By Raffique Shah
August 29, 2018
During my only visit to India, which I made in 1983, I found myself subconsciously looking everywhere for human faeces. Wherever I went, from the modern quarter of New Delhi where I stayed in what was probably a four-star hotel that overlooked manicured lawns and streets swept clean every day, to the slums that sat like festering sores next to the opulence of Bollywood in what was then Bombay, I kept my eyes peeled, looking for excrement.
Now, this might sound strange to the average person, especially since I was someone of Indian descent who was visiting the land of my ancestors for the first and only time. There is so much to see in that vast sub-continent—ancient historical sites (I did tour the Ajanta caves), the Taj Mahal (which I did not see) and other relics, Mahatma Gandhi’s artifacts and much, much more.
But even as I savoured some of the significant sites, always at the forefront of my mind was: watch out for s*#t!
The reason I was obsessed with this stinky side of a great though complex country is this: in the early 1970s, I had read Vidia Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness”, a scathing book on India—well, the title says it all—in which he repeatedly referred to Indians defecating everywhere. The impression I got was that Indians relieved themselves much the way Trinidadian men urinate when they drink alcohol—on fences and walls, against parked vehicles and available trees, or many times in plain open spaces in full view of anyone who cares to watch.
So I looked and looked—but saw no such thing, although I’m sure it happens, though not as widespread as Naipaul portrayed it.
I had read most of the prolific author’s books, including “The Middle Passage” in which he dissected the West Indian islands with a butcher’s blade rather than a surgeon’s scalpel, so when I travelled to India I should have known that he was prone to casting his undeniably clinical writer’s eye on the bad and the ugly in every country or society he wrote about in fiction and non-fiction, rather than the good.
Regarding his bludgeoning of India, discussing the book with CLR James, who was in my view this country’s greatest philosopher, he said, “How could he (Naipaul) look at a country that produced men like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru and call it ‘an area of darkness’? The area of darkness is in Vidia’s head!”
Almost echoing CLR, the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, questioned Naipaul’s negativity towards her country, asking how could he form such opinions and make blanket pronouncements after a visit that lasted only a few months.
There can be no argument that Naipaul was one of the great writers in English of the 20th Century. His command of the language, his characterisation, his sense of humour, when combined with his prolific production of novels and non-fiction works assures him a prime place in the literary stratosphere that surpasses even the coveted Nobel Prize.
As a voracious reader, I have enjoyed reading his books. For me, his best works were The Mystic Masseur (Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair’s transformation into G. Ramsey-Muir was a classic), The Suffrage of Elvira (primitive electioneering that lingers to this day), and The Mimic Men. I have derived innumerable hours of pleasure from reading Naipaul, and reading about him through the works of Patrick French and Paul Theroux.
At times I was angry over Naipaul’s negative portrayals of people from the land of his birth and other former colonies. I understood that he utilised writers’ license to lampoon political leaders and their invariably blind followers, to have fun at the expense of the ex-colonials, including the intelligentsia, especially the pseudo-versions.
For me, the pity is that Naipaul did not use his writing genius to help uplift his fellow-colonials, to acknowledge that he was one of us who had clambered his way out of the morass through a combination of a gifted intellect and dogged determination.
Instead, he exploited our frailties in all of his early works to gain prominence as an author in a literary world where a miniscule few rise above ordinariness, and having broken through the barrier, abandoned the country of his birth whose education system served as the incubator for his craft.
Look at it this way: had he been born in some remote village in India, would he have enjoyed the opportunities he did here—a solid foundation at the primary and secondary school levels, not to add the scholarship to Oxford University?
While it is true that genius thrives even in hostile environments, the caste system in India in the 1950s was unforgiving as even The Mahatma learned before the assassin’s bullet took his life.
So Naipaul was lucky to have been born and schooled in Trinidad, and it was this country that furnished the characters in his first four novels (Miguel Street is really a collection of short stories) that brought him recognition. It was fellow-Oxonian Dr Eric Williams who commissioned his first non-fiction, quasi-historical book, The Middle Passage, which launched his lifelong career in this genre, some 18 of his 35 published works.
You’d think some acknowledgement if not gratitude was due when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. No one was surprised when he did not, least of all the remaining members of his immediate family who were reportedly not “invited” to his funeral.
I shall continue to read those of his books I haven’t yet read, and re-read some of the better ones I have. But in so doing I’ll be recognising the quality of the writing and storytelling, not the idiosyncrasies of the writer.