Gandhi was not enough for Naipaul. Why he was wrong
Vinay Lal | 04 Jun, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THERE CAN BE few writers, in our times or any other, for whom there has been such deep admiration as much as criticism as V S Naipaul. Strange as it seems to say this, Naipaul had a lifelong feud with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Naipaul was all of 15 years old when India attained independence and six months later the Mahatma was dead at the hands of an assassin. Naipaul would in time become known the world over not only for his fiction and travelogues but for acrimonious disputes with erstwhile friends and compatriots in the world of literature and Gandhi scarcely comes to mind in this connection.
As feuds and gossip go, his rift with former protégé Paul Theroux was not the only celebrated feud in Naipaul’s life. (There was reconciliation in the end.) The one between Naipaul and his contemporary and fellow Nobel Laureate, the late Derek Walcott, is equally legendary. Both played an equally critical role in exalting Anglophone Caribbean writing to the pinnacle of world literature in English. They were born a few hundred miles apart: Walcott in St Lucia in 1930, Naipaul in Trinidad in 1932. Walcott revelled in the idea of the Caribbean, where by the dint of brutal circumstances Africa, Europe and India converged, as the site of new possibilities for humankind amidst a lush tropical landscape fertilised by the expanse of the sea; Naipaul, on the other hand, saw the region as a place that had been irretrievably contaminated by the legacies of genocide, slavery and colonialism, and from where one was bound to escape unless one was content to join the company of “mimic men”. As he put it in his characteristically acerbic, merciless prose, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”
The figure of Gandhi stalks Naipaul’s oeuvre, preying on his imagination, and moving him to epiphany and revelation, resignation and rage, loathing and grudging admiration. Gandhi is everywhere, in his readings of the indian past, the wretchedness of the present
Naipaul made his way to Oxford when he was 18 on a fellowship and returned to the Caribbean on occasional visits only, as Walcott saw it, to denigrate it and populate it with “half-made” men and women all the more easy to ridicule with his “nasty little sneers”. These observations are drawn from Walcott’s review of Naipaul’s virtually autobiographical novel, The Enigma of Arrival (1987), where he lacerates the Trinidadian for, as Chinua Achebe put it, willingly acting as the “restorer of the comforting myths of the white race”. Naipaul was never one to forget an insult: much like the storekeepers who appear in his novels, he kept a full accounting of the verbal and written tirades against him and paid back everyone with interest. The rejoinder would come 20 years later, when both men had already been bestowed with the highest accolades, in a book called A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling (2007). Naipaul begins his account of Walcott on a gentle and indeed one should say endearing note, marvelling at the fact that as far back as 1948-49 such a talent could emerge from what he had “thought of as the barrenness of the islands”. But to barrenness it is that Walcott returns, as if in palpable demonstration of the dictum ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes): he is reduced to being “a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting.” Let it not be said, however, that poetry makes nothing happen—for Walcott struck back at once with his verse, regaling his listeners at Jamaica’s Calabash literary festival the same year with a poem called “The Mongoose”, an animal imported into the Caribbean from India by the British:
I have been bitten, I must avoid infection
Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction
Read his last novels, you’ll see just
what I mean
A lethargy, approaching the obscene
The model is more ho-hum than Dickens
The essays have more bite
They scatter chickens like critics, but
Each stabbing phrase is poison.
India can justly be said to have been on Naipaul’s mind his whole life, judging from the three books that were given over entirely to the country of his ancestors: An Area of Darkness (1964); India: A Wounded Civilization (1977); and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). But, in truth, it is the figure of Gandhi that stalks Naipaul’s entire oeuvre, preying on his imagination, and moving him to epiphany and revelation, resignation and rage, loathing and grudging admiration. Gandhi is everywhere, in his readings of the Indian past, the wretchedness of the present, the ominous portents of an ancient and decaying civilisation; he appears whole at times and fleetingly at other moments; and he is both the subject and object of Naipaul’s myriad inquiries. Gandhi plays a signal role in what was effectively Naipaul’s last extended set of reflections, A Writer’s People, on his intellectual journey, the books in his life, and the sensibilities that he brought to the writer’s craft. And yet Gandhi was there at the very beginning, long before Vidia grew in his mother’s womb: as he explained in his Nobel Lecture (2001), the world that he had been born into had in some manner been shaped by the Mahatma. “In 1917, because of agitation by Gandhi and others, the indenture system was abolished. And perhaps because of this, or for some other reason, the pledge of land or repatriation was dishonoured for many of the later arrivals. These people were absolutely destitute. They slept in the streets of Port of Spain, the capital. When I was a child I saw them. I suppose I didn’t know they were destitute—I suppose that idea came much later—and they made no impression on me. This was a part of the cruelty of the plantation colony.” It is at Gandhi’s instigation that the cruel system of indenture is brought to an end; but he had unleashed something that he could not control. Therein is the source, always, of Naipaul’s ambivalence: Gandhi is necessary but he was never sufficient. Failure is writ large in everything touched by Gandhi. “There was the writing of Nehru and Gandhi”, Naipaul says in his Nobel Lecture, describing how he aimed “to get the true feel of the history of the colony”; “and strangely it was Gandhi, with his South Africa experience, who gave me more, but not enough.” But not enough.
Gandhi was Naipaul’s supreme obsession. I suspect that Naipaul would never have acknowledged that the Mahatma would become a permanent lodger in the deeper recesses of his mind though one can sense this already in An Area of Darkness. Similarly, I doubt that when the Indian Government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014 on the anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday on October 2nd with the intention of eradicating open defecation, it did so with any awareness that Naipaul was most likely the first novelist, after Mulk Raj Anand in Untouchable (1935), to make a link between defecation and Gandhi’s embarrassing (as it seemed so to many Indians) public dissection of an unseemly Indian habit. “Indians defecate everywhere”, wrote Naipaul, “They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.” Naipaul is aware that he is an outsider looking in—or perhaps he is alarmed at the thought that he, of Indian ancestry, is not altogether an outsider. He speaks from a position of liminality, at least from the standpoint of in-betweenness, and contrives a strategy where the affirmation of his own insights is found in a figure who similarly occupies a liminal position in Indian society and speaks in a voice of authority. “But the truth”—a truth that both Naipaul and the observer, unidentified for the first several pages, can see all too clearly—“is that Indians do not see these squatters and might even, with complete sincerity, deny that they exist: a collective blindness arising out of the Indian fear of pollution and the resulting conviction that Indians are the cleanest people in the world” (italics as in original). It is the same observer who, travelling in the Indian countryside—a far cry from the idyllic, verdant green landscapes of rural England with its charming winding country roads, neatly trimmed hedges, and the village commons—had occasion to remark that “instead of having graceful hamlets dotting the land, we have dung-heaps. The approach to many villages is not a refreshing experience. Often one would like to shut one’s eyes and stuff one’s nose; such is the surrounding dirt and offending smell.” At long last, the reader is told this much: the name of “the observer, the failed reformer, is of course Mohandas Gandhi.”
It is at Gandhi’s instigation that the cruel system of indenture is brought to an end; but he had unleashed something that he could not control. Therein is the source of Naipaul’s ambivalence: Gandhi is necessary but never sufficient
But why “of course” Gandhi? Naipaul invokes several registers of distancing: both he and Gandhi are at some distance from the scene that they are observing; it is this distance that allows them to see what the Indian cannot see, even when it is practically under his nose. However, it is also his own proximity to Gandhi and yet simultaneously his distance from “the failed reformer” that the writer seeks to invoke. He is not hobbled by the distant and rather stupid ambitions of the “reformer”. Returning to India from South Africa after some 20 years, Gandhi took the decision to acquaint himself with the country to which he had become something of a stranger by crisscrossing it on trains. Naipaul does the same. Both are left disturbed by the abysmal state of train travel. The passengers seem oblivious to dirt; they spit at will; and the din of their conversations is unbearable. But Naipaul fancies that he is a sociologist at large, advantaged by the power of discernment, and placed in the position of a privileged observer in relation to “Indians, who have no descriptive gift.” Thus, the reader is informed, “in Europe and elsewhere”—what is the elsewhere, I wonder, since the pitiless gaze of Naipaul scarcely finds any outposts of civilisation outside the modern West—“the favoured bunk in a railway sleeper is the top of the bunk” because it allows for greater privacy and less disturbance from dangling legs and the clamour of opening doors. But in India it is otherwise: “the lower bunk is preferred”, not because it is easier to spread one’s bedding on it, “but because climbing to the top bunk involves physical effort, and physical effort is to be avoided as a degradation.” It is Naipaul speaking here, but elsewhere it is Gandhi: “Divorce of the intellect from body-labour has made of us the shortest-lived, most resourceless and most exploited nation on earth.”
NAIPAUL IS ALL but certain that it is Gandhi’s status as a “colonial”—the title of the chapter where he is introduced—that allows him to see what is hidden from other Indians. Gandhi was, he submits, “the least Indian of Indian leaders. He looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct, and this directness was, and is, revolutionary.” He was made by his long sojourn in South Africa, where Gandhi could observe “an Indian community removed from the setting of India”; “contrast made for clarity, criticism and discrimination for self-analysis.” This is supposed to pass for analysis: Naipaul evidently had never given any thought to the other frequently encountered diasporic phenomenon, one where the expatriates become more Irish than the Irish at home, more Indians than the Indians at home—and in the latter case even imagining themselves as the torchbearers of a post-industrial Vedic civilisation in an American arcadia. The theme is picked up in India: A Wounded Civilization and persists through his later writings, except that, having perhaps sensed the inadequacy of his view, Naipaul now feels drawn to another aspect of Gandhi’s sensibility that was “revolutionary and un-Indian.” “What made him new was the nature of the battles he had fought in South Africa”, Naipaul avers, and what he brought from those battles was “his racial sense, the sense of belonging to a people specifically of the Indian subcontinent, that the twenty years in South Africa had taught him.” In London he discovers himself as a Hindu, in South Africa he acquires something which “is alien to Indians”: a “racial sense.” Indians think through the categories of caste, sub-caste, “the clan, the gens, the language group”, even if they sense race in others; beyond these categories “they cannot go”; the words “Indian race” have no meaning for them. This leads Naipaul to a claim he advances that is as old and conventional as any Orientalist text of India, but it is enunciated as an ober dictum as if the truth had escaped everyone before: “Historically, this absence of cohesiveness has been the calamity of India.” Thirteen years later, now apparently somewhat touched, howsoever tentatively, by India’s ability to escape the scourge of “continuity” and launch into a “renaissance”, Naipaul attempts in India: A Million Mutinies Now another reformulation of what binds Gandhi and him in a singular narrative: “Like Gandhi among the immigrant Indians of South Africa, and for much the same reasons, I had developed instead the idea of the kinship of Indians, the idea of the family of India.” But what is this “idea of the family of India”, a phrase dripping with juvenile sentimentality and straight out of Time-Life books?
Derek Walcott revelled in the idea of the Caribbean as the site of new possibilities for humankind. Naipaul saw the region as a place irretrievably contaminated by the legacies of genocide, slavery and colonialism
Still, over time, his reading of Gandhi appears to have undergone some substantive shifts. In his 1977 book on India as a “wounded civilization”, Naipaul is at pains to stress the intellectual vacuum that is Gandhi’s life. The Autobiography, he finds, is narcissistic, wholly self-contained: “The inward concentration is fierce, the self-absorption complete.” There is stunning evisceration of the landscape in the narrative, “not a word of anything seen or heard that did not directly affect the physical or mental well-being of the writer.” The outer world is of no consequence except insofar as it affects the inner. This is, however, not only Gandhi’s failing; it is the failing of an entire civilisation, for Indians are unable “to withdraw and analyze.” This gem of wisdom comes on the authority, Naipaul assures us, of the eminent Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. There are, however, other reasons for the limitations that marred the autobiography. Gandhi was “virtually uneducated,” had never read a newspaper, and books were foreign objects to him. He knew nothing of the history of India—much less the history of England.
After all this, Naipaul is constrained to admit in A Writer’s People that after every reading of Gandhi’s autobiography, he is able to “see something new.” Astonishingly, he even finds the book “beguiling”. Naipaul, himself a master storyteller, declares that Gandhi has been moulded from the same clay as himself. The difference resides in the fact that the autobiography is scarred by a “narrative fracture”: “the politician and the lawyer, the writer of letters and petition, swamps the storyteller.”As Gandhi was dictating his autobiography, week after week, he was overtaken by the political events of which he was himself the author. It is this peculiar circumstance that “spoils the book, but Gandhi was not concerned with literature, and there is enough of the magical early part for the book to be considered a masterpiece.” We should marvel at these words: “beguiling”, “magical”, “masterpiece”. Let us recall the “observer” of An Area of Darkness who was characterised as a “failed reformer” and who, four decades later, seems to have been transformed into “a great Indian reformer even while working against British rule; he didn’t allow one thing to work against the other.” Gandhi, “remarkably for a man of his limited origin,” calls to mind the journey of “another Indian, the Buddha. Both these men made wounding journeys.”
Naipaul is all but certain that it is Gandhi’s status as a ‘colonial’ that allows him to see what is hidden from other Indians. Gandhi was ‘the least Indian of Indian leaders.’ He was made by his long sojourn in South Africa
It is in this vein that Naipaul’s own journeying over a span of four decades into Gandhi’s life and work ends. But I wonder if Naipaul, celebrated as one of the greatest writers in the English language, really understood Gandhi. It is not only that the gift of generosity is elusive for Naipaul who remained to the end of his life a curmudgeon: as Walcott put it, “each stabbing phrase is poison.” The admiration is always calibrated against the failures and weaknesses—some of Gandhi and many of the “wounded civilization” of which he was the most prominent abscess. One should expect nothing less than that from a writer who prides himself in having a critical spirit. Naipaul dismissed Hind Swaraj, a tract that Gandhi wrote in 1909 and which he pronounced before his death as a work that stood as a testament of his principle. It is a work, Naipaul says, of “nonsense and anti-modern simplicities”; but Gandhi could get away with it, as he did with everything else, because “he came at the right time; the world was oddly vacant; there was room for him”. For a writer who spent a lifetime on ways of “looking and feeling”, Naipaul offers a palpable demonstration of a writer who seems to have felt little.