The Writer and India

for David Pryce-Jones

In concluding the first part of this article in the February 18 issue, V.S. Naipaul wrote, in part: “As a child trying to read, Ihad felt that two worlds separated me from the books that were offered to me at school and in the libraries: the childhood world of our remembered India, and the more colonial world of our city…. What I didn’t know, even after I had written my early books of fiction, concerned only with story and people and getting to the end and mounting the jokes well, was that these two spheres of darkness had become my subject.”


India was the greater hurt. It was a subject country. It was also the place from whose very great poverty our grandfathers had had to run away in the late nineteenth century. The two Indias were separate. The political India, of the freedom movement, had its great names. The other, more personal India was quite hidden; it vanished when memories faded. It wasn’t an India we could read about. It wasn’t Kipling’s India, or E.M. Forster’s, or Somerset Maugham’s; and it was far from the somewhat stylish India of Nehru and Tagore. (There was an Indian writer, Premchand [1880-1936], whose stories in Hindi and Urdu would have made our Indian village past real to us. But we didn’t know about him; we were not reading people in that way.)

It was to this personal India, and not the India of independence and its great names, that I went when the time came. I was full of nerves. But nothing had prepared me for the dereliction I saw. No other country I knew had so many layers of wretchedness, and few countries were as populous. I felt I was in a continent where, separate from the rest of the world, a mysterious calamity had occurred. Yet what was so overwhelming to me, so much in the foreground, was not to be found in the modern-day writing I knew, Indian or English. In one Kipling story an Indian famine was a background to an English romance; but generally in both English and Indian writing the ex-traordinary distress of India, when acknowledged, was like something given, eternal, something to be read only as background. And there were, as always, those who thought they could find a special spiritual quality in the special Indian distress.

It was only in Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, in the chapters dealing with his discovery in the 1890s of the wretchedness of the unprotected Indian laborers in South Africa, that I found—obliquely, and not for long—a rawness of hurt that was like my own in India.

I wrote a book, after having given up the idea. But I couldn’t let go of the hurt. It took time—much writing, in many moods—to see beyond the dereliction. It took time to break through the bias and the fantasies of Indian political ideas about the Indian past. The independence struggle, the movement against the British, had obscured the calamities of India before the British. Evidence of those calamities lay on every side. But the independence movement was like religion; it didn’t see what it didn’t want to see.

For more than six hundred years after 1000 AD the Muslim invaders had ravaged the subcontinent at will. They had established kingdoms and empires and fought with one another. They had obliterated the temples of the local religions in the north; they had penetrated deep into the south and desecrated temples there.

For twentieth-century Indian nationalism those centuries of defeat were awkward. So history was re-jigged; ruler and ruled before the British, conqueror and subject, believer and infidel, became one. In the face of the great British power, it made a kind of sense. Still, to promote the idea of the wholeness of India before the British, it was easier for nationalist writers to go very far back, to pre-Islamic days, to the fifth and seventh centuries, when India was for some the center of the world, and Chinese Buddhist scholars came as pilgrims to Buddhist centers of learning in India.

The fourth-century Moroccan Muslim theologian and world traveler Ibn Battuta didn’t fit in so easily with this idea of Indian wholeness. Ibn Battuta wished to travel to all the countries of the Muslim world. Everywhere he went he lived on the bounty of Muslim rulers, and he offered pure Arab piety in return.

He came to India as to a conquered Muslim land. He was granted the revenues (or crops) of five villages, then—in spite of a famine—two more; and he stayed for seven years. In the end, though, he had to run. The Muslim ruler in Delhi, Ibn Battuta’s ultimate patron, liked blood, daily executions (and torture) on the threshold of his hall of audience, with the bodies left lying for three days. Even Ibn Battuta, though used to the ways of Muslim despots the world over, began to take fright. When four guards were set to watch him he thought his time had come. He had been pestering the ruler and his officials for this and that, and complaining that the ruler’s gifts were being soaked up by officials before they got to him. Now, with the inspiration of terror, he declared himself a penitent who had renounced the world. He did a full five-day fast, reading the Koran right through every day of his fast; and when he next appeared before the ruler he was dressed like a mendicant. The renunciation of the theologian touched the hard heart of the ruler, reminded him of higher things, and Ibn Battuta was allowed to go.

In Ibn Battuta’s narrative the local people were only obliquely seen. They were serfs in the villages (the property of the ruler, part of the bounty that could be offered the traveler) or simple slaves (Ibn Battuta liked traveling with slave girls). The beliefs of these people had a quaint side but were otherwise of no interest to a Muslim theologian; in Delhi their idols had been literally overthrown. The land had ceased to belong to the local people, and it had no sacredness for the foreign ruler.

In Ibn Battuta it was possible to see the beginnings of the great dereliction of India. To seventeenth-century European travelers like Thomas Roe and Bernier the general wretchedness of the people—living in huts just outside the Mogul palaces—mocked the pretentiousness of the rulers. And for William Howard Russell, reporting in 1858 and 1859 on the Indian Mutiny for The Times, and traveling slowly from Calcutta to the Punjab, the land was everywhere in old ruin, with the half-starved (“hollow-thighed”) common people, blindly going about their menial work, serving the British as they had served every previous ruler.

Even if I had not found words for it, I had believed as a child in the wholeness of India. The Ramlila—the pageant play based on the Ramayana that we saw performed in an open field just outside our little town—and our religious rites and all our private ways were part of that wholeness; it was something we had left behind. This new idea of the past, coming to me over the years, unraveled that romance, showed me that our ancestral civilization—to which we had paid tribute in so many ways in our far-off colony, and had thought of as ancient and unbroken—had been as helpless before the Muslim invaders as the Mexicans and Peruvians were before the Spaniards; had been half destroyed.


For every kind of experience there is a proper form, and I do not see what kind of novel I could have written about India. Fiction works best in a confined moral and cultural area, where the rules are generally known; and in that confined area it deals best with things—emotions, impulses, moral anxieties—that would be unseizable or incomplete in other literary forms.

The experience I had had was particular to me. To do a novel about it, it would have been necessary to create someone like myself, someone of my ancestry and background, and to work out some business which would have taken this person to India. It would have been necessary more or less to duplicate the original experience, and it would have added nothing. Tolstoy used fiction to bring the siege of Sebastopol closer, to give it an added reality. I feel that if I had attempted a novel about India, and mounted all that apparatus of invention, I would have been falsifying precious experience. The value of the experience lay in its particularity. I had to render it as faithfully as I could.

The metropolitan novel, so attractive, so apparently easy to imitate, comes with metropolitan assumptions about society: the availability of a wider learning, an idea of history, a concern with self-knowledge. Where those assumptions are wrong, where the wider learning is missing or imperfect, I am not sure whether the novel can offer more than the externals of things. The Japanese imported the novel form and added it to their own rich literary and historical traditions; there was no mismatch. But where, as in India, the past has been torn away, and history is unknown or unknowable or denied, I don’t know whether the borrowed form of the novel can deliver more than a partial truth, a dim lighted window in a general darkness.

Forty to fifty years ago, when Indian writers were not so well considered, the writer R.K. Narayan was a comfort and example to those of us (I include my father and myself) who wished to write. Narayan wrote in English about Indian life. This is actually a difficult thing to do, and Narayan solved the problems by appearing to ignore them. He wrote lightly, directly, with little social explanation. His English was so personal and easy, so without English social associations, that there was no feeling of oddity; he always appeared to be writing from within his culture.

He wrote about people in a small town in South India: small people, big talk, small doings. That was where he began; that was where he was fifty years later. To some extent that reflected Narayan’s own life. He never moved far from his origins. When I met him in London in 1961—he had been traveling, and was about to go back to India—he told me he needed to be back home, to do his walks (with an umbrella for the sun) and to be among his characters.

He truly possessed his world. It was complete and always there, waiting for him; and it was far enough away from the center of things for outside disturbances to die down before they could get to it. Even the independence movement, in the heated 1930s and 1940s, was far away, and the British presence was marked mainly by the names of buildings and places. This was an India that appeared to mock the vainglorious and went on in its own way.

Dynasties rose and fell. Palaces and mansions appeared and disappeared. The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader, and was washed clean when Sarayu [the local river] overflowed its bounds. But it always had its rebirth and growth.

In this view (from one of the more mystical of Narayan’s books) the fire and sword of defeat are like abstractions. There is no true suffering, and rebirth is almost magical. These small people of Narayan’s books, earning petty sums from petty jobs, and comforted and ruled by ritual, seem oddly insulated from history. They seem to have been breathed into being; and on examination they don’t appear to have an ancestry. They have only a father and perhaps a grandfather; they cannot reach back further into the past. They go to ancient temples; but they do not have the confidence of those ancient builders; they themselves can build nothing that will last.

But the land is sacred, and it has a past. A character in that same mystical novel is granted a simple vision of that Indian past, and it comes in simple tableaux. The first is from the Ramayana (about 1000 BC); the second is of the Buddha, from the sixth century BC; the third is of the ninth-century philosopher Shankaracharya; the fourth is of the arrival a thousand years later of the British, ending with Mr. Shilling, the local bank manager.

What the tableaux leave out are the centuries of the Muslim invasions and Muslim rule. Narayan spent part of his childhood in the state of Mysore. Mysore had a Hindu maharajah. The British put him on the throne after they had defeated the Muslim ruler. The maharajah was of an illustrious family; his ancestors had been satraps of the last great Hindu kingdom of the south. That kingdom was defeated by the Muslims in 1565, and its enormous capital city (with the accumulated human talent that had sustained it) almost totally destroyed, leaving a land so impoverished, so nearly without creative human resource, that it is hard now to see how a great empire could have arisen on that spot. The terrible ruins of the capital—still speaking four centuries later of loot and hate and blood and Hindu defeat, a whole world destroyed—were perhaps a day’s journey from Mysore City.

Narayan’s world is not, after all, as rooted and complete as it appears. His small people dream simply of what they think has gone before, but they are without personal ancestry; there is a great blank in their past. Their lives are small, as they have to be: this smallness is what has been allowed to come up in the ruins, with the simple new structures of British colonial order (school, road, bank, courts). In Narayan’s books, when the history is known, there is less the life of a wise and enduring Hindu India than a celebration of the redeeming British peace.

So in India the borrowed form of the English or European novel, even when it has learned to deal well with the externals of things, can sometimes miss their terrible essence. I too, as a writer of fiction, barely understanding my world—our family background, our migration, the curious half-remembered India in which we continued to live for a generation, Mr. Worm’s school, my father’s literary ambition—I too could begin only with the externals of things. To do more, as I soon had to, since I had no idea or illusion of a complete world waiting for me somewhere, I had to find other ways.


For sixty or seventy years in the nineteenth century the novel in Europe, developing very fast in the hands of a relay of masters, became an extraordinary tool. It did what no other literary form—essay, poem, drama, history—could do. It gave industrial or industrializing or modern society a very clear idea of itself. It showed with immediacy what hadn’t been shown before; and it altered vision. Certain things in the form could be modified or played with later, but the pattern of the modern novel had been set, and its program laid out.

All of us who have come after have been derivative. We can never be the first again. We might bring new material from far away, but the program we are following has been laid out for us. We cannot be the writing equivalent of Robinson Crusoe on his island, letting off “the first gun that had been fired there since the creation of the world.” That (to stay with the metaphor) is the gunshot we hear when we turn to the originators. They are the first; they didn’t know it when they began, but then (like Machiavelli in his Discourses and Montaigne in his Essays) they do know, and they are full of excitement at the discovery. That excitement comes over to us, and there is an unrepeatable energy in the writing.

The long passage below is from the beginning of Nicholas Nickleby (1838). Dickens is twenty-six and at his freshest. The material is commonplace. That is its point. Dickens appears to have just discovered (after Boz and Pickwick and Oliver Twist) that everything he sees in London is his to write about, and that plot can wait.

Mr Nickleby closed an account-book which lay on his desk, and, throwing himself back in his chair, gazed with an air of abstraction through the dirty window. Some London houses have a melancholy little plot of ground behind them, usually fenced in by four high whitewashed walls, and frowned upon by stacks of chimneys: in which there withers on, from year to year, a crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few leaves late in autumn when other trees shed theirs, and, drooping in the effort, lingers on, all crackled and smoke-dried, till the following season…. People sometimes call these dark yards “gardens”; it is not supposed that they were ever planted, but rather that they are pieces of unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original brick-field. No man thinks of walking in this desolate place, or of turning it to any account. A few hampers, half a dozen broken bottles, and such-like rubbish, may be thrown there, when the tenant first moves in, but nothing more; and there they remain until he goes away again: the damp straw taking just as long to smoulder as it thinks proper: and mingling with the scanty box, and stunted everbrowns, and broken flower-pots, that are scattered mournfully about—a prey to “blacks” and dirt.

It was into a place of this kind that Mr Ralph Nickleby gazed…. He had fixed his eyes upon a distorted fir-tree, planted by some former tenant in a tub that had once been green, and left there, years before, to rot away piecemeal…. At length, his eyes wandered to a little dirty window on the left, through which the face of the clerk was dimly visible; that worthy chancing to look up, he beckoned him to attend.

It is delightful, detail by detail, and we can stay with it because we feel, with the writer, that it hasn’t been done before. This also means that it can’t be done with the same effect again. It will lose its air of discovery, which is its virtue. Writing has always to be new; every talent is always burning itself out. Twenty-one years later, in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in the wine cask scene, the Dickensian hard stare has become technique, impressive but rhetorical, the detail oddly manufactured, the product more of mind and habit than of eye.

A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken…and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell.

All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine. The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them, had dammed it into little pools; these were surrounded, each by its own jostling group or crowd, according to its size. Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers. Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths….

Only the shattered walnut and the mutilated mug are like the younger Dickens. The other details will not create revolutionary Paris (of seventy years before); they are building up more into the symbolism of the political cartoon.

Literature is the sum of its discoveries. What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators. What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good. And—though played-out forms can throw up miraculous sports like The Importance of Being Earnest or Decline and Fall—what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing. Writing of this quality cannot be taught in a writing course.

Literature, like all living art, is always on the move. It is part of its life that its dominant form should constantly change. No literary form—the Shakespeare play, the epic poem, the Restoration comedy, the essay, the work of history—can continue for very long at the same pitch of inspiration. If every creative talent is always burning itself out, every literary form is always getting to the end of what it can do.

The new novel gave nineteenth-century Europe a certain kind of news. The late twentieth century, surfeited with news, culturally far more confused, threatening again to be as full of tribal or folk movement as during the centuries of the Roman Empire, needs another kind of interpretation. But the novel, still (in spite of appearances) mimicking the program of the nineteenth-century originators, still feeding off the vision they created, can subtly distort the unaccommodating new reality. As a form it is now commonplace enough, and limited enough, to be teachable. It encourages a multitude of little narcissisms, from near and far; they stand in for originality and give the form an illusion of life. It is a vanity of the age (and of commercial promotion) that the novel continues to be literature’s final and highest expression.

Here I have to go back to the beginning. It was out of the colonial small change of the great nineteenth-century achievement that—perhaps through a teacher or a friend—the desire to be a writer came to my father in the late 1920s. He did become a writer, though not in the way he wanted. He did good work; his stories gave our community a past that would otherwise have been lost. But there was a mismatch between the ambition, coming from outside, from another culture, and our community, which had no living literary tradition; and my father’s hard-won stories have found very few readers among the people they were about.

He passed on the writing ambition to me; and I, growing up in another age, have managed to see that ambition through almost to the end. But I remember how hard it was for me as a child to read serious books; two spheres of darkness separated me from them. Nearly all my imaginative life was in the cinema. Everything there was far away, but at the same time everything in that curious operatic world was accessible. It was a truly universal art. I don’t think I overstate when I say that without the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s I would have been spiritually quite destitute. That cannot be shut out of this account of reading and writing. And I have to wonder now whether the talent that once went into imaginative literature didn’t in this century go into the first fifty years of the glorious cinema.

This is the second of two articles.