Elephant Head

Karl Miller

  • India: A Million Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipaul
    Heinemann, 521 pp, £17.50, September 1990, ISBN 0 434 51027 0

Naipaul’s grandfather, a Hindu of the Brahmin caste, left India to work as an indentured labourer in the West Indies. In 1962, Naipaul went to India for a year’s stay which became a book, entitled An Area of Darkness. The title refers to what the country had been for him in his West Indian Hindu enclave. In 1977, India: A Wounded Civilisation appeared, in the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency: sombre thoughts were expressed about the country’s instability, its ‘intellectual vacuum’, its ‘fantasies of spirituality’. The ideas of Mahatma Gandhi were felt to offer no escape from ‘the present uncertainty and emptiness’. Both books have rankled with citizens of his ancestral country, and I have heard that he has lately been reported there as regretting some part of what he wrote about it in earlier times. An Area of Darkness is a literary travel book which seems now to taste of the British Fifties, to incorporate a Movement comedy of manners. It is markedly forthcoming both of himself and his opinions: he is no more loth than Salman Rushdie has sometimes been to give offence. He speaks of a ‘static, decayed society’. He says that he’d gone to India with a vague sense of caste and a Hindu ‘horror of the unclean’, and he emerges from the book a seasoned coprophobe: ‘Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.’ This Churchillian passage may be among his current regrets.

Naipaul spent the Eighties in hygienic Wiltshire, and at the end of the decade he was knighted for his services to literature. At this point he went once more to India, and has now published a third book, which may be thought to make amends for what was said in the past. He conveys that he has come to see what was hidden from him before: that a change has been in train since the 19th-century Mutiny and has accelerated since Independence, that the country has been restored to an ancient self, while gaining a new freedom and self-consciousness – qualities which, India being India, have been attended, but not so far endangered, by rage, disorder, ‘a million mutinies’. The book does not argue for, or otherwise enforce, these conclusions, though they are anticipated at various turns in the multilateral discussion it presents. It is nevertheless a remarkable piece of writing. It would be an exaggeration to talk of it as a teeming book, an India, but it is undoubtedly charged and capacious. All three of these dubiously-titled books are in their different ways remarkable. Together, they communicate a progress from youth to age, an accession of prudence and reserve, the airing and suspension of an exigent authorial self.

I am writing these words in Bombay, where I have been a faithful reader of the Times of India. The news this August has been of ‘untoward incidents’ – a press euphemism for terrorist and other violence. Every day there are dozens of killings and ‘nabbings’, and there are front pages which have carried, from around the country, no other items. One journalist claimed that over six hundred had died in the Punjab over the previous month. In Kashmir, almost the whole of the valley’s Hindu population has been driven down to the plains by Moslem threats, while in the rest of India a growing threat to the Moslem population is whispered about. Tamil Tiger-slayings and holdings-out have continued in Sri Lanka, where Indian soldiers are committed. In Bombay, a wall fell on a hutment, crushing several inhabitants; a fortnight later a landslide smothered some more of such dwellers. An air hostess fell to her death from a hotel window. Had she been involved in a love affair? Was she pushed? A protest by airline employees was predicted – another of the free country’s many mutinies. The Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, has been off in the countryside performing a padyatra, a traditional politician’s walkabout, designed, a guidebook explains, to ‘raise support at the village level’. His hands are full.

Terrorism apart, the worst unrest of the past few weeks has been in response to the Government’s proposals with regard to ‘reservation’. The Western visitor has been confronted with the strange spectacle of strikes, or ‘bandhs’, against the disadvantaged, strikes which have already produced their share of deaths. The Government wants to extend a long-established principle of affirmative action whereby a high quota of jobs and openings in the public sector goes to the ‘backward’, including the Scheduled Caste of harijans, formerly known as the untouchables and known by that name to Naipaul in An Area of Darkness, where his opinion of the policy is succinctly given: ‘Reserving government jobs for untouchables helps nobody. It places responsibility in the hands of the unqualified.’ Student protest is now making use of such slogans as ‘Fight, not for your caste, but for your country,’ and alleges a political ploy which will lead to a strengthening of caste difference. The criterion for help should be economic status rather than caste status, which, as Naipaul’s grandfather had reason to know, is a different thing. Rajiv Gandhi, in opposition, backs the objection, and his Congress Party is blamed for causing the trouble. The row is unlikely to be good for them electorally, one would have thought, since the backward are reckoned at 75 per cent of the population.

One truly horrifying story was awarded no more than an inch or two in the Times. Outside the city of Udaipur sixty wells have been poisoned by the effluent from a chemical factory, and the crops and livelihoods of a large number of farmers ruined. Near Udaipur, I notice, is a place called Bhopal – a different Bhopal from the site of the recent catastrophe, which is still being fought over. It would be worth fighting over what has happened here too, though there doesn’t seem to be much inclination to do so.

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[*] Quartet, 166 pp., £5.95, first published 1987, 0 7043 2650 7.