Set long after Indian independence, Anita Desai’s short story “Scholar and Gypsy” (2.2768–85) examines the persistence of imperialistic thinking with a satirical eye. The American couple Pat and David respond to India in very different ways, but both of them are conditioned by residual imperialist ways of thinking and seeing. The farm-girl Pat is disgusted by the smell and hot physicality of “the wild jungles of the city of Bombay,” filled with “the greasy Indian masses, whining and cajoling and sneering—oh, horrible” (2.2770, 2780). Those same “greasy” city dwellers are exotic objects of fascination to David, a sociologist. When the two arrive in the mountain community of Manali, their perspectives are ironically reversed. Pat views these mountain people as delightful exotics, while Manali’s “squalid” streets filled with beggars and “snot-gobbed urchins” sicken David (2.2783). But whether intrigued or disgusted, both are still looking through imperialist eyes.
Pat and David each misread and try to appropriate the Indian culture they observe, “going native” in their very different ways. David “had bought himself crisp bush-shirts of madras cotton and open Kolhapur sandals…. He looked so right, so fitting on the Bombay streets” (2.2768–69). He eagerly enters into the night life of Bombay’s sophisticated set, joking that he’s “disappointed at finding them so westernised. I would have liked them a bit more primitive—at least for the sake of my thesis” (2.2770). Pat joins up with a group of Western hippies who have resolved to “live the simple life, wash themselves and their dishes in a stream, cook brown rice and lentils, pray and meditate in the forest, and, at the end, perhaps, become Buddhists” (2.2785). In an ironic reversal, these European and American indigents, begging in rags, are objects of horrified fascination to the Indian tourists who visit Manali. They give these “fair and tattered hippies” food and alms, and watch them with condescension, pity and incredulity, “exactly as if they were watching some disquieting although amusing play” (2.2782). Here, the imperial balance of power between Europeans and Indians seems to have been reversed. But beneath this apparent reversal, the whites are continuing to appropriate and lay claim to a culture they do not understand, just as they did under the Empire.