In 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.
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.
The 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.
Remaining 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.
*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)