College Quarterly
Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4

The Rediscovery of India: V. S. Naipaul and Making and Remaking of the Third World

by Abdollah Zahiri

The teaching of literature to college students can be fully justified in terms of the importance of creative writing to the humanistic goals of a liberal education. These goals and the philosophy that sustains them are commonly, if not universally, supported in all serious postsecondary educational institutions. Too often, however, the cultural objectives of the humanities and social sciences are seen as disconnected from the vocational aspects of college education. This discussion of the writings of V. S. Naipaul is intended in part to stand on its own as an exercise in literary and cultural interpretation; however, it is hoped that it will also illustrate the way in which literature can inform practical, skills-oriented education (in this case, perhaps, in travel and tourism or international business) by adding an “avocational” dimension to the study of other cultures.

Naipaul’s unprecedented interest in his ancestral homeland led him to rediscover India as a leading Third Worldist state in the post-cold war era. Naipaul’s positive reconceptualization of India will be shown in his last book of travel in the country, India: A Million Mutinies Now (1993). His two earlier books on India will first be examined to demonstrate his radical move from instrumental rationality to a dialogic episteme. The main thrust of this article is to gauge the impact of this shift in his rationality on his subsequent renegotiation with his place of origin. Nixon (1993) and Robinson (1990) have already mentioned this change of heart in Naipaul. The focal point of the present work is to lay bare the dynamics of this change in rationality as the underlying structure or subtext of his altered vision of India. This renegotiation is informed by his radical departure from instrumental “rationality” to a participatory and negotiating one.

In examining Naipaul’s three travelogues on India I came across two distinct phases of his episteme. The first phase is predicated on an instrumental rationality (Enlightenment myopia), and the second phase is intellectual thaw. Instrumental rationality is the dominatory, manipulative notion of rationality that is strategically predicated upon means-ends rationality. This peculiar version of rationality contexualizes and objectifies everything in a mechanical, superficial, and inadequate manner. This constricted understanding of western rationality would distance and alienate readers from the cultural politics of the societies under investigation. Naipaul’s texts revealed a consistent and strategic valuing of a coolly rational outlook and a fear of the irrational. This rational position was informed and contained by a peculiarly “skewed” epistemological frame of the Western Enlightenment upon which the colonial center is enmeshed. Before 1983, Naipaul’s attitude is governed by an instrumental rationality that serves the political interests of the empire and justifies the cultural violence committed in the name of Enlightenment rationality. This specific concept of instrumental or means-end rationality underpinned Naipaul’s elegant yet parochial creative genius, thereby constantly marginalizing the Third World. The dynamics of the transmutation of this “Enlightenment myopia” to “intellectual thaw” led to a closer, lateral understanding of the “Other” as we see in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1991).

An Area of Darkness

For his first travel book on the Caribbean, The Middle Passage (1963a), Naipaul has established a reputation as the authentic, rational postcolonial guru of the countries on the fringe. His global excursions have Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the American South. The centre always lionized him whereas the countries on the fringe saw him as a turn-coat postcolonial (Said, 1980). Naipaul’s unilateral engagements with the Third World in general and the social dynamics of Third Worldist India as the Mecca of the peripheral states in the heyday of cold war can be best illustrated in An Area of Darkness (1963b) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977). Obviously, his instrumental rationality excluded India’s social dynamism in the making.

Naipaul and the Third World are intertwined. Conceptually, the Third World looms large in the corpus of his works of fiction and non-fiction. Without his textualizations of the "Other", he would not have achieved his current literary celebrity status in the West. Furthermore, his stature as a writer and the authenticity of his work are bound up with the idea of a Third World as it emerged and changed in the era of decolonization and the cold war. Prior to the mid-eighties Naipaul steadily maintained his instrumental rationality in his excursions to the non-European states. Being a rationalist, he was strategically committed to pursue the Enlightenment project. But his epistemology was hardened around an a priori cognition informed by a personalized reading of instrumental reason. Hence the supposedly emancipatory discourse of the Enlightenment, which would lead to clarity of vision and genuine “rational” understanding of the self and the world, rather “contains” Naipaul within a myopic vision of the world. His is a blinkered view that, in the name of clarity and objectivity, is obsessed with a melancholic impression of the world.

Naipaul started his literary career in mid-fifties in the centre, London. Interestingly enough, the launch of Naipaul’s career as an aspiring novelist and later travel writer coincided with unprecedented political uprisings on the fringe. The fifties were the time of anti-colonial movements across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Since then the social dynamics of the Third World have centrifugally drawn him. His travel spots have either been through, or are still embroiled in ethnic, political, or social unrest. Brent Staples (1994, 22 May) believes that Naipaul is interested in “[W]hat happens in postcolonial societies when foreign power recedes, leaving cruelty and chaos to fill the breach”. The fact is that “recently free societies” like Trinidad, Kenya, Uganda, Iran, India, and finally Argentina, the settings of his novels and travelogues, have been placed by him in the single homogenizing category of Third World societies. Interestingly enough, his textualizations of these states almost coincided with Alfred Sauvy’s articulations of the “les troisième état” in L’Observateur and the Bandung conference in 1954-1955. Perhaps he was unaware of this coincidence, yet these Third World ideas have always been germane to his work. Hence, it can be said that the emergence of the “Third World” coincided with his literary textualization of the fringe for the centre. Since 1950 the populace of these countries and the problems that these nation-states were or still are grappling with are the unifying elements in his works. The problems range from development and dependency to hunger and democratization. These peculiarly Third World issues are the common thread running through Naipaul’s aesthetic productions in their entirety. These problems are the yardsticks of the Eurocentric, instrumentally “rational” traveler.

Against the backdrop of decolonization and the cold war, Naipaul remained unsympathetic to the efforts of the embryonic postcolonial nation-states to find their way. To him, Third Worldism was doomed and the populace lacked agency to overcome their problems. The new independent states were nothing but “half-made societies”. In his writings between 1960 and 1985 he is strategically opposed to the post-independence struggles of the Third Worldist states in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The depth of this opposition can be gauged by a glimpse at his discursive construction of his native Caribbean in his first travelogue in the region in The Middle Passage.

The genesis of the book is as follows. In 1960 on the suggestion of Eric Williams, then Prime Minister of Trinidad, Naipaul was commissioned to write a book on the Caribbean islands. During this trip he traveled to Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam, Martinique, and finally Jamaica. This research trip brought him back to the region to which he had vowed not to return when he was an adolescent (Naipaul, 1963, 41):

When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bedsitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad.

In the foreword to The Middle Passage Naipaul, claims that the book “sells nothing” and is based on the writer’s fresh observations: “The novelist works towards conclusions of which he is often unaware, and it is better that he should. To analyze and decide before writing would rob the writer of the excitement which supports him during his solitude, and would be the opposite of my method….” (Naipaul, 1963a, 5). In other words, he claims novelistic freedom in his treatment of the Caribbean in the wake of independence movements in the region. But the anti-Caribbean animus is pervasive in the entire quotation “and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bedsitters with the electric fan on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad”. It is ironic that a child of the Third World resolves to disown his own origins. Through the above quote Naipaul foreshadows the eventual fruit of his research tour in the region. The final account is a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, it stands in sharp contrast to claiming novelistic freedom in his treatment of the subject under investigation.

The following is another instance of Naipaul’s problematic treatment of the Third World. This is another example of his instrumental rationality that prompts a deep-seated detestation that even is at odds with the natural landscape. This time the faulty party is the Caribbean Sea itself (Naipaul, 1963a, 203-204):

The Caribbean has been described as Europe’s other sea, the Mediterranean of the New World. It was a Mediterranean which summoned up every dark human instinct with the complementary impulses towards nobility and beauty of older lands, a Mediterranean where civilization turned satanic, perverting those it attracted

His depiction of the Caribbean as a murky dystopia, a stew of ignoble impulses, betrays his ignorance of the events that had turned the sea “satanic”. Despite being born and bred there, Naipaul’s impression of the middle passage is far different from the painful history of the region’s blood, violence, and dislocation writ large. In this regard, Naipaul is not unlike his Anglo-American forebear William H. Prescott (1891, 264) who describes South America as “a dark, despotic, Catholic-Latin world”.

Generally, it seems that Naipaul’s views and theorizations on the newly independent states have promoted negative representations of the struggles of these countries in the throes of shedding their colonial deficiencies and moving towards a future that holds greater promises of accomplishment, progress, and self-sufficiency. To western readers, he was the reassuring voice who described the difference of those on the fringe. The blurb furnished by the Times Literary Supplement on the back cover of An Area of Darkness lionizes Naipaul as the rational observer:

With a few swift and beautifully calculated strokes, Mr Naipaul brings the essence of a social situation so vividly to life that one begins to wonder whether all the sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists who have tried to explain India have not labored in vain.

Clearly, Naipaul’s instrumentally rational opinions on the “social situation” are taken on par with those of the social sciences experts on India, “the sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists”. Obviously, the “calculated strokes” of the “native” observer cannot be wrong. Ever since his monological textualizations of the Caribbean, Naipaul’s words have been taken bona fide in the centre. His views are strategically the same for all newly independent states across the spatial imaginary of the Third World. Naturally, newly independent states striving to achieve the status of a postcolony, a utopian space free from domination and control, face unprecedented sets of problems. These problems comprise of issues that persisted through colonial rule, such as health, administration, local rivals who became strange bedfellows in the cause for independence, education. Essentially, the aftermath of any social upheaval would entail unparalleled problems as mentioned above.

Prior to 1983, Naipaul’s melancholic impressions of the Third World states remain unaltered. Basically, his judgments leave no room for a justification of the postcolony by way of demonstrating some degree of sympathy. Irving Howe (1979, 13 May, 35-36) articulates Naipaul’s peculiar engagement with the Other in the following terms:

Naipaul offers no intimations of hope or signals of perspective. It may be that the reality he grapples with allows him nothing but grimness of voice. There is a complicated literary-moral problem that cannot be solved in a few sentences, if solved at all. A novelist has to be faithful to what he sees, and few see as well as Naipaul; yet one may wonder, whether, in some final reckoning, a serious writer can simply allow the wretchedness of his depicted scene to become the limit of his vision.

It comes as no surprise to see the correlation being made here between this myopic vision, informed by instrumental rationality, and Naipaul’s ontology, a knowledge of the self, one in which he is painstakingly trying to disconnect himself from the Caribbean because the Caribbean and the Third World at large is nothing but “the wretchedness of his depicted scene” (Howe, 38). This wretchedness becomes “the limit of his vision”. In the last sentence of the foreword to The Middle Passage he blatantly and proudly declared himself “a perfect stranger” in the region. This is perhaps the reason why he has spatially distanced himself from the Caribbean, announcing and embracing the cultural citizenship of enlightened Europe. Naipaul seems to have fallen into the same trap as he sees the Caribbeans have fallen. By distancing himself from his birthplace, Naipaul is perpetrating the same vice, the same mimicry for which the entire populace of the Caribbean stands condemned.

In the rest of his works written before mid-eighties, one can see other examples of his blinkered and instrumentally rational vision that, in the name of logic, analysis and clarity appears to miss the logicality beneath the seemingly irrational. Naipaul’s technique is always that of a logician, an analyst throughout (Nightingale, 1987, 9). In 1962, about a year after the first travel to the Caribbean, where he was born and bred, the third-generation diasporic Naipaul traveled to his ancestral India. Since childhood India had been an attraction to him whose grandfather had left as an indentured labourer to work in the Empire’s sugar cane fields in Trinidad. For Naipaul, the journey was a personal quest for the diasporic self in search of origin. The timing of the trip is also significant. As a leading Third Worldist state, India in the early sixties was in the throes of shedding her colonial skins after centuries of imperial rule, domination, and occupation. Headed by Jawahar Lal Nehru at the Bandung conference in 1955, India was a key player in the emerging non-aligned movement. India was on the road to becoming a major postcolonial nation on a global scale amidst the problems of overpopulation, hunger, an archaic and tyrannical caste system, and economic reconstruction. Retrospectively, one can easily discern the Indian government’s double postcolonial task: taking over a post-British India and fighting the archaic yet pervasive caste system. Furthermore, the country was a major contender in the cold war politics with strong affiliations to the former Soviet Union. These are factors that Naipaul failed to textualize in the first part of his Indian trilogy.

An Area of Darkness is Naipaul’s first Indian travelogue whose title is an atavistically Conradian intertext, Heart of Darkness, which the Polish expatriate voyager wrote under the shadow of high imperialism. In many ways, Conrad has been Naipaul’s mentor. He follows Conrad’s steps in Africa and Asia. As he puts it himself, through reading Conrad’s works of fiction, in Africa and Asia Naipaul retraces some of the paths undertaken by this Polish émigré. He sees himself as another Conrad, an émigré, an intellectual wandering across the globe who has made England, the metropolitan center, his home. Being a colonial, he takes pride in appropriating the language of the empire and, like Conrad, making a glamorous career out of it. Temporally, Conrad is the chronicler of the empire whereas Naipaul covers the postcolonies. Interestingly enough, Conrad and Naipaul have another commonality not unlike most of the important literary celebrities in the English canon—both are marginals—the former, from Eastern Europe (on the fringe), the latter from one of the empire’s many sugar plantation colonies in the Caribbean.

Naipaul’s instrumental rationality operates throughout his visits to other Third World states, including India. The moment of arrival is usually fraught with fear and dismay. His problematic engagement with the Other starts even before reaching India (Naipaul, 1963b, 13):

Alexandria at sunset, a wide shining arc in the winter sea...[t]he engine ship cut off; then abruptly, as at a signal, a roar from the quay, shouting and quarrelling and jabbering from men in grubby jibbahs who in an instant overran the already crowded ship and kept on running through it. And it was clear that here, and not in Greece, the East began: in this chaos of uneconomical movement the self-stimulated din, the sudden feeling of insecurity, the conviction that men were not brothers and that luggage was in danger.

To the instrumentally rational Naipaul, the “East” is the menace; it is the site of “the chaos of uneconomical movement” where insecurity is rife and people are hostile “the conviction that all men were not brothers”. Naipaul constructs people as subjects in need of objectification and re-formation. Just before the moment of departure from Europe (London) which is “the transcendent ordering centre of the world” (Fitzpatrick, 1992, 68), the descending gaze from the centre to the periphery is suspicious, apprehensive, and ambivalent, bound to see the difference and exclude. He is heedless of the gargantuan problems such as burgeoning population, sectarian strife, housing and the economic problems that the Indian subcontinent faced after independence. His mindset is already fixed. In the words of Robertson (1990):

The traveling narrative is always a narrative of space and difference. It may not always broaden the mind but it prods at it... when the old ways of seeing and being have been stubbornly imported into foreign territory, subjects them to strain and fatigue.

Despite his Third World origins, Naipaul’s myopic vision operates by inscribing incompleteness on India via instrumental reason as a technology of power that subjectifies people. Clearly Naipaul’s objectifying gaze does not seek common ground with the natives of India, even though he happens to be more privileged in terms of the bio-cultural ties than the rest of the travelers/ethnographers such as James Mill, Macaulay and Sir Richard Burton who all lacked the privileges of sameness (race, culture) that Naipaul enjoys. Ideally, this potentially privileged position should give Naipaul certain leverage compared to the earlier Orientalists. During his Caribbean tour, for instance, the natives find some common ground between themselves and Naipaul that could have been of mutual benefit. As he says in The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972), a book on the Caribbean islands as well as India and South America, while visiting a sugar plantation in Guyana, the foreman is excited to find him, a non-white, in a position of power. Common bio-cultural ties can be empowering and bring a sense of solidarity between the natives and the observer. Naipaul is not seen by the natives as an intruder, an alien, descending from the centre. Being a descendant of ancestors who left India as indentured servants for the sugar estates of Guyana and Trinidad, Naipaul enjoys a unique position. He is originally of the margin and can be with the margin. He can be someone natives can confide in and identify with.

The first Indian encounter, despite his original expectations, is nothing but a closure. Naipaul’s relationship with India, not unlike his other engagements with newly independent states, is ambivalent as he is caught between two different poles. One side is the childhood fantasy, “an area of the imagination”, that constitutes the background of his experience that found expression in A House for Mr. Biswas (Naipaul, 1961). The other is the subsequent encounter with India which happens in adulthood. At this point in time he is fifteen, and studying in a high school in Trinidad. He follows political developments in colonial India and commits the map of the country to his memory. But after Indian independence his interest in ancestral homeland diminishes. What separates Naipaul from India is not just the language barrier (he does not fully understand Hindi), but also a snobbish attitude towards popular Indian movies which he has referred to as “tedious and disquieting” (to his utter dismay in Athens he found Indian movies and stars popular even among the Greeks). Above all, it is Hinduism itself that he finds disquieting (Naipaul, 1963b, 44):

And there was religion, with which, as one of Mr Gollancz’s writers noted with approval, the people of India were intoxicated. I was without belief or interest in belief; I was incapable of worship, of God or holy men; and so one whole side of India was closed to me.

Naturally, this “one whole side of India” (belief) which can/must be the major avenue for a cultural, dialogical rapport between Naipaul and the land as “sacred space” (Hawley, 1991) is closed off by the rational, skeptical subject. Therefore, even before setting foot on the Bombay dock, Naipaul is spatially dangling in a liminal indeterminacy that rather tilts towards the obscure, the negative, the unpalatable. This in-betweenness gives rise to an awareness of his own deterritorialized self (neither here nor there) which becomes the site of tormented, confused feelings of displacement.

In the first two travelogues on India, Naipaul is unable to read the cultural politics of Hinduism, which is not only India’s dominant faith, but a way of life that cuts across all aspects of life in India (it is not dissimilar to the social dynamics of Islam in the Muslim world). In fact, this denial of the vital role of Hinduism is a massive absence in Naipaul’s first two Indian travelogues. Of all religions in India, Hinduism is dominant: about 83% of the population is Hindu, 11% Muslim, 2.6% Christian, 1% Sikh, “with small communities of Jains, Parsis, and Buddhists” (Juergensmeyer, 1993, 81). But the divisions are not distinct as Hinduism embraces and hybridizes the customs of the people of other religious persuasions. But there is also the essentialist or fundamentalist side of Hinduism, as can be seen in the rise of religious nationalism as a formidable political force in a country founded on secular principles. A clear example is the challenge to secularism and old Indian hybridism by the Hindu Bharatiya Janata party (BJP); it has challenged the largely secular hegemony of the powerful Congress party which has wielded power as a nationalist secular political body in India since even before the Hindswaraj (Indian independence).

India: A Wounded Civilization

The tenor of Naipaul’s second Indian travelogue, India: A Wounded Civilization, is different from An Area of Darkness. Although the main incentive to undertake the trip is again the self, “[t]he starting point of this inquiry—more than might appear in these pages—has been myself (1963b, x)”, the travelogue unfolds in a different direction. India: A Wounded Civilization is less personal and more analytically and culturally oriented. After the early introductory pages, however, the autobiographical section diminishes. Then Naipaul subjects to close scrutiny Indian cultural and economic behaviour. At this point the diasporic self has turned into the analytical self. Perhaps the alienating experience of the first failed encounter with India has caused this change in focus in Naipaul’s interrogation and interpretation of India.

On the second journey Naipaul examines the socio-economic prospects of an India that seems to him an essentially unstructured and uncouth nation-state. Strategically, Naipaul’s approach remains that of a logician who believes that “it is the writer’s duty to order experience, that he must bring his powers of reason to bear on what is essentially chaotic so that readers may better understand the fearful failures of our era (Nightingale, 9)” Intellectual contextualization is what frames Naipaul’s discourse in India: A Wounded Civilization. Conceptually, the analytical Naipaul inscribes irrationality and incompleteness into Indian subjects and presents them as non-rational beings. The term “intellectual” occurs in a number of places, and is presented as the higher achievement of humanity that Indians lack. There are twenty-four instances in the book where Naipaul ascribes intellectual deficiency of all sorts to Indians, including “intellectual anorexia”, “intellectual sleep”, and “intellectual flaw”.

At this point he situates himself in the dialectical interplay between the two opposing asymmetric spaces of India and Great Britain that produces an unsettling effect on him. Naipaul still takes upon himself the task of being the cultural tour guide. As he puts it, “I cannot travel only for the sights” (Naipaul, 1963b, ix). While in Gujarat he visited the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. He resents and criticizes the institute’s diminished usefulness; he views it as divorced from its animating principle, and believes that the social purpose to which the institute must be ideally geared is frustrated. Initially, the institute has been founded to address the problems that a majority of the rural Indian people has to deal with when they are using certain tools out in the villages and farms. It is supposed to ease the hardship of the people in the Indian countryside, the landless or child labourer. Again, Naipaul’s skewed rationality bars him from the reality of the scene (Naipaul, 1977, 131-132):

The National Institute of Design is the only one of its kind in India; it is fabulously equipped, competition to enter is fierce, and standards should be high. But it is an imported idea, an imported institution, and it has been imported whole, just like that. In India it has been easily divorced from its animating principles, reduced to its equipment and has ended.

There is a performative paradox, however, in Naipaul’s reductive discourse. On the one hand, he is critical of the inability of the Indians to take advantage of the latest technology—“Mimicry within mimicry, imperfectly understood idea within imperfectly understood idea” (Naipaul, 1977, 132); on the other hand, he advocates the notion of intermediate technology which must have been high on the Indian government’s agenda while Naipaul was in India. Logically, if Indians are not ready to keep abreast with the latest technology, one would assume that the alternative could well be a more compatible, user-friendly approach to making applied science available for lay people. He ridicules the idea to improve and maximize the performance of the bullock cart: “Intermediate technology had decided that the bullock cart was to be improved. Metal axles, bearings, rubber tires?” (Naipaul, 1977, 129). And so Naipaul’s convoluted unidirectional argument goes on. Even as he admits the sophisticated nature of the technical knowledge brought home (“Complex imported ideas, forced through the retort of Indian sensibility”), he accuses the Indians of being inherently reactionary and retrogressive. He further believes that the intermediate technology, bereft of its redemptive role, has become distorted. It has gone through a metamorphosis (Naipaul, 1977, 129):

In India it has circled back to something very like the old sentimentality about poverty and the old ways, and has stalled with the bullock cart: a fascinating intellectual adventure for the people concerned, but sterile, divorced from reality and usefulness.

Again, Naipaul’s discourse continues to inscribe inadequacy on India and later to offer the remedy: “The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded civilization that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead” (Naipaul, 1977, 129). Not surprisingly, his proper prognosis of this “wounded old civilization” is “rational deficiency”, “without the intellectual means,” that has to be remedied. This deconstruction of the above statement, which stands out as the title of Naipaul’s second Indian travelogue, betrays the pivotal role of instrumental reason in his cognitive constitution.

Naipaul takes up this scathing rejection of postcolonial India throughout his second Indian travelogue as well. The second book on India ends as follows (Naipaul, 1977, 229):

The creative urge failed. Instead of continuity we have the static. It is there in the “ancient culture” architecture; it is there in the much bewailed loss of drive, which is psychological more than political and economic…. It is there in the dead horse and immobile chariot of the Kurukshetra temple. Shiva has ceased to dance.

“Shiva has ceased to dance“ is the ultimate message in An Area of Darkness and in India: A Wounded Civilization. India is doomed. There is no way out. India is the old, wounded and “ancient culture” that has lost the drive to go forward. And the signs of this loss of drive, to Naipaul, pervade everything: the architecture, the national psyche, and the faith. Hinduism has lost its creative urge. Shiva has stopped dancing. However, this is not the end of the Indian encounter. After some twelve years, the disenchanted traveler’s reprise, India: A Million Mutinies Now (1993), indicates Naipaul’s change of heart and fresh optimism after closely observing India’s economic performance since his previous visit in 1978. The last travelogue bears testimony to his radical shift from erstwhile instrumental reason to intellectual thaw.

India: A Million Mutinies Now

In 1989 Naipaul traveled to India again. During this long journey, he went to Bombay, then Goa, Chandigarh, Bangalore, and Madras in the South, then Calcutta, Lucknow and Punjab, and finally Kashmir at the Hotel Liward where he stayed at the close of his first Indian voyage almost thirty years before. This journey brings out the unexpected from Naipaul.

As the title of the travelogue suggests, Naipaul goes to almost all of the trouble spots, wherever mutinies are to be found. In Indian political history, “mutiny” is a politically charged term referring to the 1857 uprising against British rule during which thousands of defiant Indians were killed by the empire. Naipaul tries to cover all sorts of mutinies ranging from regional secessionist movements to religious and caste tensions across the country from the ex-Naxalite followers in Calcutta to the suspicious Dalits or untouchables and the chauvinist Maharashtrans and the Shiv Sena, and from the Muslims in Bombay to the Sikh activists in Punjab. The breakdown of old loyalties, along with a new consciousness of religion or caste such as the surge of anti-Brahmanism that took him to Madras and Lucknow, is of interest to Naipaul. In the process he also spoke to artists, poets, and filmmakers. Amidst the overwhelming pessimism in India: A Wounded Civilization Naipaul had taken cognizance of the agency of the masses: “But the alarm has been sounded. The millions are on the move” (Naipaul, 1977, 132).

Despite his deep pessimism, he discerns in this later book the agency of the people eager to improve their living conditions: “Both in the cities and in the villages… The poor are no longer the occasion for sentiment or holy almsgiving; land reform is no longer a matter for the religious conscience…so what until now has passed for politics and leadership in independent India has been left behind by the uncontrollable millions.

After the publication of A Turn in the South, Naipaul said he would not write any other major piece of travel writing. However, the attraction of the “uncontrollable millions” draws him again to his ancestral homeland.

In India: A Million Mutinies Now, the rationally transformed Naipaul is aware of the dynamics of the socio-economic change that sometimes overwhelms him to the point that some critics have charged him—for the first time—with “gratuitous, irresponsible, willful optimism” (Nixon, 171). Broadly speaking, for Naipaul the third book on India is a point of departure. His present perception of India as a leading Third World state is totally beyond his previous travel writings on all the places he visited. He is much less afraid of the irrational India, the locus of the inherent darkness of the past “clouding intellect and painful perception” (Naipaul, 1977, 162). Naipaul is now capable of accommodating the erstwhile opposing spaces of modernity and tradition in a harmonious, co-extensive manner. He is readier now to read tradition and modernity as complementary texts rather than in opposition to each other. The resulting tolerance and “lateral” vision becomes a space for mutual intelligibility which had been buried under his unyielding dogmatic reading of instrumental reason. He has resolved to accept India as a hybridized cultural formation where Hinduism and parliamentary democracy, mantras and transistor radios, bullock carts and nuclear power can co-exist perfectly (Cronin, 1989, 113). It seems that the lateral vision largely induced by his own intellectual development has enabled the rational subject to perfectly see the bright side of the Indian darkness.

This journey provides an historic opportunity for a positive engagement with the Other. The analytical mind that unabatedly and scathingly inscribed rational incompleteness on the peripheral subject through constant rationalization and intellectual examination is now ready to dialogize with the margin. No longer does Naipaul deploy imperializing signifying practices—such as epigraphs or footnotes from classical or English or continental European thinkers like Polybius, Albert Camus, James Anthony Froude and James Morier—as his sign posts to legitimate and foreground his neo-colonial project before launching his reviling claims on the indegene of countries in South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Africa. The man who quoted Froude’s dehumanizing rhetoric in his travelogue on the West Indies, The Middle Passage—“There are no people in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own” (Naipaul, 1963a, 9)—has an entirely different vision now. Naipaul’s myopic rationality has been transformed into a developmental logic that enables him to reach a better understanding of India. Now he is a “believer” in the human agency of people on the margin. This altered moral intelligence provides fresh opportunities for Naipaul to deploy a radically different strategy. This concern for human agency in the Third World is reflected throughout in the tenor of India: A Million Mutinies Now. Instead of homogenizing India as a feminine, amorphous, submissive and imaginative entity against the masculine, dominant, robust, and rational discourse of the West (Inden, 1990), Naipaul becomes a patient listener who has “no views, no philosophy—just a bundle of reactions” (Robertson, 1994, 22). In the past he saw India as doomed entity, whose only alternative was “swift decay”; now he is tilting towards an inclination of acceptance and optimism coupled with a new faith in human effort and perfectibility.

We see now, positive constructions in Naipaul’s discourse which are unprecedented in his forty-year-long career (Naipaul, 2002, xv). They resonate with a better, more prosperous and promising future for India. Some of the terms he uses with a wider frequency are: human experience, human condition, human behavior, human possibility, responses to human situations, the humanity that remained to them, human voices, human dignity, and humanism of the values.

In the earlier trips to India, Naipaul remained an islander, used to a small and manageable space, always horrified and flabbergasted by the vast, seemingly endless space of India. As an islander, size fascinated him. Seeing a wide river or a high mountain or taking a long train journey always excited him. The actual encounter, however, in spite of the inner enthusiasm was a catastrophe. This is what drove him to say in The Overcrowded Barracoon, “Perhaps it is this, this vastness which no one can ever get to know: India as an ache, for which one has a great tenderness but from which at length one always wishes to separate oneself” (Naipaul, 1972, 46). This spatial fear may have induced the calm and tranquility he felt in the “small and manageable” size of the Liward Hotel in Kashmir which relieved him of “all those poor fields and stunted animals and the exhausted plundered land” (Cronin, 45).

In India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul described the state of Karnataka as a backward region suffering from human deficiency (Naipaul, 1977, 8). Yet the potential of the people of the region clearly disproves Naipaul’s claim. Furthermore, he has always been against the kind of social mobility that appears in postcolonial India. He resented the empowering impetus that allows people on the margins of society access to power. In the other essays published in the seventies, Naipaul rejects the marginals’ participation in the political process. In his third Indian travelogue, Naipaul goes again to Karnataka and stays some time with Prakash, a village boy who is a lawyer by training and a minister in the non-Congress government. The transformed Naipaul notices the vast economic and cultural changes in the region he labeled backward thirty years ago: “The state of Karnataka itself was a new creation, post-British, post-Independence, a linguistic state, answering the new pride, the new sense of self, that the national movement had fostered” (Naipaul, 1991, 144). He cheerfully observes the economic prosperity of the people in Karnataka. The well-tended fields, the village houses, that are often neat, and the increased supply of food all testify to the agricultural revolution. Ultimately, he is able to see the humane side of the picture that had remained hidden to him in the past (Naipaul, 1991, 149).

Hundreds of thousands of people all over India, perhaps millions of people, had worked for this for four decades, in the best way: very few of them with an idea of drama or sacrifice or mission, nearly all of them simply doing jobs.

In India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul devoted a whole chapter to Gandhi, “Not Ideas, but Obsessions” in which he scourged his religious side. In that work, Naipaul’s construction of Gandhi was quite negative. To him Gandhi’s sweeping influence across India was doomed because there was no ideology to support and concretize Gandhi’s message. To legitimate his claim Naipaul quoted Tolstoy: “His Hindu nationalism spoils everything” (Naipaul, 1977, 168). Hence, what is left is a cultural primitivism that breeds spirituality and sanctifies poverty and parasitism (Naipaul, 1977, 181). He now has a very different opinion of Gandhi. In an interview in 1990 he speaks movingly and passionately about Gandhi: “I adore him. I’ve always adored him. He is a fabulous man…. He is a man whose life, when I contemplate it, makes me cry; I am moved to tears” (Robertson, 22). Naipaul’s broadened vision, largely informed by his furthered rational vision, has enabled him to see the dynamism in the making that remained hidden in his previous unilateral engagements with India. This is the serendipitous rediscovering of Gandhi’s dream of India’s progress. An “area of darkness” changed into an “area of progress”!

At this juncture Naipaul tilts towards a creative, humane reading of the particular, the local. He is more appreciative of the broad changes in Indian economy, culture and politics. In the past he repeatedly attacked the Independence movement as futile, inefficient, and untimely. Naipaul has become aware of the inner rationality of India, the liberating impulse of the Independence movement that has resulted in “a free press, a constitution, a concern for law and institutions, ideas of morality, good behavior and intellectual responsibility…” (Naipaul, 1991, 423). In India: A Wounded Civilization he claimed that Indians suffer from a “defective vision”, that Gandhi had pulled India from one kal yug (Black Age) and pushed it back into another. Now he praises the vision of the leaders of the independence movement: “It was one of the blessings of the Indian Independence movement, that many of its leaders should have been men of large vision, capable of looking beyond their India” (Naipaul, 1991, 289).

The current state of affairs in India is reassuring, because to him India is set on the path of new intellectual life and progress. His concern for human agency through several conversations with Indian intellectuals, scientists, poets becomes more solidified. He believes now that “the freedom movement reflected all of this and turned out to be the truest kind of liberation” (Naipaul, 1991, 157). Naipaul celebrates the hybrid nature of reform movements such as Brahmo Arya samaj, founded by Raja Ram Mohun Roy which as Naipaul puts it boldly, is a synthesis of “the new learning of Britain and Europe with the old speculative Hindu faith of the Vedas and the Upanishads” (Naipaul, 1991, 186). After all, the Hinduism that Naipaul claimed had reached a dead end in the ruins of Vijayanegar had stood the test of time and offered the potential to produce fresh opportunities for change. He values the leadership of men of large vision like Roy and Tagore who had sown the seeds of the Independence movement. Furthermore, Naipaul praises the social mobility that had become part of India. He can see that the effects of the Independence movement had trickled their way down. This is the point that, as he puts it, he hadn’t understood, or had taken for granted before (Naipaul, 1991, 517). Naipaul now tries to reach a deeper understanding of India that goes beyond mere economic considerations. In the interview from which I have already quoted, he voices concern for the subaltern masses, “people who haven’t had a voice…” (Robertson, 21).

Naipaul’s relations with India have become less problematic than in the past. In India: A Wounded Civilization he ambivalently foreshadowed what lay ahead in the future. He saw the possibility of the emergence of “mind” in India, after a long spiritual night. To him the problem did not rest with the economy or with a military dictatorship: “These are only aspects of the larger crisis, which is that of a decaying civilization, where the only hope lies in further swift decay” (Naipaul, 1977, 191). However, in India: A Million Mutinies Now further swift decay as the only hope has been transformed into the restorative power of the mutinies as a natural outcome of the reaction to layer above layer of distress and cruelty. Therefore, mutinies can be the harbingers of restoration and reconstruction of Indian subjectivities and of India itself. That’s why he has named the book “mutinies”. He wants mutinies to happen because they are, to him, “the beginnings of an intellectual life, already negated by old anarchy and disorder” (Naipaul, 1991, 518). Hence, a mutiny is distinct from anarchy and disorder. It is a consequence of the liberating dynamics of mutinies which Naipaul (1991, 518) himself endorses:

And—strange irony—the mutinies were not to be wished away. They were part of the beginning of a new way for many millions, part of India’s growth, part of its restoration.

After twenty-seven years, Naipaul’s return journey proves to be a positive experience. Now, he is able to shed his Indian nerves and abolish the darkness that separated him from his ancestral homeland. The instrumentally rational vision in An Area of Darkness that declared that the creative urge had failed in India and what was left was stasis is radically altered. Neither is he the hard-edged empiricist of India: A Wounded Civilization. He is no longer a slave to the perverted logic of an instrumental rationality. The gaze which looked down upon and contained Third Worldism is now prepared to read it in a new light. Furthermore, he is fully aware of the impact of the events in the turbulent history of India. He is conscious of the ravages of constant Muslim invasions, the recurring vandalizing of the North, the changing empires, the wars, the breakdown of old loyalties, the 18th century anarchy and their impact on India. The man who always ridiculed any instance of collective action in the postcolony now takes great interest in the social dynamics of “millions” on the move in the subcontinent. The third journey to India enables Naipaul to move from a sensibility of ruin to one of critical reconstruction and negotiation. India: A Million Mutinies Now is a clear demonstration of Naipaul’s change of attitude towards India. This change of attitude mainly arises out of his epistemological repositioning as well as a different personal relationship with India. He appreciates the creative agency of great Indian reformers such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahathma Gandhi, and discusses their role in the formation of the Independence movement. By the same token he sees the agency people of India in a new light. They are not the people resigned to the Hindu belief based on the impermanency of the world. They are now agents of progress, industrialization, pushing beyond their former status. Shiva, it seems, has once again begun to dance in India.


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Abdollah Zahiri teaches in the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <>.


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