This year marks a half century of the ban on An Area of Darkness , V.S. Naipaul’s travelogue on India. I read the book to learn what could have led to the ban and to find reasons to condemn it. However, after reading the book, I found no reason why this book had to be banned, or actually, even read. The ban, actually, propelled the book.
Good travel books start with the writer’s motive of the travel and take the reader along on a journey. Naipaul does not do that. His reason for the journey — to connect with his roots, his ancestral land — is revealed only by the second last chapter when he has already pontificated to no end upon India’s poverty, a lot on scatology, a bit on caste, the lack of development, and is himself about to leave the country. Here he confesses, “I knew I could not penetrate” India. Does that then mean that India remained ‘an area of darkness’ because he could not understand it? However, using the phrase as the title of the book gives the impression that the writer has objectively deemed that: India is a dark area. My view is that it is perfectly okay to not understand India. Many of us can hardly claim a good understanding of India. But then, while assessing the book, we need to ask ourselves what could have driven a supremely arrogant writer, in a book so full of half-baked ideas, to actually write about not understanding the subject. Just a pseudo confession — ‘I had been born an unbeliever’ — or towards the end — ‘I had not learnt acceptance’ — is not enough. It opens one to take stances on anything and everything without any self-reflexive criticality. This is the kind of talk well-heeled people have at five-star parties over drinks. It is clear that Naipaul sought entry into that club, which he anyway got over time, by re-asserting the prejudice through which India was seen then and even now by the West.
What fascinated me was how the book reveals what has been going on in the writing on India in the last half century: how the English India misses out or comments upon, sometimes even patronisingly, on the reality and nuances of the real India. How that kind of writing has mediated the representation of India and shaped our understanding of our own land. This is broad brush stroke writing, it lays out the canvas and then it becomes the task of lesser mortals to fill up the spaces, and sometimes change the design of the picture that emerges. Yet when it comes to depicting experience, which is a small fraction of the book, it is astute: the entry of liquor bottles in a Bombay going through prohibition, or the writer’s efforts to secure a houseboat in Srinagar, the Amarnath yatra, and so on.
Yet, what strikes one is how Naipaul presents arguments on people, cultures, communities, those too without uniformity, without owning up the thoughts: “I understood that Muslims were somewhat more different than others. They were not to be trusted; they would always do you down; … in whose cap and grey beard … lay all sorts of threat.” The issue with this is Naipaul’s own slipperiness. One can’t say he is saying this from hearsay, yet one can’t say he believes this to be a fact. This kind of charade is exactly what we need to avoid in any writing. Where he does take a stance, he comes across as extremely self-opinionated: “I had seen the physique of the people of Andhra, which had suggested the possibility of an evolution downwards, wasted body to wasted body.” Or self indulgent: “Fear was what I felt. Contempt was what I had to fight against … Perhaps in the end it was fatigue that overcame me.” Like this regions and cities and entire geographies are dismissed in half a sentence or a paragraph. He devotes pages after pages to literary criticism of the books on India when he ought to have been taking us through his own experience, not so much thought, of the land. What stands out is the second part of the book, located in Kashmir, which could have served as an excellent essay and informed our debate on what happened in the region a quarter century later.
Thank you for your supercilious attitude, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. We could really have done without your writing. Yet, while I was reading the book on a plane, a foreigner in the seat next to mine quickly took down the name of the book and told me she would read it. It is, after all, by a Nobel laureate. The sequels India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now retain his arrogant brown sahib gaze on the land to which he once belonged, which he disowns, and which he now represents.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Roll of Honour.