In the 1880’s Naipaul’s Brahmin grandparents migrated from the impoverished Gangetic plain to toil as indentured servants on the sugar plantations of Trinidad. He was born on that island in 1932, the son of a journalist who had freed himself from the soil, risen to the lower middle class, and later inspired the hero of A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Bred by two cultures in multiracial Port-of-Spain, Naipaul won at the age of 18 a government scholarship to University College, Oxford. There he became nearly, but not completely, anglicized. He has always been a professional writer and a restless traveler, and since 1957 has published nine books of nonfiction and 11 novels.
In 1962 Naipual spent a year in India, attempting to establish his ambiguous identity and to abolish the darkness that separated him from his ancestral past. That attempt, brilliantly recorded in An Area of Darkness (1964), was a failure which led to panic, shame, and disgust. Though he faced his emotions, structured his memories, and found his narrative voice, he observed that India “denied part of my reality. Again and again I was caught. I was faceless. I might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd. . . . [The experience] had broken my life in two.” He returned to India in 1975 and wrote India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), a bitterly truthful attack, “snatched out of panic,” which was greeted in the Indian press with cries of wounded outrage.
In his first two books on India Naipaul, like most authors, saw the writer as “a man with an internal life, a man drawing it all out of his own entrails, magically reading the externals of things.” His earlier, intensely subjective books emphasized his personal response to the overwhelming impact of the subcontinent. India: A Million Mutinies Now, like A Turn in the South (1989), is much more objective. In this book he mainly records and shapes the life histories of the many people he interviewed. He then translated and transcribed them into standard English. Though odd phrases slip in—”one did not actually get to meeting,” “my brother was younger to me”—there is no attempt (as in A Passage to India) to reproduce the orotund English that is spoken by Indians. Naipaul’s methods of sociological observation, of defining India by the experience of its people, recall Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1861—62) and J.L. and Lucy Hammond’s The Village Labourer (1911).
Have conditions in India actually improved during the last 15 years, or has the dark vision of Naipaul, the scourge of the Third World, mellowed as the shock of recognition diminished and “new ways of feeling and looking” came to him? In The Lotus and the Robot (1960), Arthur Koestler compared getting off the plane in Bombay to having a dirty diaper wrapped around his head. In 1966 and again in 1969 I felt that India, with all its exotic color, was depressing and hopeless; that only a ruthless totalitarian regime, like Communist China’s, which would obliterate Hinduism and rigorously enforce birth control, could help the country limp toward recovery. A leprous beggar in the Delhi bazaar, whose limbs had been eaten away, seemed to symbolize India’s soul-searing squalor. He pushed with his stumps his faceupwards torso, which rested on a small wheeled board, while the swirling crowd trampled the festering garbage all around him. It was difficult to think of him as a human being and unbearable to imagine how he endured his existence.
In 1988 Naipaul, whose sad-wise face stares at the reader from the strikingly handsome dust wrapper, made a five-month circular journey that roughly repeated his route in 1962. He began in Bombay on the west coast, traveled south to Goa and Bangalore, crossed to Madras on the east coast, went up to Calcutta, turned inland to Lucknow and Delhi, moved north to Patiala, Chandigarh, Amritsar, and Srinagar in Kashmir, and then returned to Bombay. His rather abstract subtitle alludes not only to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 but also to caste, racial, and regional revolts, and to the rage against Brahmanism, the Congress Party, and the Hindu religion. The structure of the book is loose, episodic, and rather random, with few transitions between the brief, mostly sad life stories. But there are fleeting glimpses of Naipaul’s Hindu childhood in Trinidad: “memories from far back, almost from another life”; old languages, cultures, modes of thought and emotion; references to his lack or loss of faith, and to the fears and uncertainties he later felt when leaving the peaceful and protected life of the university.
Naipaul’s magnificent powers of description still convey, despite his more sympathetic attitude, the ugliness and oppression, the stupefying squalor, the crowd-torn nerves, the family cruelty. He vividly portrays the crumbling roads, “half-way to being or ceasing to be”; the “trucks, like vulnerable, soft-bellied animals, turned upside down below their cruel loads, showing the wretchedness and rustiness of their metal underbellies”; the appalling conditions in the best hotels; the frustrations and torments of the domestic airline; the chaos of crumbling Calcutta: “In the monsoon, major areas of the city are waterlogged for anything up to 72 hours at a time. One year the water never drained away. Carcasses of animals appeared, and we were afraid of an epidemic.” In the black mud of the city slums, men and women publicly defecated on the edge of a black lake, where swamp and sewage formed a hellish oily iridescence. Worst of all is the violence engendered by these conditions: brides burned to death by their husband’s families for bringing an insufficient dowry, or religious festivals with “bloodied bodies, blood-soaked clothes, chains, whips tipped with knives and razor blades, the exalted deficient faces of the celebrants, and their almost arrogant demeanour.”
Naipaul depicts many bizarre scenes: the predator-prey relationship that develops as tourists are instantly besieged by the extortionate, unrelenting Kashmiris (“on the way into town from the airport, the driver had warned me: “In Kashmir, the only straight things are the trees”“); the film-star chief minister who left, at his death, some 18,000 files awaiting his attention; the Naxalite peasants who shoot the police with bows and arrows; the half-starved, sack-dressed, nose-skinned beggar who, “as soon as we came within prostrating distance, holding the [rented] baby in one arm, made a dive with the other hand for Prakash’s feet, in an exaggerated gesture of respect.” There is also a poet who touchingly writes: “On the day I was born I was an orphan. / The one who gave me birth went to God”—and then introduces Naipaul to his mother. Naipaul recounts the mixture of sex, innocence, and degradation in the brothel district of Bombay; and the grotesque transvestites and eunuchs of the Lucknow ghetto, dressed “in women’s clothes and with cheap jewelry, making lewd jokes and begging.”
His best interview is with the gangsters of Bombay, who have dons and families in self-conscious imitation of the American Mafia. They love publicity and want to be known abroad. Like businessmen offering their services, they can provide protection, run a numbers game, or do political kidnapping—but draw the line at contract killing: “The men we had been among had an almost cinematic idea of their roles, and had perhaps modelled themselves on certain film stars.” In a similar fashion, the film gangsters played by James Cagney, George Raft, and Edward Robinson were influenced by Hemingway’s wisecracking dialogue, sense of immediate experience, and sharp cinematic scenes in “The Killers,” a story based on his observation of comical-sinister criminals in Al Capone’s Chicago.
Naipaul’s dominant themes concern the difficulties of freeing one-self from the prison of the Indian past, the great transformations in India from the Mutiny to independence in 1947, and the changes in traditional life made by recent economic growth and industrialization. Though saddened by the destruction of culture, he had wondered, even in Trinidad, “whether the culture—the difficult but personal religion, the taboos, the social ideas—which in one way supported and enriched some of us, and gave us solidity, wasn’t perhaps the very thing that had exposed us to defeat.” In contemporary India, homespun Gandhian clothes, once but no longer the garb of the poor, are now worn only by the men to whom the poor had given power. A speedy “electric pujari” has reduced the recitation of tedious wedding verses from six hours to a breathless three. Though privacy in most dwellings is not available until the middle of the night, an old-fashioned wife found seclusion in a modern flat unbearable, became severely depressed, and had to move back to “the sense of a surrounding crowd and the sounds of life all around her.” Naipaul had failed in 1962 to see “the extent to which the country had been remade.” His latest book on India, despite his attempts at regenerative optimism, reveals an ever-changing, corrupt, and still deeply wounded civilization.