The Writer and the World: Essays

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9780375707308: The Writer and the World: Essays

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India

In the Middle of the Journey

Coming from a small island -- Trinidad is no bigger than Goa -- I had always been fascinated by size. To see the wide river, the high mountain, to take the twenty-four-hour train journey: these were some of the delights the outside world offered. But now after six months in India my fascination with the big is tinged with disquiet. For here is a vastness beyond imagination, a sky so wide and deep that sunsets cannot be taken in at a glance but have to be studied section by section, a landscape made monotonous by its size and frightening by its very simplicity and its special quality of exhaustion: poor choked crops in small crooked fields, under-sized people, under-nourished animals, crumbling villages and towns which, even while they develop, have an air of decay. Dawn comes, night falls; railway stations, undistinguishable one from the other, their name-boards cunningly concealed, are arrived at and departed from, abrupt and puzzling interludes of populousness and noise; and still the journey goes on, until the vastness, ceasing to have a meaning, becomes insupportable, and from this endless repetition of exhaustion and decay one wishes to escape.

To state this is to state the obvious. But in India the obvious is overwhelming, and often during these past six months I have known moments of near-hysteria, when I have wished to forget India, when I have escaped to the first-class waiting-room or sleeper not so much for privacy and comfort as for protection, to shut out the sight of the thin bodies prostrate on railway platforms, the starved dogs licking the food-leaves clean, and to shut out the whine of the playfully assaulted dog. Such a moment I knew in Bombay, on the day of my arrival, when I felt India only as an assault on the senses. Such a moment I knew five months later, at Jammu, where the simple, frightening geography of the country becomes plain -- to the north the hills, rising in range after ascending range; to the south, beyond the temple spires, the plains whose vastness, already experienced, excited only unease.

Yet between these recurring moments there have been so many others, when fear and impatience have been replaced by enthusiasm and delight, when the town, explored beyond what one sees from the train, reveals that the air of exhaustion is only apparent, that in India, more than in any other country I have visited, things are happening. To hear the sounds of hammer on metal in a small Punjab town, to visit a chemical plant in Hyderabad where much of the equipment is Indian-designed and manufactured, is to realize that one is in the middle of an industrial revolution, in which, perhaps because of faulty publicity, one had never really seriously believed. To see the new housing colonies in towns all over India was to realize that, separate from the talk of India's ancient culture (which invariably has me reaching for my lathi), the Indian aesthetic sense has revived and is now capable of creating, out of materials which are international, something which is essentially Indian. (India's ancient culture, defiantly paraded, has made the Ashoka Hotel one of New Delhi's most ridiculous buildings, outmatched in absurdity only by the Pakistan High Commission, which defiantly asserts the Faith.)

I have been to unpublicized villages, semi-developed and undeveloped. And where before I would have sensed only despair, now I feel that the despair lies more with the observer than the people. I have learned to see beyond the dirt and the recumbent figures on string beds, and to look for the signs of improvement and hope, however faint: the brick-topped road, covered though it might be with filth; the rice planted in rows and not scattered broadcast; the degree of ease with which the villager faces the official or the visitor. For such small things I have learned to look: over the months my eye has been adjusted.

Yet always the obvious is overwhelming. One is a traveller and as soon as the dread of a particular district has been lessened by familiarity, it is time to move on again, through vast tracts which will never become familiar, which will sadden; and the urge to escape will return.

Yet in so many ways the size of the country is only a physical fact. For, perhaps because of the very size, Indians appear to feel the need to categorize minutely, delimit, to reduce to manageable proportions.

"Where do you come from?" It is the Indian question, and to people who think in terms of the village, the district, the province, the community, the caste, my answer that I am a Trinidadian is only puzzling.

"But you look Indian."

"Well, I am Indian. But we have been living for several generations in Trinidad."

"But you look Indian."

Three or four times a day the dialogue occurs, and now I often abandon explanation. "I am a Mexican, really."

"Ah." Great satisfaction. Pause. "What do you do?"

"I write."

"Journalism or books?"

"Books."

"Westerns, crime, romance? How many books do you write a year? How much do you make?"

So now I invent: "I am a teacher."

"What are your qualifications?"

"I am a B.A."

"Only a B.A.? What do you teach?"

"Chemistry. And a little history."

"How interesting!" said the man on the Pathankot-Srinagar bus. "I am a teacher of chemistry too."

He was sitting across the aisle from me, and several hours remained of our journey.

In this vast land of India it is necessary to explain yourself, to define your function and status in the universe. It is very difficult.

If I thought in terms of race or community, this experience of India would surely have dispelled it. An Indian, I have never before been in streets where everyone is Indian, where I blend unremarkably into the crowd. This has been curiously deflating, for all my life I have expected some recognition of my difference; and it is only in India that I have recognized how necessary this stimulus is to me, how conditioned I have been by the multi-racial society of Trinidad and then by my life as an outsider in England. To be a member of a minority community has always seemed to me attractive. To be one of four hundred and thirty-nine million Indians is terrifying.

A colonial, in the double sense of one who had grown up in a Crown colony and one who had been cut off from the metropolis, be it either England or India, I came to India expecting to find metropolitan attitudes. I had imagined that in some ways the largeness of the land would be reflected in the attitudes of the people. I have found, as I have said, the psychology of the cell and the hive. And I have been surprised by similarities. In India, as in tiny Trinidad, I have found the feeling that the metropolis is elsewhere, in Europe or America. Where I had expected largeness, rootedness and confidence, I have found all the colonial attitudes of self-distrust.

"I am craze phor phoreign," the wife of a too-successful contractor said. And this craze extended from foreign food to German sanitary fittings to a possible European wife for her son, who sought to establish his claim further by announcing at the lunch table, "Oh, by the way, did I tell you we spend three thousand rupees a month?"

"You are a tourist, you don't know," the chemistry teacher on the Srinagar bus said. "But this is a terrible country. Give me a chance and I leave it tomorrow."

For among a certain class of Indians, usually more prosperous than their fellows, there is a passionate urge to explain to the visitor that they must not be considered part of poor, dirty India, that their values and standards are higher, and they live perpetually outraged by the country which gives them their livelihood. For them the second-rate foreign product, either people or manufactures, is preferable to the Indian. They suggest that for them, as much as for the European "technician," India is only a country to be temporarily exploited. How strange to find, in free India, this attitude of the conqueror, this attitude of plundering -- a frenzied attitude, as though the opportunity might at any moment be withdrawn -- in those very people to whom the developing society has given so many opportunities.

This attitude of plundering is that of the immigrant colonial society. It has bred, as in Trinidad, the pathetic philistinism of the renonÌ?ant (an excellent French word that describes the native who renounces his own culture and strives towards the French). And in India this philistinism, a blending of the vulgarity of East and West -- those sad dance floors, those sad "Western" cabarets, those transistor radios tuned to Radio Ceylon, those Don Juans with leather jackets or check tweed jackets -- is peculiarly frightening. A certain glamour attaches to this philistinism, as glamour attaches to those Indians who, after two or three years in a foreign country, proclaim that they are neither of the East nor of the West.

The observer, it must be confessed, seldom sees the difficulty. The contractor's wife, so anxious to demonstrate her Westernness, regularly consulted her astrologer and made daily trips to the temple to ensure the continuance of her good fortune. The schoolteacher, who complained with feeling about the indiscipline and crudity of Indians, proceeded, as soon as we got to the bus station at Srinagar, to change his clothes in public.

The Trinidadian, whatever his race, is a genuine colonial. The Indian, whatever his claim, is rooted in India. But while the Trinidadian, a colonial, strives towards the metropolitan, the Indian of whom I have been speaking, metropolitan by virtue of the uniqueness of his country, its achievements in the past and its manifold achievements in the last decade or so, is striving towards the colonial.

Where one had expected pride, then, one finds the spirit of plunder. Where one had expected the metropolitan one finds the colonial. Where one had expected largeness one finds narrowness. Goa, scarcely liberated, is the subject of an unseemly inter-State squabble. Fifteen years after Independence the politician as national leader appears to have been replaced by the politician as village headman (a type I had thought peculiar to the colonial Indian community of Trinidad, for whom politics was a game where little more than PWD contracts was at stake). To the village headman India is only a multiplicity of villages. So that the vision of India as a great country appears to be something imposed from without and the vastness of the country turns out to be oddly fraudulent.

Yet there remains a concept of India -- as what? Something more than the urban middle class, the politicians, the industrialists, the separate villages. Neither this nor that, we are so often told, is the "real" India. And how well one begins to understand why this word is used! Perhaps India is only a word, a mystical idea that embraces all those vast plains and rivers through which the train moves, all those anonymous figures asleep on railway platforms and the footpaths of Bombay, all those poor fields and stunted animals, all this exhausted plundered land. 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.

1962

Jamshed into Jimmy

"You've come to Calcutta at the wrong time," the publisher said. "I very much fear that the dear old city is slipping into bourgeois respectability almost without a fight."

"Didn't they burn a tram the other day?" I asked.

"True. But that was the first tram for five years."

And really I had expected more from Calcutta, the "nightmare experience" of Mr. Nehru, the "pestilential behemoth" of a recent, near-hysterical American writer, a city which, designed for two million people, today accommodates more than six million on its pavements and in its bastees, in conditions which unmanned the World Bank Mission of 1960 and sent it away to write what the Economic Weekly of Bombay described as a "strikingly human document."

Like every newspaper-reader, I knew Calcutta as the city of tram-burners and students who regularly "clashed" with the police. A brief news item in The Times in 1954 had hinted memorably at its labour troubles: some disgruntled workers had tossed their manager into the furnace. And during my time in India I had been following the doings of its Congress-controlled Corporation, which, from the progressive nationalist citadel of the twenties, has decayed into what students of Indian affairs consider the most openly corrupt of India's multitudinous corrupt public bodies: half the Corporation's five hundred and fifty vehicles disabled, many of them stripped of saleable parts, repair mechanics hampered, accounts four years in arrears, every obstacle put in the way of "interference" by State Government, New Delhi and a despairing Ford Foundation.

At every level I found that Calcutta enjoyed a fabulous reputation. The Bengali was insufferably arrogant ("The pan-seller doesn't so much as look at you if you don't talk to him in Bengali"); the Bengali was lazy; the pavements were dyed red with betel-juice and the main park was littered with used sanitary towels ("very untidy people," had been the comment of the South Indian novelist). And even in Bombay, the seat of gastro-enteritis, they spoke of Calcutta's inadequate (thirteen out of twenty-two Corporation tubewells not working) and tainted water supply with terror.

I had therefore expected much. And Howrah station was promising. The railway officials were more than usually non-committal and lethargic; the cigarette-seller didn't look at me; and in the station restaurant a smiling waiter drew my attention to a partly depilated rat that was wandering languidly about the tiled floor. But nothing had prepared me for the red-brick city on the other bank of the river which, if one could ignore the crowds, the stalls, the rickshaw-pullers and the squatting pissers, suggested, not a tropical or Eastern city, but central Birmingham. Nothing had prepared me for the Maidan, tree-dotted, now in the early evening blurred with mist and suggesting Hyde Park, with Chowringhee as a brighter Oxford Street. And nothing had prepared me for the sight of General Cariappa in the Maidan, dark-suited, English-erect, addressing a small relaxed crowd on the Chinese invasion in Sandhurst-accented Hindustani, while the trams, battleship-grey, with wedge-shaped snouts, nosed through the traffic at a steady eight miles an hour, the celebrated Calcutta tram, ponderous and vulnerable, bulging at entrances and exits wi...

Revue de presse :

“The most splendid writer of English alive today. . . . He looks into the mad eye of history and does not blink.” — The Boston Globe

“It is altogether tonic to have a writer such as V. S. Naipaul in our midst. . . . This volume is as good a place as any to discover why he is a figure of such consequence.” —Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review

“Naipaul brings to the [nonfiction] genre an extraordinary capacity for making art out of lucid thought. . . . [His is] a way of thinking about the world that will compel our attention throughout his working life and well beyond. . . . I can no longer imagine the world without Naipaul’s writing.” —Vivian Gornick, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Perceptive . . . inspired, provocative. . . . Naipaul has succeeded in richly articulating a writer’s engagement with and exploration of the world.” – The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A profound, bracing meditation on the legacy of the colonial world. . . . His writing [offers] the world through eyes possessed of a noble clarity.” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A welcome and worthy volume. . . . Only Naipaul can take a dim view of so much and so many, yet keep that dimness fantastically illuminated. . . . His prose is often simultaneously a blunt instrument and a surgical one, equally freighted with broad dismissive statements and blood-lettingly dissective insight.” – San Francisco Chronicle

“The quality and credibility of Naipaul’s words become apparent when you find yourself savoring [his] descriptions. . . . Once finished with the collection, the reader will never see the world through the same eyes again.” – Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Witheringly astute. . . . One of our finest living writers. . . . Naipaul’s is a crystalline, no-nonsense style. . . . He gives you the real world.” – The Weekly Standard

“Naipaul is essential reading today for anyone interested in a dissection of the universal tension that exists now between the East and the West. . . . His scholarship is exhaustive, his intuition trustworthy, and his scrutiny is unwavering.” – The Oregonian

“Wonderfully insightful. . . . Few writers are as qualified for the present moment, and few writers are as needed.” – The Orlando Sentinel

“Naipaul forces the traveler to think. . . . [He is] ever curious, ever exact in his observations.” – Austin American-Statesman

“Splendid. . . . Elegant and understated. . . . Naipaul is insatiable in his pursuit of facts and brilliant in his analysis of them.” – The Sunday Star-Ledger

“Naipaul’s essays . . . depict a chaotic world, torn by ethnic, religious and cultural antagonisms, but they also discover the humanity that unites us, and thereby provide the kind of reassurance that perhaps only literature affords.” – San Jose Mercury News

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