[Archival Pleasures] Nissim Ezekiel’s take down of V S Naipaul

Much before the world caught up with V S Naipaul’s Brahmanical prejudices wrapped in exquisite prose, Nissim Ezekiel, an Indian Jewish poet and essayist of Bombay,  had figured out Mr. Naipaul. This classic review of An Area of Darkness, Naipaul’s ode to defecation, which appeared in Imprint, has to be the pirated RAIOT obituary for Sir Vidia.

NAIPAUL’S INDIA AND MINE1

To begin at the beginning for those who do not know: Mr. V. S. Naipaul published a book a few months ago entitled An Area of Darkness [André Deutsch, 1964], with the explanatory sub-heading “An Experience of India.” It describes a year”s stay in this country. After a dramatic opening chapter, which narrates how the author was harassed by the Bombay customs officials, he tells us some important things about himself in relation to India. It was the background of his childhood, the country from which his grandfather had migrated, to settle down as an indentured labourer in Trinidad. The family became West Indian but retained some of its Indian customs and ways of thinking, retained in particular objects brought from India. These were “cherished because they came from India” but they were allowed to disintegrate without regret.

This kind of sterile continuity Mr. Naipaul recognizes as typically Indian, a continuity without cultivation. Even at this early stage in the book we recognize Mr. Naipaul’s special gift for the telling detail and the penetrating observation based on it. We see the point of his mentioning the grimy, tattered string-bed, the straw mat, the brass vessels, the wooden printing blocks, the coarse, oily books, the ruined harmonium, the brightly coloured pictures of deities, the images, the stick of sandalwood.

For Mr. Naipaul as a child, the India of such artifacts and of the persons related to them, a few of whom he portrays, was “featureless.” It was an area of darkness. After his journey he found that “something of darkness remains, in those attitudes, those ways of thinking and seeing, which are no longer mine.” His darkness is peopled, packed with a kind of life which is death, a negation, distortion and degradation from which he is glad finally to escape. He says at the end of the book that he is sorry to have had the experience, that it has broken his life in two. Even the menials of Beirut, first stop of his return flight, seem to him “whole” compared to the caricature and mockery of all that is human which he observed in India.

The grandfather, characteristically Indian, “carried his village with him” from Uttar Pradesh to Trinidad, joining others like him in re-creating his ageless environment in another setting. The generations that followed could not do the same. They accepted the West Indies but continued for long as Indians in a multi-racial society, giving the matter no further thought.

Mr. Naipaul outlines precisely what it meant to live in that state of innocence, relying “on the old, Indian divisions, meaningless though these had become.” The family was Hindu Brahmin, the outside world was not. The first experiences of boyhood involved savouring the difference without questioning it.

But even before the questioning began, a temperamental advantage was already secure. Mr. Naipaul “was born an unbeliever” and in addition “remained almost totally ignorant of Hinduism.” Examining himself with that peculiar honesty of his, he writes that what survived of Hinduism in him was a “sense of the difference of people… a vaguer sense of caste, and a horror of the unclean.”

Turning these Hindu weapons against Hindus, he wins his spectacular victories, metaphorically speaking, against the Hindu way of life. He speaks with the virulent sharpness of one who has “contracted out.” The attenuation of his childhood culture began in the family when he was six or seven, was complete when he was fourteen, A few ambivalent attitudes of course remained, and Mr. Naipaul acknowledges them freely. But essentially the older, Hindu­ traditional, Brahmin side of him was dead or existed in a new way. The newer and truer side of his nature kicked against what he noticed in India, a multitude of evils flowing from “the smugness … the imperviousness to criticism, the refusal to see, the double-talk and double-think … “

That was the monstrous reality compared to the India which was an area of his imagination, compared again to the India of the newspapers and books, the political speeches and the cultural exchanges. The apprenticeship for rejecting this Monstrous India, as it may be called, was long and radical.        If the Indian community in the West Indies seemed self-defeatingly static, the Gujarati and Sindhi merchants who came out to settle there appeared “foreign.” From Mr. Naipaul, the word does not sound chauvinistic because his cultural base is not national but humanist, not a territory or even a culture but a complex of values which cuts across all historical divisions. Of the Gujaratis and Sindhis, he writes, “They lived enclosed lives of a narrowness which I considered asphyxiating. They were devoted to their work, the making of money; they seldom went out; their pallid women were secluded; and all day their houses screeched with morbid Indian film songs. They contributed nothing to the society, nothing even to the Indian community. They were reputed among us to be sharp businessmen.” Moreover, they maintained their static relations with India, built up none with their new environment.

The picutre is a clear one and its justice cannot be denied, except that it would be equally true of most other Indian communities. Considered as a whole, and allowing always for individual exceptions (a small percentage, but running into huge numbers*) the communal way of life in India is hide-bound, inimical to personal development, fantastically ignorant and prejudiced about the world outside the community, and hopelessly uncreative in every conceivable area of life.

My quarrel with Mr. Naipaul, which I hope to conduct in a way that will be understandable to him, is not because of these condemnatory judgements of his, so fiercely, so blazingly expressed. My quarrel is that Mr. Naipaul is so often uninvolved and unconcerned. He writes exclusively from the point of view of his own dilemma, his temperamental alienation from his mixed background, his choice and his escape. That temperament is not universal, not even widely distributed, that choice is not open to all, the escape for most is not from the community but into it. To forget this is to be wholly subjective, wholly self-righteous, to think first and last of one”s own expectations, one”s extreme discomfort. If only Mr. Naipaul could have realized how utterly unreasonable this attitude is! It nearly undermines the validity of his arguments.

“To be in Bombay was to be exhausted. The moist heat sapped energy and will …”From that starting point, nothing can be done; the evidence of Indian bureaucratic stupidity becomes suspect.   In A Passage to India, which Mr. Naipaul quotes from admiringly, Adela accuses Aziz of having tried to rape her. Later, she confesses that her behaviour was like that of certain women who honestly believe that they have received offers of marriage when none were intended. Forster too makes much, and rightly, of the heat and the exhaustion, but his book is a novel. He has to make the situation plausible, both psycho­ logically and circumstantially. Mr. Naipaul”s is a travel book, though an unorthodox one. Dealing with the same material, he would probably relate how an Indian took two English ladies to see some caves and tried to rape one of them there. It would not be an impossible story, only an appalling one.

Mr. Naipaul suggests over and over again that appalling stories don”t appall Indians. He keeps running into obtuse, unsympathetic Indians, bland, silly and incapable of understanding his simplest problems. It may be true, but somehow one feels that Mr. Naipaul”s aloof, sullen, aggressive manner contributed to his difficulties, accentuated them. What is to be thought of a man who writes, “I stood in the shade of Churchgate Station and debated whether I had it in me to cross the exposed street to the Tourist Office?”

Mr. Naipaul will no doubt be bitterly scornful if it is hinted that some of his experiences seem self-flagellatory. He will take it as further evidence of the Indian unwillingness to see. But I am not in fact doubting his veracity, only his approach towards the discovery of the truth. He makes the truth about India seem simple. I don’t believe it is simple. Honestly and frankly, he exposes his state of mind. I cannot believe that in such a state of mind, truth can be discovered. The truth about Mr. Naipaul, certainly, but not the whole truth about India. He asserts loudly that in India for the first time in his life he was one of the crowd, and that it upset him to be so.

What, in God’s name, is there to be upset about that unless one has abandoned humility altogether? “There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me from the crowd eternally hurrying into Churchgate Station.” Why should there be? In what way is it reassuring to be different in dress and appearance? “In Trinidad to be an Indian was to be distinctive … To be an Indian in England was distinctive . . . Now in Bombay I entered a shop or a restaurant and awaited a special quality of response…” Is this so much as intelligent, is it fair? “And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality. Again and again, I was caught. I was faceless. I might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd. I had been made by Trinidad and England; recognition of my difference was necessary to me. I felt the need to impose myself, and didn’t know how.”

This fear, this anxiety, this feverish insistence on being different, this frequent assertion of what and where he had been “made,” this irrational urge to “impose” and the rage at being unable to do so, this constitutes the mirror Mr. Naipaul holds up to India. This is the source of his curses, the cause of his raving and ranting. I hasten to add that it does not, for me at least, decrease the impact of his criticism. Perhaps it is even increased. Mr. Naipaul”s book has the moral authority of hysteria, the interest and value of a suffering impotence. “I was too tired to go back, to talk in voice whose absurdity I felt whenever I opened my mouth.”

A pathetic rather than a tragic situation. Unfortunate Mr. Naipaul. Unfortunate India. That much I feel. But now: How right Mr. Naipaul. How wrong India.And that is what, no doubt, he expects the reader to feel. It is a pity. For I share most of his ideas and problems. But I see India in my own way, a way I would like to take this opportunity of clarifying and developing by contrasting it with Mr. Naipaul’s.

Not that my way of seeing India is important, least of all to Mr. Naipaul. He is a brilliant and successful novelist whose writing I greatly enjoy and admire. I know him personally, too, a little. A friend introduced him to me soon after his arrival in India. He was friendly and open but said nothing about his first painful encounters with Indian life, which he describes in his book. Then he wrote to me from Srinagar to ask if I knew anyone in Bombay willing to adopt a stray dog (or was it a cat?) he has rescued from ill­ treatment and starvation. When I met him a second time, at a party in Bombay, he freely expressed his revulsion against certain aspects of Indian behaviour. Since those aspects are revolting, I had no difficulty in agreeing with him.

The third meeting was more than a year later, in London, again at a party. He left early. The others present talked about the distinguished writer”s conversational performance. I was struck by the fact that he had aroused their malice. It was not the first time I had occasion to reflect that a hypersensitive person is quite capable of trampling on the sensitivities of other people.

So, in Naipaul’s India, “ the clerk will not bring you a glass of water even if you faint.” In my India, a clerk will do virtually anything for you if he is treated humanely. I know those clerks, their background, their problems, their conditions of work, their income, how they are transported to and from their places of work, their educational and cultural limitations, their sense of dignity and worth, their humanity, in short. Mr Naipaul is both right and wrong about them as he is on many other points in his book. I admit that for Indian readers the core of rightness in his complaint ought to be taken seriously. It is more valuable than his reckless generalization, his grotesque exaggeration, his nagging, irritable manner. On the other hand, why should he be allowed to get away with all that? It would only confirm and deepen his contempt for the “Spiritual humility” of Indians — the inner quotes of “Spiritual” are his.

Mr. Naipaul shows little humility, spiritual or other. His response when he meets an American lady during his pilgrimage to Amarnath is, “She attracted me. But I had grown tired of meeting young Americans in unlikely places … there were too many of them.” The “Eastern hospitality” they receive outrages his sense of propriety.He accuses them of “exacting a personal repayment for a national generosity,” which is the most caddish anti-American sentiment I have ever read.

The lady was of an unbalanced, disagreeably foolish kind. Mr. Naipaul could not have met any other kind of American lady in India. If he had, he would not have written about her. This piece of female fantasy suits his pen ideally. She is blind to the squalor of India, and a “seeker,” attracted to Hindu philosophy. Observing that “her breasts were good and full” he remarks that she would not “remain a seeker for long.” It turned out that he was right, but he does not realize that it was not worth being right. The unavoidable implication that she represents the typical American woman in India does no credit to Mr. Naipaul. That long story about her is amusing in itself, but in a book purporting to explore India, it is worthless.

Similarly, there is a long story about Ramnath, clerk in a government department, who is happy until Malhotra joins it. Malhotra is an Indian from East Africa.,”educated at an English university.”He dictates a letter to Ramnath which the latter takes down in shorthand but does not type out. In Mr. Naipaul”s story, there is also Hiralal, the typist. Ramnath passes on the shorthand notes to Hiralal who is too busy to type from them that day. Malhotra orders Ramnath to type all letters dictated to him. Ramnath says it is not his job, he is a steno, not a typist. Malhotra insists. Ramnath keeps silent, takes more dictation, passes on the notes to Hiralal. Malhotra, furious, dictates another letter to Ramnath, after making no impression on the head of the department. This letter is to request that Ramnath be sacked for insubordination and insolence.

Ramnath was defeated. He typed all Malhotra”s letters that day. He also “dropped to the floor and touched Malhotra”s polished shoes with his clasped palms.” Then he sobbed, “embracing the shoes, polishing them with his palms.”

That is the kind of think that happens in Naipaul”s India. In my India, stenographers type out the letters dictated to them.

Is the story, then, a fabrication? Unlikely. There are so many questions I would like to ask about it. Was Ramnath, perhaps, the only steno in the department? From how many persons did he take dictation? Could he have typed all the letters dictated to him? Had he been instructed to make himself available only for dictation? I don’t know. Since the head of the department was pusillanimous and evasive, was he concealing something about the terms on which Ramnath had been hired, a man capable of taking down fast dictation from one who has been “educated at an English university?”

There was undoubtedly some misunderstanding. A young Englishman of my acquaintance in Bombay used to speak bitterly to me about his Indian office assistants, claiming that they invariably misinterpreted his simplest instructions. I could barely follow the general tenor of his argument, to say nothing of grasping the details so clipped and jerky was his manner of speech, so pronounced his Oxford accent. Needless to say, based on his experience, this gentleman tended to doubt the intelligence of all the unfortunate Indians who worked under him.

In the office of a weekly for which I worked, I once heard the Irish editor thundering at a sub-editor, concluding with the words, “You haven”t the intelligence of a rabbit.” The sub came up to me sadly and said, “What information does the editor want me to obtain about rabbits?” It is often the arrogance of the whites in India, and of those “educated an an English university” that makes me despair, not the intelligence of clerks, stenos and subs.

Mr. Malhotra interests me. It seems that earning only Rs 600/- a month “his place was therefore with 600-rupee-a-month men.” This somehow makes him an outsider, and at his level “there were no outsiders, no one who, like Malhotra, had rejected the badges of food and caste and dress.”      (The reference to dress indicates how careless Mr. Naipaul is about the unquestionably narrow and closed compartments in which most of Indian life is lived. Even when they preserve the restrictions of food and caste, urban Indians dress as they please, in the Western or Eastern styles, often in a curious compromise between the two.) Mr. Malhotra wishes to marry and, notwithstanding his English education, applies for advertised brides whose parents or brothers want a higher salaried man. “No marriage, then, for him.” Mr. Naipaul is very sorry for Malhotra.

That is the kind of thing that characterizes Mr. Naipaul”s India. In my India, the Malhotras marry by the million, and not always by answering advertisements in the matrimonial columns. They move rapidly from 600 a month to twice that sum and more; even on the starting salary their friendships are not confined to those with the same or similar salaries. With his English university background, Malhotra need not have had any inhibitions.

Does this mean that Mr. Naipaul has invented Malhotra? Not necessarily. He has swallowed Malhotra”s story as he swallowed many others. These stories enabled him to believe what he wanted to believe. Perhaps Malhotra expected a higher starting salary. That was his fault.      He does not seem to have much confidence in his ability to rise. His applying for brides suggests that his education had done him little good. “No marriage, then, for him; and the years were going by, and his parents were breaking their hearts.” Rubbish, Mr. Naipaul.

After Malhotra, Malik. He is an engineer returned from Scandinavia, earing Rs 1200/-a month. European engineers less qualified than he earned thrice as much. This is true, alas, and shameful. As an Indian, I am ashamed. But Malik”s story too is suspect in my eyes. He claims, and Mr. Naipaul believes him, that he is not given the superior jobs for which he applies because he has no car. “Do you own a car? Malik didn”t. The probing was abandoned; no one was even interested in his parentage.”

That in Mr. Naipaul’s India. In my India, engineers trained abroad, provided they have what it takes, advance rapidly, buy a car before they can afford it because advancement is certain, land superior jobs even if they don”t have a car and are given one by the firm, with an allowance for maintenance.

Malik failed to get a bigger job because his personality and abilities did not measure up to his qualifications. Indians do tend to think that qualifications are enough, particularly if they are foreign. They explain their failures in many ways. Malik believes it is because he has no car, though he could easily buy one and sail over the alleged obstacle. He has “a well-appointed flat in one of the finer areas of Bombay” and on the bookshelves there is Ibsen in the original. Malik is stuck and Mr. Naipaul is sorry for him.At every interview, “Do you own a car?” Malik didn’t. “The probing was abandoned.” Rubbish, Mr. Naipaul.

It is my turn now to tell a story, a true one which does not cast any dark reflections on much-maligned India. The overtones are purely human. We were five executives in a business firm. One of us never succeeded in getting a woman to go out with him. We teased him about it. “A modern Indian woman,” he said, “will not go out with a man unless he has a car.”    We laughed heartily. None of us had a car at that time — and we had no problems in that delicate area where our colleague was unsuccessful. He was merely unattractive to women, and still is, seven years later. He has had a car for a long time. But he is always alone in it.

I would like to meet Malik, though, and discuss Ibsen with him.

If true-blooded Indian mores make Mr. Naipaul sneer, Westernized Indians make him snarl. Their nicknames annoy him and he quotes their “dated slang.” If the slang had been up-to-date, he wouldn’t have liked it either. He laughs at the Indian army officer because he is “at a first meeting a complete English army officer.” If he had been a complete Indian army officer, he would have laughed even more loudly.  Indian Anglo-India is of course vulnerable. What is detestable is Mr. Naipaul’s refusal to see it in human and historic terms. Bunty, the uneasy mixture of West and East is condemned merely by description, so to speak. His grandfather conducted his business over a hookah, reclining on bolsters. Bunty “discusses business over drinks at the club or on the golf course.” If he returned to hookah and bolsters, Mr. Naipaul wouldn’t approve either.

In Bunty’s home, a Jamini Roy painting is hung beside a Picasso, which is, of course, infuriating. If he had only Jamini Roy he would have been provincial, if only Picasso, a snob. Bunty can’t win, though he “sees himself as every man’s equal and most men’s superior.” He speaks English fluently, which maddens Mr. Naipaul. If he had spoken it badly, Mr. Naipaul would have despised him.

Mr. Naipaul saw a banner in Bombay on his first day there, advertising the Oxford and Cambridge Players’ production of The Importance of Being Earnest. He finds it funny, an example of confused values. Wilde’s witty comedy to be produced in Bombay, city of slums, hutment dwellers, pavement sleepers and beggars, appears to him absurd, fantastic, part of the mimicry of English life. The fact itself I don’t find absurd; any pretension attached to it is. Mr. Naipaul doesn’t make the distinction. The very announcement of the production he thinks symptomatic of a profound cultural disease. It is actually a symptom of a natural and inevitable division in Indian society as a result of British rule. English was made the national language of India by the British, and the medium of education.      For obvious reasons it could not be immediately and entirely removed. If it had been, there would be no banner in Bombay advertising in English to upset Mr. Naipaul. He would then have commented, no doubt, on the disappearance of all that intellectual activity in English which was the natural accompaniment of English education in India.

To understand the situation, one does not have to be for or against the continuance of English. It was, is and will remain part of the Indian scene for many years to come. There is an “Indian withdrawal and denial ,” there is a “Confusion of Indian Anglo-India” but Mr. Naipaul is too subjective to analyse it meaningfully. He argues too exclusively from revulsion and anger to see (his favourite word) the problem in the round.

In the chapter entitled “The Colonial,” Mr. Naipaul uses Gandhi in an original way to reinforce his attack on Indian culture. He quotes Gandhi against the kind of “misplaced charity” which consists in organizing free meals for beggars or giving them money. He then says that Gandhi “Of course in this matter of beggary … failed.” If begging continues in India only because of misplaced charity, Mr. Naipaul would be right. No doubt there are beggars in India capable of earning a living but who beg because it is easy and pays. But surely the overwhelming majority begs because there is no alternative. Beggars will disappear in India not when Indians heed Gandhi and other reformers but when economic progress makes begging unnecessary for anybody.

Mr. Naipaul calls Gandhi “the least Indian of Indian leaders” because of his attitude to sanitation, physical labour, service, inefficiency and untouchability. In these matters his attitude was indeed different from the ordinary run of Indian leaders. Nevertheless it can with equal truth be said that he was more Indian than most in his attitude to sex, his advocacy of prohibition, his asceticism, his food fads, his opposition to modernism in every field. His ideal society was of self-contained villages, an economy based on the spinning wheel (the use of which, he claimed, would “cool one’s lust” ), altogether a pre-medieval society of holy poverty and other-worldly absorption. I think Mr. Naipaul is not interested in the truth about Gandhi, one way or another.He cites him merely to criticize “the whole diseased society” which Gandhi criticized, except that the phrase is not Gandhi 1 s, but Naipaul ‘s. This does not seem to me particularly honest, since Gandhi may be and has been criticized for innumerable characteristically Indian vices, including double-think.

Let me pause to explain again that I see India in most ways as Naipaul see her. All that he says against the grossness and squalor of Indian life, the routine ritualism, the lip-service to high ideals, the petrified and distorted sense of cleanliness, and a thousand other things, all this is true. My dissatisfaction is with his mode of argument, his falsifying examples.

The top bunk in a railway sleeper is avoided in India, Mr. Naipaul writes, because it “involves physical effort, and physical effort is to be avoided as a degradation.” Well, I avoid the top bunk because it brings me too close to the fan which is attached to the ceiling. Turning the fan away causes the bunk to be rather airless; in the heat of India, this makes it very uncomfortable. In Europe and elsewhere, as Mr. Naipaul points out, the favoured bunk is the top bunk. It is cool. It offers greater privacy.The top bunk in Indian railways often has no ladder leading up to it. One has to swing up, placing the feet on the arm-rest of the lower bunk. So I have sometimes given up my reserved lower bunk to a lady or an elderly person.

As for the Indian unwillingness or reluctance to do physical labourthe charge is justified. Nevertheless, in all my train journeys, I have seen people roll out their bedding on the bunk, then roll it off again. This job is not done by porters. The incident Mr. Naipaul describes, in which he changed his lower bunk with a passenger and found himself doing “ the porter’s job” without assistance from the person he had obliged, made me raise my eye­brows. I quote:

“ His bedding had been spread for him on the top bunk by the porter, and he was waiting until we got to the next station, two hours distance, so that he might get a porter to take it down for· him.. I wished to settle down. I began to do the porter’s job. He smiled but offered no help. I lost my temper. His face acquired that Indian expressionless which indicates that communication has ceased and that the Indian has withdrawn from a situation he cannot understand. Labour is a degradation; only a foreigner would see otherwise.”

Here is truth told in such a way that it becomes falsehood. I do not say that all or even the greater part of Mr. Naipaul ‘s argument is vitiated in this way. A great deal is, far too much is, and given the unrelenting irritability, this is not surprising.The publisher’s blurb on the dust jacket of An Area of Darkness refers, startlingly, to Mr. Naipaul’s “Vision distorted by indignation ot fear.” I can only concur. The blurb goes on to praise the honesty with which Mr. Naipaul records his indignation and fear. Even if I concur again, that distorted vision does not dissatisfy me less.

Most of the persons Mr. Naipaul met in India were grotesques, contemptible or pathetic creatures. He writes about them at great length as though they are important illustrations of his argument. Mrs. Mahindra of New Delhi, who is

“Craze for foreign,” sprawls over several pages. M. S. Butt, proprietor of Hotel Liward in Srinagar, and his assistant Aziz, the boy from Bombay who comes to stay in Hotel Liward, are others of the same kind.            Mr. Naipaul treated them with a mixture of impertinence and condescension, converting himself into a grotesque in the process. Abandoning his culture and his manners, he seems to act out of pure, unreasoned hostility and records it all with his usual “honesty.”

The utter triviality of some encounters doesn’t bother him.“I had loathed the boy from Bombay on sight.” Naipaul loathed him.The boy is listening to Radio Ceylon. Mr. Naipaul “ ran downstairs,” turns the set to Radio Kashmir because he wants to listen to the news. After the news, the boy switches it back to Radio Ceylon. No words are exchanged. “And so now it went on, morning and evening.” It is the boy who eventually calls on Mr. Naipaul, who has fallen ill. “Thereafter courtesy was imposed on both of us.     I offered him Radio Ceylon; he offered me Radio Kashmir.” Our sympathies are supposed to be with Mr. Naipaul!He is a sensitive man. The boy from Bombay, in his eyes, is set “against a background of swarming Bombay slum.”

The reader does, in fact, sympathize with Mr. Naipaul when he describes what he sees, the scenes of callousness, coarseness and suffering, the every day degradation of the human image not only among the poorest of the poor but among the middle class and in Indian society as a whole. All or almost all that he writes about the effects of British rule in India is subtle and suggestive. The comparison with the colonial consequences in the West Indies is illuminat­ ing. The fact that the British had possessed the country so completely, that the Indian subjection was so thorough and her resistance so puny, is related to the age-old “Indian ability to retreat, the ability genuinely not to see what was obvious.” It was not merely, as with others, a “foundation of neurosis” but part of “a greater philosophy of despair, leading to passivity, detachment, acceptance.”

Few Indians are willing to believe that the roots of their failure go deep into history. They believe in their high ideals, attribute failure to not living up to these, That the ideals are false and stultifying is never clearly perceived. Hence the contradiction between words and behaviour which is virtually universal in India, the insensitive contradiction between belief and way of life. The story of the village politician, austerely dressed, lauding Gandhi publicly and having seventeen people murdered during an election contest, may be exaggerated but basically it is quite plausible.

Mr. Naipaul has only to describe certain Indian phenomena to make them suspect. Some of them are easy targets but need to be hit over and over again, until they are eliminated. The pious family of wealthy Indian merchants from East Africa and their adoption of a holy man in Delhi provides occasion for a sharp look at the most popular and influential kind of saintliness in India.

It is seen to be simplicity of a primitive kind, “cooking on stones, eating off leaves, fetching water from the spring.” Gandhi believed in that too, though he was opposed to the casualness and disorder which often and typically accompany Indian holiness. The belching and spitting, the unaesthetic dress, the ritualistic and arrogant cleanliness coexisting with dirt, the decadent veneration — all are indicated merely through the accumulation of concrete detail.      How much better this is than the self-chosen situations of extreme anguish, compelling confessions of “that deep anger which unhinges judgement and almost physically limits vision!”

A recurring theme in An Area of Darkness is public defecation in India, with the waste left exposed on the surface of the earth. Gandhi is quoted — his words deserve constant reiteration — “Leaving night-soil, cleansing the nose, or spitting on the road is a sin against God as well as humanity, and betrays a sad want of consideration for others. The man who does not cover his waste deserves a heavy penalty even if he lives in a forest.”    It is some consolation that the educated, on the whole, and those above the lowest economic life-time cease to be guilty of these loathsome practices. Unfortunately, even so, their sanitary habits remain careless. Indians tend to spurn it as an unpleasant subject.

A distressing episode in An Area of Darkness concerns Mr. Naipaul”s involvement with an alienated, violent-minded and ferociously prejudiced Sikh. They are in a third-class air-conditioned compartment of a train travelling south. The compartment is full of South Indians, whose way of eating their liquidized food is pictured with more than malice. But, humour is humour. The Sikh is a different proposition, an uncultured communalist who strikes a man for staring at him. Mr. Naipaul admits his mistake in being friendly with the Sikh, but the mistake is significant. When they fall out, the Sikh calls Mr. Naipaul “a dirty South Indian swine.” Earlier, he refers to the South Indians in the train as “punks,” and “blackies.” Did Mr. Naipaul really meet no decent Indians? He fell once too often into the trap of his own general revulsion.

In the India which I have presumed to call mine, I acknowledge without hesitation the existence of all the darkness Mr. Naipaul discovered. I am not a Hindu and my background makes me a natural outsider: circumstances and decisions relate me to India. In other countries I am a foreigner. In India I am an Indian. When I was eighteen, a friend asked me what my ambition was. I said with the naive modesty of youth, “To do something for India.” My friend who was a Muslim and wanted India divided (he left for Karachi soon after Pakistan was created) laughed, though not unsympathetically, as I remember. India is simply my environment. A man can do something for and in his environment by being fully what he is, by not withdrawing from it. I have not withdrawn from India.

In one of the rare positive moments in An Area of Darkness, Mr. Naipaul writes, “Anger, compassion and contempt were aspects of the same emotions; they were without value because they could not endure. Achievement could begin only with acceptance.” As always, Mr. Naipaul overstates the case. I believe in anger, compassion and contempt. They are not without value.      I believe in acceptance that incorporates all three, makes use of them. I am incurably critical and sceptical. That is what I am in relation to India also. And to myself. I find it does not prevent the growth of love. In this sense only, I love India. I expect nothing in return because critical, sceptical love does not beget love. It performs another, more objective function.

In a very small, even negligible way, this objective function may bring results which have eluded the prophets and reformers of India, or so it suits my sardonic conceit to think. Mice may gnaw through the ropes of bondage where the roaring of lions makes no impression.      It is at least an experiment worth trying.

Not being Hindu, I cannot identify myself with India’s past as a comprehensive heritage or reject it as if it were mine to reject. I can identify myself only with modern India, a place with more things in it than are dreamt of in Mr. Naipaul’s philosophy. I am neither proud nor ashamed of being an Indian. I am neither proud nor ashamed of being Westernized. History is behind me. I live on the frontiers of the future that is slowly receding before me. Contempt for background impresses me as little as pride in background. Both are distorting. Tormented, self-regarding resolutions of cultural conflict create new, tormenting problems. Poise, a sense of proportion and that irony which Mr. Naipaul finds lacking in Indians, must be maintained if one wants to help. Otherwise, criticism is self-indulgence. It must attack, even denounce, but it must not deny human beings their humanity.

In An Area of Darkness Mr. Naipaul comes dangerously close to doing that. The South Indian way of eating he mocks, but he does not seem to have met these people who eat so coarsely. I don’t know if he is serious or merely guilt­ ridden when, surprisingly, he writes near the end of the book, “Nowhere were people so heightened, rounded and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves so fully and with such assurance. To know Indians was to take a delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure.” I distrust that “nowhere.” Excessive moralizing on the incongruities of Indian life has betrayed him into an excess here.  He who exaggerates blame will exaggerate praise.

My concern with Mr. Naipaul’s criticism of India has been to analyse the way the job is done. I have made it clear that it is an unsatisfactory way, from my point of view, and heavily flawed in detail. All the same, I am on the side of the criticism against the myriad Indian and foreign evaders of Indian reality. Culture doesn’t consist only of literature, and philosophy and art, and it is certainly not acquired by adhering to the beliefs of the past and conforming to its institutional demands. Its living presence is indicated in behaviour, by rich and poor alike, and there are universal human standards by which it may be judged. Mr. Naipaul is right to see us as we are in the streets, in buses and trains, in our kitchens and lavatories.

Mr. Naipaul’s conclusion is negative. “Shiva has ceased to dance.” It would be too facile to say that He may dance again.

Certainly, that is the hope and the endeavour. There is some endeavour too, in modern India, which need hardly be mentioned as evidence for hope. It is at least as obvious as the poverty and the squalor, physical, social and moral. A book could be written about it which would not have to falsify or exaggerate anything. It might well point the way out of the present Indian confusion.

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Nissim Ezekiel Written by:

Nissim Ezekiel (Talkar) ( 16 December 1924 – 9 January 2004) was an Indian Jewish poet, actor, playwright, editor and art-critic. He was a foundational figure in postcolonial India's literary history, specifically for Indian writing in English. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 for his poetry collection, "Latter-Day Psalms", by the Sahitya Akademi

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