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India’s Long Night

India: A Wounded Civilization

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 191 pp., $7.95

The learned SMELFUNGUS travelled from Boulogne to Paris—from Paris to Rome—and so on—but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted—He wrote an account of them, but ‘twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.

—Sterne, A Sentimental Journey

There are numerous passages in Naipaul’s earlier book on India, An Area of Darkness (1964), that bring to mind Sterne’s archetypal traveler. The book, which occasioned great offense among Indians, is written out of an exacerbated sensibility that seems to quiver with perpetual irritation and disgust. It begins with outrage, which quickly mounts to hysteria, over the author’s entanglement with an absurd bureaucracy that has impounded two bottles of his liquor. It ends (apart from a brief epilogue) in Naipaul’s self-disgust over his precipitate flight from threatened entanglement—this time with impoverished and importunate relatives in the village from which his grandfather had emigrated to Trinidad more than sixty years before. When he is not bickering with petty officials or guides or inn-keepers, he often gives the impression of a fastidious man picking his way along a path strewn with human excrement:

Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.

What most infuriates Naipaul is that “Indians do not see these squatters and might even, with complete sincerity, deny that they exist: a collective blindness arising out of the Indian fear of pollution and the resulting conviction that Indians are the cleanest people in the world.” Naipaul is himself determined to see, and what he sees is a decayed, self-deluded, caste-ridden civilization that deals in symbols and ignores realities, a system at the heart of which lies the degradation of the Sweepers, as those most despised of the Untouchables, the cleaners of latrines, are euphemistically known. His excremental vision is Swiftian in its ferocity, and like Swift, Naipaul is able to ascend from noisome particulars to startling and often brilliant cultural insights that may provoke argument but never simple dismissal.

India: A Wounded Civilization is a more reasoned, a more analytical book than its predecessor, but it is colored by much the same impatience and dismay. Naipaul is of course highly conscious of the ambiguities of his own relationship to India. Though of Brahmin descent, his family in Trinidad gradually abandoned Hindu practice during Naipaul’s own childhood. He himself grew up an unbeliever, ignorant of the meaning of the prayers and rituals; he did not speak the language and he refused to go through the Brahmin equivalent of a bar mitzvah—the assumption of the sacred thread. This refusal suggests an “Oedipal” motivation, for he tells us in An Area of Darkness that his father’s appetite for Hindu speculation was great. Such a rejection of the past is of course common enough among the children and, less frequently, the grandchildren of immigrants. Yet there is more to it than that in the case of Naipaul.

India represents for him something deeply disturbing, an image of the abyss. He is both drawn to it and repelled. He tells us that the memories of India which lived on vestigially into his West Indian childhood are like “trapdoors into a bottomless past.” For Naipaul the country is indeed an area of darkness, a vast and frightening negation. Here he joins company with many Westerners, both actual and fictional (E. M. Forster’s Mrs. Moore comes to mind), who have experienced profound shock and dislocation through their exposure to India and have responded to it as they have not, for the most part, to the other major civilizations of the Middle and Far East. For a multiplicity of social, religious, and aesthetic reasons, India, despite the omnipresence of Shiva’s lingam, is associated in both Indian and Western psyches with the symbolism of maternity—a most ambiguous maternity, at once teeming and devouring. Naipaul must have initially approached the grandmother country with expectations that were horribly wounded by what he found. Apparently he cannot stay away; the subsequent visits seem to have been made to see if things could possibly be as bad as he remembered them.

For two generations the Western author most reviled by sensitive and educated Indians was Katherine Mayo, who in 1927 published a sensationalistic account of Hindu mores entitled Mother India; she may well be replaced as primus in opprobrium by Naipaul. This would be a great pity, for despite the corrosiveness of his criticism, Naipaul’s motives are anything but exploitative. What he sees and records with anguish is indeed there to be seen, though of course it does not constitute the whole truth about India. With his combined British and Third World heritage, he brings to his encounter with India an urgency that is historical and political as well as personal, and a perspective that is unavailable to purely European or North American observers. Indians cannot disregard his strictures as simply another manifestation of Western arrogance.

India: A Wounded Civilization consists of a mixture of investigative journalism, serendipitous meetings and conversations, and the analysis of a variety of revealing texts: newspaper items, key passages from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, and literary works such as Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets and Mr. Sampath, a play, The Vultures, by Tendulkar, and a recent novel, Samskara, by U. R. Anantamurti. As a journalist, Naipaul explores such representative sites as a model village in Rajasthan, a squatters’ settlement in Bombay, a cooperative irrigation project beyond Poona, and the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad. Occasionally a flash of hopefulness cuts through the pervasive gloom. Within the context of India, the new industrialization (against which Gandhi so frequently inveighed) is seen by Naipaul as humanizing rather than the reverse. “An industrial job in India is more than just a job. Men handling new machines, exercising technical skills that to them are new, can also discover themselves as men, as individuals.” In the model village he attends a meeting of peasants who until recently had practiced the most wasteful and backward of agricultural methods but were now concerning themselves with fertilizers and yields—“an incredible advance.”

But always Mother India lurks around the corner, waiting to trip up the toddling new spirit, to envelop it in the stifling old blanket of obscurantism, confusion, and despair. Near the entrance to the Bombay shanty town, a quasi-political organization called the Shiv Sena has managed to have communal latrines and washing sheds installed; but as Naipaul and his guide, a young technician, advance into the twisting lanes they come upon a “vast wasp’s nest of little dark rooms,” with runnels of black filth between the rooms and slimy gutters choked with scum and garbage.

It was Sunday, the technician said: the municipal sweepers hadn’t been. Again! Sweepers, the lowest of the low: their very existence, and their acceptance of their function, the especial curse of India, reinforcing the Indian conviction, even here,…that it was unclean to be clean….

Often Naipaul’s rage takes on a Swiftian gusto as well as ferocity. His inspection of the National Institute of Design reveals absurdities worthy of the Grand Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels where “projectors” (i.e., inventors) busy themselves with schemes for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers and for the reconversion of excrement into the original foodstuff At the Institute he talks with a fourth-year student who has invented a long-handled reaping tool of singular cumbrousness:

As an invention, this seemed to me some centuries behind the reaping machine of ancient Rome (a bullock-pushed tray with a serrated edge); but the designer, who was a townsman, said he had spent a week in the countryside and the peasants had been interested. I said that the tool required the user to stand; Indians preferred to squat while they did certain jobs. He said the people had to be reeducated.

His alternative design absolutely required standing. This was a pair of reaping shoes. At the front of the left shoe was a narrow cutting blade; on the right side of the right shoe was a longer curved blade. So the peasant, advancing through his ripe corn, would kick with his left foot and cut, while with his right he would describe a wide arc and cut: a harvest dance. Which, I felt, explained the otherwise mysterious presence of a wheelchair in the showroom downstairs….

Writing of such gleeful savagery is necessarily “unfair” but not for that reason inaccurate. And always one senses—above or beneath the scorn—a thin wail of disappointed love.

In the living rooms of Delhi, women—like so many characters out of Chekhov—talk of the beauty and simplicity of the poor. One of them laments the heartless demolition of a squatter’s settlement in the Diplomatic Enclave of New Delhi; after some prodding by Naipaul, it turns out that she is really bemoaning the loss of her servant, who lived in one of the shanties. Morarji Desai (now prime minister of India) preferred to believe that Indira Gandhi would commit suicide rather than commit such a monstrosity as to imprison the opposition during the Emergency; a few hours later he was arrested. Vinoba Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi’s holiest disciple, reportedly started a fast last June—not in protest against Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency or one of the myriad cruelties of Indian life but against cow-slaughter. Indian scientists do their really creative work abroad; when (and if) they return, they tend to wrap themselves in the security of their caste identity—and their work subsides into mediocrity. Indian intellectual life, says Naipaul, is second-rate, stagnant.

At the core of all this futility Naipaul finds nothing less than Hinduism itself. He is not really interested in the more abstruse reaches of Hindu philosophy; as a positivistic and pragmatic Westerner, he seems to dismiss such concerns as irrelevant to the facts of the Indian condition. Instead, he focuses upon such beliefs as reincarnation, karma, and dharma, which lead to the passive acceptance of one’s lot on earth; upon Hindu practices, which he sees as primitive—even barbaric—in their preoccupation with the minutiae of ritual and caste and with magic; but above all, he trains his withering scrutiny upon the whole range of Hindu attitudes that he considers inimical to any real improvement in the quality of Indian life.

Of these he finds traces everywhere—in the literary works that he analyzes and in the most casual remarks dropped at a dinner party in New Delhi. In Naipaul’s indictment, Hinduism encourages a withdrawal from the physical and social world. Its spirituality is at once self-centered and mindless, leading to social atomism, reconciling the individual to what would otherwise be recognized as intolerable conditions; it substitutes what Naipaul calls “the stupor of meditation” for the engaged activity of the intelligence. If one observes the caste-determined rituals of cleanliness, then one can ignore the fact that the water in which one bathes is filthy and that one’s excrement has been deposited in such a way as to facilitate the spread of cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. The atavistic tendencies of Hinduism have fostered a national regression, a yearning for the simplicities of village life and the old Indian ways (both largely mythical) that has left India bereft of any new ideas—or ideology—for coping with its permanent crisis. To Naipaul, Hindu spirituality is indeed the opiate of both the masses and the leaders—especially those in the Gandhian tradition.

Of course a phrase like “the stupor of meditation” is a red flag not only to pious Indians but to the growing number of Americans who are turning Eastward for religious sustenance. A friend of mine who a few years ago unexpectedly received shaktipat (an infusion of psychic energy) from Swami Muktananda and has since written extensively about this prominent guru, protested vehemently against the whole tenor of Naipaul’s book as sections of it appeared in this journal. Yet it remains true that one can read through the recently published Selected Essays1 of Muktananda without finding a single reference to—much less concern for—the fact that “Baba” (as he is called by his followers) inhabits the poorest country in the world, that his ashram is only a short drive from that Bombay squatters’ settlement which Naipaul describes in such sickening detail. To a Sidda Guru, a Fully Realized Being, such conditions are simply manifestations of the endless play of Chiti, the Supreme Consciousness in which the guru participates and to which he can lead his disciples through shaktipat and meditation. As aspects of Maya, both poverty and the attempt to eradicate it are simultaneously real and unreal—and in any case peripheral to the goal of Self-Realization.

It is Naipaul’s treatment of Mahatma Gandhi that is likely to prove the most controversial aspect of his book. Naipaul blames Gandhi for his failure to import into India the racial consciousness that marked his South African campaign, a consciousness that might have enabled India to transcend its compartmentalized and patchwork condition and achieve true nationhood; he blames Gandhi for having failed to provide an ideology for an independent India; for turning against the modern industrial world in favor of cottage crafts and village rule; and above all for subsiding into mahatmahood, thereby reawakening and reinforcing all that was most soft-minded and regressive in Hinduism.

The difficult lessons of South Africa were simplified…in India: ending as a holy man’s fad for doing the latrine-cleaning work of untouchables, seen only as an exercise in humility, ending as a holy man’s plea for brotherhood and love, ending as nothing.

The evidence suggests that Naipaul harshly oversimplifies Gandhi’s personal role during his last years. What characterized Gandhi at that time was not the smugness of a holy man but the tragic despair of a leader isolated from his political colleagues in Congress and forced to witness the undoing of his life’s work as India moved inexorably toward partition, as Muslim confronted Hindu in genocidal conflict. As Ved Mehta has pointed out in Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles,2 Gandhi’s belief in the power of nonviolence was put to its severest test in Noakhali, through which he marched in 1947-1948 in an effort to end the massacres at the risk of his own life. Nor did Gandhi ever relax in his struggle to awaken Indians to the consequences of their unsanitary habits and to the immorality of Untouchability; however much these strivings may have derived from his own peculiar anal preoccupations (now fully documented by Mehta and others), their goal was a serious one. Mehta sadly concludes that “Gandhi died without making the slightest dent in the Hindu attitude toward excreta and sanitation, and, by extension, toward spiritual pollution and untouchability.” But this failure cannot be laid to a growing complacency on Gandhi’s part. No one was more acutely aware of the collapse of his power than himself. On his seventy-eighth birthday he is quoted by Mehta as saying, “Where do congratulations come in? Would it not be more appropriate to send condolences?… Time was, whatever I said, the masses followed. Today mine is a lone voice.”

Yet surely Naipaul is right about the bankruptcy of the Gandhian heritage in India today. Both he and Mehta have underscored the fatuousness of Gandhi’s followers, with their daily stint at the spinning wheel (now a Hindu ritual, totally divorced from any idea of productivity), their costumes of white homespun cotton, their anti-intellectualism, their political capitalization upon their past association with the Mahatma. Vinoba Bhave may be the most archaic among them, but the fact that the new prime minister is among their number is not auspicious.

Now for the inevitable question: how much has India: A Wounded Civilization, which was written during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, been overtaken and invalidated by subsequent events? If one grants at least partial validity to Naipaul’s views in the first place, then the answer is probably “not very much.” He is clearly wrong in particulars, as when he writes: “…the Congress remains the only party in India…which has a rural organization; it cannot lose.” Yet, exhilarating as the resurgence of popular democracy has been, there is as yet little reason to believe that the perpetual political and economic crisis of India—to which Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency was a desperate response—is any closer to amelioration, much less to solution. The masses are as cruelly impoverished as ever—and substantially more numerous than they were at the time of Independence, thirty years ago. The cities are now crowded with a restless and uprooted population, refugees from political upheaval and from the immemorial tyranny of village life. What sort of spark is needed for their ignition? Can Gandhian doctrines of nonviolence or the borrowed institutions of Western parliamentary democracy contain and channel their energies, their explosive potential? Was the Naxalite Terror in Bengal a few years ago a precursor of what may happen on a far more devastating scale?

Naipaul is deeply pessimistic, yet at the conclusion of this brilliantly written, impassioned, and endlessly debatable book, he permits himself a faint and ghostly note of hopefulness: perhaps “in the present uncertainty and emptiness there is the possibility of a true new beginning, of the emergence in India of mind, after the long spiritual night.” But he seems to pin even this insubstantial hope upon the further swift decay of the old Hindu civilization.

  1. 1

    Harper and Row, 1977.

  2. 2

    Viking, 1977.

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