Quintet 315). Livia disappears somewhere in Asia (319). ‘Sam’s ambition was simple—all he wanted to do was to climb Everest single-handed, and on his return rescue a beautiful blonde maiden from a tower where she had been imprisoned by an enchanter, and marry her’ (327–328).

We have Blanford hearing
the sweet voice of Livia intoning Aum of yoga as she sat in the green thicket behind the tower, recharging her body, re-oxygenating her brain. Remembering a phrasing from another life: The heart of flesh in the breast is not the vagra heart; like an invented lotus the valves of the flesh heart open by day and close by night during sleep.
(Livia, Quintet 411)

In the same chapter there is Sutcliffe whom

Livia had taught . . . several yoga asanas [yogic postures] and now every morning he obediently performed them while he thought of her sitting somewhere out among the olives beyond the tower in the lotus pose which seemed to cost her no effort at all, intoning the Aum; or lying in the corpse posture, snuffing out her whole will and body, and by her meditation ‘swallowing the sky.’ He was rather afraid that that was very much a fad, though he admitted to feeling better after it.
(Livia, Quintet 414)


For his part the great man had started to do yoga by the lake. ‘Come’, he said in magisterial fashion, ‘sharpen your intuition in the cobra pose.’
(Livia, Quintet 475)


He read a cheap pamphlet on yoga and realized that he was walking in the wrong way, his breathing rhythms were at odds with his steps.
(Livia, Quintet 544)

24The Black Book reminds us of ‘Letters with Indian stamps on them’ (52), the sounds of drums, opaque lightening (152), and vivid evocation of the image of Tibet (237–238).

25An Indian mystical streak gradually develops and makes its appearance in a variety of contexts. Ian MacNiven in an article on Durrell which I have referred to earlier and which he published in India on his visit there, maintains how ‘ . . . in a very real sense [Durrell’s] entire creative life was characterized by a spiritual and intellectual return to India’ (MacNiven 1996, 7–10,7). Also: ‘Durrell called into question the ego-driven, possessive nature of love in the western world; indeed he called the Quartet “an investigation of modern love”’ (MacNiven 1996, 9). The Revolt of Aphrodite continued to probe the nature of love, but it also attacked the materialism of the western society and the greed of transnational corporations. Durrell set out to show the impossibility of the discrete ego, of the unique or and the indivisible personality, and to reconcile western and eastern thought on the subject. On April 1, 1981, Durrell told his audience at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris: ‘“Of course long ago the Indians had told us that the notion of the discrete and separate ego was also an illusion—perhaps a dangerous one”’ (MacNiven 1996, 7, 9). MacNiven quotes Durrell:

‘I am often asked if I was not marked by India’, Durrell said. ‘Obviously to live in a country where the whole population both civil and ecclesiastical was trying implacably to seek a fulcrum of repose at the heart of reality: a country where people were living alongside nature, and not in tangence to it, gives off a very powerful flavour, permeating the air.’ (MacNiven 1996, 10)

In Monsieur, we have:

You were not obliged to die if you knew how to go on living without wearing out—you could cross the time barrier into the hibernation of selflessness, such as the wise men of the East still know in fragmentary form, for it falls just short of immortality. (Monsieur, Quintet 216)

Also :

‘But I’m hoping for a materialism which is profoundly qualified by mysticism—a link between Epicurus and Pythagoras, so to speak. . . . It would be a marvellous contribution to the future, for we can’t continue with this worn-out materialism of ours, it leads us nowhere. while we are eroding the Indian vision, drowning it in our technology, India is eroding ours, drowning Europe in all the vast meekness of pure insight!’ He stopped.
‘You mean the world is becoming one place?’
‘Yes! It so obviously must if there is to be a future for humanity. Surely we can dream? Why should man be the only animal who knows better but always fares worse?’
(Quinx, Avignon 1144–1145)

26Since no English author would feel having ‘arrived’ unless he made an appropriate overture to the Kama-sutra theme, in Panic Spring ‘the original yoni [vagina] of Eve’ (153) is accorded an honourable mention.

  • 10 John A. Weigel: ‘indifferent’ and ‘ingenuous’ (Weigel 41); G. S. Fraser, ‘ . . . it is not very goo (...)

27Any consideration of Lawrence’s interest in India must devote some attention to Pied Piper of Lovers. It is a paean to India. Ian MacNiven provides an admirable summary. Walsh Clifton, half-caste son of an English father and a ‘native’ mother—she is probably Burmese—grows up running more or less wild in the hill country near Tibet, is sent to a boarding school in England, falls in love and moves to a cottage in the south of England (MacNiven, 1998, 12). Generally not rated very high,10 it has been rightly suggested that the only merit of the novel is the Indian backdrop against which Larry lives through his early youth in this narrative. The portrait of the young man as an artist—a major theme of the novel—is developed, despite obvious flaws, consistently. India dominates the first third of the novel. The early narrative evokes the merciless monsoon in the sub-continent with a fine touch. The mosquito netting, the khaki shirt, and the face of a stone Buddha make inevitable appearances. The natives with their ‘fatal silence and belief’ are vividly portrayed. As the young hero, John Clifton, goes out into the rain-lashed landscape to assess the damage done to his work, he spots a Fakir:

Then out of another dusk strode the tall figure of the fakir; the tangle of hair, and the cadaverous gargoyle that was his face streaked with lime . . . . His dislocated body, smeared with lime and ashes, trembled under its scanty covering of rag clothes. In one hand, he carried a staff around which he had wound the limp corpse of the snake. His voice, high, but distinct, was raised to the slaying of his gods. (Gifford 2008, 16)

28The character of ayah, the maid, is one of the best etched and earthy. The muddy natives appear frequently enough. Calcutta makes an appearance, a monkey man, Bhutia and his dandy, the carpenter and the coffin, even a copy of the daily Times of India find a place in the landscape of the novel.

29This, then, is Larry’s India, gleaned bit by bit. Out of such a large body of writing that Larry produced, his novels, prose and poetry, memoirs and letters, what does one gather as Durrell’s view of India? My view is he has none. He does not have a view of India. His highly impressionistic tidbits cohere into just that, highly impressionistic tidbits sprinkled unconnected and unmindfully over a considerable accumulation of his writing. One’s first response to such a wide variety of references to India—the nation, its culture, its ancient past, the people and its politics, its myths and icons—is one of abundance, abounding in comments and observations, and which would prove a mine of imaginative insights into a people, their minds and habits; a weighty assessment of their history and culture, and an astute interpretation and a psychological profile of an ancient land. Endless references to India, freckled all over the Durrell oeuvre, one’s conclusion is, are an endless parade of signifiers signifying nothing! A land deeply felt in mind and thought finds no place in Durrell’s writings. An odd reference to ‘black Brahmaputra’ in one of his later poems notwithstanding, Allan Ross’s edition of Durrell’s selected poems, which runs to about a hundred pages and is fairly representative of Durrell’s six book of poems and more, contains perhaps not one figure of speech which could be traced back to Durrell’s creative interaction with the land of his birth.

30If there is an India in Pied Piper of Lovers, Durrell’s very Indian book, it is not an India that is active in the narrative. India is a matter of detail, not a factor in the narrative. In Pied Piper of Lovers Durrell praised the hill servants, but he caricatured the ordinary natives in terms that would have amused the most pukka sahib—‘they were thieving groveling, “sons and daughters of sows” with . . . “raised black paws”, and they beat their wives.’ The book, as McNiven remarks, was to be a memorial to the Kim aspect of Larry’s past (1998, 91). What I regret about this remark is not that it is not complimentary or even incorrect but that this is a cliché that one could have found in any Englishman writing about India during the Raj.

  • 11 ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Gifford 2008, vii, ix. See also Richard Pine: ‘It was Lawrence Durrell’s l (...)
  • 12 See, for instance, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ (Gifford 2008, vii-xvii).

31It is not surprising that recent scholarship has invoked Durrell as a perfectly suitable subject for a study of concepts such as ‘post-colonialism’ and ‘exile’. Comments such as ‘This experience of colonial privilege mixed [Durrell’s] sense of exile’ or ‘The deeply felt conflict between Mother India and father England echoes in the sense of exile that remains prevalent in all of Durrell’s subsequent work’—crop up with increasing frequency.11 Durrell himself had remarked: ‘[M]y thinking is coloured by the fact that I am a colonial, an Anglo-Indian, born into that strange world of which the only great poem is the novel Kim by Kipling’ (Durell 1982, 1). The presence of Mulk Raj Anand, later to be a distinguished Indian novelist, and the fact of his close friendship with Durrell are considered ground enough to lend the British Modernists’ phase a South Asian dimension.12

32We should perhaps convince ourselves that Larry more or less did not write about India. Asked pointedly later in life why, Larry replied: ‘So rapidly I became a European that my source material ran out. And anyway, Forster had done it so much better than one could hope to do’ (MacNiven 1998, 96). While the scenes set in India in Pied Piper of Lovers are the best parts of the novel, ‘India vanishes without leaving a discernible trace on the personality of Walsh’ (MacNiven 1995, 11). ‘I am not an Englishman, only an Anglo-Indian’ (MacNiven 1998, 144). ‘Despite his disclaimers, he felt an Englishman, at least British’ (MacNiven 1998, 253). To Henry Moore who planned to write a monograph on him, Larry advised: ‘For God’s sake don’t go to India. Just read Kim’ (MacNiven 1998, 538).

33Believing in a certain kind of India was perhaps obligatory for an Englishman during the Raj to gain his rightful place in the fraternity of ‘India-returns’. After all, one had to have a politically correct attitude. Also, Larry was brought up in a certain context and that context was the English context and not the Indian context, a context Lawrence Samuel Durrell, Larry’s father, believed in and which Larry inescapably inherited. Being India born and India educated with an Anglo-Indian accent ensured one a lower social standing. The stigma of Indian roots—Seargent Samuel Lawrence, Larry’s grandfather, of the Royal Artillery, had arrived in India in 1876 on a transfer—could be washed away only through return to the father-land and if possible a walk through the portals of Oxford and Cambridge. It is interesting how a great majority of young Indians still hold this view, though the American lure has taken some shine off the Cliffs of Dover.

34Also, the India that the Durrells lived in was an India of their fantasies. It was borrowed from the oriental myths of terrified and terrifying master race rather than from their lived experience of the land. An average Englishman’s imaginative topography of India was rooted in the potent dreams of Maharajas, elephants, and cobras! Larry’s conform to it in more ways than one.

35My criticism, I must hasten to add, does not spring from any belief that Larry has nothing much good to say about his India, but the fact that an author of such a vast body of imaginative writing, a man of remarkably diverse experience, whose experience adversity only deeply enriched, an author who wrote Justine, whose ability to evoke and capture the heart of a place remains unrivalled—such an author betrays poor grasp of the spirit of the land which gave birth to him and his ancestors. What I find even worse is Durrell’s lack of any curiosity in this context.

  • 13 See for an interesting analysis Donald P. Kaczvinsky, ‘Durrell and the Political Unrest: Paris, May (...)
  • 14 ‘And I have been warning [Hoki] to think twice before going to Paris now—because of the riots—five (...)

36Durrell’s ‘lack’ of interest has a parallel. He could, tortoise-like, withdraw himself into his shell. During the three weeks following the students protests at Nanterre, which quickly spread all over, Larry may have been indulging his friend Miller’s wife Hoki (Bowker 334) or nursing guilt for the same reason for having cuckolded his friend (MacNiven 1998, 558ff), but he remained certainly totally uninvolved in the events that shook France in 1968. Julian Barnes projects the protagonist of Metroland, in Paris during the May uprising, as unaware and uncurious about what was going on around him, much like Darley; more to the point, much like Durrell himself.13 It is interesting how Durrell’s correspondence to Miller in May makes no mention of protests, while Miller’s letter of May 13 provides him with a graphic picture, even if Durrell wasn’t watching TV and reading newspapers in Sommières and had remained totally uninformed about what went on up north in Paris.14 Ironically, during the 1968 student radicalism that erupted in Nantes, there were many who treated Justine as a cult book.

37While Durrell in my opinion had only peripheral and notional interest in India and other India related matters and very little knowledge of most aspects of Indian society, arts, culture or history, how is it, then, one might ask, that India does show up, however inconsequentially, in his writings frequently enough, with a fair degree of regularity, as I have tried to illustrate? By way of a detour, we could perhaps take a quick look at Milton’s ‘interest’ in India to ascertain the meaning and significance of a familiar iconic signifier serving as a point of reference in a writer’s oeuvre.

38There is a sense in which this was always a small world. This was a small world even before the advent of new technologies colonized the world and made us feel as if we were all closeted in the same room, watching the same movies, listening to the same radio frequencies, and being affected similarly by identical happenings anywhere in the world. So, even much before the Raj made it inescapable for great many Englishmen to come to terms with India, India was a factor, if not in the databanks, at least in the minds of many an Englishman.

  • 15 ‘Bunyan Trees and Fig leaves: Some Thoughts on Milton’s India’ (Rajan 50–66).

39B. Rajan has drawn attention to the level and degree of Milton’s interest in India.15Miltonic imagination waxed eloquent only so much as to invite a bare paragraph in Milton Encyclopaedia for the entry on ‘India’ (Hunter 1978). Yet Milton’s references in Paradise Lost to Agra and Lahore and the opulent wealth of India lend themselves to such neat anthologizing in textbooks that every schoolboy in India knows them by heart. The nature of the total Miltonic effort that goes into conjuring the mystery of the Indian sub-continent is fascinating. While the common understanding is to treat Miltonic references to India as ‘unrelated excursions into the exotic, part of an encyclopaedic epic’s obligation to beencyclopaedic even in its naming of places’ (Rajan 50) the most conspicuous characteristic of all the references to India is that nearly all of them occur in infernal contexts. Milton allows Satan to appropriate India. The first book of Paradise Lost is full of pejorative references to the Orient. By the time Milton came to write his epic, East India Company had been in existence for three quarters of a century. The Peacock Throne was already the symbol of the opulent East. Satan’s ‘Throne of royal state’ definitely points to the pearl-fringed canopy and golden pillars of the Peacock Throne on which the canopies stood. Milton’s choice of the snake, the Bunyan tree, and the Ganges for Satanic association are ill chosen because in India the three are symbols of purity and sanctity. Milton’s choice of these symbols, arising out of ignorance, should lead to rupture in the poetic syntax in a key moment in the life of the great epic.

40Milton’s India, carefully interwoven into the great epic, is not an India that an Indian would recognize. What makes Milton’s India non-recognizable as well as un-acceptable to an Indian, is not that the picture presented is not a pretty one, is not exactly flattering, or does nothing to sooth the psychologically insecure psyche of an Indian mind. But that it is a picture invented to suit a particular purpose. The India of Milton, then, is the Other that Milton needed to invent to define himself and his ideals. It is invented to serve an ideological end and, more than that, a poetical end. Milton’s India need not have existed. It is part of a myth that Milton created into which he wanted to interweave his avowed espousal of his God whose ways he so fervently sought to justify.

41While Durrell loved Elizabethans, of Milton he confessed that his ‘antipathy to Milton has made me fearfully unjust to him because he bores me’ (Durrell 1974, 589). Yet India serves the same purpose for Durrell as it did for Milton. India for him becomes the Other. Durrell sought to understand the rest of the world by resorting to his childhood memories—memories which happened to have intertwined themselves around the eleven years of his childhood that he spent in India. Durrell turned to India as a child turns to a stuffed toy to hug to go to sleep. This is what explains the sheer triviality of Durrell’s anyway feeble interest as well as a shallow understanding of matters Indian. The exotic and the peculiar, oriental view was not his. His view of India, trivial, flat, and common is sometimes interesting, but never out of the ordinary. Larry appears to have grasped nothing of the Indian culture, history, thought, religion, or even philosophy, even broadly, certainly not with any degree of subtlety. Of Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Kerr has written:

He is still an author who can inspire passionate disagreement and his place in literary and cultural history is far from settled. But as the age of the European empires recedes, he is recognized as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced. That, and an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts, make him a force to be reckoned with.
(Kerr 2010; italics added)

42One wonders if one could find even a modicum of similar perception in Durrell to compare with what Kerr draws our attention to in Kipling.

43Durrell is justly admired as a writer of major achievements. One of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, his entire fiction, much like Proust’s, is one interconnected universe. He had a remarkable eye for detail and, along with storms of passion and emotional tornados that dot his fiction, his verse often captures the gentle breeze of softer human emotions and has been much commended for it. Durrell was too important a writer for his writings to suffer from a blemish that one detects in his attitude to the country of his birth. After all, he did not choose to be born there. But the myth of an Indian Durrell, or Durrellian India, if you like, refuses to die, occasionally fanned as it is by scholarship focusing on ‘Lawrence Durrell: Writer of East And West’ (MacNiven 1996) or ‘The Resonance of India in the Novels of Lawrence Durrell’ (Nambiar).

44Even when the context does not require invoking of the ghost of India, a quick glance towards the Indian nation is considered mandatory in all Durrell related activities. The editor, for example, of The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader, which contains not a word about India, felt constrained to remark in his preface: ‘[Durrell] detested dreariness, and left behind his youth in England in search of something opposed to it—something that he had perhaps known during his early childhood in India!’ (Willis vii) ‘A popular literary website actually lists him in the category of “Indian Literature”’.16

45About his search for the confluence of the east-west metaphysics, he said a year before the publication of the last volume in the Quartet, Clea: ‘I am just as much in the dark as the reader’ (Plimpton 279). His territorial commitments were obvious to him when he admitted: ‘I am writing for England—and so long as I write English it will be for England that have to write’ (Plimpton 263), even though, he conceded, ‘a touch of European fire was necessary, as it were, to ignite the dull sodden mass that one became, living in an unrestricted suburban way’ (Plimpton 262). Paul Theroux, while merely passing through India, captures more of the culture, politics and, in fact, the life of India and India matter and cohered his observations into a rounded critique in The Great Railway Bazar , I am afraid, one would find in the entire oeuvre of Durrell. In his recently published The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux concludes his stint in India thus:

  • 17 In The Ghost Train Theroux quotes Borges (‘India is larger than the world’, 146) and in The Great R (...)

I finally left . . . India. What sent me away was not the poverty, though it was pathetic and there was plenty of it. It wasn’t the dirt, though it sometimes seemed to me that nothing in India was clean. It wasn’t the pantheon of grotesque gods, some like monkeys, some like elephants, some wearing skulls as ornament, some in a posture of repose under the hood of a rearing cobra—terrifying or benign to the believers propitiating them with flowers. It was not the widow-burning, or the child marriages or the crowd of the cringing and limbless, the one-eyed, the stumblers, the silent ones who hardly lifted their eyes. An experience of India could be like entering a painting by Hieronymus Bosch—among the deformed, the fish-faced, the crawling, the flapping, the beaked, the scaly, the screaming, the armless, and the web-footed.
Not the heat, either, though everyday in the south it was high 90s. Not the boasting and booming Indians and their foreign partners screwing the poor and the underpaid for profit. Not the roads, though the roads were hideous and impassable in places, Not the fear of disease or the horror of the obscenely wealthy, though the sight of the superrich in India could be more disquieting than the sight of the most wretched beggar.
None of these. They can be rationalised.
What sent me away finally was something simpler, but larger and inescapable. It was the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the billion-plus, the sight of them, the sense of desperation and hunger, having to compete with the them for space on sidewalks, on roads, everywhere . . . . All of them jostling for space, which made for much of life there a monotony of frotteurism, life in India being an unending experience of non-consensual rubbing . . . like those ants on the rotting fruit.17
(Theroux 1988, 235-236)

46Durrell’s Indian gems—sometimes amusing in their intensity of a neophyte’s response—are so slight of substance that if there is an India in Durrell, it is not worth recovering. The celebrated Durrellian sensitivity to the ‘spirit of place’ needs neither recapitulating here, nor documentation. India just happened to be a place which did not provide fodder for Durrellian thought.

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Begnal, Michael H., ed. On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell, Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1990.

Borges Jorge Luis, ‘Man on the Threshold’, The New Yorker April 4, 1970.

Bowker, Gordon, Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell (1996); London: Pilimco, 1998.

Brigham, James A., ‘Afterword’, Pied Piper of Lovers, ed. James Gifford, Victoria: U of Victoria, 2008.

Chamberlin, Brewester, Chronology of the Life and Times of Lawrence Durrell: The Durrell School of Corfu, 2007.

Diboll, Michael V., Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its Egyptian Contexts, Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen P, 2004.

Durrell, Lawrence, ‘Introduction’, John Canning ed. 100 Hundred Great Books: Masterpieces of All Times, London: Souvenir P, 1974.

Durrell, Lawrence, Blue Thirst, Capra Press, 1975.

Durrell, Lawrence, The Black Book (1938); London: Faber, 1977.

Durrell, Lawrence, A Smile in the Mind’s Eye, London: Wildwood, 1980.

Durrell, Lawrence, ‘From the Elephant’s Back’, Poetry London/Apple Magazine 2, 1982.

Durrell, Lawrence, ‘Overture’, ed., Michael H. Begnal, On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell, Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1990, 11–24.

Durrell, Lawrence, The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader, Clint Willis, ed., New York: Caroll and Graf, 2004.

Durrell, Lawrence, Pied Piper of Lovers, ed. James Gifford, 1935; Victoria: U of Victoria P, 2008a.

Durrell, Lawrence, Panic Spring, ed. James Gifford, Victoria: U of Victoria P, 2008b.

Ezard, John, ‘Durrell Fell Foul of Migrant Law’, The Guardian 29 April 2004.

Fraser, G. S., Lawrence Durrell: A Critical Study, London: Faber, 1968.

Gifford, James, ‘Forgetting A Homeless Colonial: Gender, Religion and Transnational Childhood in Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper Of Lovers’. Online: June 16, 2003.

Gifford, James, ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Lawrence Durrell, Pied Piper of Lovers, Victoria: U of Victoria P, 2008.

Hunter, William B., A Milton Encyclopedia: Le-N, Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1978.

Kaczvinsky, Donald P., ‘Durrell and the Political Unrest: Paris, May 1968’, In-between: Essays and Studies in Literary Criticism, 11.2 (2002): 171–179.

Kerr, Douglas, ‘Rudyard Kipling’, 23 March 2010.

‘Lawrence Durrell’. - books_about. 10 October 2008. Last accessed on 10 June 2010.

Lillios, Anna, ‘Lawrence Durrell’, ed. Steven G. Kellman, Magill’s Survey of World Literature, Hackensack, NJ: Salem P, rev. ed. 2009, vol. 7: 2334–2342.

MacNiven, Ian S., ed. The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80, London: New Directions, 1988.

MacNiven, Ian S., ‘Ur-Durrell’, eds. Julius Raper, et al., Lawrence Durrell: Comprehending the Whole, Chicago: U of Missouri P, 1995.

MacNiven, Ian S., ‘Lawrence Durrell: Writer of East and West’, S.B. Academy Review, V.i (1996): 7-10.

MacNiven, Ian S., Lawrence Durrell: A Biography, Faber, 1998.

Naipaul, V.S., ‘It was at a railway station in Bombay that V.S. Naipaul’, An Area of Darkness (1975); Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Nin, Anaïs, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967.

Nambiar, Ravindran C., ‘The Resonance of India in the Novels of Lawrence Durrell.’ The Literary Criterion 27.1-2 (1992): 43–49.

Plimpton, George, ed., The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Second Series (1963); Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Rajan, B., Under Western Skies: India from Milton to Macaulay, Durham: Duke UP, 1999.

Theroux, Paul, The Great Railway Bazar.

Theroux, Paul, The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008.

Thomas, Alan G., Lawrence Durrell: Spirit of Place, Marlowe & Company, 1969.

Weigel, John A., Lawrence Durrell, New York: Twayne, 1989.

Willis, Clint, ed., The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader, NY: Caroll and Graf, 2004.

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1 Pied Piper of Lovers, ed. James Gifford (1935; Victoria: U of Victoria, 2008).

2 Several writers have written on this aspect of Durrell: See Ian MacNiven, ‘Lawrence Durrell: Writer of East and West’, S.B. Academy Review, V, i (1996) 7-10; Ravindran C. Nambiar, ‘The Resonance of India in the Novels of Lawrence Durrell.’ The Literary Criterion, 27.1–2 (1992): 43–49; James Gifford, ‘Forgetting A Homeless Colonial: Gender, Religion and Transnational Childhood in Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper Of Lovers’, Online: June 16, 2003, last accessed on 8 June 2010. A popular literary website lists him in the category ‘Indian Literature’: 10 October 2008. Last accessed on 8 June 2010.

3 See James A. Brigham, ‘Afterword’.

4 Lawrence Durrell, ‘Overture’ (Begnal 13). These are edited transcripts of his remarks that Durrell made at a conference held in his honour at Pennsylvania State University in 1986.

5 Hill stations were a typical British invention. Small towns were set up in the hills to enable Englishmen to escape the heat and dust of the plains in India.

6 All quotations from Justine (London: Faber, 1957), Clea (London: Faber, 1960), Balthazar (London: Faber, 1960) and Mountolive (London: Faber, 1960) and from the one-volume edition of The Avignon Quintet (London: Faber 1992) are referred to in the text parenthetically.

7 About the time Goa is referred to, the sea shore resort with wonderfully sandy beaches and great weather and its local cashew-nut brew called fenny was much in the news because it had been overtaken by the flower children of the sixties, then known as hippies.

8 Pāli is a Middle Indo-Aryan language (or prakrit) of India. It is best known as the language of many of the earliest extant Buddhist scriptures.

9 ‘Yet in her slow and thoughtful description it was all there: the whole Indian Ocean around the couple, the calm night sea, the tropical moon like some ghastly mango sailing in the clouds. The lady in her evening gown; tippet sleeves and sequins, every other inch a memsahib.’ (The Avingnon Quintet, Monsieur 200)

10 John A. Weigel: ‘indifferent’ and ‘ingenuous’ (Weigel 41); G. S. Fraser, ‘ . . . it is not very good on the whole’ (Fraser 10); Alan G. Thomas, ‘ . . . a somewhat “prentice” effort with no great intimations of what was to come’ (Thomas 164).
Pied Piper of Lovers has its admirers, too. ‘Pied Piper of Lovers is a revealing and fascinating work. As well as touching on many of the real circumstances of Lawrence Durrell’s youthful life, it introduces in nascent form themes, techniques and characters that Durrell will develop in his later novels.’ Michael Haag, Gifford 2008, back flap. Boone gives it even higher praise: ‘In many ways reminiscent of Woolf’s uneven but fascinating, The Voyage Out, Durrell’s first novel—seeing the light of day for the first time in 78 years—is an autobiographical Bildungsroman that takes a transnational “voyage in”, opening a window onto the writer honing his craft while tackling themes that recur throughout his career: the ambivalences of colonial politics; the collision of national identities; the existential homelessness of the modern exile; the psychosexual turbulences of maturation. Readers interested in modernism, scholars of postcolonial studies, and gender critics alike will welcome the opportunity to reappraise Durrell’s literary development in light of this hitherto unavailable text.’ (Boone).

11 ‘Editor’s Introduction’, Gifford 2008, vii, ix. See also Richard Pine: ‘It was Lawrence Durrell’s life-long ambition to make some kind of reconciliation between his innate Britishness and his acquired love, and deep understanding, of the eastern wisdoms which he first experienced during his Indian childhood’ (‘Foreword’, Diboll 2004, xi).

12 See, for instance, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ (Gifford 2008, vii-xvii).

13 See for an interesting analysis Donald P. Kaczvinsky, ‘Durrell and the Political Unrest: Paris, May 1968’ (Kaczvinsky 171-179). Brewester Chamberlin’s ‘Chronology of the Life and Times of Lawrence Durrell’ (2007) reassuringly tells us that Larry was in Sommières writing throughout the weeks of riots.

14 ‘And I have been warning [Hoki] to think twice before going to Paris now—because of the riots—five days of it now—which I think will continue all during the Peace talk. By now over a thousand policemen have been injured, not to speak of students. Thats quite something, much more than occurred in any of our bloody riots in the Negro quarters. Much much more’ (MacNiven 1988, 428).

15 ‘Bunyan Trees and Fig leaves: Some Thoughts on Milton’s India’ (Rajan 50–66).

16 ‘Today in Literature’. 10 October 2008. Last accessed on 8 June 2010. It has been recently suggested that Durrell never had British citizenship, though more accurately, he became defined as a non-patrial in 1968 due to the amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1962. Hence, he was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain under new laws and had to apply for a visa for each entry. See Ezard, John, ‘Durrell Fell Foul of Migrant Law’, The Guardian, 29 April 2004.

17 In The Ghost Train Theroux quotes Borges (‘India is larger than the world’, 146) and in The Great Railway Bazar, Theroux refers to V.S. Naipaul: ‘It was at a railway station in Bombay that V.S. Naipaul panicked and fled, fearing that he ‘might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd’ (Theroux 1977, 140).

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Gulshan Taneja, « An Indian View of an Indian View: Durrell’s India »Études britanniques contemporaines, 40 | 2011, 121-142.

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Gulshan Taneja, « An Indian View of an Indian View: Durrell’s India »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 40 | 2011, mis en ligne le 27 août 2015, consulté le 19 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Gulshan Taneja

University of Delhi.
Gulshan Taneja is an Associate Professor of English at RLA College, University of Delhi, where he teaches literary theory (postcolonial literary studies, Foucault and Derrida), Romantic poetry, and literature of the British modernist period. His publications include books on Yeats and Rushdie, articles on Joyce, Woolf, F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot, and a Festschrift, Literature East and West: Essays presented to R.K. DasGupta. He is the editor of a bi-annual from New Delhi,  In-between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism, from its inaugural issue in 1992. He edited a special issue of In-between devoted to Lawrence Durrell in 2002. His forthcoming publications include a collection of his previously published journal articles and book chapters and a monograph on Hamlet. He is a photographer, focuses on dance photography, and has written on photography. A forthcoming publication examines the use of literary critical terminology for appreciation and evaluation of photographic art-work.

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