Pankaj Mishra on

V S Naipaul's An Area of Darkness

V S Naipaul first visited India in 1962. The book emerging out of that visit, An Area of Darkness, remains a valuable record of an India in transition - an India losing, under a weak and exhausted Nehru, a war with China, and losing along with it its flush of post-independence idealism and innocence. Indeed, each one of Naipaul's trilogy of books on India has come to stand as a historical document of India's post-colonial evolution. Published just after Mrs Gandhi's Emergency, India: a wounded civilization (1977) captures the post-Nehru years of drift and aimlessness, "the simplicity of a country ruled by slogans". In India: a million mutinies now (1990) Naipaul correctly intuited, and made his theme, the rise of long-suppressed identities that radically altered Indian society in this decade.

Many different ideas and expectations prompted Naipaul's first visit to India. He left Trinidad, where he was born in 1932, when he was 18 to study at Oxford. He had wanted to be a writer and had travelled to England, which was then the centre of the world for English-speaking colonials everywhere. It had taken him much time to sort out his writerly ambition, and even after a brilliant start as a writer - five books in just seven years, one of which was the considerable achievement of A House for Mr Biswas - the value of his work was slow to be recognised.

Published at a time when "Indian" novels were an oddity, particularly Indian novels from the West Indies, Naipaul's books suffered critical and commercial neglect. There were other disappointments. The life in London to which he had looked forward had turned out to be "sterile" and "mean". But what were the alternatives? What were the places he could think of as "home", as the centre of his world? He had been back to Trinidad; the visit - described in The Middle Passage - had merely vindicated an early childhood vow to distance himself from the island. There remained only India, the land of his Brahmin ancestors.

On his first visit, Naipaul took with him the conventional ideas of India - the India people then knew as the land of Gandhi and Nehru, the India of the glittering classical past, which had been meticulously dredged up by European Indologists in the 19th century. He took with him his own childhood memories of an old India, the Brahmanic world of rituals and myths that had been carefully preserved in Trinidad. This past held an emotional charge for Naipaul. His ancestors had come to Trinidad as indentured labourers in the last quarter of the 19th century. The regions of North India they lived in were systematically rendered destitute by the British in the post-mutiny period. Brahmins had been a special target. The long sea voyages to the "Great Unknown" - the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius - violated caste rules but were made necessary by the surrounding dereliction.

The history of these Brahmins was one of great poverty and wretchedness; and to the generations that followed the first arrivals in Trinidad those early traumas were fresh in the memory. Naipaul, a third-generation Indian, had just begun to outgrow this painful past when he went to India. But India, poor and abject, was to revive in the most unexpected way all the fears and insecurities he had known as a child.

"It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two," Naipaul wrote on the penultimate page of An Area of Darkness - a record of intense fear and anguish. But if this book was only about a lacerated sensibility, similar to books by certain kinds of western travellers to India, it would not be read any more. Remarkably, for a travel book published in 1964, it has outlasted its time; and it has done so because of literary virtues that sound simple but are hardest to achieve: honesty and directness.

Consider this moment towards the end of the book. Naipaul is winding up an awkward visit to his ancestral village; a boy asks for a lift back to town with him. Naipaul says, "Let the idler walk". The trip ends in "futility and impatience, a gratuitous act of cruelty, self-reproach and flight". Elsewhere, Naipaul first shows himself growing angry; and then examines the event with the writer's later detachment and serenity: "It was brutal; it was ludicrous; it was pointless and infantile. But the moment of anger is a moment of exalted shrinking lucidity, from which recovery is slow and shattering."

Anger and fear made Naipaul see things other travellers miss. Few writers had ever said as many incisive things about the cultural encounter between India and Britain as found in the chapter titled "Fantasy and Ruins". The work abounds in startling new perceptions, and for many writers and intellectuals in India, it became a crucial part of their self-education - Naipaul's radical interpretation of Gandhi, among other things, disturbed.

Serious-minded travellers to India continue to read Darkness as a guide to a range of bewildering Indian attitudes. Others cherish it for Naipaul's descriptions of places - particularly of Kashmir - which are precise and lyrical, without ever relying on the heavy vocabulary deployed by, for instance, Jan Morris. And in Naipaul's own intellectual journey, it is an important landmark. The Middle Passage, Naipaul's first travel book, is largely conventional in form and content. The unique mingling of social enquiry and autobiography that marks Naipaul's later non-fiction (and indeed his fiction) first occurred in An Area of Darkness. It is where you can see him developing his special ways of seeing and working towards new kinds of knowledge about himself, about India, about the "half-made societies" that would become his subject in later books. It is where he began to find that elusive centre of his world - the centre that lay not in any particular place but in the many areas of darkness of his own richly diverse past.

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