Friday, January 10, 2003

The headlines in the Indian newspapers are shrieking today: Gandhi was a failure in South Africa, says Naipaul!

Our very own Sir Vidia is one of the luminaries attending the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas — an enormous conference for NRIs (non-resident Indians) arranged by the government of India, held for the first time this week — &, as, as one might expect, he has only to open his mouth for controversy to break out. The Times of India reports:

Unsparing as in his literary work, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul poured a little cold water over the mushy experience that has been the Pravasi Bharatiya meet so far, suggesting Indians stopped living in their fettered past and blaming the British for everything.... The man who was described in his Nobel citation as "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny..." pointed out that the present occasion had "an element of the trade fair" propelled by the idea of money and success of latter day immigrants to the US and UK.

All very well. But in reminiscing about the difficulties that the original émigré, the indentured labour, had to face, Naipaul said it was "important to remember that degradation lay within the country."

He wouldn't even spare Mahatma Gandhi, recalling that "he was a failure in South Africa and did nothing there for 20 years," though Sir Vidia made immediate amends by adding that from that failure rose the great independent movement. Gandhi, the original NRI, had seen that indentured people had very few rights and he saw that because he had occasion to go to South Africa, he said....

In the telling of his story, Naipaul attempted to jerk the gathering out of the comfortable confines of self-pity and complacency with a word of advice: "We must stop blaming the British for everything." And then generously hinted at an apology, saying he had merely dropped "a pebble in your thoughts", hoping there would be a ripple.

It did cause the ripple. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who spoke immediately after, commended the author and said the point was taken well. But Advani, who had brought along his own copy of Beyond Belief to be autographed by Naipaul, then went right ahead and blamed the British in the course of his address.

And Lady Naipaul's not doing too badly herself, driving the deputy PM to denounce theocracy in response to a rather discomfiting question:

"Theocracy and theocratic state are unacceptable to Indian tradition, culture and history. India can never be a theocratic state," Mr. Advani said in an interactive session at the three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference.

Advani's response came after Nadira Naipaul, wife of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, asked whether Muslims, Christians and other minority communities were being discriminated against by the BJP-led government.

Seeking to allay her misgivings that the Vajpayee government was only concerned about Hindus and not about Muslims and others, Mr. Advani said this was an "unfair image" being projected in certain quarters.

(Read the full report in the India Express; gives a few more details.)

Meanwhile, writing in the Hindustan Times, Soumya Bhattacharya ponders "the enigma of 'India Connection'":

A murmur of self congratulation rippled through the media and the followers of literary fiction in India this week when Hari Kunzru, 33-year-old author of The Impressionist, appeared on Granta magazine's list of best young British novelists. Now what does that have to do with us? Why does Kunzru figuring on a list of top British novelists get Indians excited?

Ah-ha, because Hari is our boy. He has an India connection.

Today, the phrase "India connection" has become the charm we use to clasp to our bosoms people who have rather tenuous links with this country. (Of course, such people have to be successful. Otherwise there would be no need for us to discover these links. Reflected glory is a reflection on ourselves too, isn't it?)

We did it when V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001. We whooped for joy because Naipaul's forefathers used to live in western Uttar Pradesh before emigrating to the West Indies. Yes, that’s about as far as it went.

Naipaul, who when he refers to his own nationality at all, calls himself a British writer. For the record, if you want to be perfectly accurate, he is a Trinidad-born British writer of Indian descent....

When William Dalrymple was in Kolkata to promote his new book in November last year, many of us in the media made much of the fact that he had a "trickle of Bengali blood" in his veins. Dalrymple let on — perhaps mindful of where he was — that his "great-great grandmother Sophiya Pattle was descended from a Hindu Bengali woman from Chandernagore".

Tears of pride pricked at our eyelids. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

No comments: