NAIPAUL'S INDIA AND MINE*
To begin at the beginning for those who do not know: Mr. V. S. Naipaul published a book a few months ago entitled An Area of Darkness [Andr6 Deutsch, 1964], with the explanatory sub-heading "An Experience of India." It describes a year's stay in this country. After a dramatic opening chapter, which narrates how the author was harassed by the Bombay customs officials, he tells us some important things about himself in relation to India. It was the background of his childhood, the country from which his grandfather had migrated, to settle down as an indentured labourer in Trinidad. The family became West Indian but retained some of its Indian customs and ways of thinking, retained in particular objects brought from India. These were "cherished because they came from India" but they were allowed to disintegrate without regret.
This kind of sterile continuity Mr. Naipaul recognizes as typically Indian, a continuity without cultivation. Even at this early stage in the book we recognize Mr. Naipaul's special gift for the telling detail and the penetrating observation based on it. We see the point of his mentioning the grimy, tattered string-bed, the straw mat, the brass vessels, the wooden printing blocks, the coarse, oily books, the ruined harmonium, the brightly coloured pictures of deities, the images, the stick of sandalwood.
For Mr. Naipaul as a child, the India of such artifacts and of the persons related to them, a few of whom he portrays, was "featureless." It was an area of darkness. After his journey he found that "something of darkness remains, in those attitudes, those ways of thinking and seeing, which are no longer mine." His darkness is peopled, packed with a kind of life which is death, a negation, distortion and degradation from which he is glad finally to escape. He says at the end of the book that he is sorry to have had the experience, that it has broken his life in two. Even the menials of Beirut, first stop of his return flight, seem to him "whole" compared to the caricature and mockery of all that is human which he observed in India.
The grandfather, characteristically Indian, "carried his village with hin]" from Uttar Pradesh to Trinidad, joining others like him in re-creating his ageless environment in another setting. The generations that followed could not do the same. They accepted the West Indies but continued for long as Indians in a multi-racial society, giving the matter no further thought. Mr. Naipaul outlines precisely what it meant to live in that state of innocence, relying "on the old, Indian divisions, meaningless though these had become." The family was Hindu Brahmin, the outside world was not. The first experiences of boyhood involved savouong the difference without questioning it.
*From Imprint (1965) and N^u Writing in India, a Penguin anthology edited by Adid Jussawalla (1974). Reprinted by permission of the author and the editors.