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The Black General

FOR NATALIA SERGEYEVNA GONCHAROVA

In fact, his father had sold cloth and carpets. But no one dared to remember that, when he came home from Cambridge, because the Viceroy himself received him.

At London soirees, in his student days there, he wore such bright, outlandish clothes, declaimed snatches of the Mahabharata so melodiously, declared so sincerely his hatred of everything European, that his success in British society was assured. More than one distinguished old Liberal dowager gave him letters of recommendation (and he took them) when he returned to Bombay (on a second-class ticket).

The rajah of his native state, shaken by his splendid leather suitcases, offered him his choice of posts, either tax collector for in-transit caravans, or the military rank of General. It was generally expected that he would choose to be tax collector, because there were many caravans, and there were not many soldiers. He chose to be a General. No one knew that the elderly American to whom he had explained the mysteries of yoga had died and left him, in his will, quite as much as he had left his valet — that is, rather a lot.

On the day of his appointment, the General appeared at the rajah’s palace. Sly rascal that he was, he had anticipated everything: inside his splendid leather suitcases there was, it turned out, a magnificent General’s uniform, completely ready. The whole city gathered to stare at him. His old mother sobbed with pride when he raced by on a specially imported, tinselly motorcycle. And the city’s leading portrait painter bribed the rajah’s servants with a whole rupee, just for the right to watch through the keyhole. He stared through, long, and patiently, and skilfully, soaking in — as a sponge sucks up water — the details of the General’s sumptuous costume and of his incredibly self-worshipping face. And finally he walked off, swaying like a camel — which meant, for him, a reverie of deep creative thought.

The little wooden cups, chiselled like lotus petals, burned with the most delicate, the most vivid pigments; his thinnest brushes flew among the little wooden cups with the speed and grace of a girl’s fingers, flying over the keys of a piano. And now a lacquered red wall began to appear, and a heavily blue sky, and in the foreground an inordinately conceited General began to take shape. How white his trousers, how rich the gold embroidery on his full-dress coat, how majestic the feathers on his three-cornered hat! In fact, one got to see such a General, as one saw the lotus in the act of blooming, only once in a hundred years.

A crowd began to assemble, moved, stirred, behind the artist’s back. The buzz of their rapture grew louder; they made, and then they relished, the wildest speculations. Most likely, the General would take one look at his portrait and make the artist his Major Domo. Yes, he would allow him to eat in his kitchen the rest of his long life — he would give him a sack with a hundred rupees. And a poet who happened by, a tall, bony old man from Tibet, knew the pangs of jealousy and thereupon composed a song, adhering strictly to the rigid rules of Tibetan versification:

The rajah,
The rajah’s General,
The rajah’s General’s full-dress coat,
The girl who will unbutton the rajah’s General’s full-dress coat,
The love that will immediately possess the girl who will unbutton the rajah’s General’s full-dress coat,
The son who will be born of the love that took possession of the girl who unbuttoned the rajah’s General’s full-dress coat.
The throne which will be conquered by the son born of the love that took possession of the girl who unbuttoned the rajah’s General’s full-dress coat,
The glory that will surround the throne conquered by the son born of the love that took possession of the girl who unbuttoned the rajah’s General’s full-dress coat,
India, which will be saved by the glory surrounding the throne conquered by the son born of the love that took possession of the girl who unbuttoned the rajah’s General full-dress coat:

The song was immediately copied by three scribes, onto a huge sheet of parchment. The General was supposed to pay them.

And here, along the city’s quiet streets, terrifying monkeys and peacocks, came the roaring, foul-smelling, tinselly little motorcycle — and the General.

“A Bath!”

And the trained servant from Bombay, who had worked for Europeans before, bowed and waved to a large rubber washbasin, filled with warmish water (because the General was not an athlete and was afraid of cold water). The full-dress coat fell smoothly onto the back of an armchair — unbuttoned, this time, not by a girl, but by the General himself. And next, imitating the full-dress coat, came the white pants with the gold stripe. Only the three cornered hat was belatedly in its proper place when the artists suddenly walked in, the portrait painter in front, the poet behind him, and each carrying his creation aloft. And behind them crowded in a host of admirers, and curious passersby — and among the latter the scribes, who after all had a professional interest in the matter. The General gasped, barked, swore,
“AKH!!!”
and began to shake. Just so, he remembered, a Russian General had gasped, barked, and begun to shake when they had served him uncoiled champagne in a restaurant.

“These black . . . What cheek!”

The portrait painter dropped his picture. The General began to jump up and down on it. The Tibetan poem, parchment and all, was torn into shreds. The crowd went numb. The General raved. He leaped about the room like a mad, ferocious monkey; naked, wearing only his three-cornered hat, he yelped and squealed like a jackal with a broken paw. Oh, this was a terrible General.

The servant from Bombay leaned his shoulder against the unwanted guests. Just so, he remembered, European servants pushed away visitors their masters found disagreeable. It only took a minute. The servant was wiping up the floor, because the bath had been overturned, and the General was calming himself down by unpacking his splendid leather suitcases. Ah: with ceremonial slowness he proceeded to hang on the wall an enlarged photograph of himself in his magnificent General’s uniform. How sly, he had planned it all, he had had his picture taken before he left London. And under the portrait, smiling happily, he pinned a newspaper clipping, in which his name was mentioned as one of those invited to some social evening. And by this time the servant was hiding the portrait painter’s picture, to sell for a farthing to the old-clothes man from Calcutta.

Far away, the scribes, all three of them, all unpaid, were beating the Tibetan poet. And the painter, who had bribed the rajah’s servants, expecting to achieve glory thereby, had demanded his money back, and instead they were beating him.

An Eastern story has to end with a moral. I’ll try to disgrace the wicked General. Here he is, arriving in Paris. He has visited the bedrooms of two cafe chanteuses, been received by three socialist members of Parliament, and decided to make a study of the artistic life of France. He stood silent while Anatole France dropped a few caustic remarks. He bought one of Matisse’s drawings. He was punched in the face, in some caf6, by Apollinaire. He even got permission to visit Goncharova’s studio, to see her work. And there, there, he saw the Indian portrait painter’s picture of him, which had come into her hands via Calcutta, London, and a black Hussar.

Ah, if he had been embarrassed, if he had experienced a delayed repentance! Then my story would be genuinely Eastern. But no, the scoundrel only exclaimed:

“Madame, can you really be interested in such trash? If you like, I can send you a thousand of them, from India.”

But he was lying, he’ll never send them. Because, thanks to people like him, there are no more artists in India.

Paris, July 1917

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