An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul

If one can imagine the difficulties Naipaul suffers now in a period in which the principle of ‘free speech’ is being eroded by nice white people to ‘you can say what you like as long as we agree with it’, it speaks buckets for this book that he experienced the ‘censorship of the offended’ the very moment it appeared. Banned in India and still banned over fifty years later.

This sits badly with me, not only because of the issue of free speech, but also because he didn’t look at all at the side of India which is truly dark. He could so easily have talked of the violence and exploitation, but he left it unsaid. He spoke only of what he saw and how he felt. A travelogue filled with angst, not only towards the India which so upset him, but also towards himself. No doubt one learns a lot about one’s own inadequacies in such a situation and Naipaul doesn’t shrink from them one bit. I don’t really understand why people who see this as only a personal critique of India, don’t understand this. Neither writer nor subject come off well in this encounter. There are only losers, but why should it be any other way?

Amit Chaudhuri sets Naipaul’s marginalisation in an academic context:

The other reason for Naipaul’s marginalisation has been the rise, in the academy, of “cultural studies” and “postcolonial literary theory”. The marginalisation of Naipaul is co-terminous with the marginalisation of the text, of literariness, and imagination. For the brief period I taught “Commonwealth literature” at Cambridge, I found that Naipaul – like R K Narayan and Nirad C Chaudhuri – was hardly read by students, or taught by teachers. Postcolonial literature had become less a critical or imaginative exploration than a political programme, with novelists “writing back” to the Empire that had supposedly formed their recent histories. Writers who didn’t fit into this programme were ignored; their works were like a code that students lacked the tools to break.  Nobel Thoughts

But is that the Indian perspective too or just the university program’s imposition?

If you are looking for a standard nationalistic anti-Naipaul piece, A brown sahib’s gaze will suffice. Evidently India, like its elephant, has a long memory. I was curious to search around more for Indian reactions to this book and found a couple of thoughtful blog reviews, by Vikram here and Sujit’s piece here.  They both discuss the uncomfortable truth of how India is – not much different now from in the early 1960s. I note also Bishan Samaddar’s review and Sunil’s who closes with the comment:

I am sure the book is hated in India and by Indian journalists/reviewers ; surely nothing could speak better for the book.

People keep talking about how much things have improved in India. It isn’t something I see, though maybe I look in the wrong places. I’ve never thought that Westerners watching Bollywood movies is a sign that things are better in India. On the subject of Outdoor Defecation, of which there are many words written in this book, the situation in India is little changed. Approximately 600 million people in India do not use toilets. It is a little complicated to say this is just due to lack of access as it is also, as Naipaul notes, a cultural issue. There is a commonly held belief that it is a more sanitary process to defecate in the open. Further complicating matters is the caste system, which still holds its regulatory power in society. Every aspect of this is horrifying.

To read about the PM’s plan to introduce 100M toilets to India before 2019, read here and Open defecation in cities: A faltering India story. To read more about the situation of the Dalits and the enforced role of the excrement cleaning sub-caste, go to Cleaning Human Waste “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India and also India: Caste Forced to Clean Human Waste ‘Manual Scavenging’ Persists With Local Officials’ Support.

If you are interested in literature, it will have been hard to have missed the public fisty-cuffs Naipaul’s had over the decades, most famously with Paul Theroux, but another that stands out was the reaction of female writers to his panning of their gender. He is breathtakingly arrogant. I’m just amazed at the tone of this book from that point of view. He was only thirty when he made this trip! Most people of that age these days are still playing. When they do the obligatory travel, it’s to post pictures to facebook and let everybody know where you can get awesome something-a-rather somewhere.

Naipaul on the other hand was a mature, polished writer who thought deeply about his subject. One doesn’t have to agree with every thing he says to accept that. The very fact that he makes so many observations of India, of himself, of his background and its relationship to both India and England, of history and literature will make that obvious. But it is beautifully written, captures details of people and places and senses exquisitely, and, most amazingly, considering the darkness of his perspective and the difficulty of the subject matter, there is a remarkable amount of humour here. He makes the reader laugh in unexpected places, which is surely a real talent.

I’d make it compulsory reading, if I could, for people interested in India. And yet, it is banned in India, and if not banned, then per force of disapprobation unread outside its subject country.

For more on books banned in India see You Can’t Read This Book .  For an exploration of the ways in which free speech is being attacked in India, PEN has produced the following report.

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