Nobel laureate Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s relationship to India was as complicated as the man himself. Naipaul, who died on August 11, had written three non-fiction books on India, each separated by roughly a decade. The titles of the books—An Area of Darkness (1962), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)—are a good indication of Naipaul’s attitudes toward the country from which his grandfather had migrated in the late 19th century. Naipaul’s grandparents eventually settled in Trinidad, where they worked as indentured servants on sugar plantations.
Growing up in Trinidad, Naipaul experienced his ancestral homeland through his extended family and physical trinkets. Still, the real India was, for him, an “area of darkness.” In a letter written to his sister Kamla, who was then studying in university in India, a 17-year-old Naipaul foreshadowed the vitriol that he would spew on India later: “I am planning to write a book about these damned people [Indians] and the wretched country of theirs, exposing their detestable traits.”
When he did visit India for the first time in 1962, it overwhelmed him. In one of the more famous passages from An Area of Darkness, Naipaul wrote:
India is the poorest country in the world. . . . I had seen Indian villages, the narrow broken lanes with green slime in the gutters, the choked back-to-back mud houses, the jumble of filth and food and animals and people, the baby in the dust, swollen-bellied, black with flies, but wearing its good-luck amulet. I had seen the starved child defecating at the roadside while the mangy dog waited to eat the excrement. I had seen the physique of the people of Andhra [a province in southern India], which had suggested the possibility of an evolution downwards, wasted body to wasted body, Nature mocking herself, incapable of emission. Compassion and pity did not answer; they were refinements of hope. Fear was what I felt.
Naipaul’s loathing and even fear of India’s physical reality—the “real country” as opposed to an “area of imagination”—that shines through in this passage is a recurrent theme of An Area of Darkness. He is no different in that sense from many Western observers of India, aside from the fact that he wrote far more eloquently than most. His quest to connect with his Indian past was an utter failure, too. As he admitted: “In all the striking detail of India there was nothing which I could link with my own experience of India in a small town in Trinidad.”
Naipaul was similarly vexed by India’s civilizational decay, which he saw symbolized in Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and India’s reverence for him. Naipaul conceded that Gandhi had correctly identified some of the problems afflicting India because he was “in part a colonial,” having spent twenty years in South Africa. However, Naipaul abhorred what he saw as the Hindu revivalist and spiritual elements of Gandhi. He wrote of Gandhi’s reception in India: “The mahatma has been absorbed into the formless spirituality and decayed pragmatism of India. The revolutionary became a god and his message was thereby lost.”
While Naipaul might have missed the radical potential of Gandhian thinking and action, the persistence of what he called “Gandhianism” obsessed him. The theme of Gandhi-induced decay, particularly with regard to Hindu society, would recur in India: A Wounded Civilization. He wrote with repugnance about the persistence of Gandhianism in India long after its use-by date: “Now of Gandhianism there remained only the emblems and energy; and the energy had turned malignant. India needed a new code, but it had none.” One of the main grouses that Naipaul had with Gandhi was what he saw as the glorification of poverty and the subsequent tendency to make it the “basis of all truth.” This was not a new charge. The Indian nationalist leader and poet, Sarojini Naidu, had once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty.
What irked Naipaul about India was not just its obsession with Gandhi but its inability to regenerate and come up with original ideas. “India is old, and India continues,” he wrote. “But all the disciplines and skills that India now seeks to exercise are borrowed. Even the ideas Indians have of the achievements of their civilization are essentially ideas given by European scholars in the nineteenth century.”
If An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization were scathing and negative portrayals of India, a marked change in tone had crept into Naipaul’s last book on the country. In India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul pushed himself to the background and let the people he interviewed take center stage. Diverse voices, from an activist of the Shiv Sena (the nativist party from Maharashtra) to a former Bengali Naxalite (or Maoist) to a journalist working for a women’s magazine, all found space in the book. Indeed, Naipaul’s views on the Shiv Sena possibly presaged his later-in-life sympathy for the Hindu nationalists. As he wrote in Wounded Civilization: “The Shiv Sena, as it is today, is of India, independent India. . . . It is a part of the reworking of the Hindu system. Men do not accept chaos; they ceaselessly seek to remake their world; they reach out for such ideas as are accessible and fit their need.” In contrast, he wrote of Naxalism that it was an “intellectual tragedy, a tragedy of idealism, ignorance, and mimicry.”
Naipaul recalled in A Million Mutinies Now that when he first visited the country in 1962, the India of his “fantasy and heart was something lost and irrevocable.” But now he admitted that that there was in India “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. . . . What the mutinies were also helping to define was the strength of the general intellectual life, and the wholeness and humanism of the values to which all Indians felt they could appeal.
Unsurprisingly, Naipaul’s early views did not make him popular in India, so An Area of Darkness was unofficially banned in India after its publication. In a long review of the book, titled “Naipaul’s India and Mine,” Nissim Ezekiel—the Jewish Indian poet, playwright, art critic, and editor—said that he greatly admired and enjoyed Naipaul’s novels, but took issue with Naipaul’s “excess” in describing India. Ezekiel concluded that Naipaul’s criticism of India was “heavily flawed in detail.” Many years later, as if in defense, Naipaul insisted he was only being true to the “visual facts.”
Criticism aside, there is little doubt that Naipaul influenced a host of prominent Indian writers. The novelist Amitav Ghosh—he of the wondrous Ibis trilogy—wrote after Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001 that his first two books on India “created a sensation because of its tone of derision and outrage.” But he added that, on careful reading, “it is not hard to see that the target of Naipaul’s rage is none other than himself and his own past. His derision stems not from what he sees in India but rather from his disillusionment with the myths of his uprooted ancestors.”
If Naipaul’s books caused a stir, some of his statements after winning the Nobel caused an uproar. A decade after the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya—an attack orchestrated by Hindu militants—Naipaul reportedly said, “Ayodhya is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity.” Some saw this pronouncement as being of a piece with Naipaul’s anti-Islam views expressed in many of his works. In 2012, the Indian playwright and actor, Girish Karnad, spoke out against Naipual after he had been given a lifetime achievement award in India, charging that, while his books on India were “brilliantly written,” they were characterized by a “rabid antipathy towards Indian Muslims.”
Though Naipaul never fully got over his status as an “insider-outsider” in India, as his authorized biographer Patrick French put it, over time he became much more accepted and feted in his ancestral land.1 At the 2015 Jaipur literary festival, a wheelchair-bound Naipaul had a public reconciliation with his disciple-turned-critic Paul Theroux and broke down into tears in front of an admiring audience. At the twilight of his life, Naipaul and India had seemingly made peace with each other’s quirks, oddities, and extremes. Whether that peace can last will depend on India’s cultural and political trajectory—a trajectory no one can predict.
Patrick French, The World Is What It Is (2008).