In this masterly return to his third India book, India: A Million Mutinies Now, VS Naipaul does not merely revisit its seer-like vision, he reveals how new ideas and genres are born, and how books get written (Tehelka, Vol-4, Issue 13).
I thought when I began to write that I would do fiction alone. To be a writer of the imagination seemed to me the noblest thing. But after a few books I saw that my material — the matter in my head, the matter in the end given me by my background — would not support that ambition.
The ambition itself had been given me by what I knew of the great 19th-century novels of Europe, or what I thought I knew of them. I put it in that cautious way because, before I began to write, I actually hadn’t read a great deal. I saw now — something I suppose I had always sensed but never worked out as an idea — that those novels had come out of societies more compartmented, more intellectually ordered and full of conviction than the one I found myself in. To pretend that I came out of a society as complete and ordered would in some ways have made writing easier. The order I am talking about is, simply, the order, the fenced-in setting, that underpins the television situation comedy. The rules of the fenced-in world are few and easily understood; the messy outside world doesn’t intrude to undo the magic. I could have tried to write like that. But I would not have got very far. I would have had to simplify too much, leave out a lot. It would have been to deny what I saw as my task as a writer.
I had to be true to my own world. It was more fluid, harder to pin down and present to a reader in any accepted, 19th-century way. Every simple statement I could make about myself or my family or background had to be qualified in some way.
I was born in 1932 on the other side of the Atlantic in the British colony of Trinidad, an outcrop of Venezuela and South America. It was a small island, essentially agricultural when I was born (like Venezuela, it had oil, which was beginning to be developed). It had a racially mixed population of perhaps half a million, with my own immigrant Asian Indian community (finely divided by religion, education, money, caste background) of about 150,000.
I had no great love for the place, no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisations, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible. An academic scholarship in 1950, when I was 18, enabled me to leave. I went to England to do a university course with the ambition afterwards of being a writer. I never in any real sense went back.
So my world as a writer was full of flight and unfinished experience, full of the odds and ends of cultures and migrations, from India to the New World in 1880-1900, from the New World to Europe in 1950, things that didn’t make a whole. There was nothing like the stability of the rooted societies that had produced the great fictions of the 19th century, in which, for example, even a paragraph of a fairytale or parable by Tolstoy could suggest a whole real world. And soon I saw myself at the end of the scattered island material I carried with me.
But writing was my vocation; I had never wished to be anything but a writer. My practice as a writer had deepened the fascination with people and narrative that I had always had, and increasingly now, in the larger world I had wanted to join, that fascination was turning into a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part. It was necessary for me as a writer to engage with the larger world. I didn’t know how to set about it; there was no example I could follow.
The practice of fiction couldn’t help me. Fiction is best done from within and out of great knowledge. In the larger world I was an outsider; I didn’t know enough and would never know enough. After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.
In the practising of this new way I had to deal first of all with my ancestral land, India. I was not an insider, even after many months of travel; nor could I consider myself an outsider: India and the idea of India had always been important to me. So I was always divided about India, and found it hard to say a final word. In all I have written three books about India. They are non-fiction, as they had to be, but they are as personal and varied and deeply felt as any work of fiction could be. India: A Million Mutinies Now was the third. It was written 26 years after the first. It had taken the writer all that time to go beyond personal discovery and pain, and analysis, to arrive at the simple and overwhelming idea that the most important thing about India, the thing to be gone into and understood, and not seen from the outside, was the people.
The book was dedicated to a further idea: that India was, in the simplest way, on the move; that all over the vast country, men and women had moved out of the cramped ways and expectations of their parents and grandparents, and were expecting more. This was the “million mutinies” of the title; it was not guerrilla wars all round. Nearly every English-speaker would have some idea of the brief Indian mutiny of 1857, when some mercenary Indian soldiers of the British East India Company, confused and angry, but with no clear end in view, mutinied against the British. The million mutinies of my title suggests that what is happening now is a truer and more general way ahead.
This seems a reasonable thing to say now, in 2007, at the time of an acknowledged Indian boom. It was different in 1988, when I began the book. India was full of a pietistic Gandhian gloom, self-satisfied and rather happy as this kind of gloom often is in India. The talk among the talkers in the towns was of degeneracy, a falling away from the standards of earlier times: politics were being criminalised, and there was corruption everywhere. Standard stuff, not profound, not based on any real knowledge of the country; but it could undermine one. It was the background against which I worked out my idea of the mutinies.
The idea didn’t come to me out of the air. I had done a lot of hard travelling in India in the past 26 years. As a writer, a free man, I had picked up a more varied knowledge of the country than most Indians, who were bound to their families and jobs. I had spent many weeks in the districts, away from the big towns. With the help and hospitality of Indian friends and officials I had been able in various places to enter, if only for a week or two at a time, the life of the bare and sometimes forbidding Indian countryside. I had been granted some knowledge of small-town life. I had not always written of what I had seen. So my experience had banked up, and the idea now came to me of expanding on that experience and doing a large book, full of people, an Indian panorama which (since I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future) would contain or explain in a broad way most of what might happen in the country for the next 20 or 30 years. This was what I told my English publishers. They liked the idea; they bought it after 10 minutes, quite literally; and not many days after that I found myself in the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, marvelling at my ambition, and not really sure how I was to come to a human understanding of the enormous city (such an apparently impenetrable afternoon crowd just outside, moving about the Gateway of India, beside the tarnished Arabian Sea). And, of course, behind the city there was the country: memories for me, alarming now, of endless sunstruck journeys by road and rail.
I had four blank, frightening days in the glamorous hotel, during which I did the dispiriting thing of keeping a self-conscious journal with nothing to say. I didn’t like the journal form; it blurred vision. I preferred distance, and the sifting of memory. The comparison that comes to mind now is that of Ibsen, still more poet than playwright, struggling to keep a journal on his trip to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Momentous days, fabulous sights: made for a journal, one would have thought; but it must have fatigued Ibsen to be on the outside, dealing only with the externals of things, and he simply stopped. In some such way in Bombay I broke down and gave my dour journal up; and looked around to make another kind of start.
A big board in the hotel lobby advertised a resident or “in-house” fortune-teller; I was often tempted in those four days to go for a reading, to find out whether I would do the book. I didn’t have to do that. One does more in anxiety than one suspects. The book did get started — “Bombay is a crowd” is the opening line I alighted on, and then it moved fast.
Ideas are abstract. They become books only when they are clothed with people and narrative. The reader, once he has entered this book and goes beyond the opening pages, finds himself in a double narrative. There is the immediate narrative of the person to whom we are being introduced; there is the larger outer narrative in which all the varied pieces of the book are going to fit together. Nothing is done at random. Serious travel is an art, even if no writing is contemplated; and the special art in this book lay in divining who of the many people I met would best and most logically take my story forward, where nothing had to be forced.
I had to depend on local people for introductions, and it was not always easy to make clear what I was looking for. Many people, trained in journalistic ways, thought I was looking for “spokesmen” for various interests. I was in fact looking for something profounder and more intrusive: someone’s lived experience (if I can so put it) that would illuminate some aspect, some new turn, in the old country’s unceasing adjustment to new thought, new politics, new ideas of business. So in this book one kind of experience grows out of another, one theme develops out of another.
Part of my luck was the decision, made for no clear reason one day in the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, to do the religiously inauspicious Indian thing and travel round India in an anti-clockwise direction. To have gone the other way, north to Delhi and Calcutta and the Punjab would have been to get to the meat of the book too quickly, to leave the rest of the country hanging on, in a kind of anti-climax. To go south first, as I did, was to deal in a fresh way with important things like the influence of caste on the development of Indian science, the little-known century-long caste war of the south, the dispossession of the brahmins. This could be said to prepare the reader (and the writer) for the disturbances of the north: the British in Calcutta, Lucknow, Delhi — all the history of the past century, just below the present.
I have often been asked about note-taking methods during the actual time of travel. I used no tape-recorder; I used pen and notebook alone. Since I was never sure whether someone I was meeting would serve my purpose, I depended in the beginning very often on simple conversation. I never frightened anyone by showing a notebook. If I found I was hearing something I needed, I would tell the person I wanted to take down his words at a later time. At this later time I would get the person to repeat what he had said and what I half knew. I took it all down in handwriting, making a note as I did so of the setting, the speaker, and my own questions. It invariably happened that the speaker, seeing me take it all down by hand, spoke more slowly and thoughtfully this second time, and yet his words had the rhythm of normal speech. An amazing amount could be done in an hour. I changed nothing, smoothed over nothing.
Ambitious and difficult books are not always successful. But it remains to be said that in England this book has been reprinted 32 or 33 times. I marvel at the luck.
© VS Naipaul
Mar 31 , 2006