Sanjay Subrahmanyam on Naipaul’s Writer’s people 

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the historian (as the LRB helpfully notes), as befitting his academic credentials, turns his book review of Naipaul’s A writers people into an interesting analysis of diasporic Indians and their social, political, and religious outlook.

Here is what he has to say on Naipaul himself:

What would happen if he were to be analysed as an actor in history, the spokesman for a point of view? What does he really represent, and where does he come from? We can do without the materialist presumption that all men are merely creatures of their circumstances, even if Naipaul seems determined to be one. He is a prisoner by choice, and also as a matter of taste. But of what is he a prisoner?

Subrahmanyam does find Naipaul’s book useful, though; and, he has a specific prescription for reading it:

… in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself. This book, like his others, should be read together with those of Munshi Rahman Khan for a deeper understanding of the Indian diaspora and its ways of looking, feeling and suffering.

Along the way, there are some telling sentences about neo-Hinduism that pervades Naipaul’s book as well as expatriate Indians (specifically in California) :

It is the ghost of this neo-Hinduism of the diaspora that lives on in this book, and which also inhabits hundreds of websites posted by other expatriate Indians who find themselves caught in the trap of in-betweenness. Naipaul is wide of the mark in his claim that most Indians today in the US ‘wish to shake India off’ and would rather ‘make cookies and shovel snow’ than deal with their Indian past. On the contrary: these are communities which often greatly admire Naipaul, share his roots in various sorts of neo-Hinduism, claim insistently that Islam is a worldwide threat, agitate over school textbooks in California which state that Hinduism is chaotically polytheistic, and wear surgical masks when they visit India and their relatives, who stir tea with their forefingers. For, ironically, ‘Indianness’ is the chief element in the cultural capital of such groups, as it is for Naipaul himself. On the distant other side, Protestantism beckons, but most Protestantism does not go together with cultural métissage; it is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal. Further, Indians living outside India have, it is well known, been rather racist when it comes to other people of colour, and the anti-black rhetoric that pervades Naipaul’s writings (including the first chapter of this book) is once again only symptomatic of a larger malaise that extends from East Africa to New Jersey.

A must-read review (and, by far the best analysis of Naipaul and his latest offering), irrespective of whether you are interested in Naipaul and his writings or not. Take a look!

Hat tip: A & L Daily

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