Friday, January 2, 2009

Review: An Area of Darkness

V.S. Naipaul. An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India. New York: Vintage, 2002. 290pp.

V.S. Naipaul is at same a good writer and a bad one. His book, An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India, Naipaul’s travelogue about his first trip to India during the early 1960’s. His travel writing is superb, but as often the case, he has the tendency to ramble, especially when he decides to take the reader into his brilliant brain and observe his thought process at close quarters. It makes for difficult reading, at times, but it is well worth it by the end.

Like many members of the Indian Diaspora, his image of India was shaped by the perception he had while a child growing up in Trinidad. Naipaul’s grandfather immigrated to Trinidad as an indentured laborer. Naipaul’s memories of India were shaped by his grandfather’s memories. So when he finally arrived in India to see what the fuss was about. And like many Indians who return “home,” he was thoroughly disappointed by what he saw: the poverty, the corruption, the decays, a civilization that was listless and fading into irrelevance. He tries to make sense of it all, often asking the question why?

Though Naipaul makes many points, two in particular stand out.

In one of the chapters, Naipaul recounts his experience with a Sikh gentleman while on a train journey to South India. To Naipaul this Sikh gentleman (like many people Naipaul talks about in his book, they often go nameless) is striking, both for his features and his temperament. This Sikh gentleman, though educated and worldly (and, not to mention, a bit of an English twit), is also a racist and a bigot, and doesn’t mind telling Naipaul, whom he mistakes for a kindred spirit. This Sikh gentleman hates South Indians. He thinks they are the reason why India has wretchedly failed after achieving its independence. He calls them “blackies” and other assorted names too offensive to name here. The Sikh, you see, is of Aryan stock, hence a martial race, a people born to thrive if it weren’t for the weak Dravidian race of South India. Naipaul is not really shocked by what he hears because he knows India is ribboned with race, ethnic, caste, religious, economic animosities that permeates every strata of society. The Sikh gentleman was a mere example of it.

Secondly, Naipaul asks why Indians are so passive. He comes to this conclusion when China and India are fighting a border skirmish. Naipaul is in Kolkata (then Calcutta and according to Naipaul, the most English of Indian cities), keenly observing the city’s mood. Already there is talk among resident s of a likely occupation of the city by the Chinese, and how to deal with their new leaders; never mind the fact that the Chinese were nowhere close to the city – in fact, they were hundreds of miles away. And this attitude persists even while trainloads of Indian soldiers make their way to the border.. Preparations for defense were half-hearted, at best, the army too ill-equipped and ill-trained to mount a credible defense, the lack of seriousness from the people to the government. The ethos of peace and nonviolence was too deep to overcome. To Naipaul it is no wonder why India is such a conquered nation.

Reading Naipaul one wonders if the man simply hates India? Many Indian critics have made this charge. At first reading, Naipaul does seem to display some sort of a mean streak. At closer reading, however, this mean streak emerges more as disappointment than visceral hatred. After all, Naipaul, a Trinidadian and a British citizen, is still an Indian, albeit an unwilling on.

I can relate to Naipaul’s experience to some extent. I immigrated to the United States in 1976 when I was three; I returned for my first visit to India (and Bangladesh) in 1982 at the age of nine. Though Naipaul had the luxury of returning as an adult and make sense of it all; I, even as a child, could tell what a huge disappointment India was to me.

I returned to the city of my birth, Kolkata. The first thing I noticed was the stench. The ride into the city was not equally reassuring. The heat, the impenetrable crowds, the ramshackle buildings, walls desecrated with political slogans, but it was all the widespread poverty on display that really shocked me. I’ve seen pan handlers in the United States, but in India I was accosted by beggars at every turn. They somehow sensed that I was from overseas and ripe for the picking. Experiencing load shedding, where there is no electricity for hours on end, was a revelation. How can you run out electricity? I was perplexed beyond comprehension And only able to watch one government-owned channel for three hours a night was a visible reminder of what communism must have been like for those poor souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain (yes, I was quite politically aware for a nine-year-old).

Though my opinion of India has improved over the years I still find India to be a disappointment. And like Naipaul, I believe that India has yet to achieve its potential.