19 July 2008

Past Perspective: An Area Of Darkness

An Area of Darkness

Author: V S Naipaul
Published in: 1964
Genre: Travelogue


V. S Naipaul has always been a controversial figure. Whether it is for his rude behaviour towards fellow writers at conferences or his show of support for India's Hindutva ring, Bharatiya Janata Party or his admission in his autobiography that his callousness killed his wife, this Trinidadian author has always been some sort of an enfant terrible of English literature. For all his genius, he also remains a vilified figure in India and not without reason. The Area of Darkness, when it was published in 1964, created an uproar among Indians and was intensely criticised for its unkind, deriding and supercilious view of India.

Naipaul's literature, much like his personality demonstrates a certain extremism -where there are few or no grey areas. And that is most evident in The Area of Darkness. (His subsequent work, India; A Million Mutinies Now was a far more objective and detailed read -in many ways, this is his best book, apart from A House For Mr Biswas). The book is about how Naipaul built a 'mythical' image about India staying in Trinidad (Naipaul's grandfather was from India and they re-located to West Indies - in a small British colony called Trinidad) and how his one-year visit to India shattered his childhood image of the country. The entire experience is a deeply personal one -- and Naipaul himself behaves like a rather fussy, ungenerous foreign-returned guy(he was just about 30 years old) who criticises the loss of his 'imagined world' without bothering to delve into the reasons for it. This was a plundered country that was struggling to fight its colonial past and tackle some enormous problems at hand.

From the moment he arrives in the country, he applies his own litmus test on it and decides it's a failed nation on every count. So to Naipaul, the weather is oppressive, the poverty is horrifying, people squat defecating all over the place, they serve food with unclean hands, they overcharge customers and what more, even their films don't offer a respite! Naipual has not one good thing to say about the country but doesn't show the slightest hesitation to indulge in gross overstatements and ridiculous generalisations with comments like 'Indians lack in courage...they have been known to go on picknicking on a bank while a stranger drowned' or that 'Indians defecate everywhere'
And this is a bit strange considering half the book is dedicated to his three-month long stay in a cozy, pampered House Boat in the picturesque Kashmir valley. Yet, Naipaul sees no beauty in the land!

Naipaul makes some very sound points when he talks of India being a country of symbolic, speech-making gestures. Whether it was the '60s or today, action is by way of symbols rather than concrete measures. He's also right to be irritated about Indians and their stubborn unwillingness to see what is obvious. They turn a blind eye to what is painful or disgusting and go about their business like nothing happened. This is important because not much has changed for in India in this respect. They continue to be escapists. Economically of course, the country has progressed by leaps and though I don't share all of Shobhaa De's exuberance on this, India is surging forward more confidently than it ever did.
It's difficult to take Naipaul's criticism seriously because most of it seems like an effort to deconstruct the notion of India. There's perverse cynicism at work and the author -while criticising the country's present-- makes no effort to understand its tumultuous recent past or look into its prospects. Hence, even as a piece of work, it remains a highly personal account which unjustly creates and reinforces colonial prejudices.

Two of his observations in particular are condescending and unjustifiable. Naipaul talks of how incongruous India's premier buildings appear in the face of its squalor and poverty. "It is building for the sake of building, creation for the sake of creation....In the North, the ruins (forts etc) speak of waste and failure and the very grandeur of the Mughal buildings is oppressive. Europe has its monuments of Sun-Kings, its Louvres and Versailles. But they are part of the development of a country's spirits."
In a display of unimaginable bad faith, he even suggests that the Taj Mahal could be transported slab by slab to United States and re-erected and it would seem wholly admirable. There, he implies that the edifice would serve a meaning. Here, he says, it is only a despot's monument with poverty around it.

Again, he talks of how the English language is the 'greatest incongruity of British rule' and has caused 'psychological damage' to the country through its continued official use. English, Naipaul should know was never thrust upon Indians. Other countries resisted it, Indians were attracted to it. Today, India constitutes one of the largest English speaking nations and this has had tremendous impact on its global appeal and economic progress. It's unfortunate that Naipaul chose not to see at all the fascinating side of India- its splendid diversity, it colour and cuisines, its incredible warmth and festivity - which today has made it one of the top most tourist destinations in the world.
The only aspect about India Naipaul seems to have really liked is its Railway system which he describes as 'too fine and complex' for a country like India. Phew!


brookgo said...

I think it's kind of funny that you say, "Naipual has not one good thing to say about the country but doesn't show the slightest hesitation to indulge in gross overstatements and ridiculous generalisations," but then make the statement, "He's also right to be irritated about Indians and their stubborn unwillingness to see what is obvious. They turn a blind eye to what is painful or disgusting and go about their business like nothing happened. This is important because not much has changed for in India in this respect." And by funny, I mean ironic.

Sandhya Iyer said...

No real contradiction brookgo. I don't think anyone can say that India is without flaws - it has serious flaws. And some of Naipaul's comments are valid. My grouse is that he turns a complete blind eye to its positives. I sense a certain immaturity and petulance in his opinions here because he states things without trying to understand or empathise with the country in the least.

brookgo said...

Seems like a "gross overstatement" or "ridiculous generalization" to me.

Sandhya Iyer said...

ya, you could say that.

I think A Million Mutinies Now is his most objective book on India.

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juan estadian said...

I somewhat agree with you. India has made many strides in education, science, the resurgence of it's classical music in an era inundated by American filth.I, when reading the book found myself saying that he bordered on cruelty in some of his descriptions. That being said, i do not in the slightest disagree with anything he said. Big Difference. Not only because it agrees with what we have heard of the country from outside sources, but also from insiders as well, like Arundhati Roy, Roshan Seth, Gandhi etc. India has a tidal wave of problems which, in part, it is only now starting to address. Public Defecation,hundreds of millions of faceless indians only included in surveys but denied basic rights because of the caste they were born into, living in giant slums next to posh apartments and five-star hotels. Now none of these things could be symptomatic of a normal society. Blaming it on Colonialism is like blaming all the problems of the African in the new world on slavery, and blaming all the problems of Africa on colonialsm when we know that atitudes. norms, values has had a big role. India is not special. Atitudes, norms,values and customs have had alot to do with the many problems she faces today

juan estadian said...
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