indiai don’t quite know whether or not i enjoyed v.s. naipaul’s india: a wounded civilization. it’s a bitter, highly personal look at an india completely foreign to me. the book was based on naipaul’s travels (august 1975 – october 1976) during indira ghandi’s emergency. naipaul adopts an objective voice but the vehemence with which he comes down on india’s failings imply a raw nerve touched. it’s a polarized reading experience- the content desperate and despairing, the form / style stunningly efficient and direct.

naipaul covers many themes. he is deeply disturbed by what he sees as india’s prioritizing of the mystical over the rational. this is a subject amartya sen covered and discredited in his excellent the argumentative indian: writings on indian history, culture and identity (a kind of orientalism equivalent that sought to reaffirm rationality as a central part of india’s historical narrative and the best book on india i have read) which was a firm rebuttal of this prevalent theme in literature of the time:

it seems to be always there in india: magic, the past, the death of the intellect, spirituality annulling the civilization out of which it issues, india swallowing its own tail.

like childhood, this golden indian past is not to be posessed by inquiry; it is only to be ecstatically contemplated. the past is a religious idea, including intellect and painful perception, numbing distress in bad times

naipaul is describing a mid 70s india. this was an extreme period in india’s already generally extreme colonial and post-colonial history. modernizing and industrializing are never pretty processes. the baggage of ancient civilization further complicates the process. british colonialism was not the equivalent of a mao priming and its democratic legacy was possibly more of a curse in india’s emerging phase. there are pockets of naipaul’s india that will still be recognized by today’s visitors; its stunning corruption and seemingly endless bureaucracy continues to amaze and astound all visitors:

in india, where nearly everything waits for the government

naipaul also unleashes torrents of criticism at elements of hinduism- dharma and the caste system bear the brunt of it. he’s also angry at and dismissive of gandhi’s extreme introspection, rejection of modernity and deference to the inner voice. naipaul’s bleak negativity jarred with me and my contemporary views on india shining, but his devastating prose countered it. the form working against the content.

the fantasy of past splendour is accomodated within an acceptance of present squalor

a caste vision: what is remote from me is remote from me

alongside gandhi, naipual goes after srinivas, the hero of mr sampath -r.k. narayan narayan’s 1949 novel and an ‘intensely hindhu book’. srinivas sees:

adulthood as a state of nonsense, without innocence or pure joy, the nonsense given importance only by the ‘values of commerce
madness or sanity, suffering or happiness seemed all the same… in the rush of eternity nothing mattered.
knowledge of the abyss, the acceptance of distress as the condition of men

the passivity of hinduism in the face of that present squalor incenses naipaul. it fits his mould of an india trapped by its history. the weight of ritual and religion too heavy to move beyond.

the book’s bleak pessimism is hard work and the source of my confusion. its dark anger seems too bleak a response the india i have known and love. but it was quite possibly a fair response to the times.

thoughts of human possibility dwindled: … capable only of the life that was seen

the book oozes contempt for poverty that seems at times to be a contempt for an india portrayed as ugly and inhuman.

around us the serfs, underfed, landless, nothing, less than people, dark wasted faces and dark rags fading into the dusk

v.s. naipaul’s commitment to modernity did appeal to me, although he is much more brutal on the subject:

the past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill.

india: a wounded civilization is a brief book. it’s hopeless tone makes it feel weightier than its 180 pages. it only relents at the very end where naipaul allows a single ray of light in:

but in the present uncertainty and emptiness there is the possibility of a true new beginning, of the emergence in india of mind, after the long spiritual night.

a couple of favorite quotes i couldn’t fit in:

a few arabs in the desert costumes which now, when seen in airports and foreign cities, are like the white gowns of a new and suddenly universal priesthood of pure money

yep – these are my peeps.

he left his plain wife and bespectacled adolescent son – old error, new hope

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  • str82ais

    I share your respect for his prose.

    “the past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill.” – killer!

    I'm vague about whether you and I have ever discussed Naipaul's “Beyond Belief” – a book that left me wanting to study it for its prose, and also wanting to spit at Sir VS himself.

    His Nobel prize as you may know was not universally greeted. Many people felt he was erudite, sophisticated yet fundamentally a coconut.

    A recent biography of him illuminates the man's distinct character. It exposes him as an utterly despicable, ruthless man (particularly to his lovers), and also it makes for compelling reading.

  • str82ais

    I share your respect for his prose.

    “the past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill.” – killer!

    I'm vague about whether you and I have ever discussed Naipaul's “Beyond Belief” – a book that left me wanting to study it for its prose, and also wanting to spit at Sir VS himself.

    His Nobel prize as you may know was not universally greeted. Many people felt he was erudite, sophisticated yet fundamentally a coconut.

    A recent biography of him illuminates the man's distinct character. It exposes him as an utterly despicable, ruthless man (particularly to his lovers), and also it makes for compelling reading.



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