A Million Neuroses

Is the generous author of A Million Mutinies Now the same acerbic author of Beyond Belief ?
An essay on V.S. Naipaul, Taliban Afghanistan, Hindu India, and the new South Asian politics

A version of this essay originally appeared in Transition 78. This version will appear in The Humour and the Pity (ed. Amitava Kumar), an anthology being published to commemorate Naipaul’s Nobel Prize.

After every book, V.S. Naipaul professes a great weariness, a physical and mental fatigue that portends the end of his career. ” I have no more than one hundred months left,” he told an interviewer in 1994. ” One hundred months, I mean, of productive life.” Ten years ago, shortly after the publication of The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Naipaul sounded a similarly ominous note. “I’m close to the end of creativity,” he told James Atlas. “Death is very, very final. I’ve put all my affairs in order.”

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples, Naipaul’s account of his journeys through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, is his fourth book since The Enigma of Arrival. It is a sequel to Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, his 1981 report from the same countries. Like that earlier publication, Beyond Belief is a gloomy book, haunted by the specter of vanishing civilizations and failing nations. And, like its predecessor, Beyond Belief is in many ways a mocking and unkind book. In Pakistan, Naipaul meets Mushtaq, a literature professor in Karachi for twenty-nine years. The radicalization of his university has made Mushtaq’s work difficult; with sorrow, he tells Naipaul about the unreceptiveness of his students. “A life in vain,” is how Naipaul sums up the man’s existence–not just to the reader, but to Mushtaq, as well. In another encounter, also in Pakistan, Naipaul interviews Shahbaz, a former guerrilla who renounced his privileged upbringing to spend ten years fighting for the rights of nomads in the deserts and mountains of Baluchistan, along the border with Afghanistan. The conflict did not go well, and Shahbaz contracted hepatitis and malaria; today he is deaf in one ear. Naipaul shows no sympathy. He suggests that Shahbaz has betrayed himself intellectually, and that he and his fellow guerrillas are responsible for the erosion of Baluchi culture that followed the Pakistani army’s brutal suppression of the movement.

In short, Beyond Belief is vintage Naipaul: melancholic, acerbic, even cruel. Yet the cruelty may come as something of a surprise. For there were signs, in his most recent books, that Naipaul was changing. Readers and critics noted a certain mellowing, an apparent willingness to take the world on its own terms. This was especially evident in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1991), in which Naipaul, who had earlier written two scathing, almost hysterical, descriptions of India, expressed a curious optimism. Yes, the country was divided, threatened by its “million mutinies”–the strident assertions of caste, class, and religion that had come to dominate public life and that, to less sanguine observers, seemed to intimate social and political anarchy. Yet Naipaul interpreted these acts of rebellion as signs of a new self-confidence and self-awareness. “I see now as a great regenerative period in India,” he told an interviewer shortly after the book’s publication. And in the lengthy interviews that make up A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul displayed an uncharacteristic sympathy for the actors in this regenerated India. The writer in whose work Salman Rushdie famously observed the absence of the word “love” appeared, in the twilight of his career, to have discovered a new fondness for humanity.

Beyond Belief suggests a return to form. The “scourge of the postcolonial world,” as Stephen Schiff has called him, is back, boiling with the old irascibility, disdainful of people and countries that fail to meet his high standards. But was he ever really absent? It seems, rather, that the optimistic Naipaul of A Million Mutinies Now and the scornful Naipaul ofBeyond Belief are the same man, driven by the same vision of the world, and afflicted by the same aversions.

Until recently, Naipaul’s venom was most evident in his disdain for what he has notoriously called the “half-made” societies of the world: societies stripped of their history by the colonial encounter; civilizations left pathetically gaping, as at a distant star that emits light but no heat, at the glow of metropolitan culture. In Africa (“a land of bush”), in his native Trinidad (a place where “nothing was created”), and throughout the Third World, Naipaul’s verdicts have been harsh. But he is unsurpassed as  a chronicler of the postcolonial period. Like a latter-day Herodotus, his wanderings have preserved for posterity a desperate want of moorings, an insecurity of identity that has defined an era.

Naipaul’s most recent travel books, however, chart his engagement with a different time. They are chronicles of a new South Asian politics, one in which postcolonial anxieties are giving way to religious self-assertiveness. The emerging geography of this new Asia had little to do with the secular nationalisms of the independence era. Borders are increasingly drawn along religious lines, with the major fault line running between a Hindu India and an Islamic bloc whose core consists of Pakistan and Taliban Afghanistan. Yet the Naipaul who visits the changing Asia is the same–shaped by the colonial legacy, marked by its antagonisms and anxieties. It is this shifting interface between author and world that explains the apparent reinvention of Naipaul.

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On December 6, 1992, a mob of Hindu fundamentalists stormed the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, in North India. The mosque was built in the sixteenth century by the Mughal emperor Babur, and it has been a source of historical and religious contention ever since: Hindu groups claim the site as the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities. The destruction of the mosque culminated years of provocations by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Egged on by party leaders, demonstrators armed with pickaxes and shovels entered the compound at approximately 11:00 A.M.; by 4.35 P.M, they had reduced the mosques’ three domes to rubble. The violence of those five and one-half hours unleashed a sectarian fury such as India had not seen since 1947, when the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan left nearly a million dead. In Surat, in Bhopal, and especially in Bombay, thousands of people were killed, in attacks often carried out with the complicity of politicians. A few months after these riots, apparently in retaliation, more than a dozen bombs exploded in Bombay, killing hundreds and damaging the headquarters of the Shiv Sena, a radical Hindu nationalist party.

A century from now, that December day may well be remembered as South Asia’s June 28, 1914–the day Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting in motion Europe’s descent into continental barbarism. Since the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, tempers on the Indian subcontinent have risen to a dangerous pitch. In the immediate aftermath of the explosions in Bombay, India alleged Pakistani involvement and a number of politicians publicly questioned the loyalty of India’s Muslims– some 12 percent of the population. Pakistan, for its part, turned a blind eye to the destruction of Hindu temples in its territory and stepped up support for the ongoing insurgency in the disputed province of Kashmir. In the past few years, shellings and shootings along the so-called line of control in Kashmir have escalated into miniature wars, and mutual accusations of state-sponsored terrorism have become routine. All of this, of course, takes place in the context of South Asia’s recent nuclearization.

These escalating tensions point not merely toward a local political conflict, but toward the possibility of a wider religious conflagration, a clash of civilizations that could engulf the entire region. Pakistan and India have already fought two wars, in 1965 and 1971; although they were not entirely free of religious overtones, they were primarily secular conflicts, fights over territory. Indeed, the second war, in which India came to the aid of Pakistan’s secessionist eastern province (now Bangladesh), witnessed an unlikely Indo-Muslim alliance. In retrospect, it is clear that those wars were holdovers from the colonial era. They were attempts to sort through the messiness of the British partition, which left the status of Kashmir (the cause of the first war) uncertain, and unrealistically united Bangladesh and Pakistan, separated by the land mass of India.

What is happening today in Kashmir, however, looks less like a dispute over territory than a Muslim Holy War. No longer is the battle being fought between conventional armies; now, the insurgents are ideological warriors. Many of them are mujahideen: veterans of the war in Afghanistan, or mercenaries recruited from Islamic conflicts in regions as distant as Algeria, Bosnia, Sudan, and Egypt. Pakistan still provides training and safe haven to many of these forces. But this is not simply an Indo-Pakistani war by other means: for many of the partisans, the goal is no longer to place Kashmir under Pakistani rule, but to establish an independent Islamic state. As in Afghanistan–where the Taliban is defying its sponsors in Islamabad–the insurgency is spinning out of Pakistan’s control.

The war in Kashmir is both symptom and source of a more general spread of religious fundamentalism in South Asia. In Pakistan, the government has proposed a controversial Islamicization bill that would, among other things, amend the constitution to make the Shari’ah Islamic code Pakistan’s “supreme law.” The bill was introduced by Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s otherwise moderate Prime Minister, in an obvious attempt to pander to the religious right, whose influence has been growing for decades–most recently in response to the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. In India, meanwhile, the same fundamentalists who orchestrated the violence in Ayodhya now control the government. They have proposed a number of measures–most recently a revision of the school curriculum–to “Indianize” the country. The BJP has fostered, and derived much of its support from,  a palpable sense of panic about a second Muslim invasion, one thousand years after the first. Recent reports of Taliban incursions into Kashmir, and of a chilling decree that all Hindus in Kabul wear a yellow patch, have encouraged the perception that his menace emanates not simply from Pakistan, but from the wider Islamic world. Increasingly, India sees itself, as a bulwark against a fundamentalism that, like a creeping shadow, is casting a pall across the map of South Asia. Recent upheavals in Indonesia and Malaysia have brought Islamic politics to those formerly secular states, too; India now faces the prospect of Muslim encirclement.

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It is against this backdrop of developing Hindu-Muslim hostilities that Naipaul’s two recent travelogues should be understood. The politics of Asia are changing; history is being made; and Naipaul, ever the chronicler of history, is in the thick of it. Much as his earlier books captured the insecurities and confusions that characterized the post-colonial period, his last two have explored the sectarian tensions that followed it.

Naipaul’s enthusiasm for India’s “million mutinies”– for its “group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess”–can sound precariously close to an endorsement of Hindu fundamentalist politics, several of whose representatives he interviews in the book. To be sure, Naipaul is not only enthused about the Hindu mutinies, but about the general mood of self-assertiveness that he sees emerging in the 1980′s. For him, this development signals India’s rediscovery of itself, the nation’s return to its roots. “India had been restored to itself,” Naipaul writes, “after its own equivalent of the Dark Ages–after the Muslim invasions and the detailed, repeated vandalizing of the North.” Although Naipaul claims to deplore “the destructive chauvinism of the Shiv Sena,” it is precisely this idea of a primordial Indian national identity, reclaimed from the obscurity of Muslim rule, that reveals Naipaul’s kinship with Hindu fundamentalist ideology. This concordance is evident, too, in statements he had made since the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, which he described as part of a “mighty creative process.”

Set against such claims, Naipaul’s excoriation of everything Islamic in his new book firmly fixes his location on the map of contemporary Asian politics. The book’s thesis, stated in crystal-clear prose at the outset and hammered home in subsequent chapters, is that “Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view alters……His idea of history alters…..The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved.” It isn’t hard to read between the lines: what Islam did in India, it has done throughout Asia. Indeed, Naipaul’s dislike for the Islam he encounters in the “converted” countries is on several occasions contrasted with his enthusiasm for an elemental India. His most scathing criticisms, for example, are reserved for Pakistan– alternately a state in “ruin,” a “criminal enterprise,” and a “cultural desert.” Likewise, in Indonesia, his hostility toward the Islamic present often reads like an elegy for that nation’s lost Hindu past. “Islam had moved on here,” he writes, “to this part of Greater India, after its devastation of India proper, turning the religious-cultural light of the subcontinent, so far as this region was concerned, into the light of a dead star.” Significantly, in Iran, where Naipaul had no Hindu axe to grind, he can sound a softer note, comparing the atmosphere in the university town of Qum to the colleges of Oxford. (In Among the Believers, his earlier book on Islam, Naipaul found evidence in Qum of ” the medieval Muslim world, the great universal civilization of the time.”) It is in Iran, too, that the sometimes-ragged interviews and portraits of Beyond Belief are most fleshed-out and convincing.

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As always, there is much to criticize in Naipaul’s cultural and political analysis. “There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs,” he writes; and that “probably” hints at a doubt in his own mind about the Christian imperialism that swept across Europe in the later Middle Ages, initiating a new social order and rewriting history in much the same way Islam has done. Then there is Naipaul’s penchant for arbitrary absolutes, as exemplified by his fondness for the word “converted,” with its ring of clarity and finality. At times, he appears to contradict his own argument that, by so forcefully wiping away the past, Islam had irreparably damaged the social order. In Pakistan, for example, he repeatedly concludes that the state is failing because Islam isn’t strong enough glue to hold the country together against ancient loyalties of clan and region.

There is a sense, though, in which such criticisms of Naipaul’s political pronouncements are beside the point. At the very least, they are repetitive; by now, Naipaul’s half-thought-out conclusions, hasty extrapolations, and staggering prejudices are the stuff of legend. For almost forty years he had traversed the globe, hissing with neurotic fury and spouting outlandish theories about the “monkeys,” “barrow boys,” and “inferior minds” he encounters. At this point, there is a sense of routine, even humor, to his outrageousness; like an old joke repeated among friends, his vitriol has come to acquire a certain charm. One of my favorite Naipaul stories, for example, is of the time a companion had to warn him to tone down his outbursts while walking the streets of New York, ” I wouldn’t go around talking like that,” the companion said. ” You could get killed.”

So it should be clear, at this late stage in Naipaul’s career, that the value of his work does not rest on his political analyses. To read the works solely as political or historical narratives is to do them an injustice, to refuse to consider them on their true merits. Their grand sweep notwithstanding, Naipaul’s books have never really been about politics or history; they have always been about one man and his position in the stream of history. His chronicles have been profoundly personal; his political stands should be read for insight into Naipaul himself, as autobiography. “That first journey” to India, Naipaul later acknowledged, “I was a fearful traveler.” So it has been in all his books: Naipaul’s manifold insecurities are imprinted on every outlandish judgement and every flawed political analysis.

This subjective vision has distorted Naipaul’s approach to the world; but it is also the hallmark of his art, and the source of much of its brilliance. Like Joseph Conrad, an earlier explorer in the world’s unmade and half-made colonial societies, Naipaul is possessed of a meditative, psychological style. His first person narratives are deeply introspective; they are internalized, pensive, even rambling. While they appear to be about the world and events that make up the story, these books are, behind the blur of narration, about the inner world of the narrator himself. The books, in the final analysis, are dazzling and uncanny portrayals of human psychology; reading them is like stepping into the fairy-tale world of a stranger’s sensibility.

In this psychological voyeurism, as critics have sometimes remarked, there is a certain Chekovian sensitivity, a remarkable capacity for empathy. While this has been particularly evident in the novels, it is also increasingly true of the travel books, which have evolved from the standard landscape-and-bus-ride performances of the genre to a series of compelling portraits, painstakingly assembled in interviews and presented as lengthy monologues. “It was years before I saw that the most important thing about travel, for the writer, was the people he found himself among,” Naipaul writes in the prologue to Beyond Belief. As he did in A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul lets these people tell their own stories. The results are uneven: at times, the stories seem sketchy, like undeveloped notes from the field. But the best of these portraits are about the joy and pathos of human life. These books are filled with longing, hope, and despair; to read them is to journey deep into the recesses of men’s souls.

Yet the empathy goes only so far before the narcissism creeps back in. The mind on display is Naipaul’s; the psychology through which the world is filtered–and distorted–is his alone. This is particularly true of the later novels, like A Bend in the River (1979), The Enigma of Arrival, and A Way in the World (1994), books that entangle fiction and autobiography, where the fastidious prose and hasty judgements of the narrators meld seamlessly into the author’s own sensibility. But this is also true, in a different way, of the travel books. In these books, it is not so much that his narrators–the subjects of his psychological portraits–stand in for Naipaul; rather, it is travel itself that stands in for self-exploration. From the beginning, Naipaul’s travels, strewn with the memorabilia of his life, have been wandering autobiographies. In venturing to the “half-made” colonial societies of the world, Naipaul has been venturing into his own half-made personality, mapping an emptiness within himself, carrying with him the baggage of a missing past.

That anxiety over a missing past is Naipaul’s grand theme; it unites all his works, from the earliest social comedies to the most recent travel writing, and it has always colored his vision of the world. It is the anxiety of a man twice robbed of history: by the ancestral migration from the homeland, his family’s passage one hundred years ago from a North Indian village to indentured servitude in Trinidad; and by the trauma of his own migration at eighteen to England, where, cut off from home and family, he suffered a nervous breakdown. (He returned home six years later, three years after his father’s funeral.) His family’s passage to Trinidad, Naipaul has written, left him with a “special incompleteness”; his “past suddenly broke off, suddenly fell away into the chasm between the Antilles and India.” Rootlessness, homelessness, exile: these are the personal obsessions that inform Naipaul’s historical analysis. And if he has too stubbornly espoused a blinkered ethic of historical preservation, it is because he is haunted by the loss of his own history. Thus the West Indies that Naipaul disparages in The Middle Passage (1962) as “a place with no history” and “without a character and purpose of (its) own” is the West Indies where Naipaul himself, overwhelmed by the marginality of his uprooted Hindu community, finds no identity or history he can call his own. And thus the India of An Area of Darkness (1964), a “wounded civilization” that has abandoned its heritage, only deepens the wound of Naipaul’s own lost heritage. ” It was a journey that ought not to have been made,” Naipaul writes near the end of that book. “It had broken my life in two.”

Today, against the backdrop of political ferment in South Asia, it is still personal neurosis that drives the analysis. The age has changed, but Naipaul’s demons are the same. In his distaste for the converted peoples, there is all that earlier disdain, that panicked rejection of a society cut off from its past. “It is strange to someone of my background,” he writes, binding private and national history, “that in the converted Muslim countries……the fundamentalist rage is against the past, against history.” This rage against the past is a source of personal, not public, trauma. Naipaul never makes a convincing case that it is the cause of the political and social failures he perceives. “The faithful no longer saw themselves as conquered,” he writes, but he documents hardly any psychological injury or political damage that can be traced to this wound that is not even felt by its putative sufferers. The best he can do is mourn the decrepitude of several pre-Islamic monuments, attributing their neglect to a lack of reverence for the non-Arab past. But those neglected monuments–endemic, as Naipaul knows very well, to poor countries around the world–are not the issue; the issue is that their decrepitude speaks to a brokenness, an insufficiency, within Naipaul himself.

If the countries Naipaul visits in Beyond Belief provoke his worst fears, then the India of A Million Mutinies Now is like a balm to those fears. It is this dialectic–a resurgent Hinduism answering a need that Islam makes more acute–that explains the apparent dissonance between his books. Already, some twenty years ago, Naipaul’s travels in India were filled with rage at the Muslim invasions that had, he felt, effaced the country’s history. Naipaul also spoke of Hinduism as a personal “link with the past,” a “part of one’s background, part of one’s heritage.” But at that time, shortly after the publication ofIndia: A Wounded Civilization (1977), it was a link that India itself, at least in Naipaul’s opinion, had failed to maintain. “The purely Indian past died a long time ago,” Naipaul observed in that book. India, he wrote a few pages on, was “a wounded old civilization that…..is without the intellectual means to move ahead.” Now, Naipaul believes that the nation is rediscovering its heritage. “You must be sympathetic to a movement that is laying claim to the land,” he recently said of Hindu fundamentalism, expressing the same optimism that infects A Million Mutinies Now. But is he celebrating for the country? The joy, as he makes clear in the book’s conclusion, is as much for himself as it is for India. “In 27 years,” he writes, “I had succeeded in making a kind of return journey… abolishing the darkness that separated me from my ancestral past.” Far from signaling a radically new approach to the world, Naipaul’s celebration of India’s Hindu revival reiterates the solipsistic logic that has marked his entire career: it maps the private onto the public, and pictures the world through the aperture of a personal lacuna.

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To consider Naipaul’s work in this way is to consider it on its own terms. In a sense, too, it is to approach the work with a compassion that Naipaul himself has so often been unable to display toward others. In page after page of inimitable prose, in paragraph after paragraph of self-denudation, the books yield the fullness of a man whose humanness– whose personal longings and relentless strivings–simply cannot be obscured by the crudeness of his political judgements. One can be angry about his politics; but one cannot cast aside a certain affinity, bred partly out of familiarity and partly out of admiration, for the man.

For there is, in Naipaul, much to admire. The me-centered approach to the world that is the source of his political failings is also the sign of a profound individuality, an intellectual integrity that imparts a measure of moral authority to his work. “The world is what it is; men who are nothing; have no place in it,” says Salim, the narrator of A Bend in the River. The aphorism draws evident inspiration from the trajectory of Naipaul’s own career: the young boy from the colonial backwater who escaped to Oxford on a scholarship and made good in the literary world: the self-made man.

Without a history, and without the comfort of clan and community–without the building blocks of personality–Naipaul had fashioned for himself a distinctive and idiosyncratic identity. This identity has been summoned from within; conjured, as it were, from an abyss of ancestral emptiness. His lifelong project of autobiography is in fact a project of self-fashioning. “Out of work…. I defined myself,” writes Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, the intricate, semi-autobiographical novel that is as much about Naipaul’s accommodation with the stranger in himself as it is about coming to terms with an unfamiliar Wiltshire setting.

In this individualistic self-conception, there has always been a certain intellectual rectitude, an unwillingness to compromise by finding easy answers outside one’s own self. In Among the Believers, Naipaul’s earlier book on Islam, he meets a man called Shafi, in Malaysia. Naipaul concludes that Shafi’s embrace of Islamic orthodoxy is the reaction of someone distraught over the loss of security, the constancy of the life he had known as a child in a Malay village. “Some grief like that touches most of us,” Naipaul writes. “It is what, as individuals, responsible for ourselves, we constantly have to accommodate ourselves to. Shafi, in his own eyes, was the first man expelled from paradise. He blamed the world; he shifted the whole burden of that accommodation onto Islam.”

It is a beautiful statement, Naipaul at his wisest and most generous. And it sums up Naipaul’s own ethic, his refusal to substitute the prepackaged selfhoods of clan, class, and religion for the genuineness of a self-created identity. “I wished to belong to myself,” Naipaul writes in A Way in the World. “I couldn’t support the idea of being part of a group.” This rejection, the refusal ever to accept the simplifications of a group, is the source of much of Naipaul’s apparent prejudice–of his scorn for the racialism, nationalism, and sectarianism that have so often provided a sense of selfhood and security in the postcolonial world. But Naipaul’s unqualified rejection has also been his exoneration. If he has at times appeared racist or unsympathetic to Third World movements, then it is because, in a form of negative impartiality, he has always rejected the very notion of races and movements.

But now, in his newfound enthusiasm for India’s fundamentalists, there is a slackening of these proscriptions. Hindu fundamentalism is an unabashed purveyor of the group ideology Naipaul has so stridently rejected. In its extreme forms, it promotes Hindu-first employment and cultural policies. In its more moderate forms, as the Indian political scientist Ashutosh Varshney has pointed out, it envisions a nation grounded in “Hindu culture” in much the same way early proponents of Pakistan desired a nation less for the Islamic religion than for the culture and society they felt were intrinsic to the religion. Hindu fundamentalists are not the Taliban; but fundamentalism is fundamentalism, and in an India where communal harmony is punctuated by the burning of missionaries and the growing insecurity of Muslims, the “million mutinies” that so excited Naipaul could easily morph into the “jihad upon jihad” that he condemns in Pakistan.

In Naipaul’s unwillingness to acknowledge this similarity, one senses a weakening of purpose, a flagging of will in the last mile of his quest for roots. That quest, no doubt, has often been lonely. The unrelenting search for difficult answers, the determination to go through life without the comfort of groups or movements: these speak to a great deal of courage. “Vidia is a sufferer,” one of Naipaul’s editors once said of him. Now, like Shafi, who shifted the burden of his grief onto Islam, it appears that Naipaul has tired of suffering. Perhaps this is the fatigue he has been warning us about all along.

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