I have been a Eurocentric, heterosexual, white male ever since I was a little baby. An unreconstructed Marxist would say that this accident of birth—carelessly amplified of late by the sybaritic sojourn in a palazzo on the Grand Canal whose windows watch the West decline over the campanile of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari—is what has determined my consciousness for the remainder of my natural life; and, of course, the son of a b would be right. The thing about Marxism I have always thought unnerving is its directness, so reminiscent of New York dinner parties and conversations with your in-laws. Show me your bank statements, says Che Guevara between puffs on a Cuban stout, and I shall tell you what sort of verses you scribble.

Those who know me may find it difficult to believe that, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to join a friend of mine traveling to Bombay. I had no special reason for going, except that I was curious. In fact, ever since I began learning English as a child in Moscow—by the thrilling, though laborious, process of tracing the etymology of each new word down to its Sanskrit root and finding the semantic node where one golden bough of our tree of languages divided from the other—I have had some peculiar fondness for ancient India, which neither Kipling nor Indian singing movies did anything to suborn. I could read for hours on end about the worship of the Yoginis as the 64 manifestations of the great goddess Devi, yet what mattered to me was not the validity of the underlying belief, nor any of the incomprehensible speculations about the feminine creative force and the occult powers of the Puranic matri, but the fact that the chess queen of Russian fairytales, Baba Yaga, was probably one of that brood.

We boarded the plane in England, where the nation’s agriculture, already paralyzed by one cattle plague, was now in the grip of another: MASS CULL ON FARMS WIDENS AS MARKSMEN ARE CALLED IN was among the banners headlining the apocalypse. Writing about India, Kipling put it like this:

Look westward—bears the blue no
brown cloud-bank?

Nay, it is written—wherefore
should we fly?

On our own field and by our
cattle’s flank

Lie down, lie down to die!

Parliament had recently voted by a vast majority to outlaw fox hunting, and the day’s other news was that a band of animal rights protesters, wearing balaclavas and carrying “baseball bats and pickaxe handles,” had attacked a 62-year-old angler on the banks of the river Granta with shouts of “How many fish did you kill today?” and “How would you like a hook through your mouth?” Meanwhile, the Glasgow branch of a national chain of music shops had put on sale promotional shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Jesus is a c—,” whereupon the Lord Provost of that city, staking his all on the reality of a Europe that no longer exists outside the places where I live, directed the police to have them removed.

“We pride ourselves on offering the largest range of products available,” objected the shop’s manager as he ordered the shirts restocked, “and leaving it to the customers to choose whether they wish to purchase them.” As for me, I rather pride myself on being unable to repeat the obscenity in question even in a private conversation. I am a Eurocentric, heterosexual, white male, and consequently, I have inhibitions that are infinitely more sacred than many a truth. It was in this state of mind—rubbed raw by the Sunday newspapers until it filled itself to the point of screaming with the debris of every ethical calamity I had witnessed while living in England—that I got off the plane and saw Bombay.

It too offered the largest range of products available, a promise which I ever suspected to mean, at best, a dirty towel and, at worst, a shallow grave. Despite the lateness of the hour and all our meek demurrers, the man behind the wheel of the hotel car who identified himself as “Driver Ghana, Car No. 1733” immediately conveyed us to a brothel. This brought to mind a television commercial of the Gold War epoch in which the same elephantine—and plausibly Eastern European—presence paraded on the catwalk over and over again wearing the same shabby clothes, until the grand finale was announced (“And finally . . . beachwear!”) when she appeared wearing the shabby clothes yet again, but this time cradling a beach ball in her enormous arms. In short, perhaps because the props were even thinner on the ground than the taboos, it was clear to me at once that love in Bombay was impossible.

What of life? The following morning, the sun rose, laboriously, over the city and hung there, in the white sulfur mist, like the yolk of a rotten egg. It illuminated a hepatotoxic sea the color of overripe bananas, and a seafront promenade filled with the cries of hundreds of young, healthy men selling recreational drugs and children’s balloons: “Balam, balam, balam, balam! Hello? Balam, balam, balam, balam! Hello?” Nobody bought either, which only increased the sensation of having been awakened to a psychedelic rendition of some unknown canto of Dante’s Inferno, the one about the Circle of Inflated Balloon Sellers, the adults condemned to hawk children’s toys in a city where the children are busy panhandling.

Ah, those infamous children of India! Crippled, mutilated, filthy, with handsome, often refined, always serious faces, the children of India are busy begging alms from the tourists who come there, as a week’s close observation of my hotel companions made me realize, for no other purpose than to feel white, obviously a long forbidden pleasure in their countries of origin. The tourist industry’s marketing of Asia and Africa is undoubtedly the most ruthless colonial exercise in the history of mankind, compared to which the pith helmets of the Raj and the bayonets of the Boers are so much incongruous balloon selling. If you want to find racism on a global scale, visit your local travel agent. He will tell you that, if you really want to have fun, you should go where dark people live on two cents a day.

Now, I have seen something of poverty. I was born in an apartment where 35 people, from nine families, lived under one leaky roof, sharing a bath and a telephone. But Bombay does not suffer from poverty; it suffers from bestiality. If you are a Russian living under Brezhnev on two rubles a day, as often as not you will find a bucket of paint to make your corner of a hopeless universe slightly more habitable; if you are an Italian living in the postwar slums of Naples on your mother’s cooking, as often as not you will procure two meters of polka-dot georgette to make a blouse for Sophia Loren; but if you are an Indian living in Bombay under the shadow of a Coca Cola hoarding, you will do nothing but gaze, attentively yet dispassionately, upon a dusty road mined with rabid dogs, listening to the honking of horns in tin cars and munching on a chance scrap of venomous offal.

I fear that modern India is not only the immemorial past of Europe, but its impending future. There was a time when we, too, worshiped the Yoginis, and hurricanes, and flowers, in the distant millennia before our civilization became centered on man, on God, and on its own destiny, yet judging by the Sunday newspapers, that time is fast upon us once more. For to defend a fish in the Granta from a barbed hook, and to save a fox in Hampshire from being hunted with hounds, is not only not merciful, kind, or Christian, it is an act of pagan sacrilege on a par with the blasphemy of the greedy shopkeeper of Glasgow. To elevate beast to the place of man is to denigrate man to the level of beast.

The rivers in England, incidentally, are already the color of overripe bananas. Unless the taboos of our civilization are held sacred—and those who offer us the largest range of products available are strung up on lampposts as a matter of course—the day will surely come when the descendants of those same members of Parliament who now east votes for human rights and animal progress will sit half-naked in Trafalgar Square, amid dysenteric refuse and choleraic waste, with the mongrel descendants of their neighbors’ ancestral hounds for company. I cannot say that I am unrelievedly tearful at the prospect.