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.

What else has been news? The Indian Government, with its own wars and unrests to worry about, kept cool throughout August in relation to the American call-to-arms in the Gulf, and the Times was cooler still, referring to the American ‘extravaganza’ or ‘adventure’ which has landed a task force in the Saudi Arabian sands. India has been notably successful in repatriating its nationals from the Gulf, some of whom have arrived back to be lodged in hostels down the road from where I am in Bombay. Parliament has rather indecisively moved to place a restraint on government control of broadcasting. No jubilation in the paper over the brilliant showing of the country’s cricketers in the Test series in England; there was a picture of the arrival back of Bombay’s rising star, the 17-year-old Tendulkar, cradling a magnum of champagne. The noise in the Bombay streets has been made by the Christmasish nine-day festival of Ganpati, the elephant-headed Hindu god, bringer of good luck, averter of Bhopals, who figures as a main object of devotion for one of the informants in Naipaul’s book. Shacks and markets have been hung with fairy lights in the lovely colours of the country and its people. The shrilling of fifes and drums was not unlike what catches the ear during triumphs in Belfast – aptly enough, for these processions can now be routed past mosques, for exulting purposes, with criminals, sponsored by politicians, taking part in the festivities. This Ganpati’s deaths, however, have all been accidental. At the end of the festival images of the god were floated out to sea.

Naipaul’s book deals with, or serves to elucidate, many, though not all, of the matters I have been reading about in the papers, which suggests a contrast with his first India book. This one is as much a journalistic as a literary work, while remaining very much a work of literature. He travelled high and low, accompanied by contacts and interpreters, and the book is based on conversations which elicited life-histories. He seems to sympathise with the majority of his informants, and is a patient listener to their religious scruples, a pointed mentioner of their pujas or ritual purifications. Naipaul is a storyteller of whom stories are told, stories which can make him out to be haughty. Some of them he tells himself, in his books, and some are no doubt in the usual fashion apocryphal, such as the one, one may suppose, which has him remarking of his knighthood: ‘The villagers will like it.’ There is none of that haughtiness here.

There is rather more high than low in the book, one might nevertheless think. He moved among achievers, businessmen, graduates, zealots, has words with the occasional terrorist or ex-terrorist; the backward, the low, are more or less silent. He is drawn to what Brahmins are and have been up to. He learns about the anti-Brahmin activism which has gathered followings in South India and elsewhere over the years, and about the shift among Brahmins, over recent generations, from priestly skills to scientific excellence.

The interview format, in the hands of a storyteller as gifted as Naipaul, is unlikely to prove obstructive, and the narratives released are of great appeal. But it is possible to have misgivings which relate to the question of format. These are people whom the writer did not know, and whose statements he was rarely in a position to check. After a while his people begin to teem, in the sense that they become a little difficult to distinguish and recall, and their speech begins to sound the same, as if homogenised in translation or transcription. There is a certain absence of idiosyncrasy, which is aggravated at various points by a lightning swiftness in the provision of background. As in other works by Naipaul, the public world of politics and economics is glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, an eye which is alert to futility and inconsequence and adjusted to mystery. He does well with secessionist groups like the Sikh ultras and the Hindu-chauvinist Shiv Sena, which started out with demands, in Bombay, for a Maharashtrian sovereignty: but party-political Delhi and India’s foreign affairs are a closed book. He has a lot to say about the regional parties, but not about the inroads they have made in relation to the churning hypertrophy of politics at the centre.

At one point he visits the scene of a multiple slaughter by Sikh terrorists, and looks at the survivors. The village and the slaughter are memorably evoked. But we are left in uncertainty as to why the principal male victim was singled out – the uncertainty that is India, we might think, were it not that it resembles the uncertainty that is Naipaul’s Caribbean and Africa. In general, though, the history of Sikh extremism, and the events which led up to the Army’s assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar, are impressively rendered. The Sikhs are made to seem at least as mysterious as most elements in the Indian enigma. Murderous sectarian attitudes are fused with a special proficiency and prosperity – and with, for some of those who know them, a special charm. I spoke the other day to one of those who know them, a gentle and reasonable old military man who was Governor of the Punjab at the time of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards: he then had to keep order in the state, and to fetch a portion of her ashes back to the state to display to crowds of mourners – among them Sikhs. He told me with an earnest sweetness that the warrior Sikhs were sweet. He also liked the administrator British, and disliked Passage to India for its travesty of the Raj.

Naipaul’s journey goes unmediated and unexplained: he just stops being in one place and turns up in another. The book approaches its conclusion with a chapter on his return to a lake hotel in Kashmir where, in 1962, he had sojourned in a kind of querulous contentment (there is no return to his grandfather’s village in Uttar Pradesh, where he had been at his haughtiest). The Kashmir of the late Eighties is presented as a fairly peaceful spot. The old innocence has gone. The lake is polluted with houseboats and their rubbish. But the hotel staff have not dispersed, and they remember his previous visit as if it were yesterday:

  I asked him, ‘Aziz, do you remember how often I went to the maharaja’s in 1962?’

  After 27 years, he knew precisely. He said, ‘You went to have dinner three times. One time you went for tea.’

Aziz had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, and Naipaul remembers the ‘hanks and twists of excrement’ witnessed on a Himalayan pilgrimage in 1962. ‘There were toilets everywhere between Jeddah and Mecca. It wasn’t like Amarnath. Everything was clean in Mecca.’ The chapter spends too much time on battles of will over a boatman’s rates and the purchase of a shawl. This hardly fits with the rest of the book, which avoids such travellers’ tales and dickerings. It is fair to surmise that this traveller travelled in style. At one point he hired a railway carriage for himself, only to have to share it with snoozing railwaymen. They were not interviewed.

Whether or not I’m right in touching on these considerations of format and organisation, this must count as a marvellous book, rich in humanity – Naipaul’s and his informants’. The portrait of Namdeo Dhasal and his wife Mallika stands out. Namdeo is a Dalit poet – Dalits being yet another name for untouchables – who lives in Bombay. He is also a politician, founder of the now spent or declining Sixties-style Dalit Panthers. His poems are written in demotic Marathi, and his first collection employed the language of the Bombay brothels. His marriage to a middle-class girl with a Communist father and a high-caste mother soon becomes the writer’s essential preoccupation, and Mallika reaches the reader as Namdeo does not. She speaks of a moment during their courtship: ‘This wasn’t a sexual feeling. I felt compassion. I felt I wanted to put my hand on his head.’ She also speaks of her husband’s drinking, whoring, his venereal disease and political obsession – the husband who is still, for her, one of the greatest of Marathi poets.

She said, ‘Even now I love Namdeo, and am willing to give him everything. Even though he has some negative points. There is a kind of thread running through our relationship. Even when I don’t want him, I want him. Even now, whatever is good in me, whatever is creative in me, I would suppress for his sake. I know that if I do certain things he will go out of my life. I don’t want that. Then there is my child. We are in a kind of vicious triangle. I love Namdeo. The child loves me. Namdeo loves the child.’ The child was thirteen.

She has published a book, I Want to Destroy Myself, which has the same candour and directness. Namdeo, who she had feared might beat her for it, upheld her right to publish, her right to declare: ‘Male ego is the most hideous thing in our present society.’ She declares that ‘this has been the journey of a defeated mind,’ a journey taken alone: ‘There was nobody with me.’ Naipaul withholds his male ego all but entirely from this account: but it is his account, as well as Mallika’s, and one of the best of all the accounts embodied in his books.

Mallika’s book was both hailed and howled at. Her ordeal and outcry are not remote from what occurs now in many a little grey home in the West, and in India too, for all that she was seen there as demonic, there are more and more women who seem to feel something of her desperation. Elsewhere in Naipaul’s book, Kala, a Tamil Brahmin and a publicity woman, tells of the servitude endured by her mother when, after her marriage, she was dispatched to the household of her husband’s family, where the women, besides being slave-drivers, practised a lofty sort of social work. When Kala refers to cruelty and to double standards, Naipaul makes one of his few personally revealing interventions:

  Cruelty, yes: it was in the nature of Indian family life. The clan that gave protection and identity, and saved people from the void, was itself a little state, and could be a hard place, full of politics, full of hatreds and changing alliances and moral denunciations. It was the kind of family life I had known for much of my childhood: an early introduction to the ways of the world, and to the nature of cruelty. It had given me, as I suspected it had given Kala, a taste for the other kind of life, the solitary or less crowded life, where one had space around oneself.

But he goes on to say:

Such a disciplining of a child bride would have been considered virtuous; the cruelty, however willed, however voluptuous, would have been seen as no more than the cruelty of life itself. The social work the women of the family did would have been directed to people several layers below, many times more abject. The very wish to do social work would have issued out of an idea of virtue and correctness at home. The concept of double standards came from another world, came from Kala’s world today.

One might think that the women of the household can be acquitted of hypocrisy, and that Kala’s views could be thought, like Mallika’s, to be modern, but that plenty of people in times before would have understood what Kala was getting at in remembering and resenting her mother’s durance vile. Dickens for one, with his mixed feelings about philanthropy.

Naipaul’s ‘solitariness’ is apparent both in his first India book and in this one, but to different degrees. In this one, it largely disappears into the reigning self-effacement. In the first, he is virtually a romantic sufferer, while also, in the Movement mode, a comic one, and the key word in the book is the word ‘distress’. India’s distress distresses him. It gets on his ‘nerves’, those romantic things. He now indicates that this may have prevented him from paying attention to certain processes of long duration, and induced him to wound a wounded civilisation. The country – with its ‘layer below layer of distress and cruelty’ – has been undergoing a liberation of spirit, which I imagine he’d be willing to associate with the spirited manner in which Mallika discusses her marriage. A sense of individual rights and of a common humanity has long been spreading.

A million mutinies, supported by twenty kinds of group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess: the beginnings of self-awareness, it would seem, the beginnings of an intellectual life, already negated by old anarchy and disorder. But there was in India now what didn’t exist 200 years before: a central will, a central intellect, a national idea. The Indian Union was greater than the sum of its parts; and many of these movements of excess strengthened the Indian state, defining it as the source of law and civility and reasonableness. The Indian Union gave people a second chance, calling them back from the excesses with which, in another century, or in other circumstances (as neighbouring countries showed), they might have had to live: the destructive chauvinism of the Shiv Sena, the tyranny of many kinds of religious fundamentalism (people always ready in India to let religion carry the burden of their pain), the film-star corruption and racial politics of the South, the pious Marxist idleness and nullity of Bengal.

The note is hopeful and perhaps amendful, and the passage may on occasion seem strained and unfocused (what exactly is the ‘film-star corruption’ of the South?). One thinks of all those of his informants who had to be asked about, and who wanted to go on about, religious differences and racial and ethnic grievances. Among the book’s prominent concerns is the disastrous importance of a sectarian sense of martyrdom.

Naipaul’s earlier distress had a good deal to do with the country’s bombardment of the senses of a fastidious man. He is no less fastidious now, and continually tormented by traffic fumes and commotions. But the descriptions of squalor are less obtrusive and insistent, though fully as precise. In the lobby of a tall building in downtown Bombay, ‘you felt that every day, in the name of cleaning, someone had rubbed the place down with a lightly grimed rag.’ To the north of the city, ‘we passed blocks of flats, mildewed and grimed; swamps, drains; brown patches of field; dust, children; and, always, the shacks and the rag-roofed dependent shelters they encouraged ...’ His informants went on about purity and defilement, and yet the pollutions that attack them must be as serious a threat as those to be found anywhere in the world. This is a dimension of the contrasts and incongruities which have meant so much to travellers in the subcontinent, and which still do. Beneath the fat gouts of monsoon rain, a saried woman looks like some superlative butterfly as she delicately treads a Flanders field of mud (the more gorgeous the sari, advised the young Naipaul, the lower the lady’s caste). Flanked by rubbish dumps and collapsing tenements sits a computer academy, whose graduates may go on to print out horoscopes: and yet it is said that India leads the world in some aspects of computer development and that Germans now go there for their programs. Such success belongs to the progress Naipaul has in mind, which includes the forwardness of the country’s mathematicians, economists and writers, both at home and in the Indian diaspora.

I have been driving about in the highlands of Rajasthan, through the area where sixty wells have been poisoned. In a way long gone from most of the West, the countryside is alive with people, clad in the rich, dark red of the local saris and headgear: the state has 29 million of them, almost as many as South Africa. Stately walkers proceed along paths, the women among them with loads on their heads and rings through their noses. Monkeys shift through the woods, peacocks stroll, gloomy camels loom. In this wonderland one of Naipaul’s mutinies broke out. The taxi I was in was entering Udaipur when two women, with a baby, stepped out from the strip of ground dividing the highway, then retreated. One of the women stepped back too far and was hit by an autorickshaw dashing in the opposite direction. In a second there was a boiling crowd, and an angry man had thrust into the taxi and was beating the driver, with one eye on the English faces in the back. I could feel the colour mount in mine to a Rajasthan red. We were saved by the driver’s presence of mind and by the presence of a policeman. The woman who’d been hit got up and did not seem badly hurt. The fierce suddenness of this untoward incident – a vengeance on drivers of a kind which happens all the time – is not hard to understand, but will be hard to forget.

The incident made me think of another highway division, this time in Bombay, where a girl and a child stood in their rags at midnight, in a downpour, at the red lights of an intersection, begging, these wraiths, from the cars that drew up. Beside the road was one of the settlements of matting, sticks and stones driven past by Naipaul and lived in by refugees from the countryside. When the sun rose the settlement would send out its Madame Butterflies and set out its vegetable stalls. But now it was pitch black, and might have been made of pitch. The odd blink of light showed lanes down which you felt you might warp yourself into the Middle Ages, and beyond. Do the villagers like it there? A rich Congress politician informed me that these people were rich: they were in work and rents were low. Visitors should not bother their pretty heads about the hutments. Whether or not the villagers like it, they have built for themselves a way of life which deserves respect, and which receives it in Jeremy Seabrook’s reissued Life and Labour in a Bombay Slum.[*] Seabrook’s is a most enterprising investigation, which interests itself in the responsibility of capitalism, Western as well as Indian, for the pittances and sweated trades of these slums, in the achievements of the women of the slum communities, and, as the title intimates, in the analogy with the Victorian poverty investigated by Engels and Charles Booth. Here is the Indian lowness scanted in Naipaul’s book.

An Area of Darkness is prone to India’s painful sights, and is eloquent about their effect on the Western visitor, with his burden of disorientation, anxiety and embarrassment; I can’t have been the only one to feel at times, as I went around, that it might be better to creep off and make notes for a travel piece about the place than to experience it. There aren’t very many sights of this sort in the third book, which is so sparing of the stranger’s sensibility that it might almost be by a native of the region. Naipaul can’t have got over his distress. But it is clear that he believes that the testimonies he has assembled are compatible with a fairly encouraging view of the future. Let’s hope that the horoscope he has cast for backward, forward, untoward India is not subjected to rapid disproof.

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