on January 23, 2006
Nobody writes like V.S. Naipaul. Nobody. His visual descriptions of ordinary people always hit the nail on the head. His central theme is the vibrant, pulsating, intellectual Hindu civilization has been dominated for too long--first, and longest, by the Muslim invaders and second, most recently, by the English. After the initial burst of optimism following independance, India has faced one obstacle after another, turning inward, revealing a 'wounded civilization,' a stilted culture who doesn't know herself anymore or what made her great. I'm not sure if I'm smart enough to comment on this theme . . . it is sort of an impressionistic history that cannot be divined by ordinary historical models. Using his own methods of analysis, V.S. Naipaul may not be an ideal person to do this analysis because like Ghandi and Nehru he studied(and, in his case, was born)outside India. This theme of exile and what is learned is brought back again and again. Naipaul writes with vigor. His words are a joy to read and ponder over. In some ways this is his most personal book.
on July 12, 2003
This is not academic work that tries to cover an issue from some kind of systematic methodology that is currently in fashion. Instead, it is an extremely dense essay by an original novelist on what makes India what it is: chaotic, without a sense of historical continuity - his contrast with the European narrative that moves from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance/Reformation and Enlightenment to the industrial democracies is absolutely fascinating and yet deliciously succinct - and struggling to forge a modern identity in the post-colonial independence. What the reader gets is an interpretation, the details of which (s)he must fill in or debate oneself. Naipaul even does brilliant literary criticism of contemporary Indian novels in this book to shed light on his ideas, which as anecdotal and quirky as they are are always interesting. Disagree we might, but he stimulates even in error. Even after almost 30 years from its original publication, this essay is worth the read, if only to explore the reasoning behind rejecting it (I couldn't totally).
on February 28, 2002
Most Indians don't seem to like Mr.Naipaul from what I hear about his very acrimonious literary workshops and press conferences in India. He has a reputation preceding him as 'not a very nice man' but a great writer. I had all this in mind when I opened to read this book(such a sharp title).
The book is written by some one who is intellectually a westerner(written from an unabashedly western stand point),and wants to understand and digest the Indian social & cultural scene to satisfy his probing mind. Naipaul does not accept convenient lies and soft answers in this quest.
The result is a remarkable book about India and about the attitudes and expectations of average Indians(one generation away from the closed social life of an extended family, caste, religion, region).Naipaul dissects the Indian psyche and pinpoints the muddy thinking and mythologising that is widely prevalent in the intellectual life of India. This book could be seen as a critique of the blindness of Indians to the 'real' world, who prefer to live and judge themselves and others through the myopic glass of perceived high culture of 'centuries of rich civilization'. Unlike any previous rendition of India, Naipaul has a familiar access to people and places and the perspective of an outside observer that is closed to Indians. He straddles this unique viewpoint successfully, making this a very revealing book on India. This book is never dry or trite but has a rich humanity to it, a cast of real people seen through the curious and sympathetic eye of Naipaul.
The book, to an Indian expat like me, was riveting.This book would have been an uncomfortable read for me in India. I would have failed to see the western ideals that Naipaul is grounded on and would have criticized him for trying to pull down an intellectual edifice under which I grew up and shared with everyone around me(with nothing else to take its place).
The book is one of the better studies on India and gives you a flavor of the Indian mind.
And what's more, it is a short book.
on October 17, 2001
This book remains probably the best external perspective on India.
India is in constant trauma-of one kind or the other. This trauma does not give Indians any time to pause and look at themselves objectively. Therefore, the task falls on some one like Naipaul.
Naipaul claims he does not belong to Indis but his ancestors do. However, he becomes insider- journeying through India. The sensitivity he shows, praise he showers on what he believes is good (for example Kannada book "Samskara") and then stinging criticism...no one is spared.... Mahatma Gandhi, R K Narayan, Vinoba Bhave,Shiv Sena. In the end he 'belongs', he is never a Sahib,never condescending.
Wonderful and humbling experience.......
on April 24, 2003
its sheer cause it cuts, but what this guy has said is
Dont buy this book if you are looking a fluffy travelouge
Naipaul's best gift is presenting complex human emotions
in a simple fashion. I like his non fiction better, but
thats because the matter he covers in his interviews.
Check out his 2 books on traveling through islamic countries also. They dont pertain to india but the psyche of a lot of characters is the same.
A lot of his writing has to do with his age. He is 70+ and
non-white. His generation had high hopes for the 'civilizations'
recovering from colonial-imperial-racial oppressions and joining
to create a global civilization. But the road has not been easy.
"Are the former colonies better off now ?" This is the question
that he is allways asking. I am in my 20's and naipauls literature helped me see the world in an honest non-delusional way. I recommend this to younger readers because when people
his generations are gone and the cultures will eventualy change,his work will serve as an educational link to learn the emotions at work in day to day working of those individuals.
The description fails to make clear that this is a collection of essays, arranged by subject matter. Most were published originally in the New York Review of Books. Read together they result in a book choppy, turgid, and a bit repetitive in its concerns. Read individually, as originally intended, they are fine. So if you buy the book, read one at a time then put it down for a few days.
These essays are forty years old now. For the most part their topics -- the nature of Indian civilization and the Indian mindset, M. Gandhi's attitudes and development, and his effect on Indian society -- remain timely. But the frequent references to the Emergency no longer have any real relevance, especially since the event is unexplained (because the NYRB's readers at the time were aware of it).
on June 2, 2013
Here are three things I think will help a reader not familiar with VS Naipaul's life and works understand the meaning of this book:
1. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, in spite of his obviously Indian name, is not Indian. He was born in Trinidad, a British citizen (which he remains), the descendant of Indian indentured laborers shipped there. Thus, as a second generation British-Trinidadian, his perspectives on South Asia are those of an outsider, not a lifelong resident or even a Hindu. This might help explain why at times in this book he vacillates between familiarity with and aversion to certain Indian customs which might be taken for granted by someone born there.
2. Naipaul's works are the product of a man who has rejected the victimhood in which many other anti-colonialist authors have drowned. You may want to read his essay "Our Universal Civilization" (delivered as a lecture to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative US think tank) to get an idea of his position: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/06/07/specials/naipaul-universal.html
Without an understanding of Naipaul's ideas about the West, its standard setting powers, and the forward motion of history, this book "India: A Wounded Civilization" might be misunderstood. Even knowing what I know, I found it hard to pin down at times. What is he actually saying in this long-form essay about India?
Which brings me to the third important fact a reader should have:
3. This book was written during the Emergency, a 21-month period (26 June 1975 - 21 March 1977), during which Pres. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and PM Indira Gandhi, for complex reasons, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, which, among other things, suspected elections and various civil liberties, such as freedom of the press. It was a dark and controversial time in the history of post-Independence India.
It was during the time of the Emergency that Naipaul traveled to India and collected the material for this book. As such, it is not an academic treatment of the Emergency at all, nor it is an obsolete comment on it with nearly 40 years between then and now.
To read the book is to witness Naipaul's own process of figuring out India. It had, for me, a kind of undigested feel until the final ten pages in which he really hammers down the nails: India is that it is too Indian for its own good, at this crucial time in history. An India that is cruel, poor, and has lost its way in the world. India is suffocating itself with its unyielding attachment to unattachment, to the dust and rust of the past, to its people's inward-looking stance, to the absolute inability to overcome caste and obedience. He finds in India a persistent archaism, an attitude of refusal, and a lack of what he terms 'ideology.' (This word may not have had quite the ugly weight it does now.) Naipaul's wish for India is that it turn its head from the past to the future. The pain of doing so, as he is aware, means forsaking many of the lessons of Gandhiji, who, as he says, failed to provide Indians with an ideology.
No doubt Naipaul is aware of the complexity of what he is saying, but he, through his writing, searches for ways to make clear and unambiguous statements, both historical and prescriptive. He knows it is easy to give up and say, everything one says about India is both true and not true; that some parts are moving into the future faster than light, and others are crumbling to dust.
Although this book was written during the Emergency, I think it is just as relevant now, inasmuch as the divisions of caste and class are widening. Visit Bombay and see the massive skyscrapers and the shacks in its shadow. The contrasts are ghastly and sublime. This is Naipaul's subject. He knew well he would annoy the Hindu nationalists among his readers (and witness some of the comments left as 'reviews' by them here), but perhaps because on some level they know both he and they are right.
on January 1, 2006
India: A Wounded Civilization is my first book by V.S. Naipaul. While Naipaul's skills as a writer are extremely impressive, it is hard to believe that someone can define all the ills of a country as vast and complicated as India based on observations from two or three trips. It is true that Naipaul is of Indian ancestry, but his ancestors had left India over a hundred years ago, a time long enough, by his own admission, to wash him clean of most Indian religious attitudes.
The main target of Naipaul's diatribe in this book are the Hindus in India who, as per him, have suffered irreparable damage to intellectual capacity and have lost the ability to regenerate because of a thousand years of invasions and conquests. It is a Hindu's blind faith in `karma' and his inclination to retreat into his own isolated, private sanctuary which enables him to accept and also, occasionally, glorify the poverty and distress around him, and in his own life. By Naipaul's logic, Muslims - who constitute fourteen percent of India's population and do not suffer from the afflictions of Hinduism - should be much better off. The reality is that the plight of Muslims in India is similar to that of the Hindus, if not worse.
Naipaul does, however, raise a number of pertinent and valid points which Indians would do well to heed to. The inability of many Indians, especially in smaller places, to let go of the desire to go back to some glorious past makes them skeptical of the advancements in modern technology and its benefits. The inept and corrupt politicians do not help the matter by promoting and exploiting such sentiments. The fact that time and money was spent on a study to improve the performance of bullock carts (which, as per Naipaul, can be as expensive as second hand cars in England) by ten percent is both sad and comical. The strong feelings of caste and certain dehumanizing practices have also hampered the growth of rural India.
Reading this book one gets the impression that Naipaul's castigation of the miseries of India is not done with the glee or snobbery of an outsider looking in, but rather with the anger and agony of someone who is clearly disturbed by what he has seen. This book was written in 1976. In the last thirty years India has made rapid strides forward. If Naipaul were to write a book on India today, it would be interesting to see if his views are any different.
V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He is of Indian (as in East India) extraction. His ancestors left the Gangetic plain over a hundred and thirty years ago. They were part of another diaspora who settled, and very much helped run, Britain's vast empire. He was born and raised in Trinidad, and educated at Oxford. He has been a prolific writer, with more than 30 books to his credit, fairly evenly divided, between fiction and non-fiction. I've read several of his works, and have particularly admired the novel A House for Mr. Biswas. His brother, Shiva, also wrote extensively, and I felt that he was the keener and more empathetic observer, particularly of regions of the world once called "Third World." Regrettably, Shiva died far too young, in 1985. Perhaps if he had lived longer, he would have been the one who won the Nobel. V.S. has had his critics, notably Edward Said, but certainly others, who feel that he adapted far too well to the colonial attitudes of the country whose citizenship he would take. Since it was politically "incorrect" for white men to express those attitudes in the post-colonial era, there have been some pithy formulations that capture V.S.' role as a mouthpiece for these attitudes, and they would not make it past the censor of the reviews, and would be politically incorrect themselves.
One does not have to go beyond page one of the foreword for an example of the attitude: "Arabia, lucky again, has spread beyond its deserts." Economic and social advancement is solely a product of "luck"? Any hard work involved? Or skillful political decisions taken? Or all the other factors that result in a more successful outcome than that dictated by pure "luck"? Naipaul's first visit to India occurred in 1962. This book is based on his visit in 1976, during "the Emergency" rule of Indira Gandhi, admittedly not an ideal time. Still, the overall feel of the book is that Naipaul went to India in search of the anecdotes to confirm his pre-existing opinions. Find the negative, and expound. Furthermore, during his brief visit he believes he can: "An inquiry about India- even an inquiry about the Emergency- has quickly to go beyond the political. It has to be an inquiry about Indian attitudes..." Yes, the common attitudes of some billion people!
Naipaul is particularly critical of Mahatma Gandhi, and yes, admittedly he was more than a bit "quirky" if you've read his autobiography, Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth. Naipaul refers to "India's intellectual second-rateness" (p 109). He continues to propound that viewpoint throughout the book: "To survive in subjection, they have preserved their sanctuary of the instinctive, uncreative life, converting that into a religious ideal; at a more worldly level, they have depended on others for the ideas and institutions that make a country work" (p. 144). His last chapter is entitled "Renaissance or Continuity"? and there is little doubt which side he foresees: "The stability of Gandhian India was an illusion; and India will not be stable again for a long time...These are only aspects of the larger crisis, which is that of a decaying civilization, where the only hope lies in further swift decay." (!) (Explanation point added!)
I've read his critical book on Islam Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey almost three decades ago, and will soon give it a much more critical re-read. As for India, fortunately it has proven stable, resilient, and capable of evolving its own solutions and has become an ascendant global power in the 21st century. For a much better portrait of the country, I'd recommend the recently published In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce, and for a much better, more empathetic book on India, set in the same period that Naipaul writes, I'd recommend Ved Mehta's Portrait of India As for Naipaul's dyspeptic view, I'd only give it 2-stars.
on December 5, 2003
For those who want an introduction to India's politics and culture, look elsewhere. V.S. Naipaul writes beautifully --- every sentence is carefully crafted --- but his impressions do not amount to much. While I read, my head was filled with one vivid image after another. I assume this accurately reflects the complexity of India. But by the time I was halfway through, I was lost. What's he trying to say? What's really happening in India? The final third mentions Gandhi (and his complex legacy) on nearly every page, but little of what Naipaul has to say taught me anything. Although this book was a pleasure to read, I'm afraid I can't recommend it. It's simply too scattered and unfocused.