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The undeniable truth of Naipaul's India

By Vivek Gumaste
August 25, 2018 10:39 IST
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'Though not religious in everyday life, his Hindu-Indian identity was an irrevocable influence on his writings,' observes Vivek Gumaste.

IMAGE: Sir V S Naipaul addresses a press conference at Arlanda airport, Stockholm, December 6, 2001, a few days before the Nobel Prize awards ceremony. Photograph: Maja Suslin/TT News Agency/via Reuters

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul's interaction with India was excruciatingly complex, a conundrum riddled with doubts, uncertainties, hope and despair, an outpouring that was both admiring and excoriating; a critical appraisal so intense that it evoked an acutely polarised response in the land of his origin -- an impressive corps of fawning fans at one end and an army of vitriolic haters at the other.

But there was an undeniable truth in his writings, an opinion crafted with surgical precision that culled away the redundancy and inhibitions of new-fangled and borrowed ideologies to present an unvarnished reality of modern India post the medieval savagery of Muslim and British invasions; an unravelling of the hurt Hindu psyche that was diagnostically accurate and arguably edifying.

Naipaul was born on August 17, 1932, in Trinidad, the grandson of indentured Indian laborers transported to the Caribbean in the 1800s by the British. He was raised a Hindu.

Though not religious in everyday life, his Hindu-Indian identity was an irrevocable influence on his writings.

At the age of 19, he went to Oxford on a scholarship to study English. From then on, he remained in England till his death.


He first visited India in 1962. He carried in his mind a carefully cultivated image of India -- the land of Gandhi and Nehru, of a great civilisation.

His shock at the land of his ancestors finds vent in a stinging tirade in An Area of Darkness (the first of his trilogy on India) which masks a deep personal hurt.

Jeffery Paine, author of Father India, rightly concludes: 'Area... is the narrative of a young man not finding the India he expected and not liking the India he finds.'

India does not live up to his dreams and the young Naipaul lacks the maturity to gauge the strength of an ancient civilisation.

Naipaul's disgust is exemplified in sentences like: 'Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly besides the railway tracks... they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.' (An Area of Darkness)

But somewhere deep down Naipaul appears to be looking for a glimmer of hope for the land of his forefathers: 'Nowhere are people so heightened, rounded, and individualistic... To know Indians was to take delight in people; every encounter was an adventure. I did not want India to sink; the mere thought was painful.'

An Area Of Darkness was proscribed in India for its 'negative portrayal of India'.

But was this book a genuine description of India of the 1960s? The answer is, yes.

Naipaul could not have come to India at a more inappropriate time. It was a country in flux.

The initial euphoria of Independence had evaporated, the India-China war of 1962 had deflated its confidence and crushed its philosophy of non-violence.

Socialism was taking it nowhere and the image of India as a beggar with a begging bowl was gaining currency. And at the helm was an aging, crestfallen prime minister: Certainly not an optimistic picture.

There indeed existed an intellectual and political vacuum.

Though rather harsh, Naipaul rightly concludes: 'India has been a shock for me, one took this idea of an antique civilisation for granted and thought it contained the seed of growth in this century... India has nothing to contribute to the world, is contributing nothing.'

On a personal note, he ends the book: 'It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two.'

But return he did. Again, and again until he had made peace with the civilisation of his origin.

Ten years later (A Wounded Civilization, 1976) the shock, disgust and anger persist, but in an attempt to assuage his own wounds he conducts a root-cause analysis. He concludes that the Hindu land is a 'wounded civilization', injured by the British Raj and the preceding Islamic invasion.

Again, his strong emotional links with India come to the fore: 'India is for me a difficult country. It isn't my home and cannot be my home; and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it; I cannot travel only for the sights. I am at once too close and too far.'

Towards the end of the first millennium, India had become an inward-looking society which brought with it its inherent weaknesses and prepared the ground for impending invasions: 'No civilization was so little equipped to cope with the outside world; no country was so easily raided and plundered, and learned so little from its disasters.'

'Five hundred years after the Arab conquest of Sind, Moslem rule was established in Delhi as the rule of the foreigners, people apart; and foreign rule -- Moslem for the first five hundred years, British for the last 150 -- ended in Delhi only in 1947.' (A Wounded Civilization)

The catastrophic effect that these repeated invasions had on the Hindu psyche are well delineated by Naipaul.

Commenting on the decline of the Vijayanagar kingdom, one of the last bastions of Hindu rule during the Islamic invasion, he astutely observes: 'I wondered whether intellectually, for a thousand years India hadn't always retreated before its conquerors and whether in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn't only been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable.'

This idea is repeatedly emphasised: 'Hinduism hasn’t been good enough for the millions. It has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation. Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth. So that again and again in India, history has repeated itself: vulnerability, defeat and withdrawal.'

Free of the shackles of alien subjugation, one would have expected to see a positive assertion of one’s identity in the post-Independence period. But India's intellectual power fell into the hands of a myopic Indian intellectual community that did everything to negate the ancient Hindu identity leading to a further erosion of self-confidence.

Naipaul was probably the first to lucidly articulate this deficiency in no uncertain terms: 'The loss of the past meant the loss of that civilization, the loss of a fundamental idea of India, and the loss therefore to a nationalist-minded man, of a motive for action. It was a part of the feeling of purposelessness of which many Indians spoke.'

Naipaul correctly surmises (A Wounded Civilization): 'The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilization that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead.'

Finally, when Naipaul returns to India in the 1990s (India -- A Million Mutinies Now), he is more mature and discerning: 'What I hadn't understood in 1962, or had taken too much for granted was the extent to which the country had been remade; and even the extent to which India had been restored to itself, after its own equivalent of the dark ages...'

Naipaul now saw the benefits of Independence: '... the idea of freedom had gone everywhere in India.'

And he observes Indians discovering their own identity (to some extent fuelled by the growth of the nationalist BJP): 'People everywhere have ideas now of who they are and what they owe themselves.'

Change was present everywhere: 'India was now a country of a million mutinies... the beginnings of self-awareness in India now what didn't exist 200 years before: A central will, a central intellect, a national idea... They were a part of the beginning of a new way for many millions, part of India's growth, part of its restoration.'

India had changed. India was now something to be proud of. Naipaul had something to be proud of.

He was finally at peace with India, the very essence of his origin, his existence and his writing.

May his soul rest in peace.

Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic, political commentator and the author of My India: Musings of a Patriot.

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