V. S. Naipaul: India: A Wounded Civilization

In his An Area of Darkness V. S. Naipaul had measured the India of 1963 against the nostalgic, imagined India from his childhood days of growing up in the Indian community of Trinidad and – rather unsurprisingly – found it much wanting. Here, in his second book on India, he attempts to take the India of 1976 on its own terms – and the result are not much better, possibly even worse.

India: A Wounded Civilization is a very different book from its predecessor which according to Naipaul’s preface (added for a later edition of the book) was mostly due to the time he was visiting the country – he was asked by several publishers to write book on India during the Emergency – the state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, suspending the constitution and for all practical purposes turning India into a dictatorship – and he accepted, apparently intending a more or less “normal” travel book, mostly based on him interviewing a number of natives. Those, however proved to be singularly uncooperative, and this led to Naipaul selecting a different approach, relying on secondary sources rather than first hand accounts.

Which, is has to be said, was not exactly favourable to the vividness and general colourfulness of this India: A Wounded Civilization – compared to An Area of Darkness, this book is a very dry affair, and humour is largely absent from it. This later book is (at least) as much analysis as observation, (at least) as much essay as it is travel narrative. In his preface to my edition Naipaul claims that there was (albeit only half-consciously) a thesis behind this book, namely that India and Indian culture over the centuries has been shaped by having been conquered several times over. Which seems both fairly obvious and quite trite to me (which conquered country would not bear the traces of that conquest?) – but fortunately, this by no means sums up what in my opinion is, for all its differences to An Area of Darkness another fascinating and  highly perceptive exploration of India.

What is true about the claim of India: A Wounded Civilization having a central thesis, in any case, is that what Naipaul chiefly explores this time is not so much India as it presents itself and can be experienced, not so much the empirical India, but India in the way it relates to other cultures, those cultures that came to conquer and placed their indelible stamp on the country and its people. The unexpected thing about this is that Indians not only attempt to reject that foreign influence but that they even deny it, or, even beyond that, that they do not even perceive its existence in the first place even as it shows all around them.

In An Area of Darkness, Naipaul saw the way it held on to traditions and their relics as the essence of Hinduism; in India: A Wounded Civilization his view has shifted (or maybe expanded) somewhat – now, Hinduism appears essentially as a withdrawal to the self, a focusing on what is known and one’s own, and the exclusion of all external influences where they do not directly touch on that self. This Naipaul also makes out as the Indians’ primary defensive mechanism against the repeated conquests of their country, and considering that for all practical purposes this strategy amounts to burying one head in the sand, that is a pretty harsh judgment, making it somewhat understandable why so many people seem to hate this book.

But Naipaul does make a compelling case, drawing on some interesting sources – not just his own travels and newspaper and magazine articles but also Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography (in a particular brilliant chapter singled out for praise even by many people who otherwise dislike the book) and, most surprisingly, two Indian novels, one by R. K. Narayan, one by a contemporary author. Of course Naipaul does not read those as factual accounts, but rather as a kind of psychogram of the Indian mind; and it makes sense that when it comes down to exploring a people’s worldview and attitudes, the way it does (or, in this case, doesn’t) perceive things, then a novel makes as good source material as any magazine article or non-fiction study, might even surpass them for its more refined sensorium and is condensation of experience into significance.

Of course, it needs someone to be able to actually read and distill that significance from the source material, and Naipaul proves himself to be as masterful in deciphering secondary sources as he is adept in coaxing the essence out of firsthand experiences. It is less surprising that he censures the Indians so heavily for their failure in perception once one realizes just how uncannily perceptive Naipaul himself is, in the way he notices small things, in the way he combines those with other tiny details he has observed, and in the way he draws conclusions from this that are both surprising and compelling, presenting them in a language that is both precise and beautiful and moves along with a delicately articulated rhythm. V. S. Naipaul holds the balance between reporting from his experience and analysing his source materials and combines them into a distinct form, which marks India: A Wounded Civilization not so much as a travel narrative than something which would probably be most aptly called a travel essay.

In the course of my unofficial reading project on India I am planning on read Naipaul’s third book in India next, but seeing how much I have come to enjoy this writer (well, his works, for the man still appears thoroughly unlikable – although I suppose he should be rewarded some bonus points for not trying to conceal it), I will likely end up reading more of his work; in fact I am quite curious to find out what his novels are like.

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