By Farzana Versey
15 November, 2006
Vidia has done it again. Speaking in Brussels at the Belgian Festival
of India, he took on an almost Huntington-like language when he said
about a country he has never lived in, that there "could be a very
radical kind of revolution — village against city".
At a very real level this
is a potent premise, except that V. S. Naipaul does not see it as the
dumbing down of urban culture and the upward mobility of rural ethos.
He skirts the issue of romanticising the village idyll, which would
have at least been an honest Bollywoodesque take, and instead lambasts
the urban dweller: "People in cities are turning their backs to
Indian civilisation. They want green cards. They want to migrate. They
want to go to England. They want to go to the US" and this he deems
is "parasitic and awful".
This is a man who is sitting
in England, cashing in on his Indian origins and West Indian breeding.
He does not have the basic decency to acknowledge the place he was born
and brought up in. For him, Trinidad is, "A billion people and
a little island, which has done almost nothing for me." Talk about
We know what his idea of
Indian civilisation is, given his political views. Even if one were
to accept that, where does he get the idea that such civilisation rests
He is even more alarmist
when he states, "Caste is a great internal series of friendly societies
and in bad times it kept the country going. But people don't understand
this. It has to be rethought and a new way of looking at it. In India
it is having trouble at the moment because it rules politics. Foolish
people think that the upper castes are oppressing the lower castes.
It is the other way."
Factors such as the number
of deaths of lower caste people, the continual disparities that exist
due to this "friendly societies" theory that essentially means
people should stick to their lowly status, the complex issue of what
constitutes caste politics all seem to have been lost to this intellectual
Everyone and everything is
Lilliputian in his scheme of things. I insist on repeating the phrase
I have used for his ideas: 'Naipaul's Malgudi – an imagined town'.
The reason being there are real people in it, but he places them where
he wants to. It is his conformist plan, and conformist he is.
He wants to be an establishment
totem, and it suits the knight to ride a shining 'White' steed, taking
his Englishness rather seriously. No wonder he protests against a larger
world-view. As he once said, "Multiculturalism is a very much left-wing
idea that gained currency about 20 years ago. It's very destructive
about the people it is meant to defend."
Why would one want homogeneity?
Even in non-global villages, the uniformity is superficial, as in a
geographical identity. Culture, by its very nature, revolts against
being boxed in. That is the reason it is reinvented and updated, unlike
tradition that tends to be static.
The global village is really
utopian. So, we must look at it through an idealistic prism. How many
dis-similarities can it accept and encourage? How much dynamism is possible
without causing chaos? Is tolerance a patronising term or does it encourage
dissent? Is dissent welcome or a nuisance?
V. S. Naipaul wouldn't know
that even if it hit him on the head. According to his self-proclaimed
Dr Watson Farrukh Dhondy's recollections of the recent meeting, Naipaul
believes, " India is undergoing a cultural revolution. There is
the vast mass of the population whom he will call the 'temple-goers'
and then there are the elite who look outward from India towards America
and get their fashions, fads, wastefulness and aspirations from there.
He chooses to call them the 'green-card-wallahs'. They may not possess
such a card but they form a category. The clash he predicts, while not
venturing to spell out what form it will take, will be a clash of these
cultures rather than the predicted battles between the rich and the
Trust Sir Vidia to reduce
the vast mass of people to 'temple-goers', such is his completely closed
mindset. While one does agree a bit with his stereotype of the green-card-wallahs,
how would he explain the possible clash? Isn't this elite the one that
builds temples? And is his disgust ideological or merely an echoing
of the racist anti-immigration voices?
He does not say it aloud,
but when he talks about meeting a culture half-way, he is propping up
an ideal nationalism. It fits in perfectly with his crusade. Contemporary
nationalism has indeed become a renewal of a religious or quasi religious
identity. It may be obvious in states where they happily call themselves,
say, the Islamic Republic or a Buddhist state, but the West is using
religious terminology all the time for electoral/emotional purposes.
Therefore, the belongingness
and shallow shared values would be based on a limited 'need'.
Naipaul takes the thesis
of historical value to further abuse Indians. "There is no tradition
of reading in India. There is no tradition of contemporary literature.
It was only in Bengal that there was a kind of renaissance and a literary
culture. But in the rest of India until quite recently people had no
idea what books were for," he said.
Such arrogance belies ignorance.
He has been miffed with the reception his books have received, essentially
his discourses 'An Area of Darkness' and 'A Wounded Civilisation' as
well as his journeys through the Islamic world. Naipaul as novelist
is quite different from Naipaul the social observer. The moment he ceases
to be a litterateur, he will be judged by norms one would use for a
social analyst or a critic.
There is some worth in writings
from the diaspora. Nirad Chaudhari did a good job of playing the 'insider'
outside by almost caricaturing himself; Solzhenitsyn's exile was more
real in that he was silenced intellectually. Naipaul prefers to play
the maverick Brown Sahib.
This proves that he lacks
conviction as a commentator. It has been said that most Indians objected
to Naipaul's books on India because they were uncomfortable truths.
That is not true. The problem is he saw only what he wanted to see.
He was censoring the truth to fit in with his bird's eye-view and calling
it the caged reality.
One can understand the need
to politicise certain aspects of that vision, but to give it the stamp
of verisimilitude is dishonesty. At one level, even a Kipling does not
make us uncomfortable because he made no claims over us. Sir Vidia tends
to get proprietorial, much in the manner a gypsy would with a tent.
It is time he realised that the landscape is a bit more than the ground
beneath his feet.
(Farzana Versey can be reached
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