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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.