A study of V S Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, the first book of his trilogy on India, is made in this essay to assess and sift the fact from 'fiction'. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001. It was not only in recognition of his glory but his responsibility too. As a writer of non-fiction he becomes important not simply for his style or form but rather for the deliberate choice and nature of his content. In such writings, the matter becomes more important than the manner.
But as a fiction and travelogue writer, especially about India, he seems not to have cared for truth and responsibility. His picture of India in his trilogy, especially in the first book, while true in its descriptive part, is not so in its analytical part. His picture is exaggeratedly gloomy, negative, prejudiced and far from being true. It is the aim of this article to point out and differentiate the factual side from the purely fictional one.
Patrick French, the authorised biographer of V.S. Naipaul said that Naipaul acquired a "reputation for causing offence" (Introduction, xi). This comment is true with reference to Naipaul's trilogy on India: An Area of Darkness, India, A Wounded Civilisation and India: A Million Mutinies Now. It is more appropriate with reference to the first travelogue. As Naipaul had his roots in India, his views are sure to affect any Indian either positively or negatively.
In the three travelogues Naipaul critically evaluates India's history, culture and politics. These works take the reader on a voyage from an India that was 'an area of darkness 'that has lost its values and culture to an India which is 'a wounded civilisation,' where, as Naipaul later on discovers 'a million mutinies' are happening.
An Area of Darkness is a semi-autobiographical travelogue detailing Naipaul's trip through India in the early sixties. It was the first of Naipaul's acclaimed Indian trilogy. To him India was a "featureless area of darkness" (Naipaul 1964: 30). He describes his experiences in Mumbai, in Hotel Liward in Kashmir, with Indian railways, and his pilgrimage to the cave of Amarnath. At the end, he leaves for Trinidad, his home town, with anxiety and frustration. The experiences cover a period of one year. One has to go deep into it in order to discover if Naipaul's presentation is really justified or prejudiced and one-sided.
Colonial India in the twentieth century forms the cultural context of this travelogue. Naipaul gives the reader a vivid insight into the various sects and cultural systems dominating this country. There are copious references to Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists and he paints some vivid pictures of their various customs. Poverty is a key aspect of this culture and contributes a good deal to the reason why he chose such a title for the work. Naipaul describes India in his An Area of Darkness as 'the poorest country in the world' (Naipaul 1964: 41) and as 'the world's largest slum' (Naipaul 1964: 173). The Indians defecate everywhere (Naipaul 1964: 70) but fail to face up to this fact. We have grim and rather depressing images of poverty regarding India in this first book on India.
The prelude in An Area of Darkness describes how Naipaul comes to Mumbai, the old Bombay, via Greece, Egypt and Alexandria; how his two liquor bottles are confiscated by the customs authorities and how he struggles to get them back. From the beginning the comment on East tends to be very negative:
Even in Greece I had felt Europe falling away…And in the streets there was East one had expected: the children, the dirt, the disease, the undernourishment, the cries of bakshish, the hawkers, the touts, the glimpses of minarets (Naipaul 1964: 4).
As he arrived in Mumbai, the customs officials seized his two bottles of liquor. He was told that he could get back those bottles if he got a liquor permit. That could have really been irritating but Naipaul gives an exaggerated and generalised version of his feeling: "To be in Bombay was to be exhausted" (Naipaul 1964: 9).
From a few places one can clearly understand that Naipaul's thinking itself is completely westernised. When he describes the preparation and distribution of food by Indians we can clearly comprehend it:
It still horrifies me that people put out food for animals on plates that they themselves use…as it horrifies me to see women sipping from the ladles with which they stir their pots. This was more than difference; this was the uncleanliness we had to guard against (Naipaul 1964: 28).
Naipaul is uncritical and honest in a few places. He is, as he himself says in India: A Wounded Civilisation, at once "too close and too far" to India (Foreword, x). Most of the Indians are religious and ritualistic. Since Naipaul was a 'born' unbeliever (Naipaul 1964: 27), he himself makes that clear in the book that since he was sans belief, "…one whole side of India was closed to me" (Naipaul 1964: 37).
But accuracy and prejudice go hand in hand with Naipaul. According to him, Indians have no individuality at all. He feels that he has lost his face as soon as he landed in Bombay. "Now in Bombay…I was faceless" (Naipaul 1964: 39).
Naipaul's one-sidedness is best expressed by his clear prejudices against Muslims. He says that Muslims were "not to be trusted" and they would "always do you down" (Naipaul 1964:25). Naipaul shows his ignorance or prejudice when describing the Id festival and Id prayers. He says that it was a day when Muslims "had to eat meat" (Naipaul 1964:133). But the fact is that Muslims do eat meat on almost every important occasion, on Fridays for example. And it is blatantly wrong and ridiculous to conclude that they eat meat only on the Id day.
His description of Muslim ablution before the ceremonial prayer is also wrong. Naipaul says that their genitals are ceremoniously washed in public before prayers which is far from the truth. During ablution before the prayers, a Muslim would wash his face, arms to the elbows, head and feet to the ankles, each thrice. The genitals are not even touched. But Naipaul's reference seems to be intentionally misleading and not simply ignorant. Naipaul seems to be a mixture of contradictions.
The section on Srinagar politics starts with another prejudice against Muslims. He says that the Punjabi Muslims are anti-Indian: "the most anti-Indian people in the Valley were Punjabi Muslim settlers, often in high positions" (Naipaul 1964:137). One feels that perhaps he feels resents their 'high positions'.
It is in this section that a wholly negative picture of India emerges. It deals mainly with Indian poverty, poor sanitary habits and the caste system. Naipaul states categorically that the whole Indian society is a"diseased society" (Naipaul 1964:75). At first, he deals extensively with the Indian habit of defecating in public places without any sense of shame. The observations and descriptions are true even today: "If you surprise a group of three women, companionably defecating, they will giggle: the shame is yours, for exposing yourself to such a scene" (Naipaul 1964: 69). But the most derogatory but undeniable comment comes now:
Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover (Naipaul 1964: 70).
According to Naipaul, India came under foreign rule due to lack of sanitation: "Sanitation was linked to caste, caste to callousness, inefficiency and a hopelessly divided country, division to weakness, weakness to foreign rule" (Naipaul 1964: 75). Nothing could be more absurd than this. In the course of these observations, Naipaul reveals his high caste mentality also. He categorically states that reserving government jobs for the untouchables "places responsibility in the hands of the unqualified" (Naipaul 1964: 82).
The climax of absurdity could be seen in his description of his discomfort with India. He felt the country to be alien in its extremes because the "landscape was harsh and wrong. I could not relate it to myself: I was looking for a balanced rural landscape of Indian Trinidad" (Naipaul 1964: 149).
It is very amusing to find a writer of such fame and name finding fault with the natural topography and geography of a country! What could be more illogical and insensible than this? Just because one could not relate oneself to a new country how could the landscape itself be wrong? Passages like this clearly prove that Naipaul's picture of India is one-sided and highly prejudiced.
Naipaul is not ready to accept or appreciate Indian beauty. Whereas whenever he finds dirt and filth, he describes it so picturesquely and takes credit for that. But when he finds something beautiful in India, he is slow to accept it and hesitates to appreciate it. One such example was the beauty of the Moghul gardens. To Naipaul the "Moghul gardens remained beautiful because they were still gardens; they still worked" (Naipaul 1964: 152).
While Naipaul talks a lot about Indians' lack of historical sense, it is ironic that he himself displays such a lack. He says that the history of north India is nothing but a devastation and conquest of Hinduism by Muslim invaders. One could easily understand that he makes an exaggerated statement when he says that all the temples in north India were destroyed by foreign rulers and mosques were built in those places: "Mosque on temple: ruin on ruin. This is in the North" ( Naipaul 1964: 218).
Naipaul always makes it a point to say that if there is anything good in India and among the Indians, he attributes it to foreign influence. The fact that Indians respect the past is a contribution of Europe, according to him. Naipaul says that it is still "through European eyes that India looks at her ruins and her art" (Naipaul 1964: 221).
In his Noble acceptance speech he says about life in Trinidad: "We looked inwards…the world outside existed in a kind of darkness…". It is the same subjective and withdrawn mentality that he has displayed with regard to his observations of India in this book. The book is negatively subjective, prejudiced and pessimistic. "In Trinidad, bright boy though I was, I was surrounded by areas of darkness", he says. It is the Trinidadian darkness which seems to have extended to India also.
This view is confirmed by Naipaul himself in his Nobel acceptance speech: "When I became a writer those areas of darkness around me as a child became my subjects. The land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India"i.
As a deeply pessimistic work, An Area of Darkness conveys the acute sense of disillusionment which the author experiences on his first visit to his native land. True to his style, the narration is anecdotal and descriptive. The quest for roots ends in disappointment in this book. The last chapter or section rightly entitled 'Flight' could very well be a metaphoric flight from reality. There seems to be more fiction than fact in his trilogy, especially in An Area of Darkness.