There are things in life that you try to forget. Yet, they keep on lingering in some corner of your heart, bubbling up once in a while unannounced. “An Area of Darkness”, the first book by Naipaul on India, falls in that category of unforgettable things.
I read this book after a year of a visit to my ancestral village in Nepal, a good 200 years after my ancestors had left it for greener pastures in India. But that is where the similarity between Naipaul and me, as far as discovering one’s roots is concerned, ends.
The semi-autobiography is an account of a 29-year-old Naipaul visiting India for the first time, a country of his ancestors, an area of darkness. It describes his journey through the maze of Indian bureaucracy and lethargy, holy men and their followers, the mystical Himalayas laced with defecating pilgrims, Kashmir and the ever-greedy hosts ready to devour gullible tourists, the naive American seeking solace in the East, abandoned temples and cultures, the caste system and resignation to fate, Gandhi and dharma, deep-entrenched poverty and the poor waddling in a cesspool of Karma and misfortune, and finally his visit to his ancestral village. There is deep cynicism and bitterness about every experience in this journey.
As you read, you cannot but have a fluctuating feeling for Naipaul. He could be described as an uprooted man, who makes a superficial attempt at understanding the country from a close yet relatively safe distance. He always travels in a car, hires coolies to drag him up the mountains, never tries to escape the boat houses and engage with local Kashmiris, etc. On the other hand, he also appears to be a deeply aware man, who has come back to confront the land of his forefathers, to seek answers, and in the process discovers himself better. The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in between.
In a hypothetical situation, if I was reading his book just after its release, I would be certain about one thing: he would come back again to discover more. This, we all know, is true. I say this because Naipaul’s first attempt to capture India is similar to teenagers rebelling against their immediate environment. There is anger, disappointment, and even repulsion. But just like teenagers who outgrow their angst, reconcile and eventually understand that all they believed as a young person need not necessary be how the world functions, Naipaul’s subsequent work at understanding and writing about India sees him bringing out the nuances of a diverse and complex country better.
In that larger scheme of things, I really enjoyed the book despite it being cringe-worthy at places. Sometimes, you even feel like trading places with the protagonist (Naipual himself) to make him behave in a more humane manner. He could have definitely been kinder to his long lost relatives. But that’s how Naipaul is, whether in writing or in real life.
There is one thing that definitely disappoints in this book – his analysis of the current status of India in monochrome without the shade of the rapid colonial plundering of the nation for 200 years (though he does talk about repeated invasion destroying the Indian ethos). Similarly, though subtle, his admiration of the West is obvious and appears without the stain of imperialism and genocide on which much of the civilisation actually prospered to its present state.
Naipaul, is a product of all his history – a grandfather who inherited a moderate fortune because of his caste in Trinidad, his childhood in Port of Spain, his life in London, and so on. So is India a product of its history. Naipaul, in this attempt, is either ignorant about it or stubbornly refuses to grasp that, just like a teenage boy who flatly declines to see reason or sense for a 10 pm curfew at home. I suspect the second, for when the teenager eventually grows up, we see a more subtle assessment of the land of his ancestors in his subsequent works.
The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.