“Indians defecate everywhere,” begins a typically stark early passage in Naipaul’s unblinkingly critical, deeply personal 1964 account of his first visit to the land of his ancestors.
Arriving by boat in Prohibition-dry Bombay, the Trinidadian Nobel laureate has his whisky confiscated. His comical attempt to rescue it from a Kafka-esque maze of customs departments, all requiring their own rubber-stamped form, sets him on a path of cultural estrangement that becomes an abiding theme. During trips to Kashmir and Calcutta, to an ashram and a sacred Himalayan ice cave, Naipaul despairs of the paralysing caste system; he rails against India’s acceptance of its poverty and squalor. Not for nothing was the book banned by the Indian government for its “negative portrayal”.
Sound depressing? It’s anything but. Naipaul may struggle in India, but his affection for its people shines through every minutely observed encounter. Yes, the locals nearly always end up trying to fleece him, but for Naipaul this is merely the dance that India demands. Ultimately, this is a love letter to the humanity that survives, and even thrives in such a difficult place. “To know Indians was to take a delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure.” Take any train in India, and you’ll know exactly what he means.
The book is also quietly hilarious, especially in passages about Aziz, the Falstaffian manager of Naipaul’s lakeside hotel in Kashmir. Unfailingly solicitous (“he was like a parent comforting a child”), Aziz protects Naipaul from rip-off merchants and hangers on, while simultaneously taking him for every rupee and personal favour he can. Saying goodbye to Aziz at the end of his stay in Kashmir, Naipaul is hustled for a few final rupees, which he hands Aziz through the bus window. “He took them,” writes Naipaul. “Tears were running down his cheeks. Even at that moment I could not be sure that he had ever been mine.”
An Area of Darkness is sometimes criticised for lampooning Indian English, but that’s missing the point. For Naipaul, his landlady’s insistence that she is “just craze for foreign” is another triumph of India’s irrepressible spirit. “Kashmirs Most Extraordinary Entertaining Rendezvous”, reads the sign above a Srinagar bar. You don’t speak perfect English? Just bung the words together and crack on.
Naipaul’s final Indian journey is an ultimately humiliating visit to the village his grandfather left before moving to Trinidad. There is no fairytale ending. Indian but not Indian, Naipaul had come in search of reconciliation with his ancestral land, but goes home empty-handed. “India had not worked its magic on me. It remained the land of my childhood, an area of darkness.” Naipaul’s loss, our immeasurable gain: of all the books you will ever read about India, none illuminates as brightly as this.