V. S. Naipaul and the Plight of the Dispossessed

by William L. Sachs

William L. Sachs is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, CT.

This article appeared in the Christian Century November 17, 1982, p. 1167. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Naipaul’s writing highlights the experiences of non-Western peoples who have been uprooted by historical currents. He presents a consistent image of social reality in the non-Western world where dispossessed people search for order in their lives.

By his own admission, V. S. Naipaul’s situation is odd and suspicious. A novelist and journalist of Indian heritage, he grew up on Trinidad and became a resident of England. He appears “unlikely and exotic,” a colonial seeking to depict larger reality, yet threatened with being seen as a regional, West Indian writer; his writings seemingly lack a natural audience beyond his home island. But because he himself has been cut off, dispossessed of a coherent habitat by birth and circumstances, he has developed a distinctive sensibility. Naipaul’s writing highlights the experiences of non-Western peoples who have been uprooted by historical currents. Given the formlessness of their lives, such people seek to find order. How their struggles unfold becomes not merely a regional or racial saga, but a human one.

Many people have heard of Naipaul, but few know much about him. His writings have proven arresting, though for reasons few commentators have articulated. This failure of insight has become more acute as Naipaul’s stature has grown. With the publication of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (Knopf) in 1981, Naipaul reached the pages of the Atlantic and the cover of Newsweek.

Naipaul presents a consistent image of social reality in the non-Western world, where dispossessed people search for order in their lives. His own search for rootedness bespeaks the search of many colonial peoples. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on Trinidad in 1932. He world was bounded by Indian descent and the racial mix of a colonial island. Wanting to transcend his boundaries, Naipaul entered Oxford on an island scholarship at 17. Following graduation and a period of employment with the British Broadcasting Corporation, he began writing full-time. He became a resident of England, married an English woman, and in 1957 published his first book, The Mystic Masseur (A. Deutsch), a novel about a failed Trinidadian masseur turned Hindu guru. Sixteen books, from novels about the Caribbean to journalistic accounts of Third World travels, have followed.

Naipaul gives us a broad sense of human experience -- so broad, in fact, that critics from the social science realms may encounter questionable assumptions or generalizations. He sometimes appears to define historical or political facts carelessly. But that in itself does not gainsay the reality he represents. Writing as a dispossessed person, one who has been culturally uprooted and forced to create his own world, Naipaul presents not objective reality but subjective perceptions. He finds personal resonance with the world views of the dispossessed, the former colonial subjects now cast on their own resources and in search of distinctive identity. Both empathic and critical, Naipaul catalogues the failures of developing societies. The quest for autonomy and form, inherently admirable, reveals opportunities for self-deception, for seizing the image of a coherent self or the illusion of a just society rather than grasping their essence. Worse than formless existence is the chaos of an imagined order imposed on reality. In Naipaul’s novels, as in his own life, there are certain givens. The most elusive one is the West. Naipaul has expended little ink on the circumstances of the West’s expansion, on the motives for colonialism or the lineaments of Western culture itself. The West, as Naipaul depicts it, is vaguely English and American, an inchoate cluster of culture and technology. Jet planes and Coca-Cola cross the lives of his characters. Democratic ideals and bureaucratic realities circumscribe images of freedom. Marxism, the most convenient ideology of rebellion, represents yet another Western legacy, as though one were obliged to rebel against the West in a prescribed, Western way. The Loss of El Dorado (A. Deutsch, 1969), a historical essay, presents Western fascination with virgin, non-Western land. But otherwise Naipaul says little about the West’s assertion of its dominance.

This is not a crippling omission. Naipaul, of course, depicts a subjective sense of reality. Rootless non-Westerners perceive Western influence as an inheritance. Dispossession is a state into which one is born, a fact not of one’s own choosing. Naipaul’s perspective begins with the non-Western person’s realization of this state, of the sense of having boundaries drawn around his or her life by the West. Having sensed this dispossession, the former colonial begins to fantasize, to dream of greater reality, and seeks to create the conditions of liberation.

The restive person first pursues liberation through conformity. Reality drawn from Western example prompts mimicry. Having failed as a masseur and author, Ganesh Ramsumair, protagonist of The Mystic Masseur, discovers Hollywood’s image of the Hindu sage. Donning a turban and dhoti (loincloth) and burning incense, Pundit Ganesh attracts a following lured more by his airs than by his ersatz wisdom. Success enables him to build a career in politics and spurs him to change his name to G. Ramsay Muir.

Politics provides a clue to understanding mimicry. At its core, in Naipaul’s vision, status devolves from political power. But the celebrity finds that he retains power only so long as he embodies popular aspirations. Ralph Singh, an exiled colonial minister in the novel The Mimic Men (Macmillan, 1967), experiences the fate of being a retired symbol. Useful no more, Singh loses power. Similarly, Eva Peron became Peronism’s madonna. She emerged from Argentina’s poor and clawed her way to status. She sanctified the Peronist ideology of wealth for all. Her tragic death, writes Naipaul in The Return of Eva Peron (Knopf, 1980), was the “public passion play of the dictatorship.”

The Western legacy is democracy with material comfort. But in the developing world, events rush out of control. Behind the sense of order conveyed by Western political models stands chaos. Western culture remains as ~.a veneer, an illusion which obscures a confused, tumultuous search for recognition and security. In The Suffrage of Elvira (A. Deutsch, 1958), a fictional account of a district election on Trinidad, the process of campaigning becomes a carnival, a ritual of aspirations and fears in the guise of democracy. The British political model when transplanted retains its form but sheds its original meaning in favor of local alternatives. A multiracial, colonial society seizes upon such rites as elections as legitimation of its quest for an indigenous order.

Naipaul’s ability to depict the aspirations of individuals surpasses his social sensitivity. His corpus is a montage of individual portraits, glimpses of ordinary people who exemplify extraordinary reality. Miguel Street (A. Deutsch, 1959) is a series of brief portrayals of characters who inhabit a section of Port of Spain. Here all are poor and all fantasize about a better life. Fantasy turns to mimicry. The reader meets Bogart, who called himself Patience until the film Casablanca reached Trinidad. Bogart cultivates an American accent and gives chocolates to children. There is also Man-man, failed politician turned evangelist, and B. Wordsworth, the poet who dreams lines but never writes poetry.

The power of mimicry proves formidable. Mimicry allows the non-Western person to grasp at his or her aspirations. It also represents an attempt to adapt to a powerful, external reality while preserving something of oneself. India, more than any other non-Western nation, possesses the ability to mimic. India is both an outer and an inner world; The outer world seems chaotic, vaguely Eastern, vaguely Western. But the inner world, the realm of consciousness, demonstrates the persistence of habit. India reveals itself to be tightly defined, highly prescribed by ancient social definitions and codes. No Indian is far from his origins, Naipaul asserts in An Area of Darkness (Random House, 1981), a study of his visit to his ancestral homeland. Indians have a powerful sense of fate, of being determined by a relentless culture. Outsiders can be aped without being absorbed. The land can be remade often without losing itself, for its inner world remains coherent.

Yet “the eternal Indian attempt to incorporate and nullify” has created a destructive psychology. Ancient cultural forms persist, shorn of their original rationale. The fulfillment of function, the blind allegiance to memory, renders India subservient to symbolic gestures rather than alert to social realities; thus Indians have been reduced to mimicry of themselves in the name of resisting pollution by alien cultures. Naipaul argues that Indians must realize that they can never go forward until they cease trying to go back to the past.

Other societies, less culturally malleable than India, cannot retreat into an inner world. Either they are artificial creations of Western expansion -- thus wildly heterogeneous -- or their indigenous cultural forms allow no easy acceptance of the West. One of the pillars of Naipaul’s vision is his sensitivity to the power of the past. Traditional cultural forms relentlessly reassert themselves; social habit takes over where mimicry fails. The past, in Naipaul’s scheme, asserts itself in a fascination with things medieval and an appreciation for traditional religions. In An Area of Darkness, Naipaul presents Srinagar as a medieval spectacle, offering festivals and wonders such as holy men. Religion passes on forms without regard for history. The past can be selectively appropriated, romanticized, shorn of evidence of pa1lution from the outside. Religion records memories of human aspirations and threatens to impose its forms whole on changed realities. A traditional pilgrimage to a cave where an ice formation symbolic of Shiva has appeared in years past reveals hundreds of devotees but no ice formation: the act of making pilgrimage itself proves sufficient.

The past’s appeal is an underlying theme of Among the Believers. Qom, the Iranian holy city, functions as a medieval center of learning. As did medieval Spain or medieval Arabia, Qom symbolizes the integration of faith and life. Pakistan, too, represents the search for a pure Islamic nation. People who feel dispossessed, Naipaul writes, find kinship with a resurgent Islam. Fundamentalist Islam glorifies a time that never existed, an imagined past when triumphant Arabs unified faith and life and forged an ideology of conquest. Thus the achievement of purity -- symbolized by throwing off the West’s pollution -- becomes an obsession, representing salvation. In the process, however, history serves theology. The present mimics the past, for the past cannot be reconstituted. But the past lingers, though in forms that thwart a purist’s vision: ancient Malaysian village society persists; traditional Indonesian pluralism dilutes Islam with Hindu and Buddhist residues; Pakistan finds that it has nothing that can effectively replace the British system of law. Escape proves difficult from the more recent, as from the more distant, past; pure recovery is an illusion.

Fear of losing one’s remembered culture breeds frustration. The West becomes an unwelcome interloper which one cannot escape but to which one cannot adapt. Historical and social realities blur in a sense of dispossession; of being cut off from an imagined glorious past. Frustration mounts and engenders anger. Western pollution must be stripped away. Indigenous forms of life must be reanimated. But still, Naipaul injects, holy men travel by jet, Iranians go to America for education, and phonograph records by the Carpenters are popular in Pakistan. The West is too massive and too convenient to be excised whole. It becomes an easy target for rage.

A sense of rage figures prominently in Naipaul’s more recent writings. Rage demonstrates the conviction that the West has polluted the world. Only in throwing off Western influence can a nation, or a person, become genuine. Rage derives from the failure of mimicry, from disenchantment with the West and loss of a sense of cultural integrity. In the novel Guerrillas (Knopf, 1975), Naipaul’s setting is a racially mixed Caribbean island where people sense that they are lost. Cut off from the land, given independence by Britain, people feel overwhelmed by outside forces. Among the trapped and uncertain, a mania to do something, to escape, predominates. Jimmy Abmed, self-proclaimed revolutionary, seeks to father a new order. But he is a creation of the media; he symbolizes aspirations but he cannot fulfill them.

Rage also figures prominently in Among the Believers. The Iranian revolution seizes upon religion as a vehicle for social purgation. The West has proven empty. Social self-esteem can be appropriated from the past, from a pure reanimation of a cultural heritage. The enraged assume that something or someone can bequeath social wholeness. But history proves awkward; it must be treated selectively with a cultivated blindness to truth. Therein lies the dilemma of revolution. It falls prey to fantasy, much as the West did in its search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Naipaul’s most searing question emerges in his study of Pakistan.

Wouldn’t it have been better for Muslims to trust less to the saving faith and to sit down hard-headedly to work out institutions? Wasn’t that an essential part of the history of civilization, after all: the conversion of ethical ideals into institutions?

Despite his pessimism, Naipaul affirms a human capacity for genuine change. The quest for freedom, despite aberrant turns, is innate. Therein lies the source of human wholeness and social integrity. Bobby and Linda, traveling across Africa in the novel In a Free State (A. Deutsch, 1971), find themselves separated from the influences of traditions and societies. Their sense of self derives from the land’s immediacy. A powerful sense of the self in relation to history emerges.

People seek to impose forms on the land. In itself this is good, for it demonstrates the human zeal for freedom from fate, from imprisonment by the past. In A House for Mr. Biswas (A. Deutsch, 1961), a novel suggestive of his father’s life, Naipaul presents Mohun Biswas, who, despite all that augurs against him, determines to be different, to have his own house and to make himself unique. Failures multiply; he receives scorn at every turn. But he persists: he reads, works, aspires.. Eventually, Biswas becomes a journalist and acquires a house. Like his life, the house is a hodgepodge, a poorly assimilated assortment of ill-coordinated elements. Nevertheless, his spirit has reached out and impressed itself on the land.

As Naipaul discovered for himself in India, the human spirit must know itself in relation to the land; the land desolates fantasy. Culture, including religion, serves to symbolize the history of human reliance on land. Among India’s mountains Naipaul absorbed a sense of genuine heritage. Thus, for all the dispossessed, a realization of the self’s aspirations can derive only from the inherent sense of order found in nature. Here a transcendent reality prevails. Here freedom becomes possible.