V. S. Naipaul’s India Trilogy – A Tribute

I’d read Naipaul’s India Trilogy when I was in my late teens and at that young age, it did fill me up with profound hatred for the writer who in my opinion was spewing venom against my beloved country. Naipaul and Nirad Chaudhary were the two literary villains I grew up with, though my impression of Nirad Chaudhary being utterly devoid of depth, remained the same but as I grew older, I started to admire the faculty of observation Naipaul was gifted with and also by his fearlessness to write exactly what he observed. When I heard the news of Naipaul’s demise, I decided to reread his India Trilogy as a tribute to the great writer. Naipaul died in late summer this year and I bought these books on the day of his demise but I could not start the trilogy till November, but finally have been able to complete it now.

The first book of trilogy evoked strong sentiments in my youth and generated a lot of hatred for the author who was hellbent on telling me the obvious truth and reality of Indian life. Nobody has ever written so courageously and truthfully about India and his portrait of Indian psyche lays bare the banality and stupidity with which Indian mind has been riddled with since last millennium. But he was sympathetic of the reasons and correctly nailed down the deprivation of Indian thought on the Islamic invasion which terrorised Indian spirit. The first book of the trilogy was also a personal discovery for the author and its fascinating to walk with the author on his solo journey and to read first hand, his impressions of his native land, eccentricities of people he encountered and his bewilderment at the strange rituals and customs of the land that he was exploring. Naipaul was critical of Indian weather, Indian landscape, Indian arts, Indian science, Indian religion, almost everything that India had to offer but I beleive, not because these were deficient in any way but rather because he expected more or perhaps was expecting something different. India is a strange land and one either loves it or hate it and Naipaul ended up hating it in his first attempt to understand it. But I don’t blame him, India is so different and Naipaul who had till then only seen simple societies of Caribbean & Europe was not ready to fathom the intricacies of a complex social construct of an ancient land. It would take much more time for any outsider like Naipaul to understand the diversity and spirituality of India. It’s not possible to understand India with western lenses that Naipaul kept on during his first sojourn to India and ended up labelling it, wrongly in my opinion, as an area of darkness.

When Naipaul visited India again during emergency few years later and wrote the second book of this trilogy, he saw the country in a different light but still could not understand the conflicted society where everybody was out fighting the system whether these were Naxal revolutionaries or Hindu fundamentalists or Muslim gang lords. The second visit invoked the feeling in Naipaul that India has been wounded first in his mind by Islamic invasions and then by an onslaught of modernity over an archaic society with hypocrisy of the political class not helping in any way. India was going though a perfect storm at the time of Naipaul’s second visit with emergency being declared and country going through the turmoil with desperate attempts by political class to rescue democratic norms from clutches of dictatorship which thankfully it finally succeeded in saving. On this second trip, Naipaul encountered first hand the hostility & pain of an angry society and that’s what he ended up depicting as a wounded civilisation.

Naipaul’s third and final sojourn was most sympathetic to India, he understood the challenges the country was grappling with and he made an attempt to unravel these. In the last book of this trilogy, Naipaul wrestled with the aftermath of the terrible partition of India leading to the creation of Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan and also made an attempt to understand Dravidian and Sikh conflicts. Naipaul also did something unique and decided to traverse the path taken roughly a century earlier by war correspondent for Times, William Russell during Indian mutiny of 1857. Naipaul had read Russell’s India diaries earlier but could not comprehend it fully so now that Naipaul was at India, he picked up the book again and moved along the trodden path by Russell and compared the landscape and society of that era with the present. Naipaul ended up concluding that Indian mutiny in some form was still going on, the Sikh insurgency or Dravidian revolt or Naxal class struggle, in author’s judgement were just progression of that century old mutiny as witnessed by Russell. I think what Naipaul observed as million mutinies during his third visit to India were nothing more than the birth pangs of a new nation which was undergoing metamorphosis from an ancient civilisation into a modern state. Now more or less that transition phase is over and India is now rightly marching forward to the league of strong and cultured nations. Naipaul never got an opportunity to write another book about new modern India but I’m sure he would have admired the progress and stability that India achieved in the last few decades.

This trilogy is important to understand India and Naipaul’s excellent rendering makes it without any doubt a pleasure to read. The world lost a courageous soul and a superlative writer but he has left us with his writings that I’m sure will keep us informed and entertained for long long time to come.

Rest in peace, Naipaul.

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