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Signs of Life

India: A Million Mutinies Now

by V.S. Naipaul
Viking, 521 pp., $24.95

Near the end of V.S. Naipaul’s first book about India, An Area of Darkness, there is an unforgettable piece of writing. It is a description of his visit to the village of the Dubes. It was from there that Naipaul’s grandfather left for Trinidad around the turn of the century as an indentured laborer. Naipaul, “content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors,” visits his ancestral village with a feeling of dread.

In fact, the village is not as bad as he had expected. An old woman who had known Naipaul’s grandfather is produced. She tells him a family story. Naipaul gives her some money. Then the wife of a man named Ramachandra wishes to see him. She bows before him, seizes his feet, “in all their Veldtschoen” (a wonderful Naipaulian detail, this), and weeps. She refuses to relax her grip on his Veldtschoen. Naipaul, horrified, asks his guide what he should do.

The next day, in a nearby town where Naipaul is staying, Ramachandra himself turns up. Ramachandra is the present head of Naipaul’s grandfather’s branch of the Dubes. He is a physical and mental wreck: “His effort at a smile did not make his expression warmer. Spittle, white and viscous, gathered at the corners of his mouth.” He, too, clings to Naipaul, wanting to talk, to invite him to his hut, offer him food. Again, Naipaul is horrified, asks for help, tells him to go away, draws the curtains in his hotel room. He can hear Ramachandra scratching at the window.

When they meet again, in the village, Ramachandra still refuses to let go. He speaks of his plan to start some litigation over a piece of land. Naipaul was sent by God. Naipaul must help him. Another man slips Naipaul a letter. Naipaul is followed around by a crowd of men and boys. It is all too much. Naipaul wants to escape. He gets in his jeep. A young boy, freshly bathed, asks for a lift to town. “No,” says Naipaul, “let the idler walk.” And: “So it ended, in futility and impatience, a gratuitous act of cruelty, self-reproach and flight.”

I wish to recall this passage at some length because it says a great deal about the writer; above all about his pride, and his horror at the lack of it in others. The clutch of the Veldtschoen, the inertia of poverty, the abjectness of Ramachandra, these are what make Naipaul take flight. He is an expert on humiliation, sensitive to every nuance of indignity—see his novel Guerrillas, see his analysis of Argentine machismo in The Return of Eva Perón, see pretty much everything he has written on India.

But when Naipaul behaves badly, as he undoubtedly does in the village of the Dubes, it is without the blinkered contempt that Blimpish colonials display. Nor is he like Kipling, whose fear of the tarbrush was perhaps one reason for his desire to keep the people at the Club amused with cutting descriptions of the natives. This is however precisely the way many so-called third world intellectuals see Naipaul, as a dark man mimicking the prejudices of the white imperialists. This view is not only superficial, it is wrong. Naipaul’s rage is not the result of being unable to feel the native’s plight; on the contrary, he is angry because he feels it so keenly.

Pride and rage: they go together, and they are at the heart of Naipaul’s work, of his latest book on India, no less than of his earlier, younger, more ill-tempered books. Pride is what enables him to empathize with people whose politics or religious views, or social customs, may be alien to him, even abhorrent. Naipaul, the fastidious aesthete and connoisseur of good wines and Elizabethan sonnets, is rather far removed from the average southern redneck, yet he senses in him a pride, an aesthetic, a feeling of independence. Rednecks may also be racists, but that, in this instance, is rather beside the point.

Nor is there reason to believe that Naipaul has any sympathy with militant Sikhs, Hindu nationalists, or Bengali Maoists; yet he describes them with a kind of tenderness, and a rare understanding, which is neither patronizing nor sentimental. This is because, as he wrote in the introduction to his masterly little book Finding the Center, “The people I found, the people I was attracted to, were not unlike myself. They too were trying to find order in their world, looking for the center; and my discovery of these people is as much part of the story as the unfolding of the West African background.” In this case he was writing about people on the Ivory Coast.

This empathy with people struggling with their fate, trying to find their center, people who, as Naipaul puts it somewhere, reject rejection, who try to escape, however naively, clumsily, or even violently, from the darkness and poverty of their past, the empathy with such people is what explains Naipaul’s relative optimism about India.

Optimism might strike people who read about India in the newspapers as perverse. Just after I received Naipaul’s book I read a description in a London paper of Hindu holy men storming a mosque at a time of day deemed auspicious by astrologers for destroying the Muslim shrine. They believed that the Hindu god Rama was born on the site and were prepared to die for the sake of reinstating their idol there. The ensuing riots caused hundreds of deaths. The holy men were supported by the party, the BJP, that might one day form the government of India. One of its leaders had been touring through northern India in a Rama chariot, fanning Hindu hatred. One of his colleagues threatened to destroy three thousand other mosques occupying Hindu sites. The present government is headed by a thuggish opportunist, not averse to having an irksome opponent beaten up by his boys.

It is all a far cry from the civilized secularism and Old Harrovian rectitude of Jawaharlal Nehru. And yet Naipaul’s optimism is not ill-considered. For it is based on a deep truth about India: even thuggish opportunists, however much they might end up undermining it, are still part of a remarkably resilient political process, which is Indian democracy. In describing a Sikh militant whose head is in some ways still buried in the darkness of myths and holy wars, Naipaul is struck by how much he takes for granted—the constitution, the law, the centers of education, the civil service, etc. Naipaul is right to say that in India “power came from the people. The people were poor; but the power they gave was intoxicating. As high as a man could be taken up, so low, when he lost power, he could be cast down.” The rascals, in India, can still be voted out, which is more than you can say of almost any other country in Asia—even, in practice, of Japan.

Naipaul likes to say that he has no views. As he put it to Andrew Robinson in the Literary Review (London): “My ideas are just responses to human situations.” Here, I think, he is being a little coy. Of course he has views. He presented them beautifully in his recent talk to the Manhattan Institute, published in this journal.* It is a liberal view in the classical sense of the word. Naipaul’s view of what he calls universal civilization is one where people have escaped from the world of myths and ritual and instinct and world ship of ancestors and gods. Universal civilization “implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.”

Many of the people Naipaul describes in his books are awakening to this idea, which does not mean that their responses are not often muddled, to say the least. Again and again Naipaul applies his view to India:

To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.

The million mutinies of Naipaul’s title are to be seen as signs of life, of India kicking itself out of its old inertia, the inertia of poverty, which was perpetuated in a vicious circle of karma, gods, and holiness. Here, then, is the pride of the low caste Dravidian politician dedicating his life to the struggle against Brahmin supremacy:

In this small dark man were locked up generations of grief and rage. He was the first in his line to have felt the affront; and, from what he had said, he was still the only one in his family to have taken up the cause. His passion was very great; it had to be respected.

And here, in one of the best passages in the book, is Gurtej Singh, the young Sikh militant, mentioned above, who resigned from the Indian civil service to fight for the cause of “my people.” Gurtej was highly educated, had awakened, as Naipaul would say, and yet he had turned back to the gods, the myths, and the holy men. Just as pride comes with rage, confusion comes with awakening:

Like Papu the Jain stockbroker in Bombay, who lived on the edge of the great slum of Dharavi and was tormented by the idea of social upheaval, Gurtej had a vision of chaos about to come. Papu had turned to good works, in the penitential Jain fashion. Gurtej had turned to millenarian politics. It had happened with other religions when they turned fundamentalist; it threatened to bring the chaos Gurtej feared.

Democracy is always a messy process. In India it is bound to be messier than anywhere else. And as the thuggish politicians, pushed up by the poor and the no longer quite so poor, do their best to remove the Old Harrovian legacy of Nehru, many people in India fear this mess. Naipaul fears it, too. He is an orderly man. But he does not make a fetish of order. Disorder is an inescapable consequence of India’s awakening. It is why he can respect the passion of men whom most Western liberals would regard with, shall I say, Blimpish disdain: the religious radicals, the Indian rednecks, so to speak. This may be another reason why so many “progressive” third world intellectuals see Naipaul as a reactionary figure; for it is they, the admirers of Mao and Kim Il Sung, who make a fetish of order, and it is Naipaul who has the deeper understanding of the social forces which progressives claim to despise—perhaps because they are themselves still in the grip of those forces.

The fetish of order is something many progressives, in East and West (or if you prefer, North and South), have in common with many conservatives. Mao was much admired by European leaders, such as Edward Heath and Georges Pompidou. Like so many intellectual Sinophiles—Henry Kissinger is another—they were impressed by the discipline Mao imposed, and were ready to defend the order reimposed on Tiananmen Square (even if they didn’t like the methods). Many saw a unified society of busy bees, all expressing great confidence in their leaders, all working in serried ranks toward a glorious collective future. Some even saw the regimentation of China as a mark of superior civilization, so unlike our own disorderly world. Left-wing Indian intellectuals admired China so much that they developed an inferiority complex about messy, chaotic India. Nehru himself was deeply exercised about the question why the Chinese achieved such wonderful unity, whereas India was forever on the brink of collapse and disunity. It was always India that had to take a leaf from China’s book.

What all these admirers chose (and, alas, often still choose) to overlook was that China’s order was the order of a slave state. It is said that Mao, however much blood still sticks to his waxy hands, restored pride to the Chinese people. If so, it was only to the People, and not to people that he gave this pride. The price for Mao’s proud banners was the virtually complete destruction of Naipaul’s universal civilization, which did exist in China: the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, and so on. In this respect, despite all the subcontinent’s problems, China should take a leaf from India’s book.

What makes Naipaul one of the world’s most civilized writers is his refusal to be engaged by the People, and his insistence on listening to people, individuals, with their own language and their own stories. To this extent he is right when he claims to have no view; he is impatient with all abstractions. He is interested in how individual people see themselves and the world in which they live. He has recorded their histories, their dreams, their stories, their words. As we know, the first thing that leaders or worshippers of the People do is to rob people of their words, by enforcing a language of wood.

Naipaul’s characters, most of whom talk at considerable length, never speak a language of wood. In his interviews, Naipaul insists on details; he wants to know how things smelled, felt, sounded, looked, especially looked. And where it concerns ideas, he wants to be told how they were arrived at; not just what people think, but how they think. This is also the method of his own writing. Naipaul, in Finding the Center:

Narrative was my aim. Within that, my traveling method was intended to be transparent. The reader will see how the material was gathered; he will also see how the material could have served fiction or political journalism or a travelogue. But the material here serves itself alone…. All that was added later was understanding. Out of that understanding the narrative came. However creatively one travels, however deep an experience in childhood or middle age, it takes thought (a sifting of impulses, ideas, and references that become more multifarious as one grows older) to understand what one has lived through or where one has been.

The extraordinary achievement of Naipaul’s latest book is that we can see his characters; more than that, we can see how they see, and how they, in turn, are seen by the author: Amir, the melancholy son of a raja in Lucknow, Cambridge-educated, a Marxist, a devout Muslim; Namdeo, the outcast poet, whose “ideas of untouchability and brothel-area sex, childbirth and rags, all coming together, were like an assault”; and many, many more. This is what makes the book a work of art. At this level it ceases to matter whether the writer is engaged in fiction or nonfiction, or whether you call a book such as The Enigma of Arrival a novel. Whatever his literary form Naipaul is a master. The people in India: A Million Mutinies Now are so alive they could have sprung from a great writer’s imagination.

There is, however, one thing that sets such a book apart from fiction, and that is the language itself. Whereas the writer controls every word in a work of invention, this cannot be the case in a factual account. Here there is a slight problem: the language of Naipaul’s characters inevitably tends to sound flat, compared to the author’s own literary prose. This is particularly true when Naipaul has to go through an interpreter to hear the person’s story. Because the stories are so interesting, it is not a major problem, but I must admit nonetheless that here and there I felt a certain relief when a long quotation ended and Naipaul’s words began.

And what words! The few paragraphs describing the decrepitude of Calcutta are among the best things ever written in English about that sad, wonderful, dying place. Naipaul writes like a painter. Small, visual details tell you all: the buzzards hovering over the grubby little street market behind the Grand Hotel, where people go about their minute tasks, one man walking by “carrying a single, limber, dancing sheet of plywood on his head.” Or the “pink-walled room” of the Hindu activist in Bombay, who worships at the shrine of Ganpati in Pali: “On the wall at the back of the Sony television there was a colour photograph or picture of this image at Pali: the broad, spreading belly of the deity a violent, arresting red, not altogether benign.”

Referring to himself, Nirad Chaudhuri, the cosmopolitan Bengali writer, now living in Britain, once wrote: “To be deraciné, is to be on the road forever.” This could serve nicely as V. S. Naipaul’s motto, too. Naipaul, the grandson of uprooted Indians, uprooted himself to come to England. He is a man continuously on the road, and continuously fretting about roots, his own and those of the people he meets. One sometimes has the impression of a man traveling through the dark and rainy night, stopping at houses on the way, pressing his nose against the windows. Peering at the people inside, cosily sitting around the family hearth, he is reminded of his own rootlessness. The assumption is that those others, seen through the window, are at home, rooted, and whatever the opposite is of deraciné.

This must account for Naipaul’s nostalgia for what he has called “whole and single societies.” He has often used such words as “damaged” or “wounded” for societies that are fragmented and apparently rootless. Gandhi, the Mahatma, he told Andrew Robinson, “is a man, whose life, when I contemplate it, makes me cry. I am moved to tears….” This is, as always, largely a matter of pride, of dignity: Gandhi’s own sense of dignity, which he imparted to the Indian masses. But it is also a question of Naipaul’s admiration for Gandhi’s vision of one single India, a racial vision, a vision of wholeness. Nehru had the same vision, albeit in a more secular way. So did Naipaul on his first visit to India. It was an idea of India, which, as Naipaul writes, incorporated the independence movement, the great civilization, the great names, the classical past. “It was,” Naipaul writes in his latest book,

an aspect of our identity, the community identity we had developed, which in multi-racial Trinidad, had become more like a racial identity.

This was the identity I took to India on my first visit in 1962. And when I got there I found it had no meaning in India. The idea of an Indian community—in effect, a continental idea of our Indian identity—made sense only when the community was very small, a minority, and isolated.

And now, on his last trip, Naipaul believes he has found the making of this all-Indian community. He calls it “a central will, a central intellect, a national idea.” The Indian Union, he writes, “was greater than the sum of its parts; and many of these movements of excess strengthened the Indian state, defining it as the source of law and civility and reasonableness.” This may be right, even though the present bunch in power seems excessive rather than civil, and the latest wave of Hindu chauvinism poses a serious threat to the secular state of India. But this focus on the whole, the single, the central also reflects Naipaul’s own state of mind, his nostalgia for an orderly identity. He has remarked elsewhere, quite convincingly, that Gandhi’s all-Indian vision was shaped in South Africa, just as Nehru’s was formed at Harrow. It is the old dream of the deracinated, a regret about things past.

But a dream is all it is. One senses the same nostalgia in most of the people Naipaul meets on his Indian trip. As Naipaul himself has pointed out so many times, a common desire of those who have escaped the dark embrace of the tribe is to find the way back; nostalgia is the concomitant of change: the educated Sikh who dreams of restoring Ranjit Singh’s nineteenth-century kingdom; the urban intellectual in Calcutta dreaming of pastoral purity; Dravidian politicians in Madras dreaming of medieval emperors who preceded the rule of the Brahmins. Whether or not they know it, the millions of mutineers, wrestling with their fates, are all on the road forever. That is the truth of Naipaul’s excellent book.

  1. *

    The New York Review, January 31, 1991.

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