In a carnival of democracy, every politician is masquerading as someone else, says the writer, in this letter to Naipaul.
Dear Shri Naipaul,
India is no longer on your mind but on the eve of the national elections, wherever I go, whatever I see or hear, I keep thinking of you. In 1971 you came and covered the Lok Sabha election campaign in Ajmer. That was the India that was! Come and watch the current pre-election scene featuring the issues that have interested you all your writing life. Come and hear a million conversations on the antics of politicians. The hundreds of TV channels and the social media were not even there when you felt dismayed by this nation exchanging banalities with itself. The malady has reached a terminal stage.
India continues to be “ruled by magic, by slogans, gestures and potent names”. You said magic endures till it appears to work! The magic is sustained through fantasy. You covered Trinidad’s famous carnival. Come and judge our carnival, not of the slaves, but of democracy. Every politician is masquerading as someone else. While the voter will vote for “A”, once elected “A” will transform himself into “B”. Several candidates play this trick before filing their nomination papers.
The Carnival of Democracy has got suitably plugged into the Hindu religious carnival called Holi in which the people let themselves go. In Trinidad the fantasy of the night acquired a political dimension. In India a political fantasy has acquired a religious dimension. You saw the national leader who was called “Papa”. Come and meet a regional leader, reincarnated first as a national leader and then as Lord Shiva.
The Holi brand of festivity continues in election campaigns. Ink is used to blacken the face of a candidate from the rival camp. Eggs are thrown to interrupt his public meeting. The parliamentary candidates with their supporters are out day and night. Once the wars are lost and won, spectacular shows colour, light and sound will be staged all over the country. Liquor will flow freely. You ought to be here when boisterous men in open lorries decked with flags and festoons, pelt everybody with little balls of colour powder. Millions will have their clothes and hair and faces stained with red, as you observed in Ajmer on the day the election results were announced. You saw red as the colour of spring and triumph, and sacrifice. But red is also the colour of passion, love, violence, revenge and revolution.
You were perceptive enough to note that independent India gave its people plenty of opportunities and still they had a “strange frenzied attitude, the attitude of the conqueror who wants to plunder as fast as possible as if the opportunity might at any moment be withdrawn”. Now any one can notice this trend. You said India’s crisis was not economic and hoped for a swift decay. More and more Indians have come to believe that.
Why did you let India fall off your radar? Perhaps your way of seeing got affected by the shining India that dazzled American leaders and the western media. It is true that India failed to remain a collection of non-achievers. It disproved that the periphery is the repository of ignorant, incompetent, worthless comic characters. India went on to question your view that tragedy is geographical.
As we got afflicted by aspiration, you distanced us from the other half-made societies chugging along the lines drawn by you. As you saw more Indians buying your books, you presumed that less Indians were defecating in public. Let me assure you that we have done nothing to falsify your earlier vision of India. In fact, we have done our best to live up to your fears. India still “responds only to events”. Your character believed that after the end of colonialism, young unemployed persons would not go to the Minister’s house to get jobs. This did not happen in India. It has not happened here till now.
The Area of Darkness belongs to the genre of lasting literature.
When it was published, Nissim Ezekiel criticised you for your description of the grossness and squalor of Indian life, the routine ritualism, lip service to high ideals, petrified and distorted sense of cleanliness, and a thousand other things. Since then absurdity, banality, fraudulence, mimicry, mendacity, maladministration, inauthenticity, chaos and corruption have become more rampant. The number of immoral, grotesque, contemptible, pathetic and that of the rich Indians keeps going up by the day! The spirit of Absurdistan cannot be captured in non-fiction! You will have to do a novel this time. India is calling for A Bend in the River II!
During your first visit, you gulped down syrupy tea in dirty cups in order to charm the people you wanted to talk to. I will take you to your ancestral village to meet the boy whom you refused to give a lift in your car. In his palatial house, liveried bearer will offer you champagne and Scotch. Bisheshar has grown up to be a super-rich owner of coal mines and a contractor building mega public projects. He never went to college but managed to send his brother and his wife to the Lok Sabha. He decides the political future of his State, just as a couple of businessmen influence the political fate of India.
You have a mischievous smile on your face. You are asking me your pet question: “What are they talking about?” Many in my circle are quoting your prophetic words. Their sentences come straight out of your earlier work about India, Africa and the Caribbean. Aggressiveness is always in the background. There is the same pervasive smell of degradation, the sense of absurd and hysteria that you had sensed as a boy in Trinidad. There you saw a mob burning a policeman and singing a song the next moment. The one who observed that can write on the India of today.
India is like the African state where lots of people suddenly come into new money. Where there is an outbreak of greed. Where there is no right or wrong because nothing is right. Where political and social order has broken down. Where disorder is ever present. Where the march towards modernity has stopped. Where there is regression. Where rituals are becoming more popular. As a child in Trinidad, you sneered at Hindu rituals. Come and see the Indian politicians wearing rings on their fingers and visiting temples every day to pray for their electoral victory.
There is a resurgence of tribalism, casteism and communalism. We have no Tutsis and Hutus in India but hundreds of similar rival groups clash during this election campaign. Come and meet the Rajputs, Jats, Gujars, Kolis, Kurmis, Kamas, and Meenas. Read about the caste formations and “caste arithmetic” in every parliamentary constituency. The political parties select their candidates mainly on the basis of their castes. Every report and every analysis highlights this feature. Since you do intensive research before writing a novel, the books by the English scholars on the criminal and non-criminal tribes of India will interest you.
The typical Indian politician of today reminds a friend of “Naipaul’s African and East Indian politicians”. In the 60s, you spoke through your character, an East Indian political leader in the Caribbean, who was reinforcing his power and political career by naming the Government’s schemes. It is common to see the roads, bridges and Government schemes named after politicians. Since India is a democracy, there is no one Big Man. Every locality has a Big Man!
I will take you to Jaipur and show you the names of the local legislators on the heavy iron gates to residential colonies. They were given government funds to select welfare schemes and all they could think of was the gated colony! Since these gates block the footpaths, the pedestrian has to get off the footpath abruptly and risk being run over by a speeding vehicle. You have an eye for such detail, such absurdities. One can never forget your hilarious description of the foot-operated reaper developed by the National Institute of Design!
If your interest in public defecation has not waned, I will take you to Dharavi, the largest slum of the world and to Jaipur, where from the terrace of her mansion, the lady State Governor can see the people urinating against the walls across her Raj Bhavan. In up-market south Delhi, colourful ceramic tiles with images of the Hindu Goddesses are fixed on the walls to discourage the passers-by from answering the call of nature in the open. The devout now do their business a foot away from the holy images. It is the same in every Indian city.
Let me assure you of a rousing reception in India, notwithstanding Girish Karnad. I love your writing. I will feel privileged to escort you throughout your tour, like some of my fellow journalists did during your earlier visits. I would not mind if you pay back by featuring me in your next novel as a comic character. You know that Indians, unlike those in your England, are hospitable people. They are always willing to talk. They will serve you their personal stories with tea.
Your constituency has expanded beyond book-lovers. Your comments on the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque endeared you even to non-readers. The RSS workers had called on you in your hotel and their entire extended family has adopted you. These new admirers of yours believe the critics who allege that you suffer from “Islamophobia”. They never read your phrase “Hollywood Hindus” and your sharp comments on the Hindu rituals.
Please do not come masquerading as a Mexican journalist. You had felt lost in the milling crowds of Churchgate as no one distinctive. This time even amidst India’s multitude, you will be mobbed by the autograph hunters. You will not be able to imagine the combined effect of the Nobel and your truth-telling biography. If a British prostitute could recognise your face, an Indian one will even recall the titles of your books. If you are persuaded by your wife to do a book reading, the event will have to be held in a football stadium! You can never collect that kind of crowd in your England.
Come with your penetrating eyes, pen and the notebook and tell us where we are going. Look forward to being with you during your election tour of India!
(L.K. Sharma is a journalist.)