Where Does He Come From?

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling by V.S. Naipaul
    Picador, 193 pp, £16.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 330 48524 1

In a wonderful short story called ‘Haha Huhu’, written in Telugu in the early 1930s, Vishvanatha Satyanarayana (1893-1976) describes an accidental traveller to England: a gandharva, a flying half-man half-horse from classical India, who loses his wings and crash-lands in Trafalgar Square. His encounter with English society as he lies captive in his cage and waits for his wings to grow back is an occasion for Satyanarayana to comment wryly on many things: among them, cultural difference, the nature of scientific progress, and the resources that Indian culture may still possess even though under colonial rule. It is not a romantic text, nor is it a militant call for the revival of old Hindu values. But Satyanarayana, who had a distinctly modern literary sensibility while still being wholly immersed in the long literary tradition of Telugu and Sanskrit, is not much read today outside Andhra Pradesh. His gandharva ends the story by soaring off into the sky, destination unknown, calling out to his perplexed English captors that he’d never seen a ‘more childish race’. It’s a subtle piece of work, but Satyanarayana’s version of the encounter between the West and the non-West has nearly been lost to us.

The fame that eluded Satyanarayana has been granted of late to other authors from India and of Indian origin, mostly writing in English. In their forefront is the author of this collection of opinion pieces and reminiscences. A quarter of the way into it, V.S. Naipaul offers the reader an insight into his thinking:

I had criticised others from my background for their lack of curiosity. I meant curiosity in cultural matters; but the people I criticised would have had their own view of the relative importance of things and they would have been astonished by my lack of political curiosity. As soon as I begin to examine the matter I see that this ignorance of mine (there is no other word for it), this limited view, was an aspect of our history and culture. Historically, the peasantry of the Gangetic plain were a powerless people. We were ruled by tyrants, often far off, who came and went and whose names we very often didn’t know. It didn’t make sense in that setting to take an interest in public affairs, if such a thing could be said to exist.

Naipaul is here using history to explain the difference between his own sensibility in the mid-1950s and a half-century later. In his youth, Naipaul recounts, he believed that ‘things ran their course; elections took place, and the United States and Great Britain continued much as they had done.’ This otherwise incomprehensible indifference to current events is seen by him in 2007 as possessing one major virtue: ‘When I began to travel I saw places fresh.’ But has he seen ‘places fresh’, as he claims? Or is he no more than a prisoner of his history and heritage? It is a question worth asking.

Many people have strong opinions about this Trinidadian expatriate, including the reviewers and interviewers he regularly deals with. The dividing line is essentially political, a fact that might be disquieting for a creative writer. In this respect Naipaul is more like Solzhenitsyn than, say, Joyce, whose appeal can transcend (or confound) traditional political divides. In the case of Naipaul, those on the left, especially defenders of the ‘Third World’ and its hopes, from C.L.R. James and Edward Said to Michael Gilsenan, more or less uniformly find him and his attitudes troubling and sometimes bigoted. He is portrayed as a self-hater and Uncle Tom, a product of the sorts of complex that Frantz Fanon diagnosed. On the other side are the conservative writers – those who might see Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a major intellectual figure – who celebrate Naipaul as an original voice, a writer who provides a searing, politically incorrect indictment of all that is wrong in the modern world: Islam in its various manifestations, the grotesque dictatorships of Africa, the squalor and self-inflicted misery of much of the Third World, the failure everywhere of projects of métissage between the West and non-West. A few fence-sitters meanwhile play down the significance of his non-fiction and praise his fiction, his pared-down style and capacity to write precise, economical, somewhat repetitive English. Naipaul is a prototype that has now been cloned many times over in the Indian subcontinent: the fiction writer who is also a travel writer. One can see why Pankaj Mishra may read and review Naipaul with an Oedipal frisson. Vatermord or ancestor worship? It can be a hard choice.

The five essays in this volume mostly revisit earlier moments in Naipaul’s work. The first essay refers back to the Caribbean of Naipaul’s childhood in the late 1940s and is largely concerned to deflate the reputation of the poet Derek Walcott through a clever exercise in condescension and faint praise. Walcott and Naipaul, both Nobel Prize winners, have long been rivals, in both a literary and a political sense, and clearly bitterness remains. Walcott has referred to Naipaul as ‘V.S. Nightfall’, while Walcott for Naipaul is a ‘mulatto, of old mixed race’, who has chosen to ‘put himself on the black side’. His poetry is seen as deliberately giving matters ‘a racial twist’; it would seem that his talent quickly ran out and that he had to be ‘rescued by the American universities’. The black or ‘Negro’ culture of the Caribbean is one for which Naipaul has no sympathy; he tells us, for example, without citing a source for the incident (he does not seem to have been present), that ‘in 1945, when newsreels of concentration-camp sufferers were shown in Port of Spain cinemas, black people in the cheaper seats laughed and shouted.’ Why? Was it schadenfreude because they were black and poor? A case of Louis Farrakhan avant la lettre? A simple lack of empathy with their fellow man? No answer or analysis is provided. We are meant to conclude that even the English – whatever their colonial past in the Caribbean and India – would not have been so cruel.

The second essay, ‘An English Way of Looking’, moves on logically and chronologically, to the moment when Naipaul began his writing career in England after getting a degree from Oxford (where he had been sent on a scholarship from Trinidad in 1950). In 1957, Naipaul was befriended by Anthony Powell, who helped set his literary career on a firm footing. After Powell’s death in 2000 at the age of 94, Naipaul was asked by the editor of an unnamed literary weekly to write about him. Naipaul notes that in spite of their long friendship he was not acquainted with most of Powell’s work, and adds, characteristically: ‘It may be that the friendship lasted all this time because I had not examined his work.’ When he began to read Powell, he ‘was appalled . . . There was no narrative skill, perhaps even no thought for narrative.’ The indictment presented as an exercise in fairness, precision and truth-telling, continues for page after page. There is again a hint of condescension; it turns out that Powell’s book reviews were at least better than his fiction. But at the end of the chapter, Naipaul performs a rather deft trick. He attacks – on moral grounds – those who attacked Powell in the past, thus deflecting attention from his own moral position. One of these unnamed critics, who, Naipaul says, called Powell ‘the apotheosis of mediocrity’, is accused of being a ‘false friend’, full of ‘rage or jealousy’. Philip Larkin’s unkind remarks about Powell are summarised and termed ‘the most awful abuse’. Auberon Waugh’s review of one of Powell’s collections of essays is called typically ‘cruel’. These, then, are all apparently the acts of Powell’s ‘enemies’. But Naipaul does not tell us what motivates the cold and sneering regard of a friend like himself.

I myself have no great enthusiasm for Powell’s fiction, though it may be rather too harsh to call him a mediocre writer. It is the lack of self-awareness in Naipaul that is troubling. How is his attack so different from that of others? Naipaul’s subtitle is ‘Ways of Looking and Feeling’: are lucidity and self-awareness not a part of ‘looking’ and ‘feeling’? These questions are not answered in the third essay, entitled ‘Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way’. This is a long chapter, and clearly meant to be the heart of the book. It sets out a thesis of sorts, though Naipaul would be horrified to think that anyone might accuse him of something as contemptibly academic as a thesis. The chief problem with Powell, the chapter seems to suggest, was that he wrote about a society ‘at once diminished and over-written-about’, and he could not rise above it. There is only one kind of narrative fiction that Naipaul understands to be properly modern: a sort of late Victorian, realist, slightly constipated fiction with a thoroughly old-fashioned narrative, an economical use of words, plenty of natural description (countryside, gardens, townscapes) and so on. The nonsense of post-Joyce, post-Svevo, post-Musil narrative, the ‘literature of exhaustion’ once celebrated by John Barth, can and should be flushed down the ‘latrine’ (one of Naipaul’s favourite words). Naipaul then sets his ideal against his imagined enemy: what he terms ‘the self-serving “writing schools” of the United States and England’. He attempts to parody the writing school technique in one of the least humorous passages of this rather solemn book:

You begin (at the risk of using too many words, like Hemingway) with language of extreme simplicity (like Hemingway), enough to draw attention to your style. From time to time, to remind people, you can do a very simple, verbose paragraph. In between you can relax. When the going gets rough, when difficult or subtle things have to be handled, the clichés will come tumbling out anyway; the inadequate language will betray itself; but not many will notice after your very simple beginning and your later simple paragraphs. Don’t forget the flashback; and, to give density to a banal narrative, the flashback within the flashback. Remember the golden rule of writing-school narrative: a paragraph of description, followed by two or three lines of dialogue. This is thought to make for realism, though the dialogue can’t always be spoken. Chinese and Indian and African experience sifted down into this writing-school mill comes out looking and feeling American and modern.

The problem is that all this – save the ‘American’ – looks and sounds more like Naipaul himself than, say, Arundhati Roy or Vikram Seth. Do the Indian Naxalites in Naipaul’s novels not sound as though they have been ground and thoroughly sifted through his own authorial mill? Is this not another case of a lack of self-awareness?

It would appear that for Naipaul there is only one way to be modern, and that is to be Western. All other societies have failed in this respect – the Enlightenment is not mentioned but it lurks offstage – and therefore can only look; they cannot see. Further, as we must recognise through the case of Powell, being Western is necessary but not sufficient. And for people from non-Western societies, the task is far more difficult. Naipaul devotes a good twenty-five pages of his third chapter to the only real exercise in empathy and affection in the book (aside from the passages mentioning his own father), and these pages are to do with Gandhi. He sees Gandhi as a sort of village idiot and incompetent in the first years of his life in Gujarat: coming to England to study law saved him and gave him a critical perspective on India, which he then sharpened in South Africa. Expatriation was the key to seeing. Naipaul thus admires Gandhi because he imagines him as a version of Naipaul: a man from a traditional, non-Western society who escaped that society and its blinkers to produce a critique of it (and a political movement to implement that critique). By these means he learned to see. Like Naipaul, he rose above the prison of his origins to imagine an India that was hygienic, cleansed and reformed.

To make this point more dramatic, Naipaul summons up a contrasting figure: a man who left India and yet saw nothing. This is in order once more to support his thesis: leaving India (or Trinidad) is necessary but not sufficient. This other man is to Gandhi, in short, what Derek Walcott is to V.S. Naipaul. The man Naipaul chooses is Munshi Rahman Khan (1874-1972), a Pathan and Muslim from northern India who emigrated to the Dutch colony of Suriname at the end of the 19th century and wrote a multi-volume autobiographical work called Jivan Prakash (loosely: ‘The Light of Life’). It has never been published in its entirety, and it appears to be in a mix of various dialects of western Hindi, such as Bundeli and Awadhi. What seems to be a radically abridged Dutch translation has recently been translated into English, and it is only to this last version that Naipaul has access; it is as if a reader in Gorakhpur were reading Naipaul in Maithili after the text had passed through a Japanese translation. Naipaul seems confident nonetheless of the soundness of the conclusions that can be drawn from this double-distilled translation, even on matters of style, while scholars such as Mohan Gautam at Leiden University continue to pore over Rahman Khan’s complex manuscript.

Naipaul is deeply disappointed, but also manifestly satisfied, by the poverty of this autobiographical narrative. He finds Rahman Khan to be a narrow-minded, semi-literate character incapable of producing a real modern narrative. ‘He has no feeling for the physical world about him,’ Naipaul complains. When Rahman Khan is moved as a potential indentured labourer from one depot to another in northern India, ‘he gives no description of these depots.’ The problem is that Naipaul has little purchase on Rahman Khan’s world, which he simply assumes was very similar to that from which he believes his own grandparents came, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (earlier the United Provinces). This is the world that he evokes in the passage about the ‘peasantry of the Gangetic plain’, ‘a powerless people . . . ruled by tyrants, often far off, who came and went and whose names we very often didn’t know’. These distant tyrants might be British, but I suspect that they are really meant to evoke Muslim sultans. The use of ‘we’ is also disingenuous, as if intended to suggest that Naipaul has some sort of unmediated access to the world of the Gangetic plain when, in fact, his knowledge of even standard Hindi is rudimentary. Nor need we credit the clichéd vision of an apathetic peasantry, indifferent to the march of history that he describes.

Rahman Khan was the author of two brief but well regarded collections of poems, Doha Sikshavali (‘A Didactic Collection of Couplets’, 1953) and Jñan Prakash (‘The Light of Knowledge’, 1954), and was a respected figure in Hindi-speaking literary circles in Suriname. He began writing Jivan Prakash in his late sixties, and it seems that a political agenda lay behind it. He saw himself as an apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity, and buttressed his claims through his knowledge of the Tulsidas Ramayana, a 16th-century retelling of the Sanskrit epic that was very popular in the Caribbean. Rahman Khan presented himself explicitly as an exegete of this text, and even wrote verse in its broad style. One of these poems runs:

Two groups came from India,
They were called Hindu and Musalman,
Both of them were full of affection,
Like two brothers born of the same mother.

This was wishful thinking and hardly the entire tale of Hindu-Muslim relations in the Caribbean. But the point remains that Rahman Khan was deeply immersed in regional Hindi culture, and this included the so-called Hindu epics, many of which are regularly acted and recited even today by Muslim performers in popular theatre such as the annual Ramlila. This is not Naipaul’s view, however. Rahman, he tells us, may have participated in ‘a composite Hindu-Muslim culture of the region’ (the Gangetic plain), but we can be certain that ‘this composite culture has now vanished.’ Even more extraordinary is his claim that ‘Rahman, remarkably for a Muslim, knew Hindi very well.’ As Naipaul sees it, Muslims must speak something called Urdu; Hindi is for the Hindus. Which makes Rahman Khan incomprehensible for him rather than a fairly common, if unusually articulate, type.

It is clear, then, that the deeper world of Rahman Khan, born in the Hamirpur district of western Uttar Pradesh, is not as familiar or accessible to Naipaul as he would have us believe. He repeatedly suggests that Rahman’s whole account is nothing more than a ‘brightly coloured, Arabian Nights world’, full of holy men, magic potions and gilded kingdoms. It is certainly not realistic, and does not meet the imagined standard that Naipaul has in mind. But historians and observers of Indian society have never taken the view that Gandhi’s autobiography was the measure of all first-person writings. This is why others will make more of Rahman Khan’s writings than Naipaul can, since they will want to read them for what they are rather than what they are not.

The fourth essay, ‘Disparate Ways’, takes us on a detour before returning once again in the concluding pages to India and Indians. At first sight, it seems out of place. An initial, fairly tedious section is devoted to a bald contrast between Flaubert’s deft narrative technique in Madame Bovary (this for Naipaul is the good realism that Rahman Khan lacks) and the clumsiness he thinks he finds in Salammbô. There is nothing that need detain us here, since the florid Orientalism of the later novel has been mocked often enough. The second part of the essay is more intriguing, and finds Naipaul embarking on the reading of a set of Latin texts from the Roman Empire, including Caesar, Cicero and a poem by the pseudo-Virgil. It turns out that the purpose of this exercise is linked to the purpose of the book as a whole; in the end, we’re told, men in the Roman Empire, like those in India or the Caribbean (or indeed anywhere other than the modern West), ‘use words to hide from reality’ rather than in order to reveal it – as Naipaul believes he himself does. The Roman writers cannot face up to the ugliness of their own world, its violence, slavery and sordidness, just as most Indians cannot face up to caste and filth. So, ‘in this world without balance’ – which means Rome or the Third World – ‘people need more than ever the classical half view, the ability to see and not see.’ In sum, Naipaul is reproducing a conceit set out and demolished at length by historians of anthropology such as Johannes Fabian in Time and the Other: the rest of the world is still located in the ancient past of the West, the only difference being that the West was able to redeem itself and become modern.

That hope is not entirely given to India. The final essay concludes with particular sourness, affected by the aftertaste of some of Naipaul’s recent (post-Nobel) visits to India, where he has sometimes been lionised but also criticised and even heckled. ‘India has no autonomous intellectual life,’ Naipaul declares, and adds: ‘India is hard and materialist. What it knows best about Indian writers and books are their advances and their prizes. There is little discussion about the substance of a book or its literary quality or the point of view of the writer.’ No writers or critics are mentioned by name, and the one attempt at parody seems more directed at Ved Mehta than at any of the younger crop writing in English. The world beyond English, of course, the world of Vishvanatha Satyanarayana, does not exist for Naipaul. It is predictable that the only writer from the 20th century he finds worth discussing at length is Nirad Chaudhuri, whose Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is carefully dissected and appreciated for its largely positive evaluation of the British Empire. Again, the possibility that Chaudhuri and his Anglophilia might be a mirror held up to Naipaul is never considered. A book that is as full of certainty as Naipaul’s can have no place in it for self-reflection. At the end of the book, India stands pretty much condemned: ‘As much as for Gandhi, born in 1869, and for Chaudhuri, born in 1897, India’s poverty and colonial past . . . continue to stand in the way of identity and strength and intellectual growth.’

At least that is the way it appears to Naipaul, born in 1932. What would happen if he were to be analysed as an actor in history, the spokesman for a point of view? What does he really represent, and where does he come from? We can do without the materialist presumption that all men are merely creatures of their circumstances, even if Naipaul seems determined to be one. He is a prisoner by choice, and also as a matter of taste. But of what is he a prisoner? Clues can be found in his own writings, including this book, though they are at times obscured by his manner of presentation. Naipaul is, first and foremost, a child of the Indian diaspora, but not the one that exists today of Telugu software engineers and Punjabi fast-food millionaires. The diaspora to which he belongs and by which he is marked is the 19th-century diaspora that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the British abolition of slavery in the 1830s. The first Indian indentured migrants to Trinidad (and the Caribbean more generally) arrived shortly thereafter, and the trickle became a flow after the Indian uprising of 1857-58. Between 1845 and 1917, official statistics suggest that Trinidad received about 144,000 Indian immigrants, and in 1980 they and their descendants formed about 41 per cent of the island’s population of more than a million. The Caribbean was only one part of the story; other labouring migrants from India went to Fiji, mainland South-East Asia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and East Africa. Many parts of India contributed to these flows, and even today Sylhetis (from eastern Bengal) may dominate Indian migration in one part of the world and rural Sikh farmers in another. The two most significant areas of emigration (or ‘labour catchment areas’) for the late 19th century were the east-central Gangetic plain and southern India, and the migrants had significantly different profiles. The latter were often Tamil-speaking, belonged to the middling and lower castes, and carried with them a popular Hindu religiosity that had a very thin overlay of Sanskritic and Brahminised culture. This is what we see today in Malaysia or Singapore, and it is surely no coincidence that they have not produced a Naipaul.

The migrants to the Caribbean – and to an extent Mauritius and Fiji – were of a different order. After an initial phase in which southern India was well represented, it was the Gangetic plain that eventually came to dominate. Whether or not they were truly peasants in their origins – Brahmins and high castes like the Naipauls in fact represented 14.3 per cent of migrants to Trinidad between 1874 and 1917 – these migrants had often felt the impact of the great Hindu reform movements of the 19th century, which were themselves a reaction to the claims and insults of Protestant missionaries. Thus, mixed with the residues of pre-colonial religiosity of the type favoured by men like Rahman Khan, there existed a more muscular neo-Hinduism, itself based on a strategic imitation of Protestantism. It was the sort of religiosity and culture eventually made popular in the 20th century by explicitly reformist groups such as the Arya Samaj, but also – already by 1881 in the case of Trinidad – by rival neo-traditionalists who came to define Hinduism using the disguised neologism of ‘Sanatan Dharam’. This was ostensibly a hoary phrase from the Sanskrit epics; it had once meant no more than ‘ancient way’ or ‘age-old custom’ but it now came to stand for a stripped-down Hinduism with a distinct preference for ur-texts (which were meant to be read directly, as with the Protestant Bible) and a largely Vaishnava form of expression. It was into this expatriate culture – envious of the West and its superiority, suspicious of Islam and Muslims, often with a healthy contempt for many of the practices and ‘superstitions’ of the old motherland that had been left behind – that Naipaul was born. It is here that one finds the disgust of India that Naipaul evokes in describing his own mother’s visit there, as she nervously hides her Guiana gold, looks at the food with fear and turns bilious as someone stirs her tea with a grubby finger. By leaving India, the Naipauls had reformed; the old country, it seemed to them, had stayed just as it was.

It is the ghost of this neo-Hinduism of the diaspora that lives on in this book, and which also inhabits hundreds of websites posted by other expatriate Indians who find themselves caught in the trap of in-betweenness. Naipaul is wide of the mark in his claim that most Indians today in the US ‘wish to shake India off’ and would rather ‘make cookies and shovel snow’ than deal with their Indian past. On the contrary: these are communities which often greatly admire Naipaul, share his roots in various sorts of neo-Hinduism, claim insistently that Islam is a worldwide threat, agitate over school textbooks in California which state that Hinduism is chaotically polytheistic, and wear surgical masks when they visit India and their relatives, who stir tea with their forefingers. For, ironically, ‘Indianness’ is the chief element in the cultural capital of such groups, as it is for Naipaul himself. On the distant other side, Protestantism beckons, but most Protestantism does not go together with cultural métissage; it is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal. Further, Indians living outside India have, it is well known, been rather racist when it comes to other people of colour, and the anti-black rhetoric that pervades Naipaul’s writings (including the first chapter of this book) is once again only symptomatic of a larger malaise that extends from East Africa to New Jersey. So, in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself. This book, like his others, should be read together with those of Munshi Rahman Khan for a deeper understanding of the Indian diaspora and its ways of looking, feeling and suffering.