Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Bend in the river

The World is what it is – a phrase that now seems instantly Naipaul. Not only because Patrick French used it as the title for Naipaul's much publicized biography, but because a lot of Naipaul's writing seems to converge in these words – a real, clear and unapologetic observance of the world, which shuns romanticism and intellectual exaltation.

'The World is what it Is' are the words with which Naipaul begins his brilliant novel A bend in the River – his commentary on Africa. In his characteristic disdain for third world countries, Naipaul has reflected a plain, bleak and unhopeful reality, entertaining no optimism for post-colonial Africa. Unfortunately this dismissal is not born out of snobbery or an affected worldview, but is a reflection through an acute, intellectual but a very practical mind.

The protagonist, Salim, is an Indian whose family has lived in Africa for many generations. In a hope to create an individual identity and to escape from Nationalistic euphoria that has threatened his family business, he moves to the interior of Africa where he sets up a shop. In this interior town, which is referred as the town at the bend in the river, Salim experiences the confusion of post-colonial Africa. He meets young men full of pride marching off to fancy schools; he sees the ubiquitous portrait of the dictator, the Big Man, which keeps growing in size; he sees the rise of fancy buildings and listens to jingoistic, fashioned speeches. As a thoughtful outsider who is still not completely detached, Salim is an ideal narrator of the state with his slightly amused and slightly anxious annotations. He has little sympathy for the natives, who are believed by the outsiders to be malin, of evil disposition. Through a young man who has been put in his charge, he sees the ridiculousness of modern African who frequently changes attitudes and mannerism, trying to find his own identity but managing only to imitate others. This man also swings widely from the African of the bush to the modern man of wealth, finding discontent on each side.

But it is not only the darkness of Africa or third world countries that are at the center of this novel. It is also a story of alienation and self-imposed exile, and a quest for home, which Naipaul indicates to be futile. In the form of Indar, Salim's childhood friend, it seems to me that Naipaul presents a sort of an alter-ego – an intellectual who abandons his home and is grossly disappointed when confronted with the mediocrity of India which is his native land. In a rebellious streak to seek a separate identity, he criticizes others who accept this 'given' life:

And that is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them.

Indar, like Naipaul, also advises (Salim) to 'trample on the past', to let go of the romantic images of childhood and homeland, because that image exists only in the mind and not in reality. It cannot serve anyone to dwell in those images.

It is one of the most remarkable novels that I have read – at once superior and harsh. Its reality is disheartening to read, especially as part of a country which is grappling with a similar truth despite all protests.

Monday, December 15, 2008


To the Grey of Melbourne, originally uploaded by Shifting sands.

One of my Melbourne snaps was selected for the sixth edition of Schmap Melbourne Guides. I took this one at the St Kilda Pier - a very beautiful place. I loved the grey tones of the city, apart from its chilliness.

Might go there again next month for sometime. Look forward to it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Fear & Debates

Last week's ordeal of Mumbai has made fear very real. Suddenly, dates like December 6 have come alive again. I am traveling tomorrow - and with all the threats about possible air strikes, I am quite apprehensive. How does one deal with such things - give in to the fear and cancel plans? Or travel when security is at its tightest and no one is caught napping in a surprise attack.

Few days ago, after the attacks, I , like everyone else (because after such an event, there is nothing else that you can talk about) got into a long debate with a friend over terrorism. Amongst other things, he said that terrorism is also a war, except that the players change the rules to suit their strengths. They cannot play by the rules because the stronger forces will always make rules that will make it difficult for the weaker to win. To further his argument, if anyone needs a way of revolting against the wrongs done to him, since he cannot win this war with direct combat, nor with peaceful demonstrations, terrorism is a natural reaction, something that is justified in his belief system.
The horrifying thing is, that unless directly affected by terrorism, a lot of the fair and 'just' educated people will find this argument logical and the cause of the terrorist explainable. But is logical necessarily correct? If social consciousness separates man from animal, then there should be an objective way of differentiating right and wrong, attacking defenseless human beings falling on the clear wrong end. If a section finds itself weak enough to engage in direct combat, it should either submit to subjugation or collect forces to become strong enough for direct combat.
In the last few terror strikes, no agenda has been communicated along with the attack. Even after the collision of WTC, no party or community came out and made demands or even clarified the reason for violence apart from the proclaimed hatred for the West. If the war is towards a specific purpose or to correct some injustice, at the least a declaration of the purpose should be made.
It can be argued that it is futile to make a peaceful protest: the Dalai Lama has done so for many years and got nowhere. But where has the jihadi protest gone? Have them making the world a scary place to live in fetched the fundamentalists anything? (Unless spreading fear was their goal and not a means, in which case theirs is not a war)
All such debates are futile - we can argue and counter-argue and run in loops, that does nothing to abate the fear. Only momentarily makes you think of something other than the risk. To copy from the Economist, it is like eating kulfi in front of the Taj.