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On Rereading Naipaul

By Namit Arora | Apr 2007 | Comments

An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul

India: A Wounded Civilization by VS Naipaul

I first read Naipaul in the mid-90s: India: A Million Mutinies, The Enigma of Arrival, and A Way in the World. They resonated with me well enough. But in the ensuing years, living in California and W. Europe, I read far more about Naipaul than by him (an excerpt from Beyond Belief; his essays in the NY Review of Books). Somehow, over time, my view of Naipaul began to sour.

This happened against the backdrop of another development. Post-colonial scholars on Western campuses had been asserting themselves for years, battling centuries of biases and prejudices. This wrought a whole lot of good but its flip side was a knee-jerk multiculturalism; many post-colonial writers took on defensive postures, hostile to negative criticisms of "their" culture, which they saw as a continuing exercise in power and colonial instincts. Outsider critiques became suspect, unless the author adhered to certain dogmas and symbols of political correctness. This trend wasn't going to be kind—and it wasn't—to a writer like Naipaul, who has called (academic) multiculturalism a racket.

Naipaul was derided by the likes of Said, Achebe, and Walcott, as well as by Indian and British authors like Rushdie, Dalrymple, Hariharan, and Ghosh. Nandy has called him "ethnocidal". His worldview distinctly contrasts with Sen's and Tharoor's (Mishra remained a fan, making Naipaul something of a model in his writing). Nor did it help that Naipaul, as a senior citizen, increasingly became crotchety, flouting basic norms of courtesy, making wild pronouncements in interviews, losing patience and railing at people. I too came to believe that Naipaul was unduly harsh and ungenerous, that he went about exposing illiberal aspects of the third-world while offering few critiques of the West, that, with several equally likely explanations for an event, he rarely missed the opportunity to pick out the least charitable.

During my recent two-year sojourn in India, I picked up the first two of Naipaul's travelogues on India. I began with some trepidation-they were said to be the most vitriolic, scathing, and unsympathetic (unlike his third book, A Million Mutinies Now). Widely rejected in India when first published, even the titles—An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization—irked, and still irk many Indians. Back then, Naipaul, with characteristic hauteur, ascribed this to Indians being poor readers and writers, lacking self-awareness, unable to handle the truth. Perhaps in vindication of his words—as many Indians have gained in cultural confidence in the last two decades—his books have gained in popularity and are widely available in Indian bookstores.

I must confess that after reading them, my opinion of Naipaul has improved sharply. I think he saw India more clearly than just about every other post-Independence writer. It was a thrill to read him again, doubly amazing given that the earlier of these, An Area of Darkness, was written in 1962-64, when he was just over 30. In hindsight, I think my souring on Naipaul owes a lot to my own cultural insecurities and defensiveness. Like his post-colonial critics, I too had begun to cite his random excesses to drown his more profound and pain-causing truths, and to prefer instead a rather bloodless, politically correct idea of India suitable for the needs of a liberal, cosmopolitan diaspora. This second time, I found Naipaul liberating to read.

Naipaul's family "abounded with pundits" but he was "born an unbeliever [and] took no pleasure in religious ceremonies. They were too long, and the food only came at the end". He didn't understand the language "and no one explained the prayer or the ritual. One ceremony was like another." As a youth, Naipaul "remained almost totally ignorant of Hinduism" but from it he perhaps "received a certain supporting philosophy." This helps explain Naipaul's eye for the unthinking religiosity he saw in India, and the scorn he heaps upon Indian "spiritualism". He also grew up with "the brahmin's horror of the unclean", which got fueled by the (then even more) common sight of Indians defecating in public places. India's poverty laid him low. He recoiled from what, in pockets of India, still shakes the sensitive tourist:

the beggars, the gutters, the starved bodies, the weeping swollen-bellied child black with flies in the filth and cow dung and human excrement of a bazaar lane, the dogs, ribby, mangy, cowed and cowardly, reserving the anger, like the human beings around them, for others of their kind.

Caste, he wrote around '62, was once a 

useful division of labor in a rural society, [but] it has now divorced function from social obligation, position from duties. It is inefficient and destructive; it has created a psychology which will frustrate all improving plans. It has led to the Indian passion for speech-making, for gestures and for symbolic action ... Symbolic dress, symbolic food, symbolic worship: India deals in symbols, inaction. Inaction arising out of proclaimed function, function out of caste ... It is the system that has to be regenerated, the psychology of caste that has to be destroyed. 

In An Area of Darkness, a book he much later attributed to "shock and concern", I found his response to India touchingly honest. He saw a civilization in an advanced state of decay, lacking creativity and drive, obsessed by symbols, caste and class, and short on historical self-awareness. The worldview of Indians invited plunder, he wrote, and the arbitration of a foreigner. He remarked on the widespread apathy and fatalism that made people ignore even their immediate environment. He noted their utter loss of aesthetic sensibilities of centuries ago.

His analysis of Gandhi, from his callow youth to the man he became—full of cranky ideas but confronting power and injustice in the way he did—is brilliant. What made Gandhi, he wrote, was his stint abroad, in England and S. Africa. He loudly ridiculed the lip service to Gandhi by Indian politicians, who do not understand him at all. His ripping apart of a charlatan like Vinoba Bhave is memorable.

It's not an infatuation with the West that defines Naipaul. After a few years in London, he realized that it

was not the center of my world. I had been misled; but there was nowhere else to go ... Here I became no more than an inhabitant of a big city, robbed of loyalties [except to persons], time passing, taking me away from what I was, thrown more and more into myself, fighting to keep my balance and to keep alive the thought of the clear world beyond the brick and asphalt and the chaos of railway lines. All mythical lands faded, and in the big city I was confined to a smaller world than I had ever known. I became my flat, my desk, my name ... it had convinced me that every man was an island ...

In both books, Naipaul is also harsh on the British in India. He considers their legacy a very mixed one: plunder and rejuvenation. "India was not conquered, the British realist said, for the benefit of Indians." It's true that in his oeuvre, he hasn't focused his gaze on the West. That's not what interests him, and this is his prerogative as a writer. To know his place in the world, he has said, required him to understand the roots of his society and his people in Trinidad, tracing them back to black Africa, India, and the Muslim world. And in his travels and writing, he has relentlessly followed this arc of curiosity and wonder.

Critics allege that Naipaul "supports" Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu nationalism that arose in India in the late 80s. But I've not read anything to substantiate this claim. Hindus, he believes, are awakening to their past and a sense of history perhaps for the first time ever—it is obvious that they will find in it a fair bit of pain, the tectonic force of which is bound to result in incidents like the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He calls this a "creative force", a precursor and mid-wife to a broader awakening. One can debate this idea but calling Hindutva inevitable and understandable is very different from lending support to it. I doubt that he considers the BJP enlightened or progressive. Invited by the BJP leadership, he met them as a curious man/writer; if Congress had invited him, he wrote, he would have met them too. The BJP drafted him as a "supporter" unilaterally, and Naipaul didn't care enough about what Rushdie and Dalrymple wrote about his "sympathies" for the BJP.

Having said that, I think Naipaul attributes too much of India's malaise to Islam (the wound of the "wounded civilization"). Long before Islam established itself in India, the civilizational decay that Naipaul speaks of, had risen organically within Hinduism. More than Islam, it was the grassroots devotional Hinduism (Bhakti, c. 800 CE+)—with its aversion to the material world—that had brought it on, sealing Buddhism's fate in India en route. This is something of a blind spot in Naipaul—blaming Hinduism's decay largely on the depredations of Islam, and not acknowledging the mixed legacy of Islam in India.

I found both travelogues brimming with curiosity, insight, and humanity (barring a few outbursts of sudden irritation, like "the rat-faced Anglo-Indian manager"; a rat-faced person, Sir Vidya?). Perhaps he found too little to praise, but much of what he wrote has a ring of truth. Both are expressions of a deep involvement with India. If there is loathing, there is also love, even if it's not the most recognizable kind, one that accentuates, often unreasonably, the finer side of the object of our love. One such though, I was able to spot in An Area of Darkness:

Afternoon now, and the train's shadow racing behind us. Sunset, evening, night; station after dimly-lit station. It was an Indian railway journey, but everything that had before seemed pointless was now threatened [by the advancing Chinese in the '62 Sino-Indian war] and seemed worth cherishing; and as in the mild sunshine of a winter morning we drew near to green Bengal, which I had longed to see, my mood towards India and her people became soft. I had taken so much for granted. There, among the Bengali passengers who had come on, was a man who wore a long woolen scarf and a brown tweed jacket above his Bengali dhoti. The casual elegance of his dress was matched by his fine features and relaxed posture. Out of all the squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many. Nowhere were people so heightened and rounded and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves so fully and with such assurance. To know Indians was to take delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure. I did not want India to sink; the mere thought was painful.


Further reading:

Articles in Outlook Magazine;

A Home for Mr. Naipaul;

Naipaul talks to Farrukh Dhondy;

Our Universal Civilization;

More interviews with Naipaul

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