Naipaul: an abandoned child looks and relooks at the motherland

Naipaul always felt that his books would stand the test of time. But which of his books on India, after multiple visits to his ancestral land, will stand that test?

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
28 August 2018
naipaul .jpg

V.S.Naipaul. Photo taken by the author.

Naipaul was obsessed with the idea of exile. His composite hero is a quintessential exile and most of his books reflect continuity. His ancestors came from India. He grew up in Trinidad, spent his life in England and experienced double exile. The scattering of the people from their original homes fascinated him, pained him and gave him material that he treated with pathos and humour. His relationship with India remains a topic of intense exploration.

Naipaul’s travelogue An Area of Darkness, published in 1964, portrayed a poor and filthy India. It caused grave offence in his motherland. What mattered was its negative portrayal of India and Indians, not the book’s literary merits. No one read the title differently. Naipaul may have been suggesting that for him, India was and remained an area of darkness. He provoked sharp retorts in India and the book was banned. It was categorised alongside Mother India in which Katherine Mayo had attacked India’s society, culture and religion. The American historian’s polemical book, published in 1927, had been called by Gandhi “a drain inspector’s report”. Naipaul may have been suggesting that for him, India was and remained an area of darkness.

Poet Nissim Ezekiel issued a famous rejoinder “Naipaul’s India and Mine”, criticising the writer for his description of the grossness and squalor of Indian life, the routine ritualism, the lip service to high ideals, the petrified and distorted sense of cleanliness and a thousand other things. Another distinguished literary critic C. D. Narasimhaiah said Naipaul’s comments lacked sympathy, penetration and concern for people as people. He himself gives a long list of India’s faults and shortcomings – but from Naipaul he had expected an in-depth study of the Indian mind!

Since the poverty and public defecation could not be denied, no one said that Naipaul had portrayed an imaginary land, not a real country. Many seemed to say: Yes, the reality is ugly, but let no outsider expose it. Indians indulge in self-criticism but do not appreciate others criticising them. The damning reports appear in the Indian newspapers every day; an “outsider” does not have to ferret out any “inside information”.

Some readers blamed Naipaul for painting an incomplete picture. That was not all in their India, they said. Some charged Naipaul with viewing India with the Western Kaleidoscope. Some wanted him to be sympathetic. Some doubted his intellectual integrity, saying that he wrote to suit western readers. Many saw the book marked by cantankerousness and vitriolic asperity.

Fortunately, An Area of Darkness was published when Indians had not yet discovered “the extreme form of literary criticism” that has in recent years silenced more than one writer. So, the book was just discussed and not burnt by those offended by the book. Nor did the book prevent Naipaul from visiting his ancestral land again and again. He was welcomed warmly and assisted by volunteers during his travels and interviews for his subsequent books.

The barrage of criticism by the nationalist Indians gradually dried up but Naipaul was never written about without a mention of his offensive description of India. Inevitably, such references figured in the obituaries and eulogistic articles published after the death of the Nobel laureate. Eminent poet Keki Daruwalla, for example, recalls that reading An Area of Darkness he had felt Naipaul “physically assaulting” India. Eminent poet Keki Daruwalla recalls that reading An Area of Darkness he had felt Naipaul “physically assaulting” India.

In basic terms, Naipaul’s encounter with his ancestral land was not so unusual. Imagine a person born in Bombay who at the age of 30 goes for the first time to his ancestral village in a distant backward state of India. He was brought up on his grandmother’s stories about the idyllic rural scene – beautiful trees and the river and the small temple and the courtyard, with the family members sitting and chatting. But what would this Bombay man see in the same poverty-stricken village after having lived in a metropole for three decades.

Naipaul had a distinctive way of seeing. A professor of literature commuting daily by the local train in Bombay looks at the rows of men defecating, and sees little. But Naipaul looked and saw. He wrote about it and the critics could not take it. Some said Naipaul was obsessed with excrement because of his “Brahminical fastidiousness”. It could have been attributed to the British influence! Film-maker Danny Boyle says it is a British obsession. Many British films and TV ads have a toilet scene. His own film featuring Bombay shows human excrement.

To understand Naipaul’s observations, one must study where Naipaul came from and what expectations he took with him on his visit to the land of his forefathers. The phrase “love-hate” does not explain it fully. Naipaul’s relationship with India has to be seen in the context of his early life experience and his observation of the lives of his father, mother and other Indians living in Trinidad. While growing up, he learnt about his ancestors who had carried India in their memories.

The Hindu rituals and Ram Lila performances were replicated in Trinidad. The Ram Lila, the most popular event, conveyed a subtle message about India. That idea of India had enthralled Naipaul during his childhood while expectations about India were built up by the elders who knew all about Gandhi and Nehru. He heard great stories about the “political” India. He detected the civilizational strengths of the place from which his ancestors had come. Naipaul saw the able, resourceful, wise and somewhat learned Indians as well as a different kind of people with a darker complexion.

India of the imagination

Naipaul was exposed daily to the Remembered India! He grew up with the “mangled bits of old India”. Naipaul felt deep bonds with India formed during his childhood. He was not a critical “outsider” who went to collect embarrassing facts to cause sensation and serve his western readers. He went as an Indian with a bagful of romantic memories of a mythical India. The Hindu religious rites and other private ways created a belief in the “wholeness” of India. It was a romantic belief that got shattered when he found that the ancestral civilisation to which they paid tribute, had been broken and rendered helpless before the invaders. It shocked him. He found the gap between the imagined India and the real India so large that initially he even thought of not writing a book.

In India, Naipaul witnessed a fractured society. There was no “wholeness”. Even the Trinidadian sense of an Indian community was missing. The people in the ancestral land needed to hold on to smaller ideas of who and what they were. “With my idea of an Indian identity, I could not be reconciled with it.” So, his visit ended in “personal confusion, in futility and impatience… self-reproach and flight”.

To study Naipaul’s ties with India, one does not have to consult the history of Trinidad and the shipment of Indians to this distant British colony needing cheap labour. Naipaul left enough clues. “India was the greatest hurt. It was a subject country. It was also the place from whose great poverty our grandfathers had had to run away in the late nineteenth century.”  He compares the rawness of his hurt to that reflected in Gandhi’s discovery in the 1890s of the wretchedness of the unprotected Indian workers in South Africa.

Explaining the complexity of his relationship with India, he says: “I’m at once too close and too far. It isn’t my home and it cannot be my home; and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it.” Naipaul makes a distinction between the political India and a personal India. He was deeply interested in the latter. He had no home anywhere and yet, perhaps the idea of homecoming filled him with anxiety. “I was full of nerves. But nothing had prepared me for the dereliction I saw. No other country I know had so many layers of wretchedness.” Naipaul could never handle poverty. The poor gave him neurosis.

Naipaul could never handle poverty. The poor gave him neurosis. He was to later record his contempt for “the men who are nothing and who allow themselves to become nothing”. Such men have no place in this world, he declared. So, poverty in India aggravates Naipaul’s old neurosis. The feeling does not leave him even during his visit to the village of his maternal grandfather that should have been a grand home-coming. He refuses to give a lift to a young boy whom he calls an “idler”. Naipaul reacts in a certain way when he sees “disagreeable people” whether in Africa or in India or while travelling by ship.

Naipaul did not want to falsify his intense personal experience by capturing it in a novel. That would have required an “apparatus of invention”. He did not want to repeat the failing of the Indian novel, a form borrowed from the West, that had learnt to deal with “the externals of things, at times missing their terrible essence”. So, he had to write nonfiction to “render his experience faithfully”.

Encountering the self

Naipaul went to India as an insider-outsider. It was an exploration of the self as much as that of a land. One western critic says An Area of Darkness was about a country and also about the writer visiting the land of his ancestors. He wrote: ‘…true autobiography arises when a man encounters something in his life which shocks him into the need for self-examination and self-explanation. He talks about the great hurt. What he saw in India pained him. He was to say later that it was a journey that broke his life into two. “It was a journey that should never have been made”.’

Indians may feel less offended by Naipaul’s sharp criticism and understand Naipaul’s anguish better if they read the Mahabharat’s story of Kunti and her son Karna. The unwedded mother abandons her baby who is brought up by a person of a lower caste and thus Karna is known as soota putra. An Indian psychoanalyst might have diagnosed Naipaul as suffering from the soot putra syndrome!

Naipaul was so distressed by the impotence of his great ancestral land, the land which his people had to leave in order to go searching for a better life in a far-away stupid plantation colony. Why did the motherland fail to protect them? Why were they thrown into the company of the insignificant “other” people? Why did the mother abandon her children? Was she indifferent? Was she cruel?

Naipaul goes to India and discovers that she was helpless. This aggravates his own helplessness. Aggravates his anger about the abandonment. His early writing on India reflects that rage. Naipaul goes to India and discovers that she was helpless… His early writing on India reflects that rage.

Naipaul then finds the one to blame for the motherland’s plight. He zeroes in on the early invaders and spares those who captured India later, waving the flag of the universal civilisation! This led to another controversy about Naipaul but won him a new kind of admirer. In the eyes of some Indians, Naipaul’s image changed following his two books on Islam, his statements on the demolition of the Babri mosque and his favourable comments on the new India.

Naipaul’s analysis of the converted Muslims’ worldview was again read in simplistic black-and-white terms. Because of the vagaries of public perception, his Beyond Belief got classified in Pakistan with An Area of Darkness. The response in the west was different. Naipaul’s comments on Islam came when it no longer needed the Islamists to fight communism. Of course, after 9/11, the west came to value every critical comment on Islam. It was just a coincidence.

An expert on “dislocation” and its prime victim, Naipaul observed and beautifully recorded what Islam did to a large section of the world’s population constituted by the non-Arabic Muslims. But those uninterested in Naipaul’s luminous prose and masterly analysis got swayed by the rumour that Naipaul hated Islam. Encouraged by Naipaul’s view on the destruction of the Babri mosque, these few Indians gave Naipaul a hero’s welcome in New Delhi. Naipaul allowed himself to be appropriated by those who played politics in the name of a temple and caused bloodshed.

Had they read An Area of Darkness, they would have marched with its copy for a purpose other than reading! They did not know that Naipaul had coined the phrase “Hollywood Hindus” and ridiculed them for self-dramatizing. Nor did they know that Naipaul had called India a country of headless people, the matchstick people! Naipaul had once referred to the “barbaric religious rites of Hinduism”.

Those categorising a writer as pro or anti-Indian were pleased that Naipaul had struck a slightly optimistic note in his third India book India: A Million Mutinies Now. This was in the face of overwhelming anecdotal evidence that still validated much of what Naipaul had written in his first infamous volume. Those who admire Naipaul’s authenticity and his commitment to tell the truth were not impressed. The stark realism of his comments on Indian politics appears even more striking so many years later.

The stark realism of his comments on Indian politics appears even more striking so many years later. While covering the Lok Sabha election campaign in Ajmer in 1971, Naipaul was dismayed by the politicians’ ignorance and hypocrisy. Today many political leaders make most unscientific statements that can embarrass even a school student. Every politician hides his real self and masquerades as someone else in order to make him electable. Masquerading is an art of great interest to Naipaul.

India is still busy “exchanging banalities with itself’. It continues to be “ruled by magic, by slogans and potent names”. Naipaul had noticed that Indians had a “strange frenzied attitude, the attitude of the conqueror who wants to plunder as fast as possible as if the opportunity might any moment be withdrawn”. Hasn’t the incidence of loot shot up in the wake of the economic reforms?

The daily public defecation festival is still on like a long-running western musical, but Naipaul had done with that kind of stuff. Naipaul’s favourite words were absurdity, banality, fraudulence, mimicry, mendacity, maladministration, chaos and corruption. Indians, perhaps out of respect for Naipaul, did nothing to falsify his narration incorporating these. And today’s India also “responds only to events”. The Indian malady of “taking shelter under grand words” is still rampant.

A new breed of Indians

Why did this great “discoverer of people” fail to discover the emerging new breed of Indians – the kind that provoked him in Africa to make biting remarks. Naipaul had expertly written about “frenzy for the sake of frenzy” but he did not see it in the TV images of the demolition of the Babri mosque. The cruel scenes of communal violence in India did not make him recall his description of a mob in a primitive society elsewhere killing a policeman and then gleefully dancing around his body.

During his last years before he fell ill, he visited India more than once and was fully aware of what was going on in India. But his public statements reflected optimism. Only once in 2003 he found it necessary to warn the Vajpayee Government against the “persecution” of the internet media company of which he was a director. At his press conference in New Delhi, he also spoke of his goodwill towards the Bhartiya Janata Party heading the ruling coalition.

Has India progressed or regressed as a knowledge society? Has scientific temper become more popular? Has India’s march towards modernity slowed down? Is dissent valued or resented? Does the Government cherish the spirit if democracy? Is freedom of speech getting full play?

Naipaul noted with satisfaction the emergence of an intellectual class. One may argue that India had many more intellectual giants up until the sixties. No doubt since then the market intellectuals and promotional intellectuals have risen. What one sees is the disappearing breed of Indians who recited the Vedas in the morning and did blue-sky scientific research during the day, or those who lectured on political theory in universities and wrote books on classical theatre or music. Naipaul disliked the pointy-headed professors, but school and university teachers could have told him much about the falling standards of education. Naipaul was right in saying that the level of self-confidence among the people had shot up since his first visit. Naipaul has an eye for details and he was quick to spot that the standards of book design and production had improved. They did so because more standard publishing houses emerged and expensive printing and book-binding machines were imported! The market came to demand excellence in graphic design. Naipaul was right in saying that the level of self-confidence among the people had shot up since his first visit.

Of course, a country changes. During his last few visits, Naipaul came to believe in an India that had given him no hope once. The Financial Times started covering this emerging economic power. Naipaul witnessed the crowds of aspiring Indians, those wanting to achieve something in life. “Achievement” mattered a great deal to Naipaul who had infinite disdain for the non-achievers.

If Naipaul had gone to his wretched ancestral village where he was seen as a “giver” in 1962, he would have been welcomed as a “receiver”. The poor boy whom he denied a lift in his jeep is perhaps a rich mining magnate controlling an army of musclemen and two Members of Parliament. He would have served Naipaul the most expensive Scotch. That may have reminded Naipaul of Africa where he had noticed some people suddenly coming into big money!

India did change but perhaps the reason for the writer’s new optimism was also personal. In 1962, Naipaul’s arrival and departure made no news. He was lost in the crowd as an ordinary Indian! In recent years, he always got a standing ovation in chandeliered halls brimming with made-up men and coiffured women. Naipaul found more Indians reading his books.

Like the country, the writer changed! Another set of critics would say that Naipaul in recent years had failed to see the negative trends. In fact, on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of An Area of Darkness, some readers took to social media to appreciate Naipaul’s earlier criticism and to contradict the mellower Naipaul by saying that in most respects, the country had hardly changed in five decades.

Learned critics may say that Naipaul was wrong to appreciate the political fantasy acquiring a religious dimension. Naipaul wrote so well about the converted Muslims who fell under the influence of a faith that was not a matter of conscience or private belief but made imperial demands. And yet Naipaul did not see the rising political Hindutva seeking to replace Hinduism, the religion of his ancestors in India, and creating a disturbance throughout Indian society.

Naipaul said during his visit to India in 1962, he saw things “through the haze of my own nerves”. But the clarity of his vision then was certified even by the critics of An Area of Darkness. Naipaul’s intensely angry personal tone is missing in India: A Million Mutinies Now. An African proverb says only a friend tells you that your mouth is stinking. A compassionate and mellower Naipaul was not being very friendly!

Naipaul always felt that his books would stand the test of time. Considering the turn that his ancestral land has taken, will India: A Million Mutinies Now stand the test of time? Writing the third book was perhaps Naipaul’s way of making peace with his ancestral land. But his sympathy seems stained with a trace of inauthenticity. Leaving this book aside, India, marching on the path of perpetual sectarian strife, may yet validate Naipaul’s general pessimistic and disdainful assessment of the former colonies!

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData