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 …

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