V. S. Naipaul: India: A Million Mutinies Now

The third book of V.S. Naipaul on India, written 26 years after the first one in 1962 and 13 after the second in 1975, again shifts its writing premises and tackles its subject with a distinctly different approach from the other two books: While those had held up India to some kind of standard and measured it against that (the reality usually falling spectacularly short), India: A Milltion Mutinies Now attempts to take India entirely on its own terms, to not present it as viewed from the distance of an observer or analyst but to let it speak for itself, in its own words. And quite literally so: Most of this book consists of interviews Naipaul led with a large variety of people he met while travelling. There still are passages of anecdotes and descriptions like in An Area of Darkness or of analysis like in India: A Wounded Civilization, but the bulk of of India: A Milltion Mutinies Now simply consists of people talking to Naipaul.

And of course it is not as simple as that: Immediacy is something hard to achieve and Naipaul, being the perceptive and scrupulous writer that he is, knows that very well, never forgetting to remind us that most of the interviews he presents us with have been filtered through translation. He constantly mentions and name-drops his translators until one gets the feeling that he is surrounded by them like a shark by pilot fish. Or maybe rather a turtle than a shark, for as has been often remarked, India: A Million Mutinies Now is not as biting in its criticism as the earlier books, seems even mellow in comparison. Personally, though, I think that first appearances are a bit deceptive here – a lot of this seeming mellowness is owed to the basic decision of presenting India and its people in their own words, and Naipaul hence chosing to let his interview partners destroy themselves rather than taking them apart by his commentary. He frequently shows that he can be as trenchant and incisive (not to mention nasty) as ever; and one cannot help but wonder whether the hopeful view of India’s future is really his or that of the people he interviews. Naipaul certainly perceives India in 1988 as a country in unrest and motion (the “million mutinies” of the title), seething with conflict and potentialities, but for my part I would be hesitant to say just how optimistic he really is about where this may lead for India’s future.

In any case, this is also is the by far longest of the three books, and at the same the most tightly structured: Each of its parts has its emphasis an a particular group or juxtaposition of groups (Sena, brahmin  / anti-brahmin, scientists, boxwallah / Maoists, Sikh) each of which is located in a particular region centered around a city (Bombay, Goa, Bangalore, Madras, Calcutta, Chandigarh). And the latter is not just contingent, but touches an essential of those groups and the people that speak for them in this book – India: A Million Mutinies Now is as much a book about space as it is about people. About real as well as symbolical space and particularly the ways in which they intersect, as in the case of the high Sena official who prefers living in a small worker’s tenement because it puts him in contact with other people while a bourgeois apartment leaves him isolated. Again and again Naipaul emphasises the way architecture and spatial environment shape and influence social space, the people who live in an area, and again and again Naipaul returns to the cramped living conditions, many people sharing a small space, something that can be both a blessing and a curse: “He would show both places to me later from the roof terrace: the drama of small spaces and short distances, the settings themselves always accessible afterwards, never really out of sight, and perhaps for this reason cleansed (like stage sets) of the emotions they had once held.” The Indian people are defined by the spaces they grew up and live in, whether they confine themselves within them, try to break free of them or attempt to change them.

All of this fits together so very neatly that it immediately raises suspicion, and I believe is intended to: Paradoxically, this most experience-saturated and immediate of Naipaul’s books on India is also the most literary; and just by the way he has arranged his material, the author never lets us forget that this is not a simple reporting of facts but has been filtered and transformed into a work of art – the formal equivalent to the cloud of translators surrounding Naipaul on his forages into Indian life, both indicating a distance between Naipaul (and the reader) and his material, Entfremdung as well as Verfremdung, alienation both as being a stranger in a strange land as well as literary distancing technique.

In the final chapter of the book, Naipaul becomes his own tourist attraction when he returns to the hotel in Kashmir where he stayed for several months in 1962 and which he wrote about extensively in An Area of Darkness. His second visit is both nostalgic and merciless, the sepia colouring of memory never quite glossing over the continued disparagement of the people he encounters, nor the keen awareness of his own ridiculousness in these surroundings, among those people If this was a novel, it would be a metafictional twist, but with this being a travel book one has to wonder if there might be such a thing as meta-non-fiction and whether Naipaul may not have invented it. Whatever you want to call it, it marks the brilliant conclusion to a brilliant trilogy of travel books which deserve to be read as such even if one has no interest for their subject matter.

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