India through Naipaul’s eyes

Growing up like most Indians with a Congress Party sanctioned version of history (proving the old adage about how ‘history’ is a version decided by the winners) I realized, quite late in life, I really didn’t have the foggiest clue about what my India was all about. When you read  Michel de Montaigne lament, “Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know” , you begin to question your true right to partake in any serious debate if your only exposure to your country’s history is to a distorted,  intellectually bankrupt version of the events (aka your C.B.S.E issued, officially sanctioned history text books).

And it is in some ways a fascinating history and the more media I consumed the more I realized how little attention 1/6th of humanity gets as a part of general global dialogue. So I decided I was going to find out more about India in a broader, nuanced, and cultural sense.

While it is difficult to get an unbiased outsider view of anything in the real sense, for this ambitious project I decided to go with Nobel laureate V.S Naipaul and by God, he didn’t disappoint!

I juxtaposed all this literature with what I was reading on the Anna Hazare agitation with Naipaul’s observations in his books and it all becomes spooky and prescient. Here is one that kicks you right in the gut. Read the last line and know Naipaul wrote that in 1977.

“All creation in India hints at the imminence of interruption and
destruction. Building is like an elemental urge, like the act of
sex among the starved. It is building for the sake of building,
creation for the sake of creation; and each creation is separate, a
beginning and an end in itself…. but at Mahabalipuram near
Madras, on the waste sand of the sea shore, stands the abandoned
Shore Temple, its carvings worn smooth after twelve centuries of
rain and salt and wind…. In India these endless mosques and
rhetorical mausolea, these great palaces speak only of a personal
plunder and a country with an infinite capacity for being
plundered.”

(Area of Darkness, page 219, Chapter ‘Fantasy and Ruins’)

Or here is another gem :

“Out of its 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”

His trilogy deserve more publicity than it will ever get as it is one part utterly scathing social commentary and two parts wholly pessimistic about the Indian narrative. It is a terribly gloomy and dark fatalistic vision of things and I urge people who believe in rainbows, unicorns and innocence of kittens and puppies to never ever attempt this Everest.

For those who are fans of Orwell and could stomach 1984, you cannot and should not miss this set.

As for ‘A bend in the River’ and ‘Among the believers’, the former is just utter brilliant prose ( “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”, “After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”) and the latter will help you understand Islamic fundamentalism better than all the blather you hear on NDTV, CNN and BBC.

All 5 books deserve prominent place in the shelves of any serious literature aficionado. Read them once before you join the next Hazare protest movement.

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3 thoughts on “India through Naipaul’s eyes

  1. I have read Among the Believers and and A Wounded Civilization and thoroughly enjoyed them. Naipaul’s travelogues are the ones I enjoyed the most — as opposed to his critically acclaimed novels like Half a Life for instance.

    In understanding modern India, I have found Pankaj Mishra’s work quite illuminating as well — his essays in New York Times/NY Review of Books and his books like Temptations of the West (travelogue) provide an intriguing commentary on how India is changing, adapting, and struggling in the face of globalization.

    Among all the books about India that I have read in last decade or so, Ramachandra Guha’s 900-page epic India After Gandhi is phenomenal. It lacks the philosophical and inward-looking aspects that are present in Naipaul’s and Mishra’s works (which is obvious because a historian’s account is bound to be more episodic, chronological and constrained) but it’s a marvel (and occupies a prime spot on my bookshelf!) as a post-independence historical account of the largest democracy in the world.

    • Hey Vishal, Thanks for the comment and the informative POV in it. Still difficult to believe Naipaul is categorized as a travel writer by most! That’s like calling a computer ‘a fast adding and division machine’
      Never really dipped into Pankaj Mishra but now I thnk that will change. Thanks. And I just kindled Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India After Gandhi’. Hopefully I’ll wrap this soon. Remember to collect your endorsement fee from RG. They only real downside to reading Naipaul is that your mood, whatever it was entering the chapters is invariably deep into the negative when you are done with the read. Like a modern version on consuming Nietzsche!

  2. Hi Shiva,
    Nice to read about one of the giants, the rationalistic literature could possibly offer. I have also been a fan of Naipaul’s when I first read the book ‘India : A wounded civilization’. After that I got ‘magic seeds’ but the sets you mentioned are really a must for an avid reader. The pity with India is that the people who disgrace sheep-herding and try to ‘think’ welcome this kind of literature with open arms but are regarded as adversaries in the country by the masses.
    A very rationalistic approach has always been shown by Dr Ambedkar in the making of modern India but it was too derided by the then Indians considering that intellectual’s confrontation with Mr Gandhi.
    Carried away by the popular hysteria of Anna one really questions the sanity of this chauvinism where half the people flaunt there tricolor attire, others to dump their sins against country and others just to see the spectacle of a guy to support a misplaced ideology.

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