An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I do not recall how I came to own An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul. It's not a genre I normally read, but I did own it, and having it I decided to give it a try. It was worth it.
At first I was put off by the lack of emotion in the narrator's voice. He spoke of his family, his upbringing on the island of Trinidad, his family's Indian heritage, all as though he were an alien who was making observations and taking notes to report back to his home planet ("species seem to believe in many gods.....caste system...certain cultural values differ from fellow inhabitants of the island...").
As his journey progressed, for it was a journey on several levels, he became, if not more emotionally involved, at least interested.
And interesting. I have never traveled to India, although I did live in the Caribbean not far from Trinidad. My landlady and her family in Grenada were Indian and also from Trinidad. If I had not lived there I would not have known what a significant percentage of the population on the East Indian islands are descendants from India.
So I started reading the book with some understanding as to where the author was coming from. Naipual wrote this book in 1962-64 and I think some of his experience was different than the many Indians I interacted with on Grenada.
For one, he speaks of feeling something of a foreigner even though he grew up there. I lived on Grenada in the nineties and the Indians I met had absorbed the culture. They were Christians, regular church goers and interacted easily with other racial groups (mostly of African descent but also European). Naipaul's grandparents immigrated to Trinidad so he was closer in spirit to the home country. Or so he thought.
An Area of Darkness is Naipaul's record of his travels to India and his experiences there. He learned quickly that he was as foreign as any European. There were many cultural conflicts.
He quickly tired of the class system. He describes another Indian/European's frustration when he tried to get work done but was not getting his letters mailed quickly enough. He called in the clerk who took down his dictation to solve the problem.
"The secretary has many letters to write and she is backed up, so sorry."
"What do you mean? You take the dictation. Write out these letters for me so I can send them out. They are urgent."
"That is not my job. That is the secretary's job."
"It is now your job. Write out these letters and send them out."
Stubborn silence and noncompliance. Reporting his clerk to the job bureau accomplished nothing. So he called in his clerk again.
"I need to write another letter. Please scribe. "You're fired." Deliver that to the secretary and put it on the top of her pile as priority."
The clerk, realizing that if he gave such a letter to the secretary he would be humiliated, ran off and wrote out all the letters for the man. That is how things operated in India.
Another time he was in a train and had the bottom bunk. This is a coveted bunk because climbing up and down to the upper bunk was considered too much effort and beneath the dignity of the class of Indians who could afford to have a bunk while traveling on a train. The man assigned to the bunk above him was put out.
Naipaul who considered the lower bunk an inconvenience offered to change places with him. The man gladly agreed.
But the man remained seated on the upper bunk. By this time the train had already moved off and the porters had left the train, which meant the passengers would have to move their own belongings until the next stop when the porters would again be available. One of his class did not move his own things. That was the porter's job. Exasperated, Naipaul moved both his and the man's belongings.
Naipaul describes India as a country of form but not substance. What he means by this is that form is followed strictly to the letter but there is no substance to it. The untouchables come to a building. One flings dirty water out across the floor, another one swishes a dirty rag around and a third sweeps the water back into the bucket. The floor is as filthy as ever but no one notices because the form has been carried out to the letter.
Indians comment on the unhygienic practice of Westerners only using toilet paper while Indians also used water to clean themselves after using the bathroom. Meanwhile the city and countryside all over India is used as an open latrine. But nobody sees it; they only see what they believe is true. The form of their culture and religious practices.
Brahmin cows stagger around starving to death because they are holy. People starve to death or live off garbage because that is their Karma.
I could insert here my own observations as to how ideologues exist in every country. Worldwide people cling to beliefs and social systems even when they have been proven not to work but that is a discussion for another time, I suppose.
Naipaul calls Ghandi one of the greatest failures of India. He brought in ideas of an egalitarian society and human rights that were never put into practice. The Indians did what they always did. They made Ghandi into a Holy Man to be revered and enshrined while ignoring his teaching. Form is worshiped even though it is devoid of substance.
But the author does more than philosophize on the failings of Indian society. He carefully describes the people he comes into contact with and the places he visits. He goes on a pilgrimage, lives in a houseboat for a while, figures out how to get licenses for this and for that because apparently everything one does in India needs the permission of the government. He works and lives with Hindus and Muslims.
While Naipaul describes India and its people in rich colors, I think it would have helped if he had felt any kind of compassion or feeling of any kind because the book, while a vicarious traveler's treat, left me unmotivated to visit. I now long to read a book from a different perspective.
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