India: A Wounded Civilization by V.S. Naipaul

naipaulIn the forward, Naipaul identifies himself to be of the New World, having been raised in a far more homogeneous Indian community in Trinidad, than the isolated countrymen Gandhi met in South Africa in 1983. He also admits to have been washed clean off many religious attitudes, which according to him, are essential in understanding the civilization. This book is a collection of 8 essays in 3 parts, on his experiences and observations about the mainland, during Internal Emergency*(1975-1977).

With this knowledge at one’s disposal, though rude and harsh from an average Indian perspective, these essays offer good critique on life during Emergency period and Indian democracy in general. In the introductory essay he aligns his first Indian visit with what he had learned about the country from RK Narayan‘s 1949 novel ‘Mr. Sampath‘. His Indian experience becomes less accessible and overwhelming, as he finds everyone politically nonchalant like the titular character of book. He then associates his observation with the repeated conquests of land in past and its tendency to respond by retreating to archaism, which provides no substitute for modernities like like Press, Parliament or Courts. He further effeminates ‘Non-violence’ as a means of securing undisturbed calm and reduces it to an excuse for non-doing, noninterference and social indifference. Also contradictingly, he is somehow unable to appreciate any effort for individual and collective(abolition of privy purses and titles, a female prime minister addressing the nation about living in the present without sweeping away the past) advancement, and write them off as mock aggressiveness and mock desperation. Still, in Naipaul’s denial of Hindu response to the world, in its comedy and irony, this reader found a mysterious reverence towards something he couldn’t comprehend.

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In the second essay, he brings our attention to another novel by Narayan– ‘The Vendor of Sweets’. Here I found myself aligning with the author, in his complaint of using elated visions of eternity as cheap escapism from ones duties, a concept highly misrepresented in Hesse‘s ‘Siddhartha’. I was ‘hear,hear’ with his viewpoints, in blind acceptance of suffering as ‘karma’ for what one has done in past lives, though he was using it for emphasizing the elegiac fixation of India in its past. Our newfound romance soon found its grave, when he started hyphenating ‘Karma’ as the classical Hindu retreat, who got nothing to offer, when his world shatters. Still, under the light of then deified poverty with Gandhian-ism, it wasn’t difficult to agree with existence and acceptance of antique violence and caste system, justified by the twisted philosophy of past life redemption.

31mumbai11The third essay – ‘The Skycrapers and the Chawls’, is Naipaul‘s ‘Maximum City’. His experiences in Bombay had made him render the city in an image of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, but with a crowd that never truly dispersed. Unable to understand the prevailing street culture, he then goes back to the mistake of relating individual Identity with set of beliefs, and concludes that people are burdened with a nationalism, which, after years of subjection, badly demanded an Idea of India. This underlying narrative prevailed in the essay that followed where his definition of Naxalism is an intellectual tragedy of middle class, incapable of generating ideas of its own, borrowing someone else’s idea of revolution. His next essay, ‘A Defect of Vision’ tries to define Gandhian philosophy as a negative way of perceiving the external world. Naipaul argues Gandhi’s experiments and discoveries and vows as means for answering his own needs as a Hindu, for defining ‘the self’ in the midst of hostility, and not of universal application. He then puts forward an amazing review for U.R. Anantamurti’s novel, ‘Samskara’ to substantiate this fierce inward concentration of ‘hindu nationalism’. Gist of both could be better summed up in Sudhir Karkar’s words – “We Indians use the outside reality to preserve the continuity of the self amidst an ever changing flux of outer events and things”. I wish I could prove Naipaul wrong after what is almost half a century, but Indian Politics still remain narrow, and based on caste and religion as he accuses it to be, back then.

CaptureRemaining portions of book are more or less variegated accounts of Emergency Period, from freedom of Press to Poverty, with the underlying idea of ‘modernity’ or ‘Indian-ness’ being a facade. But he offered a brilliant perspective on Indian political programme being clamour and religious excitation. Gandhian-ism in modern day is reduced to Mahatmahood: religious ecstasy and self-display, and escape from constructive thought and political burdens. Like a solace for conquered people, alienated by the state, he argues. I thoroughly enjoyed his well researched last essay, where he criticized Bhave for overdoing everything and making Gandhi a figure like ‘Merlin’. Yet, by the end of the day, to Naipaul, India is without an ideology, locked in by fantasies of Ramraj(Rule of Ram: an Indian utopia), spirituality and return to village, where everyone is paralyzed with obedience as demanded by ‘dharma’.

The communal accord of history moves along the lines of identifying India primarily by her religious identities, and is uprooted on the colonial assumption of them being fundamentally in conflict. And there are historians who produce voluminous reports in this line, using the century old Colonial pretext of Imperial powers being the anointed benign saving medium. I remember reading an essay associating Naipaul’s acceptance in the New World over Desani, for his West appeasing narrative, and though far fetched, this book inclines me to buy that argument. No matter what he had experienced over the visit, the good, the bad and the ugly of a young nation in its worst period of democratic history, Naipaul was hell bent on finding a way back to his personal clincher – title of the book.

In the first essay, Naipaul mentions about a middle class rich girl he got to meet during a Delhi dinner party, who is married to a foreigner and living abroad. To him, she was in a state of despair and confusion, of having lost her place in the world, not having a caste or a community. And he was amazed by her calmness on return to India during the chaotic Emergency, like its world’s deepest order, where everything is fixed, sanctified and secure. If I may go off the reservation and be a condescending critic as this book was, I found Naipaul jealous of above trait and rather frustrated in his inability to understand the civilization he draws bloodline from, and yet, utterly helpless in being drawn towards it time and again.

This maybe his coping mechanism.

Still, one cannot categorize this book as an archaic critique on antique mindsets, without ignoring the relevance of harsh truths, however little and offending they might be. Especially in our present day ‘triggered’ generation, filled with internal anxieties about food eaten, places of worship, sexual preferences, and intolerance towards everything they can’t agree with. But marginalizing a whole civilization solely on their basis and laxity towards everything otherwise, is where author and this reader part ways.

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*Internal Emergency : In India, “the Emergency” refers to a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unilaterally had a state of emergency declared across the country. Officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352(1) of the Constitution because of the prevailing “internal disturbance”, the Emergency was in effect from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977.( source:wiki)

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India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

indiaaftergandhiText book history of India often and for most people including me, reaches a clincher by the midnight of 15th August 1947, the day of Independence. What followed then after, for more than a half a century is, usually, the privilege of intellectuals who read editorial articles and of quasi historians who are eager to pick a fight on social media under the slightest provocation. It is like those Marvel movie after credit scenes that we all pretend to understand, and then silently google afterwards.

Though my reasons for reading were, availability of a fresh copy in library and unavailability of the books I wanted to rent, this seemingly boring political book, for me, was an emotional and intellectual roller coaster ride, through the gripping history that shaped worlds largest democracy into what it is today. Guha’s approach, though a bit verbose and fat for scholarly, prep purposes; felt more like a follow up to Nehru’s Discovery of India, and in a way, to be imitating the latter’s elegant prose in process. It was an absolute delight to read with the insightful research filled with verbatims, references and conflicting viewpoints, news excerpts from inside and outside the sub-contintent, foreign correspondent views, and notes from International relations. And for the contents, the course of events start from political assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and after effects of partition, India’s very first and World’s largest general election with universal adult franchise to the events till the year 2008. He keeps the linear narrative in check with its socio-cultural-economic impacts inside and outside the country. From Nehru’s decentralized and austere cabinet, who considered Indian Independence as part of a wider Asian insurgence to Indira and centralized nepotism that followed, From patriotic opposition movements of JP to vote and religion based modern nationalism, From the various secessionist movements and foreign prediction of balkanization to the force of unity in diversity, From the displaced disposed underprivileged to the growing ‘body shopped’ upper middle class; Guha takes readers through the mights, ignominies and challenges that rocked World’s largest multi-ethnic democracy.

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With India’s sheer monstrosity in size, population and prevailing political ideologies, Its extremely difficult to consolidate the information in a presentable manner, not to mention the much needed escape from the moral bias towards the winning side. And there is always some information that have to be omitted, either by ruling it out as futile to the general course or to slice down the pages. For every event he has tried to get the multi-facets of the issue, from seemingly protagonist to the seemingly antagonist and finally a third person with neutral sentiment, in and outside the country. Guha uses foreign correspondents, political scientists, national and international press who covered the incidents to give the most non biased account possible.

2013_Little_India_Riots,_SingaporeGuha shifts from history to historically informed journalism towards the recent years of Indian history, which is still unfolding; yet, his search to find the first domino that set the contraption of events into motion, prevails the narrative. My feelings while reading, If recorded would give a sine wave with crest and troughs of intersecting pride and shame. India has the worlds most progressive democracy and constitution, and though mostly on paper, it protects and keep the nation in check more or less(more more I must say) within the founding principles. I cannot imagine how our nation would have been built or on what principles, If it was in remote antiquity than the progressive past it actually been framed. Things and leaders seem to be going more backward and internally disturbed as time advances, giving a temporal anomaly in terms of the direction of growth- a term reduced into infrastructures and currency these days. As much as it made me happy and proud while reading through the birth of nation, war victories, scientific progresses, goodwill will with neighbors and world ; It pained me to read through history of Kashmir, Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat riots and the likes. I had to occasionally put the book down and take time off, and even have some casual talks with friends for obaining a sense of present, and to process the things I used ignore casually. And that is something this reader least expected from a history book.

bollywood-boom_759Author talks about an unsung capacity of Nehru, the very quality I admired every way through my read of Discovery of India – viewing both sides of question, seeing the imperfection of process even while being committed to it. I can undoubtedly verify the same sentiments in Guha’s research, which not only compliments reader’s knowledge but also questions it. And it badly needs to be challenged considering the sources where we obtain the infos from, from photoshoped fb wall posts to comments in youtube, reddit, quora and various news posts.

In a world of demagogues and blind followers too eager to hagiography their leaders in approbation, it is essential to have some predisposition towards actual history. And in this work of majestic proportion, Ramachandra Guha has found the perfect balance between Said’s in famous ‘Orientalism’ and ‘nationalistic bias’   that readers would suspect from authors identity.

Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

discoveryofindiaNever thought I would say these, but I wish I had read this book sooner, atleast for the beauty of Nehru’s writing, if not for the history and this by far is one of the best book I have ever read. It is astounding how someone be this catholic in his views, scholastic about the world, stylist of the English prose, and still remain a politician.

Nehru’s main intention behind writing this book was to rekindle the lost nationalism among people of India, which was then divided into British Raj and nearly 556 Princely States. I found it quite extra ordinary of him, trying to evoke that feeling, without the strands of hegemony or aristocracy, which could have easily been established from India’s celebrated past; in fact he was more interested and invested in acknowledging India’a pluralistic society and the heritage of it’s neighbors which she influenced and learned from over centuries. What adds colour to this is the fact that he wrote this book while serving jail time at Ahmednagar Fort, without any notes, in a state of being emotionally torn off, by his wife’s recent death. Unlike average contemporary accords, Nehru’s discussions are not limited to the mainland India or peninsular region alone; commendable share is given to the history, art and cultural exchanges with Middle East, Central Asia and the South East Asia, on which the Indian diaspora extended it’s influence over. He was keen in accepting the cosmopolitan nature of Indian society against modern communal arguments, which assimilated even it’s enemies, irrespective or religion or ethnicity, the fuzzy nature of which, organized West had huge trouble in understanding.

ahmednagarfort.jpgThis might have moulded his foreign policy, though economically debatable, that was based on mutual respect and peace, and equal growth opportunity for all nation States; all of which helped India achieve a benign undertone to it’s growth globally. There were downsides as well, like the failure in foreseeing a threat from the divine land -China, whom he counted as an everlasting ally (India China bhai bhai- India China brothers), based on the glorious past of both countries; or the matter of linguistic based division of state. Anyhow, there was one major element that this book has been missing, for which I was more than glad about – Orientalism.

“The day today religion of orthodox Hindu is more concerned with what to eat and what not to eat, who to eat with and from whom to keep away, than with spiritual values. The rules and regulations of kitchen dominate his social life.”

Pandit Nehru wrote this is in 1942, before Independence, and with the recent ‘beef’ fiascos, I say, we are not so far away from colonial mindset. He never, consciously or unconsciously, let the mega narrative of India create an asymmetry in relations with her near neighbors, which could lead them into suspecting predominance in every call for co-operation, even from reader sides. He kept great admiration towards other Asian civilizations and envisaged that international co-operation has to be between equals and comrades, which obviously meant equal growth opportunities, mutual respect between strong neighborhoods; a policy India still holds dear to, however debatable it is. His world view wasn’t limited to the East alone, he constantly looked towards America and Russia, and seemed to be genuinely troubled by the developments in Europe and Africa; and to his Independence of India was paramount not only for her people, but for the rest of the world under Imperialism and development of humanity as a whole. He displayed class even during criticizing someone, which often went like a very honest effort to understand their complex stand, which included an acknowledgement for all the things he admired about them as well.

Discovery of India, starts and ends in Ahmednagar Fort prison, with Nehru reminiscing the pleasant memories of his election campaign across the length and breadth of undivided India, often with marvel on it’s incredibly diverse culture and perseverance. He then tries to define mainland India from the far ancient period, from Indus Valley civilization, with the limited information unearthed then. Then follows Hinduism, Vedas, Buddhism, Jainism and their philosophy, concept of monism against the monotheistic and polytheistic outlook Indian religions now associate with. The narrative moves through the political history of India, from Mauryas, Gupta dynasty to Delhi Sultanate and Mughals and eventually to the British, and the often neglected South is given due credit for its empires and colonies in South East Asia. The most fascinating part is, having the chance to read this book now, with clear accords of Nehru and his India at our disposal, and India further ahead,  and I must say, he adhered to his ideas without pretexts, and even by modern standards his outlook was very progressive.

My lousy reading is non professional to such extends that the only historical quote I remember of, is by Captain America(probably not originally by him even) – Those who ignore the past are bound to repeat the same mistakes in future. The point is, this seemingly political history book, had me(the local yokel here) baffled, with amusement and admiration, towards it’s concise and polished prose, excellent research and humility in presentation.

I don’t see a reason why anyone should keep them aloof this book because of issues with Nehru as a political figure or ideologies of Congress, for Discovery of India is essentially and solely about India and her history and geopolitics, transcending from ancient times to far near future in common era. And there is something youth of India can learn and mature about here, to take pride in one’s history,culture and religion without being a dick to other’s.

“It was in India’s ways in past to welcome and absorb other cultures. That is much more necessary today, for we march to the one world of tomorrow where national cultures will be intermingled with the international culture of human race. We shall therefore seek wisdom and friendship and comradeship wherever we can find them and co-operate with others in common tasks, but we are no suppliants for other’s favours and patronage. Thus we shall remain true Indians and Asiatics, and become at the same time good internationalists and world citizens.”