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…

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