Two months ago, I’d lemmed this book in frustration and declared passionately on GR that this was the only book I’d abandoned so far with the clear inTwo months ago, I’d lemmed this book in frustration and declared passionately on GR that this was the only book I’d abandoned so far with the clear intention of never picking it up. Now you can see that I’ve not only finished it in a day, but also given it a hefty 4 star rating. And that too to Naipaul, a vocal critic of India who later diversified and expanded his tirades against female authors recently.
This book is India personified (bookified?)
Don’t expect it to arrest you with either facts or style. Don’t expect to understand it, and certainly refrain from trying to gauge the direction it is headed in. I lemmed it earlier because I made the same mistake with the book that I’d done with India years earlier. I’d tried to comprehend the whole by looking at a part of it.
No, go with the flow. Take in every chapter without trying to form an opinion. Because every single episode is a personal story, a story ridden with all the chaos India is, but from a closer, and therefore, a much narrower view. To understand and appreciate India, you need to be an Eagle that circles for hours over a large landscape patiently, gradually, imperceptibly zooming in towards the earth in wide, slow gliding movements until you’re ready to swoop upon the target of your choice. Look at India from a giddying height where you can capture the view of the entire land, and you’ll miss out on the nuances that characterize the intricate threads of a maddening world. Zoom in real close, and you’ll notice all the fine weaves, but without the advantage of a fair, panoramic view.
Thus, I chose to give Naipaul a second try, with less expectations this time and more sincerity. To my delight, I didn’t find the Naipaul I’d imagined (this was my first brush with him) – not a caustic Paul Theroux, but a silent and deeply perceptive observer.
Naipaul had earlier visited India in 1962. 26 years later, in 1988, he returned to the place and began his journey from Mumbai, and in this book, unlike either a travelogue/memoir or a historical/sociological analysis, he simply, plainly records the conversations with the people he met not fleetingly, but for days on end, and relates their past stories and present dilemmas as they intersect with the history of India. Through these interesting, widely different stories, we get a glimpse into personalized accounts of the events in different states that formed the backdrop of their lives, and altered the lives of millions of people, and the incompatibilities that plague a diverse and cluttered country.
Partha Chatterjee wrote an amazing essay titled Indian Nation in Heterogeneous Time, deriving his ideas from Benedict Anderson’s brilliant book “Imagined Communities” – I kept on thinking of it all the time. Not only is India a country with fractured multiple identities, it also suffers from living simultaneously in multiple times. I think it necessary to give a little background to explain why India suffers from a Multiple Personality Disorder. Those who wish to skip it need not open the spoiler tag.
(view spoiler)[Before the British consolidated their empire, there was no such place called India. Rather, there were about 600 little kingdoms, ruled by different ethnic tribes that had their own religions, their own gods, their own customs, constantly invading each other with sporadic success. With the coming of the Mughals, they faced their first real taste of consolidation. The Mughals were efficient rulers who knew how to keep their lands intact, and suddenly, the Mughal empire spread over what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet, Bangladesh and if I’m not wrong, Burma/Myanmar. But it still remained a battle between kings, for the Mughals integrated themselves into the prevalent culture, adding to it and deriving something from it as well. In short, they mingled with the lands they conquered.
But with the British, it was different. The new conquerors meant to keep the distinction between the ruler and the ruled clear, first by maintaining a policy of “non-interference in domestic affairs” and then interfering in way that consolidated its rule. With Gandhi uniting an erstwhile divided India into a singular entity with the singular aim of attaining Independence, it was only in the late 1890s or early 1900s that people began to think of themselves as belonging to a single country.
But by then, everybody had consolidated their own peculiar identities. The Aryans were at loggerheads with the Dravidians ever since they had driven the latter down to the South, where they still remain. There was no such thing as Hindu Religion until the Mughals came along and gave all the non-Muslims the tag for identification of enemy camps. So essentially, anybody who wasn’t a Muslim was a Hindu, or a Jain, or later on, Buddhists or Christians. So there were crores (tens of millions) of Gods and Goddesses, each of the several castes in Hindus worshipping different Gods.
There are nearly 30 states, and every state has its distinct culture, even if they happen to share a language. Even within a state, there are multiple big pockets with distinct sub-cultures. People unite and divide not just over religions and languages, but along political, cultural, caste and professional lines as well, among other common divisive issues.
So there were Bengali Hindus worshipping Kali, of Brahmin caste and god-knows-what sub-caste and gotra, or a Bengali Muslim of some caste, and though they led widely different lifestyles, they’d be closer to each other by common customs associated with a place than with their Tamil Brahmin or Tamil Muslim counterparts. And yet, a Bengali Brahmin will sympathize over a Tamil Brahmin when communal issues arise, while s/he will sympathize with a Bengali Muslim when there’s a Communist issue. Add to this conundrum the factor of class-clashes, historic rivalries of different mythologies and different interpretations of historical events that ended more likely in bloodshed than in peace. There are more threads than I have outlined here, making India a messy, incomprehensible collection of diverse specimens of collective unconscious. (hide spoiler)]
It is in the light of such complicated histories that Naipaul tries to dissect a home that is no longer his home. While in Mumbai, he encounters the extremist political wing called Shiv Sena (The Army of Lord Shiv) that controls Maharashtra by its goons, aiming to revive a conservative Marathi culture and driving away non-Marathis. Fraught with violence and under-dog cultures, Naipaul’s keen observation of the dialogues he has with several people is impeccable. With time, he also meets the controversial Dalit poet and activist, Namdeo Dhasal who modeled his Dalit Panther movement on the Black Panther movement in America.
In Chennai he learns the history of the now-forgotten Periyar Self-Respect Movement that was launched in opposition to Gandhi, and which is still a foundation for the North-South divide. There are valuable insights through the conversations he had, into why the South is such a distinct part of India, why it largely resists adopting Hindi, the official language of India, and why it had little part in supporting the pan-India Congress agitation for Independence under Gandhi.
In Calcutta he meets an ex-Maoist/Marxist, an educated, disillusioned man who sheds light over the delicate state of Bengal, and why the Chinese Maoism had a peculiar influence on the state.
In Lucknow, an ex-Prince laments the sudden cultural change when the British left India to empty the Nawabs (Nabobs for the English) under Independent India, and the pains of Partition. With the exit of the British, the Nawabs lost their sleep, and with Indira Gandhi’s regime, they also lost their lands and hefty pensions. The Nawabs suddenly became commoners, and with the Indo-Pakistan war in 1962, the Nawabs finally lost the last vestiges of their former life, realizing that India had suddenly leaped too far ahead into the future for them to cope up with it.
And then in Punjab, Naipaul learns of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated the then Indian Prime Minister, the controversial lady Indira Gandhi. His conversations with a devout Sikh describes how the Sikhs were a segment of the erstwhile Hindu culture, later becoming a religion itself, and the clashes over the Golden Temple issue that culminated into the assassination, followed by anti-Sikh riots that still reverberated with devout Sikhs.
There’s an another interesting chapter in the book, somewhat of a misfit, but yet very apt. Naipaul looks at the various women’s magazines in India, meeting their editors, and listening to their stories of the inception of the mags and their targeted readers, exploring what feminism, in oblique, everyday terms, means to women in India. Tracing the journey and content of the magazines, Naipaul, without concluding, leaves open a fresh field to ponder over.
I’d, however, pinned my hopes on the last chapter – the Kashmir one, where he visits the hotel he had been to earlier, and meets the same people, again prying out their personal histories intertwined with the violent history of the state. I’d wished to know his perspective on the delicate state of Kashmir, a state that had a Muslim population very peacefully governed by a Hindu king, hastily merged into India as it prepared for the Indo-Pak partition on the eve of Independence, while Pakistan playing bloody truant to get hold of it by extremist attacks, spurring non-Muslims to desert the state. Since 1947, Pakistan has annexed a large part of the State, and has been resorting to violent means to grab the rest of the state as well.
But none of that is talked about in the chapter. Rather, it is focused on his friendship with the hotel owners, and on their stories how lives and lifestyles have changed for them with every generation. It is a delicate, heart-warming piece, but the star of the show is missing.
Essentially, this book isn’t just one more opinion on India by a foreigner/PIO. Rather, like most of us, Naipaul is still evidently in the process of making sense of the wide array of experiences and diverse histories. Rather than making hasty, ill-informed conclusions, he navigates through their stories with the eye of a keen observer, absorbing quietly what is offered to him without compartmentalizing it.
Reading it is the best hands-on example to not just a foreigner, but also the natives of countries as complicated as ours on how to approach understanding a place. Unlike most people, Naipaul does not falter into making convenient assumptions that gratify his impressions, a malaise most Indians suffer from – they neatly compartmentalize every single issue plaguing the country, right from AIDS to poverty to prostitution to insurgency to terrorism to caste/untouchability to caste-based reservation in jobs and education without ever having had even a single personal experience about the issues.
And Heaven forbid if they happen to have accumulated a couple of experiences – they turn them into grave proclamations of life-long deep association and understanding and blow their trumpets of authority and expertise.
As I reached the end of this book, I noticed similarities between Naipaul and me – like me, he shared a racial affinity to a country he belongs to only superficially. Like him, my life consists of physical remnants of my race, my ethnicity, my customs and my negligible, empty rituals that do not make any sense to me, and yet are an integral part of my identity, by virtue of long association and subsequently, some fond, some not-so-fond memories.
Like Naipaul, I stare hard at the India at my disposal to make sense of it, hoping I can, by that act, make sense of myself and the happenings around me. By understanding India, I hope to understand the weird place accorded to me by the Indian society that I detest but cannot escape. Naipaul keeps on visiting India in his quest to comprehend the country he has left behind, but which remains in him. I keep on reading about our past and present in the hope of discovering what ails me, why things happen the way they do, and what I might do about it or at least make peace with it.
Neither of us is charmed by the land. More than anything, perhaps, we are put off by it. Fascinated? Yes. Interested? Heavily. But did we enjoy the process? No. Discerning patterns among a chaotic, blood-soaked and violence-infested history, especially when the past intrudes upon our present is a difficult task.
It is not only pain we encounter, but a continuous challenge – that of maintaining a near-impossible impartial view on history, and subsequently the discourse of ethics that accompanies an evaluation of history, one’s own history. Naipaul, I’m glad, has managed to efface his own interpretations of his trip, and I absolutely adore him for that rare, elusive quality of not intruding over and distorting the conversations he has recorded. And I’m learning to follow in his footsteps.
Note, however, that these are only a handful of the millions of mutinies taking place in India every moment, even as I write. Naipaul has touched only a tiny minority of them, the most obvious ones - it is not a criticism, but only an observation on the book.
Moreover, the book is appreciated better only when you have a reasonably fair, if not deep, idea of key events in Indian histories, and the various issues at hand, apart from the much publicized ones of poverty or gender or religious clashes. Without that, I suspect, this would be reduced to a two-star experience for many.
Also, better not touch this book if you're not keen on reading interesting but detached personal stories and wish for a properly investigated sociological account - on that count, Pavan K. Varma's Great Indian Middle Class is impeccable and exemplary. If you are a Middle-Class Indian unable to come to terms with the nonsense around you, this book will tell you where all this drama started.
And a little second note: - 25 years have passed since this book was written, and it has become somewhat dated, with emphasis on somewhat....more
Partially based on true events that Sahni himself witnessed in the communal riots during India's Partition in 1947, the novel follows the life of peopPartially based on true events that Sahni himself witnessed in the communal riots during India's Partition in 1947, the novel follows the life of people from both communities - Hindu and Muslim, and from various classes and backgrounds, as tensions in cities build up. Like most Partition fiction, Tamas (meaning Darkness) too identifies the complex nature humanity and inhumanity that drives people to massacre each other. Eschewing grossly simplifying explanations for these murderous rages, the novel looks into the multiple simultaneous drives that lead people to kill others, and yet, save some others they were supposed to kill.
Rather than following a single person's fate during the riots, as Train to Pakistan did, Tamas takes a bird's-eye view of the communal tensions raging through India, and how they were inextricably mingled with politics, economics and lies, not just on the part of the British who followed the policy of divide-and-rule, but also on the part of both communities. The motivations of murder were far more complex than simplistic narratives of religious clashes - the latter being stereotyped - not that religion wasn't involved - but that it was not the only thing of consequence involved.
It is difficult to write a review of a book like this. Partition is not something I can elatedly talk about, nor are the style/narrative/stylistic features a consideration in an issue like this.
Only, next time, I'd rather read it in Hindi - the English translation is often clumsy, and not effective....more
A beautifully written travelogue of Shivaji’s and Lobo’s three-week long journey to the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sumba, this narrative is a caA beautifully written travelogue of Shivaji’s and Lobo’s three-week long journey to the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sumba, this narrative is a captivating account of unknown, almost sleepy villages with obscure names such as Ruteng, Bajawa and Wae Rebo and their curious, but warm hospitality.
We follow the pair as they move from one village to other, seeking out new people, the low-brow, the virtual untouchables for tourists splurging on a luxurious vacation abroad, and discover a world of ingrained genuine warmth among those impoverished yet generous people. That was the surface experience, yes. But the real beauty of this memoir lies in the pair’s genuine curiosity and love for the people, their histories, their cultures and customs, which, peeled layer by layer, reveals a complexity beneath the deceptive simplistic stereotypes that most tourists easily fall for. And in that, they expose themselves to nature in all its beauty as very few do – getting close to the threatening Komodo dragons, getting to the top of Mount Kelimutu in Flores while drudging through the rain, watching the lakes of five colors, taking part in the immensely important ritual of burying the dead in Sumba, and most importantly, making unlikely friends – vegetable sellers, farmers masquerading as guides, two sets of warm brothers on motorbikes – friends who showed their care for the duo long after they’d gone.
Instead of visiting known landmarks and tourist destinations, the pair plunged into places with miserable accommodations, sometimes unpalatable food, a threadbare economy and the necessity of putting absolute trust in complete strangers – and yet they saw through this outward destitution a real richness that only the truly generous could bestow.
Told with such heart-warming honesty, compassion and curiosity, the work is radiant with, despite the pair’s many moments of gloom, annoyance and discomfort, a rare objectivity and genuine concern for humankind in general, which comes out beautifully through the even humor with which the most difficult moments too, are described. They are not just travelers, they are unconventional people seeking to inhale and embrace a side of human life no tourist usually wishes to pay their holiday expenses for. Little observations of not only physical details, but also insinuations, glances, body-language and nuances that are taken into account with a generous dose of light humor – not for the sake of vicarious detailing, but as a means to decoding cultural nuances – are what elevate this work to the highest level. We see the natives not just in a positive light – we learn of their past bloody histories, their inevitable clan clashes, social and economic hierarchies, and we learn to interconnect the fates of Chinese, Indians and Indonesians living in the country through their histories, myths, legends and anecdotes.
As for other aspects – the work is extremely well-researched, almost doubling up as a travel guide to those two islands as well – the places and their customs are so well-described. At the end, there are a couple of maps tracing their journey, and some beautiful photos that further emphasize the beauty that they have encountered – the kids, the houses, the varying architecture in something so basic as huts – in short, an entire civilization hidden from the eyes of a conventional tourist heading for Bali’s crystal beaches.
Peppered with agreeable literary/art references such as Octavio Paz’s poetry, Bretcht, oblique references to Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, the non-conformist, avant-garde and controversial Beat poets, the legendary Vonnegut, other literary figures unknown or lesser known to the rest of the world, artist Nona Garcia, I was still only getting used to the beauty with which these were incorporated in a travel memoir – when I was strangely surprised and overjoyed to see a reference to Gramsci and “cultural hegemony” and anthropologist-structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss, in a travelogue, of all places. Now, that’s something really rare.
And the caterpillar – like the duo, I too shall remember this work with the image of a caterpillar in my mind. I had gazed hard at the unusual cover before I began my vicarious journey. Now I understand its significance. At first, I found it empty – just a haphazard placing of images – now I see it as a pastiche of a complex culture.
As a final note, this one isn’t for people hunting for quick reads, exciting/eventful journeys, epiphany-laden discoveries of the mysteries of the soul or for those looking for exotification of natives – if anything, this work, through a richly detailed, picturesque and gradual (and often seemingly uneventful) narrative, only serves to show that not only are those faraway, impoverished tribes uncannily similar to us, but are, in some ancient, long-forgotten traditions of hospitality, kindness and care, far ahead of our smug notions of civility and civilization....more