on April 20, 2002
V.S. Naipaul is a man of strong opinions, and they are often politically incorrect. He is the man who once, infamously, called the Third World the "turd world." This book is about one of his early forays into the turd world. I imagine that it did not please the Indian Tourism Board to read that India is "the world's largest slum" or that Indians are "a withered race of men." Not surprisingly, the young Naipaul - just barely into his thirties when he wrote this book - got labeled as a reactionary and a lapdog of the former colonial power in India.
Naipaul's bluntness produced a scandal and much misunderstanding. At closer inspection, however, his unflinching look at unpleasant realities (beyond his politically incorrect asides) reveals a man who is deeply troubled by what he sees. When he writes he transforms his anger into lucid, detailed observations. It is a stylistic attribute that also defines his later travel writing about India ("India: A Wounded Civilization," 1977; "India: A Million Mutinies Now," 1991) and about the predominantly Muslim countries of Asia ("Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey", 1981; "Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples", 1998).
In this early book published in 1964, his working method is revealed in more detail than in the later books. Naipaul decided to write about the flagrantly visible things whose existence is being denied, and about those personal experiences that are fresh and not worn out by having been described by other authors of travelogues.
The themes of the first four chapters can be summarized in the words poverty, caste, defecation, and failure. But Naipaul being Naipaul manages to transform the squalor of the world he observes into clean, cold and lucid prose. His language is, for the most part, that of a surgeon who feels neither contempt nor pity when he dissects. Naipaul writes that the "sweetness and sadness which can be found in Indian writing and Indian films are a turning away from a too overwhelming reality; they reduce the horror to a warm, virtuous emotion. Indian sentimentality is the opposite of concern." This explains why Naipaul's apparent detachment is so misleading: for Naipaul unsentimental description is - quite unexpectedly for the reader - a way of showing concern.
Naipaul is most effective when he is sarcastic. His book sparkles with rhetoric fervor when he quotes Gandhi on the squalor and shortcomings of India and points out that Gandhi's observations are still valid today. Chapter 3, "The Colonial," depicts the colonial's view of India. Incidentally, the colonial happens to be Mahatma Gandhi, and Naipaul quotes extensively from Gandhi's early writing. It starts with a quote just below the Chapter heading: "Well, India is a country of nonsense." Naipaul effectively turns one of the founding fathers against his successors who, in Naipaul's opinion, let the country rot in its stagnancy. Naipaul feels that India undid Gandhi: "He became a mahatma. He was to be reverenced for what he was; his message was irrelevant"; and that "his failure is there, in his writings: he is still the best guide to India. It is as if, in England, Florence Nightingale had become a saint, honoured by statues, everywhere, her name on every lip; and the hospitals had remained as she had described them."
When Naipaul writes about Gandhi, he also characterizes his own way of seeing and writing: "He looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct and the directness was, and is, revolutionary. He sees exactly what the visitor sees; he does not ignore the obvious. He sees the beggars and the shameless pundits and the filth of Banares; he sees the atrocious sanitary habits of doctors, lawyers and journalists. He sees the Indian callousness, the Indian refusal to see. No Indian attitude escapes him, no Indian problem; he looks down to the roots of the static, decayed society. And the picture of India which comes out of his writings and exhortations over more than thirty years still holds: this is the measure of his failure."
Bottom-line: opinionated and brilliant as most of Naipaul's writing, surely not a balanced portrait of India in the early 1960s, but definitely a must-read for anyone trying to understand Naipaul, and a good case-study how easy it is to misunderstand the intentions of a writer or how easy it is to use quotations out of context to malign someone.
on November 29, 2001
In his native Trinidad Naipaul had always somehow been of India without being Indian. After 12 years in London, and possibly in an attempt to regain some sense of his own roots, he decided to take a sabbatical year in India in 1962. This book is the fruit of that year.
It begins inauspiciously enough with some amusing but not too jarring description of the endless troubles involved in bringing a bottle of liquor into India. We've all heard of India's elephantine bureaucracy, and Naipaul confirms to us that this is (was?) the case. Of much greater interest are the little fables he weaves to explain his view of how in India function is more important than action (i.e., ritual cleanliness is much more important than actual cleanliness) and gestures count more than reality (although this is common to many third world countries). Contrary to the impression a foreigner might have of chaos and aimlessness, India is in fact strictly regulated to a degree unknown in the West. Everyone has a place and a function, and such place and function are infinitely more significant to an Indian than what a Westerner's profession or skin colour might be to him. This provides a transition to another of Naipaul's interests, which is the nature of the relationship between the Indian Republic and the British Raj. According to Naipaul, the idea of Britishness is inextricably bound up with the Indian empire, and the British created themselves as an imperial people with a God-given mission, even as they created the Indians as a subordinate (inferior) race and state. Bound up with these deep meditations are the stories of his dealings with various landlords and hoteliers. Particularly amusing is his running relationship with the staff of a small hotel on Dal Lake, in Northern India, where he experiences the mutual dependency between masters and servants familiar to russian and ancient regime writers. He (the master) is often abused by the staff (the servants) and forced to perform meaningless or denigrating activities. The staff, however, treat him with an almost comical respect when confronted by third parties. Clearly the servants derive their respect from the respect shown to their master. The relationship is almost medieval.
And this is Naipaul's next point. India is not a modern country because there is no sense of the passage of time, but rather passive acceptance of everything, and an escape into the land of imagination to compensate for what otherwise would be a reality too painful to bear (but again, this is also a feature of other third world countries such as that of Colombia, and a source of Magical Realism a la Garcia Marquez).
The book's final part has a fascinating reflection on the nature of English writing on India and Indian writing. Naipaul disparages virtually all literary creation in the sub-continent (with a couple of minor exceptions including Narayan). He likes Kipling and has no clear opinion on Forster (he would eventually develop a strongly critical perspective on this author as well, deeply tinged by his antipathy to the writer's homosexuality). The ending is bleak, punctuated by his frightening falling in with a racist Sikh (who is a dead ringer for Europe's skinheads of a decade later) and a depressive visit to his grandfather's hometown, when he realizes that the distance between himself and India is unbridgeable. The backdrop is provided by the Chinese invasion and Indian defeat (this defeat is the last of endless defeats over the past millenium, and an emblem for them all).
The book, although picturesque in some points is extremely bleak and really justifies Naipaul's famed ability to stare at reality in the face, and not flinch. Whoever believes Naipaul has singled the Muslims for special abuse (in such works as "Among the Believers" and "The Suffrage of Elvira") only needs to read this disconsolate book (his first of a couple) on his own homeland to confirm that Naipaul does not believe in playing favourites, and will shine the passionately cold light of his wit on everything that catches his eye. The book is in parts obscure and disorganized, but very insightful. This reviewer shared Naipaul's sense of grossness and void, as he contemplates utter misery and hopelessness (this is a feeling many peoples might have today: former Zaireans, Sudanese, Palestinians, Colombians, Bhurmans, to name just a few). His refusal to compromise is not fuelled by self-hatred (as has been suggested by some commentators) but rather by a powerful self-awareness. It's no wonder many Indians hated the book. Not being Indian, and not therefore needing to be appeased, I liked it very much.
on October 27, 1999
I loved the book from the beginning. The author's arrival in Bombay, the bureaucratic, typically Indian red tape he encounters, that's the way it is. But India is more for most foreigners and also for the author: A love - hate relationship all well described not omitting one detail and written in beautiful language. The book has drawbacks though: This is clearly a view by someone who was brought up in Trinidad and sees India in comparison with a colony. Some chapters especially tho one on the author's stay in Kashmir are never ending and tiresome to follow through. However all in all a must for India experts, lovers and others interested in this country. Not necessarily recommendable for tourists who intend to spend only a few weeks in that area of darkness, which did not even reveal itself to the author.
on March 4, 2015
Mr. Naipaul is so down on India and her people. Having been in India -most recently- I found the Indians gracious, helpful, kind, and quite wonderful. Naipaul wrote It is as it is, an autobiography- he is ever interesting, but, difficult- had a quarrel with Paul Theroux to go on forever...
Arrived in good condition and swiftly. Thank you.
on January 11, 1999
VS Naipaul flair for travel writing is at its best. With the senstivity that we all possess but seldom express, he views India absolutely objectively and present an engrossing tale of his journey. Mixed with his internal turmoil and feelings that all those who have travelled through India feel but fail to notice. He makes no bones about the the sqatters alongside reilway tracks, withered and poor Indian physique, or the dishonesty prevalent everywhere. But like most Naipauls works this one too is very critical with little praise for the good. Or is it that he saw no good at all, or that its not worth mentioning ? Read and find out.
on February 2, 2012
When V.S. Naipaul returned in the early 1960s to the country of his ancestors, India, he was brutally confronted with a paralyzing caste system, abject poverty, disastrous hygiene and sanitation, endemic corruption and absurd religious fervor.
The caste system
V.S. Naipaul illustrates profusely what a caste system really is. A caste is not a class, because a class system is a system of rewards. `Caste imprisons a man in his function. From this it follows, since there are no rewards, that duties and responsibilities become irrelevant to position.'
Caste also implies a brutal division of `labor' with at its centre the degradation of the latrine-cleaner. The main aim of the sweeper, however, is not to clean, but `to be' dirt.
By divorcing function from social obligation, caste becomes inefficient and destructive. Physical efforts (labor) are seen as degradation and have to be avoided. Caste lies at the heart of the Indian passion for symbolic actions: planting trees, but leaving the trees alone afterwards.
Poverty, the British
Poverty is not felt as an urge to anger or improving action, but as an exhaustible source of tears.
For V.S. Naipaul, India was (is still?) the world's greatest slum, with Kolkata as its nadir: filth, overpopulation and tainted money. It stands as an example of the total Indian tragedy and the terrible British failure. The British expressed their contempt for it and escaped back to England.
The religious doctrine was not as important as the forms it had bred. Religions was a spectacle (flagellations, ten thousand simultaneous prostrations), `a mixture of the gay, the penitential, the hysterical and, importantly, the absurd.'
The pilgrimage to the Cave of Amarnath with its massive ice phallus showed that `the generative force alone remained potent.'
Has India fundamentally changed since this disastrous report? Was the treatment of a former `untouchable' Prime Minister a sign on the wall?
Our world today needs more V.S. Naipauls, who do not deny what they see and who have a keen eye for crucial political, social and economic issues and psychological impacts.
This impressive in depth travel report should be a model for all those who want to learn to see.
Not to be missed.
I also highly recommend the movies by the great Indian director Shyam BENEGAL.
on March 31, 2004
This book details the experiences of author V.S. Naipaul in India between February 1962 and February 1964, of his travails there with the locals, his discoveries about the people of India, and his coming to terms of what is India and what it means to be Indian. I found him an excellent writer, many of his personal stories reading like fiction, and have since found that Naipaul has a loyal following of readers. I may indeed try to find more of his works in the future.
Naipaul is of Indian heritage, but was not born there but rather on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Some of the first part of the book detailed his growing up there, of his internal resolution as a child between his Indian household and the often very non-Indian islanders, a very diverse group that included a great many of African descent. Much of the rest of the book at least to me seemed to be the author trying to learn more about the country he ultimately hailed from, about what India is really like.
Naipaul provided several stories and anecdotes about his time in India. He opened the book with a little exploration of the often Byzantine if not Sisyphean paperwork and bureaucracy of India, describing his trials and tribulations of simply trying to import a bit of alcohol to the dry port of Bombay. A lengthy section details his time spent on a hotel on a lake in Kashmir, of his involvement in the day to day lives of those who lived in and ran the hotel, even accompanying them on a pilgrimage to a Hindu shrine in the Himalayas. Another story relates his time he was befriended by a Sikh while traveling by train in southern India, a friendship that was apparently founded in misunderstanding and did not end well.
The main point of the book though was a rather unflinching and unromantic look at India, or at least India in the early 1960s. He shows the India a traveler, an outsider, would actually see, an India that many Indians he writes simply do not see or refuse to see.
Caste he finds still dominates life in India, serving to imprison "a man in his function," rendering "millions faceless." A businessman's function is to make money by whatever means he can; he does not have a duty though to produce good quality items. It is not an issue of dishonesty or of short-sightedness, as service is not an Indian concept. He described groups of sweepers who cleaned a set of stairs; after they worked with twig brooms, rags, and buckets of dirty water, the stairs and wall are not only not cleaner but dirtier than ever. However they fulfilled their function, which was to sweep, or rather to be sweepers. Actual cleanliness was not the issue. Indians have been known to be picnicking on the banks of a river while someone drowned, not lifting a finger to help. He writes that the Indians do not lack courage or an admiration for it, but rather see courage and the choice to risk one's life to save another the function only of soldiers. Attempts to save government jobs for untouchables is not lauded, as this merely in many Indian's eyes simply puts responsibility into the hands of those unqualified - by their caste - to perform that function. Those who buck the caste system, or are outside of it, such those Indians who were born overseas, are not accepted by the system and often frustrated.
Naipaul wrote of the many squatters he saw in India (which I am certain didn't win him many friends with those who would promote Indian tourism); Indians he writes, "defecate everywhere." He saw people squatting and defecating beside railway tracks, along river banks, on the streets, never looking for cover, rarely with any sense of embarrassment. Even when presented with public lavatories were as likely to use the floor as anything else. Indians he says do not see these squatters, and certainly do not see the problem. Interests in sanitation are the concern of latrine-cleaners - not the concerns of the other castes - and to clean up after oneself would be unseemly, that unnecessary labor outside the required actions of one's caste was degrading.
Though obviously not something Naipaul saw personally he did spend time discussing Gandhi, relating to it the issues of public sanitation and caste. Gandhi, having spent twenty years in South Africa, saw India through an outsider's eyes. He saw sanitation linked to caste and that caste was linked to a disregard for others as well as inefficiency and a needlessly and hopelessly divided country, all of which lead to weakness and the rule of India by foreigners. Gandhi tried repeatedly to attack the psychology of caste, to show that there was dignity and a need for cleaning the excrement and filth of the nation. Naipaul believed that this was Gandhi's most important work, not his message of non-violent resistance of the British, work that he ultimately failed in, as his efforts were eventually reduced to mere symbolism, that latrine cleaning became among many simply an occasional, virtuous, highly symbolic action rather than an effort to really improve things.
I found his thoughts on the numerous ruins of India quite interesting. They are not revered as they might be in Europe, as respect for the past is a European, not an Indian, tradition. Not only are ruins everywhere and considered commonplace, but they do not speak of any development of the country's spirit and definition of nationalism or are revered as such. Rather - as with Mogul architecture - instead they tell of "personal plunder" and a nation with "an infinite capacity for being plundered." They are wasteful and without function; though the Taj Mahal is lovely, it is a despot's monument to one woman, nothing more.
An interesting book, I would like to know how the author's thoughts on India changed in his later writings, if they did.
on March 19, 2016
As usual Naipaul has interesting and acute observations. This book creates a feel for the depression and sadness of third world poverty. However, there are humorous anecdotes and entertaining material about the bureaucratic frustrations and dangers of travelling for non-luxury touring. Seems to catch the time and place aspect of India during the 1960's.
on June 15, 2004
I read this book the first time in 1987. In the 19 years since it was written, India had hardly moved, stifled by Nehruvian bureaucracy and a cynical polity that simply invented more and more regulation to plunder India's economy.
However, all this changed in the 1990s. Freed from the worst of the soviet-style regulatory burdens, India's economy and society has moved forward with a pace that is only surpassed by China's. It hasn't done so fast enough to solve deep-seated socio-economic problems that keep getting exacerbated by an ever-growing population, but compared to Mr. Naipaul's "Area of Darkness", India resonates with hope and its people with a deep impatience to get a move on to better times.
Read this book for its historical context but don't delude yourself by thinking this is the India of today. For that, you need to refer to something more recent.
on March 2, 2006
This is a book that heartily annoyed me as I read it, but the last 60 pages changed my tune. I would never want to read this book again, nor would I recommend it to others unless they knew what they were getting into--but the endless historical essays on caste and English colonialization did eventually end, and did lead into a really interesting place for Naipaul. One of my chief complaints with the book as I read was that Naipaul kept himself aloof, that so much of the book was abstract historical essay instead of real stories of his travels. There was a chunk in the middle of the book where Naipaul stayed at a particular hotel and got to know the people there, which was really intriguing, but otherwise I was dead bored. The last 60 pages, however, were almost entirely of Naipaul's experience and dealt with the real people he met and the terrible misunderstandings he had. All of the earlier material on caste and colonization had been building up to this point: the point when he visits his grandfather's village and, though charmed at first, ultimately cannot connect with his relations there for the same reasons that he can't connect with the rest of India. Overall the ending was very moving and very powerful.