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Jayshree Singh

Jayshree Singh – Naipaul’s Travelogues

V S Naipaul’s Reflections of Religious Projections in His Travelogues

The present study offers another perspective to analyze V S Naipaul not only as a writer but also to search in him a visionary insight. The Naipaul travelogues depict or explain the religious picture of different communities of not only India but also of the whole South Asia. His perception is critical because he finds in the religious orientations the contrast between appearance and reality and he finds that there is lot of cultural projection or ethnocentric influence. In his discourse he mentions that there is unsympathetic and insensitive attitude to one another because they live in the illusion of the religious manifestations, yet Naipaul presents an integrative view of human liberation from these religious forces and he tries to explore religion and myths from historical, social, political and cultural aspects in context of post-modern thoughts and in reference to post-colonial studies.

His journeys denote the mystic sense associated with initiation or transformation. They are not only his observations of his physical experience but literally they evolve an archetype psychic feelings who wants to draw an allegorical narrative through his inner vision by exploring the waking vision of the stations that he travels. These travelogues may be described as narratives of an expatriate argumentative Indian who in the process of searching his entity curiously comes across the cultural practices in India, in Pakistan and in Iran, which are co-incidentally correlated in determining their origin, history, religion and identity forming truths. This imbibes in the reader a new awareness and maturity. His sensitive records have an empirical outlook for moral and social inquiry and demystify the dimensions of memory, desire, consciousness, structure and sustainable development.

Naipaul himself gets outrageous and empathetic to explain his unhappiness for he was not acclimatized with the Indian ways, especially the orthodox ways, while he was on his trip to Kashmir and his stay at Liward Hotel, he writes ironically:

I remained unhappy. Being an unorthodox hotel, we attracted the orthodox. There had been the Brahmin family, the first of many, who had insisted on cooking for themselves. They shelled peas, sifted rice and cut carrots in the doorway of their room; they cooked in the broom cupboard below the steps and washed their pots and pans at the garden tap; they turned part of the new turf to mud. Others threw their rubbish on the lawn; others spread their washing on the lawn. And I believed that the idyll was at an end when Aziz announced one day, with a well managed mixture of enthusiasm and condolence that twenty orthodox Indians were coming to the hotel for four days. Some would sleep in the dining room; we would eat in the sitting room. I was beyond condolence. Aziz recognize this and offered none. We waited. Aziz became morose, almost offended, in our presence.But the twenty did not turn up; and then for a day or two Aziz looked genuinely offended.” (An Area of Darkness, 111)

What we gather from this account, that Naipaul through his writings wants to convey his deliberate orientation to the situation where religion dominates in social and cultural perspective but business whether it is at local, national or international level do not transcend religion rather the flowering sensibility and poignant human emotional response takes over religious instincts. And thus we find his literary travelogues are able to create the vogue against the political and social inequities generated out of the dominance of religion, particularly in South Asian regions during pre-and post-colonial times.

Naipaul critically investigates ‘Jagan’ the central character in the book of R.K.Narayan The Vendor of Sweets which gives a lucid picture of wounded India, whose traditional and historical heritage seem to have been jeopardized due to modern impact of colonialism, imperialism of Britishers, secular civilization of England. He feels the violation and the worldly corruption has brought death to Hinduism and has disillusioned a Hindu who has meandered “quietism and self-cherishing ideals” for the sake of “self-less action of overwhelming political force,” which projects his fight for the truth that indicates cleansed and purified vision instead of political vision to restructure Indian society. Hence his rebellion suggests “his retreat to a wilderness where ‘the edge of reality itself that was beginning to blur’ ”(India: A Wounded Civilization, 32). Naipaul wishes to convey that holy war, by his rejection of Karma, as initiated by Jagan is basically a ritual that regulates his will, it is a rebellion (who tries to imitate the path of Gandhianism), but it lacks civilization and creativity because it appears fundamentally obedient in place of reverence and piety for the society that requires humane concern rather than social indifference. 

He says Hinduism has stooped to faddism, self-cherishing and social indifference, which Gandhi had never intended to establish in his higher goals, but a common Hindu has constructed ‘Gandhianism’ as rebirth, and growth, magic and incantation and a retrogession to an almost satyagrahi ‘rebel’ whose aim is to be beaten up or to go to jail against violation of Hindu rituals in the modern civilization. So Naipaul cracks a satire on the act of renunciation and meditation, which has adopted a different concept in the post-modern context. A Hindu Indian, whose vision of eternity is abandoned to the world of commerce and nonsense and it is no longer an idyll or a part of the Hindu continuity.

Naipaul’s travelogues may be expressed as dialogic discourse on the perceptions, impressions that he formed from his point of view as a colonial visitor, who was brought up in Trinidad, worked in Britain, visited sub-continent, that was colonized approximately for 400 years and then he presents his dilemma as an expatriate and represented his opinion about the various aspects especially the effects of religion on social and cultural life of the respective countries that he explored. He determines the trajectory for post-modern consciousness to liberate his ‘self’ from psycho-physical imperatives of transnational peripheries and conflicts as a consequence of dispensation that has caused binary in religion versus cultural affinity variable. Naipaul in his conversation with one of the inhabitants, Pravas, describes the predicament of an Indian as a native and an Indian who has migrated, who in the world of science, has become liberal but has not detached his primordial stream of faith. Pravas speaks:

‘The change wasn’t from within. It was external. Here change is gradual. It’s happening all around me-in my father, my brother, everybody. I cannot distinguish any longer what is alien’. 

Paradoxically for Naipaul and for other immigrants the situation is vice-versa. He says:

And (extending what Pravas said) there was a further, and fundamental, difference between the new generations in India and our immigrant community far away. For people of that community, separated from Indian earth, Hindu theology had become difficult (as it had become difficult for people of formerly Hinduized areas of south-east Asia); the faith had been half possessed by many, abandoned by many. It had been part of a more general cultural loss, which had left many with no strong idea of who they were. That wouldn’t happen in India, however such ritualism was left behind, and however much the externals changed. (India: A Million Mutinies Now, 198) 

Naipaul seems to derive from his conversation with Pravas if one’s religion defines birth or caste, then education, emancipation and sense of nationhood can deplete the degree of degradation whether heirarchial or patriarchial and he quotes, “I think the adoption of machinery has changed the attitude and life. It has given people the education required to handle such complicated machinery, and to that extent they have become more modern. This again is one of the causes of the Punjab problem, which the Hindus in other areas don’t understand.”(MM, 517) According to Naipaul if one’s religion disrespects the birth, race, gender, sex, caste, then the fear and terror is generated and intensifies the passion for attaining authority and power, which metaphorically intimidates victimized person to struggle against the fear of being discriminated. Owing to this feeling, Gutrej one of the theoretician of Sikhs handed over Sikh scriptures to Naipaul, whose “primary theme was the separateness of the Sikh faith and ideology from the Hindu; its further theme was that the Punjab was geographically and culturally mora a part of the Middle East than of India. The great enemy of Sikhism and the Sikh empire of Ranjit Singh had been- again – brahminism”.(MM, 518)

Naipaul’s travelogues present the dichotomy of humanization versus dehumanization. By his accounts he tries to refashion the thought process of the communities that now not only reside in sub-continent but also beyond South-Asia. He brings new awareness in the history and society that belongs to India or have migrated to other regions on account of their orientations by new knowledge and new awakening. He writes his discussion with one of the Sikh students Kuldip Singh who had been with Bhindranwale and an active participant of the All-India Sikh Students Federation. Kuldeep says:

The current Sikh movement was intended ‘to undo the political and social injustice of the world.’ The goal was ‘political power guided by Sikh religious principles and Sikh religious force.’ The ultimate goal was ‘a universal religious system, a universal spiritual system, universal humanistic values. (MM, 565)

Naipaul states an example of the emotions of decay, defeat, dread, degradation, degeneration, discrimination, despair and spiritual death in case of ritualistic religiosity occurred in an individual and then as a community as a whole. Rashid one of the Indian native expresses his awareness of Indian Independence and the meaning of partition, he utters to Naipaul:

‘It was a foregone conclusion that my sister would marry a Pakistani boy, because Muslims in India weren’t doing so well, and the Pakistanis themselves wanted to marry a girl from the old country. Muslims in India weren’t doing well, because after partition there were no jobs for them, and a general lack of opportunity. There was the resentment of the majority community. It was but natural. First you fight to get a country, and then you refuse to go.’

‘It was also the survival of the fittest working. Every Muslim house split after partition. There wasn’t a family that wasn’t affected. Parents stayed back, sons went away. The ones who stayed back were not ready to face the jungle. A lot of them were landlords, and they lacked the competitive spirit. My brother did brilliantly in studies, in India and then in the United States. When he came back to India he couldn’t get a job for six months. He went to Pakistan and got a job right away.’

‘Then the language started changing. Children over here were learning Hindi, and Muslim parents did not teach their children Urdu. We literally murdered Urdu. There was no preservation, such as the Armenians did for their language or the jews did for Hebrew. Next to the religion, the language was dearest to the Muslim heart, because that was the essence of his identity. Urdu was not far from Hindustani, the lingua franca of the elite of the north-west. But Hindustani started changing, started to be more Sanskritized, became Hindi.’(MM, 430-1)

Naipaul in the above given account seem to reconcile the inter-relatednes either by emotional outburst or by rational explanations in terms of the timelessness of human nature that always fall short of missions to explore myth of moral truths and blames the situation and the ‘others’ in place of ‘self’. The same Rashid after being to Pakistan, narrates his feelings and says:

‘Another thing I found over there was that there was no living in the past, as with us here. They had a healthier attitude to partition than the Indian Muslim. What was done was done……………………………’

‘After my two two months I was glad to leave. I felt relief to be back in India, after the claustrophobia of an Islamic society. I liked seeing women again on the streets. The dirt and filth of India didn’t seem to matter. It was just the wretched laws, hanging like a cloud over one: the call to prayers, the moulvi coming to my friend’s house and asking why he hadn’t seen us at the mosque recently. The thought police. Islam on wheels.’(MM, 452)

Naipaul does not intend to be communal or regionalize religion; instead he looks for the inherent historical factors that influence the tradition and culture. In case of Islam, he examines the precarious condition of Muslims both in India and in Pakistan and in Iran, of which most of the Muslim community is proud of on account of their rich lineage from that ancestral place. He believes that even after the end of imperialism, the anxiety of being westernized troubled the Islamic people than the Hindus, due to their fear of erosion of their religious faith in Islam and that resulted in revolution in Iran as well as in India in 1947.Then again during Emergency in India in 1975 and in Indo-Pak war in 1971, the Islamic community has undergone tremendous trauma of being ethnically fundamentalist, that slowly spread conviction in them which was once laid out for them in 1930 by Sir Mohammad Iqbal(1876-1938) in his speech to the All India-Indian Muslim League, the main Muslim political organization in undivided India. He said:

Islam is not an ethical ideal; it is also ‘a certain kind of polity’. Religion for a Muslim is not a matter of private conscience or private practice, as Christianity can be for the man in Europe. There never was, Iqbal says, a specifically Christian polity; and in Europe after Luther the ‘universal ethics of Jesus’ was ‘displaced by national systems of ethics and polity’ There cannot be a Luther in Islam because there is no Islamic church order for a Muslim to revolt against. And there is also to be considered ‘the nature of the Holy Prophet’s religious experience, as disclosed in the Koran…. It is individual experience creative of a social order.’(Among the Believers, 101)

The above address gives us the connotation that for Islamic people Faith/Shariat is as important as Mukti or Salvation from all burdens of life for Hindus. If Christianity succumbs to the ‘Duty’, so Islam to daily activities as per law of God, while Hinduism surrenders the ‘Will’ to God in the form of ‘Karma’. 

But these connotations in the post-modern and post-colonial period are a sort of the combined workings of structures, consciously and unconsciously reconstructing the mindset of those who were alienated, displaced or felt loss of belongingness due to political positions in the global scenario and their divided loyalties to homeland reflected in their revolting consciousness to set a new social, political and cultural arrangements. In this regard their modern thinking either show their protest against their loss of ethnocentric identity or their resistance is against the freedom of race. Keeping in view these crises in the global political perspective Naipaul has very skillfully without any controversy has dealt his observations more in context of an suppressed individual or in relation to the destruction of native culture and tradition. More or less he is presenting the redress against the orientlists, who have been to spiritual death by resorting to secular, scientific, skeptic world of technology or the discontentment of the orients against the waste of the world’s resources, and all this is problematized vis-à-vis religion and culture. Naipaul describes his conversation with Nasar in Malaysia, who after a local education, had gone to England, to Bradford, to do a diploma in international relations. He had learnt that the big powers were not interested in peace; they cared only about their spheres of influence; they sold arms. And he hadn’t liked what he had seen of English life in Bradford. Nasar speaks:

“They are too individualistic. In Bradford people would say to me, ‘Why don’t you spend your time to go to pubs’ disco? They’re trying to say to be together with others, but not with your family. They ar created by their own technology. The modernization of Malaysia, if it is not checked, will follow the same pattern. We accept technology, but it must not affect the basis of social structure. Free mixing and alcoholism are the great dangers. That goes free with free mixing. Trust is the basis of family happiness. Allah created men and women so that they would get married in a proper procedure and to raise a family………………Finally we intend here to have a separate school for the girls and the boys. We believe that unemployment today is due partly to this philosophy of female liberation’.(Among the Believers, 247)

Naipaul is not trying to depict communal polarization in his travel writings, rather he is subjectively putting forth the ignorance, the degeneration and hegemony of particular section over other whether in the age of Western imperialism, Khomenei’s tyranny in Iran or the imperialistic nature of sub-continent that has tried to subjugate the other in the name of religious mission or political orientation.

In conclusion it can be inferred that his perspective is not baised, lopsided or chaotic. His travelogues manifest his inward desire to transform the misconceptions as a visionary. His perspective does not disillusion the reader; rather it brings him/her closer to the reality, the darkness, the ignorance and the primitive state of primordial stream of fundamentalism in any corner of the world. His thrust is on spirituality, social order, political upheavals, emotional crisis that have taken place due to the threat to the ethnocentric identity or on the nativity. His sensibility to romanticize the images, the myths as regards the continuity, the custom and the corruption is worth to explore to know the impact of religiosity in the local and global context.

Suggested References:

V. S. Naipaul. Among the Believers - An Islamic Journey.UK: Picador.2003
---------------- India: A Wounded Civilization. UK: Picador.2003
---------------- India: A Million Mutinies Now. London: Vintage Books.1998.
---------------- An Area of Darkness. London: Penguin Books.1968
Amartaya Sen. The Arguementative Indian. England: Penguin Books.2005
Mohit K. Ray. Ed. V.S.Naipaul-Critical Essays. New Delhi: Atlantic Publ.2002
Bijay Kumar Das. Critical Essays on Post-Colonial Literature. New Delhi: Atlantic Publ..1999.
Rajeshwar Mittapalli & Michael Hensen. Eds. V.S.Naipaul-Fiction And Travel Writing. New Delhi: Atlantic Publ. 2002
William C. Chittick. Sufism: A short Intrduction. Oxford: Oneworld Publ.2007.


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