(review of book ‘India: a wounded civilization’- 1*/5*)
I’m quite okay with what gets termed as ‘India Bashing’ (or, if that matter, bashing of any other country) as mostly it is just a veil used by the powerful to suppress criticism pointed at them but my one condition is that author should actually feel concerned for the people. That she/he is frustrated and seems to be frowning at the circumstances too is fine by me.
What is not fine is when it is done by a author who seems to scorning at the people, feeling disgusted at them as if he belongs to some higher race.
Now V. S Naipaul calls India a ‘difficult’ country. He has clear problems with Indian part of his Identity and he probably feels insulted by it. The tone he takes is not that of ‘We’ Indians, or ‘you’ – since we are not worth talking to, but instead ‘they’ Indians’. Yet, he must write about it – because let us face it; a book about India is big bucks.
The ‘India’ shown in this book must have suited to the then western temperament, when US didn’t approve of India-Russia relations. I bet he actually came to India with a title already in his mind and saw only what suited his prejudice.
He must began his book with Vijaynagar trying to show it as a sort of metaphor for whole country which is – (I) an ancient city-empire (II) which Indians have ‘forgotten’. (I)He will later contradict himself by condemning a politician for trying to look at country through its ancient past and (II) will make what he did a criminal mistake by blaming country of being struck in its past.
Not only that, but he must scorn at the country – draw a really dark picture of the country, should tell you that India somehow ‘deserved’ to be colonized, has failed as an independent country and that its ways are too old for society to progress.
Let us began by admitting a lot of things he says about poverty of the country are true; although it is also true they give only a partial image. For example, not all houses of the country (even those of poor) are like those of Slum dwellers of Mumbai as Naipaul would have you think. It is having you look at a man’s armpit and then have you believe that this is what whole man look like. (Okay! I need to work with my metaphors.)
He also forgets to mention that country was one of the richest countries in eighteenth century – and that it was British rule which drained it dry. It takes his genius to look at country’s poverty and not feels frustrated at the powerful who caused it. Not only he managed to do so without talking about British rule but also without talking about corruption prevalent in Indian government services.
He would often distort the situation rather than making it clear; throw in random phrases the like ‘Hindu way of life’ and window dress the facts to make his case.
For example, not all parts of India were poor – he just conveniently missed the regions of Panjab and Harayana which had shown miraculous growth in food production during years of green revolution and while he is quick to say co-operatives won’t work in India; he forgot to mention the incredible success of Amul co-operative which by the time he was writing had actually turned into a country wide initiative ‘Operation Flood’.
And let me tell you more, this ‘poor’ country with ‘no resources’ gave refuge to over ten million Bangladeshis during Bangladesh Liberation War just a few years before Naipaul wrote the book. Another fact missed by Naipaul. We sure don’t like to preach but it is not because we are bad at doing so. This time I’m going to preach a little. Compare Indian attitude back than to present European attitude towards a few lakhs of migrants –where governments decide how many people they are willing to take in (how easy it is to be indifferent to lives once we start talking in numbers!) and where those people will settle down.
Again what he says of untouchability is particularly moving and probably true but let me tell you, it is not like we were not doing something. He will tell you that constitution had just been suspended but won’t tell you the constitution he just talked about was framed by an untouchable. Also that untouchability was banned under same constitution – something British didn’t care to do in their rule extending to about two centuries.
Hindu way of life
He puts all the blame on what he calls ‘Hindu way of life’ which in itself is the result of his own oriental bias. He is himself culprit of several fallacies he sees in others. There is just no Hindu way of life. You can’t expect one/eighth of the population of the world to be same in any way at all. His generalization come out of a character from R.K. Narayana – and no, not the famous opportunist ‘Raju’ from The Guide or ‘Swami’, the protagonist in Narayan’s children stories – you see those figures won’t suit the image he is trying to create. He must choose an example of intellectual, Mr. Sampath, accuse him of giving up on world he lives in and then generalize it for all Hindus. I mean all intellects are like that; look at Naipaul’s own life, is he not himself dependent on society for providing him with a lavish life style while all he does is just scorn at different cultures? Yet since Sampanth reads Sanskrit books while Naipaul reads western classics; it makes all the difference in the world. And even if he wants to call it the ‘Hindu way of life’; only a few people actually lived that kind of life. Most of them simply can’t – it is impossible for a society, where all or even a major number of people are doing nothing but reading, to survive.
Indifference to Politics
Nor Hindus or Indians were particularly indifferent to who is ruling upon them. He actually generalizes this notion from what he read of RK Narayan’s uncle. It is funny, isn’t it?
Yes, Emergency was the darkest spot in history of Indian democracy but even USA had its civil war. You can’t judge the book of my life from the chapter you walk in ( a quote I found on Goodreads)
And Indians love talking about their Politics. Politics is one of six most talked about subjects of the country (the other five being – marriage, opposite sex, cricket, religion, Bollywood; information source: yours only) India has one of the highest voter turn-up; much, much higher than most first world countries despite the fact that socio-economic costs of voting for an individual are higher in India than in west.
Indians and Hindus are not the same
Actually this inter-changeable usage of words ‘Indians’ and ‘Hindus’ itself is wrong, criminally wrong. India has world’s third largest Musilm population; largest Sikh population and communities of several other religions. It is offensive to call a secular country or its people ‘Hindu’ – if Naipaul had actually looked at some of ‘Hindu’ philosophy he loves talking so much about, he could have been surprised at diversity of thought in it.
No, he even goes to anarchy of calling all Muslim rulers as foreigners; even when most of them never left India all their lives. He can’t call himself ‘Indian’ when his ancestors have been out of India for a hundred years, yet he wants to raise an eye brow when some Muslim tells him that his family is Indian for five centuries.
All the last thousand years of the country are ‘dark’ ages according to him. Dark ages which have produced among architecture – Taj Mahal, Lal Quila, Bhakra Dam; among saints and philosophers – Madhvacharya, Kabir, Nanak, Gobind, Vivekananda; among artists – Surdas (he could make it rain through his music); Premchand, Tagore etc. This list could go on and on but I just don’t see the point.
I’m not saying there were no dark ages, there were – like other parts of world; but they sure never lasted beyond a couple of centuries.
The Western Ideas
Now one last question – do you ever saw an Indian saying ‘Zero’ is an Indian invention; Westerners don’t know how to use it or they must inhibit use of what is a foreign idea to them? No? Then why do everybody keep saying democracy won’t work in East; that Judiciary is a western concept and so on? Not only that, but you must give Nobel Prize to people for saying that. BTW, Democracy had actually failed in Germany and Italy just a few decades back. It had also failed in country of its origion, France, just a few years after it was first established. And England still has its royal family.
At one point Naipaul will have you believe a politician’s statement that India had once again turn into an importer of food-grains (which is not true) at face value just because he is gandhian. Later he is questioning gandhian politics itself after Gandhi’s death. You can’t have an apple and eat it too. He is sarcastic when told that Gandhi presented himself in dhoti to English president to show the world India’s poverty. Naipaul’s thoughts – ‘as if they didn’t know it already’. And what is Naipaul himself doing if I may ask? Is he not himself selling India’s poverty?
And what should we do?
It is not like Naipaul is here to offer some solutions. No he won’t even pretend to. According to him, India can’t be helped. I mean we don’t need to import Naipaul for this, we have enough of those pessimistic useless uncles of our own, to tell us that.
Last time I checked, India was world’s second fastest growing economy. Take that Naipaul!