India: A Wounded Civilization

By Sunil Kumar

If a mass of articles and daily analysis were not enough to remind me of the fact that India is a wounded civilization; V.S Naipaul‘s 1975 book on his perceptions surely has.

Landing in an antique Bombay airport; Naipaul begins on a most extraordinary critique of the country. There are so many of these since the dawn of civilization; but V.S managed to take me through a time warp; a place which existed for much of the early years of independence.

The book touches on places such as Vijaynagara; the National Institute of Design(Ahmedabad), Bombay(with its skyscraper-chawl mix); and other parts of India tarred with a black paintbrush. Girish Karnad may have gone ballistic on Naipaul a few years back; but in my opinion; Naipaul does know his history; in the pseudo-Anglicized fashion that all of us have learnt the narrative; primarily the European investigations into the past.

The country is a complex place; then and now. Simplifications cannot explain the stories of more than a billion; then and now. However; Naipaul makes a correct assessment when he urges the country to take a more rational, skeptical outlook towards the world; and shed some of its admiration for the past.

Although it is debatable whether his assessment of India’s history is correct; tinged very obviously with his own world-view; Naipaul talks about the shoddy adoption of the Gandhian world-view that is more associated with hypocrisy than anything else in modern India.

Even in 2014; a strange time; with widespread adoption of technology; and rising fanaticism; there is token symbolism; and politics is still in a mire; the majority of the world in its narrow preoccupation with the self; the defining factor of human existence.

Naipaul’s discussion of Gandhi is not apparently based on veneration; he seems to attribute this to many of the country’s problems; and this is a forty-year old book. The massacre of Hindus in 1946 Noakhali(modern-day Bangladesh); Gandhi’s usual antics; Muslim goons in the area strewing his path with obstacles; and then his advocacy of minority protection in Calcutta; when Hindus are getting slaughtered are usual examples of a world-view most students of history are familiar with.

But V.S is very pessimistic; in his imperial outlook; he is very much a subjugated colonial writer; not a product of the present day; most of whom are blissfully unaware and do not care much for what was; even if the sordid colors of the present are too in your face to rouse them out of their collective idiocy.

From all accounts; V.S charges a bomb for his literary appearances; and is quite savvy when it comes to making an appearance in the haute couture world of the literary intelligentsia; who are probably as vain, brain-dead, narcissistic as the fashion world. (Some people consider Anne Wintour; the English editor of American Vogue as the ultimate example of the shallowness of present-day civilization). 

Wonder what the 80-year old Naipaul would make of present-day West Bengal; an even shallower but sometimes more prescient nation affected largely by the idiot box and the web; and the rise of technology.

In Mao’s China; nearly every intellectual was shot; something which would led to the decimation of a large majority of today’s information empowered citizens. Blind “bhakts” of every possible ideology known to man exist in India; but we seem to have made the transition to a different nation than the one Naipaul caustically observes forty years back.  


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