I started reading this book over a year ago. I started reading it when Naipaul was still alive. Then I got put off and stopped reading it. Then again I started reading it when he died. Again stopped. Then last weekend I randomly started reading it and finished it within a couple of days.
I remember someone’s comment on Twitter prompted me to start reading this book. Most probably it was some “Right wing” argument that some portion of this book must have supported or validated in some way.
Over the years I’ve tried reading a couple of his books, but somehow, his writing reeks of a cliched sense of superiority that I find quite off-putting, so I could never go beyond a few chapters.
“An Area of Darkness” by V.S. Naipaul is an account of a year that he spent in India. Not just an account, a very sordid account. When he says “An Area of Darkness” he really means it.
Almost every Indian he sees is stunted and ugly. Even if the person is physically attractive (he likes big, muscular bodies), he’s morally and intellectually stunted. Everywhere he goes, people are scheming, but scheming like stupid children who aren’t even smart enough to scheme properly. If you can manipulate properly, it means you have a degree of intelligence, and this is something Naipaul does not want to attribute to the people he comes across. They always want to swindle money out of him. Even people who seem to grow close to him, are eventually trying to get some money.
The buildings are ugly. The monuments are abhorrent. The rituals are meaningless. The eating habits are cringing. Religions are a sham and grotesque (at least he finds all religions in India phony). Even people who initially seem to have a sense of humanity eventually disappointment him with their pretense of being civilized.
While constantly coming across Indians who are very small, very dark, and very ugly looking, he meets a Sikh in the train journey who is healthy, acceptably tall, and even seems to speak English because he has visited Britain and has stayed there for some time. But he turns out to be totally racist. Being a Sikh myself, I’ve never come across a Sikh who identifies himself as an Aryan and due to that identification, considers himself superior compared to Dravidians. Eventually that Sikh is a textbook psychopath. Naipaul seems to have made up this Sikh character, or maybe, carrying so much toxicity within him, he attracted weird people.
Naipaul occasionally mentions that India is a wounded civilization. 1000 years of subjugation has killed the soul, and now just a grotesque caricature of the old grandeur survives. Centuries of undernourishment has made people small, weak, and he thinks, even deformed.
He also agrees that India is perhaps the only civilization that did not get completely erased even after a millennium of foreign rule. Others did. Nothing of the old Africa survives. No indigenous religions and cultures of Europe, North and South America are to be found.
The Indian civilization, or rather, the Hindu civilization, has this innate ability to adjust, assimilate, and then somehow, go on.
He also devotes a few pages on Pakistan and narrates an incident when a national newspaper celebrates the arrival of Muhammad Ghori, and what total mental devastation it must be to celebrate a conqueror who killed and converted your ancestors to an alien religion.
So, he attributes the civilizational hideousness that he interminably encounters during his year-long stay in India to a prolonged foreign rule — first Muslims and then British — but it’s baffling that in the entire book, he doesn’t find a single good thing to write about. Yes, there are some glimpses of appreciation when he beholds the Shaalimar Bag in Kashmir.
There are no normal decent human beings. Government officials are either corrupt, or indifferent and clueless. Even if there is no problem with them, their behavior is gooey.
Fellow passengers are nasty and not to be trusted. In case they are educated, they feel trapped and want to escape. They resent the fact that he (Naipaul) is comfortably settled in England, and even thinks and behaves like the British.
He actually behaves like a total foreigner. When people are too submissive and too beggedly, he asks whoever seems to be accompanying him, what he should do, how he should react.
Dirt and filth are an accepted part of life, even encouraged sometimes.
Even animals are disagreeable. The only bird he observes is a crow. He observes three-legged dogs near the dirty railway tracks. Then there is this dog, devoid of all its fur, waiting to eat the excrement of a beggar boy relieving himself by the side of a busy road. He sees a pink rat, diseased, with no fur, in a hotel.
The country is perpetually hot and humid and there is dust everywhere, and when it rains there are flies and disease everywhere. The cold is dismal, of course.
When he visits his own ancestral village, people weird him out. The old lady who knew his grandfather was weird. Some person he was directly or indirectly related to him is weirdo.
Throughout the book he finds not a single intelligent, decent person. None he can admire. Not a single writer he can admire (though he says he enjoyed reading RK Narayan). Not a single Bollywood movie a class. No art. No expression. No trace of humanity. Just destruction, and ghosts of an existence lived long time back.
You can read this book just for the heck it, or simply because it is written by Naipaul. Otherwise it is a complete waste of time. You learn nothing. As an Indian, you get a very condescending perspective of your country, and as a foreigner, you get this bleak peak into a putrefying hell hole that has no reason to exist. No wonder in many Western movies whenever they show India they show a dark or a brownish place teeming with skeletal people wearing rags who have never washed, dead eyes, walking like zombies. Their primary sources of imagination of India must be these horribly written books.
Although he touches upon many realities of India without mincing words (his renowned oeuvre), having spent all my life here, India is much, much more than how he has described.