Podcast • August 12, 2018

V. S. Naipaul’s ‘Gloomy Clarity’ about Africa, and Himself (rebroadcast)

This interview with V.S. Naipaul was released October 25, 2010. We are re-posting the podcast on the occasion of the author’s death Saturday. V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t ...

This interview with V.S. Naipaul was released October 25, 2010. We are re-posting the podcast on the occasion of the author’s death Saturday.

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the organ tones of his mesmerizing voice. In conversation he relishes my suggestion of magic — his new book on Africa is full of it. But when I cite some favorite examples of his inspired sentence-making, he recalls only hard labor in the cause of “gloomy clarity,” his signature effect. “I wrote that very carefully,” he intones. Of his non-fiction process — combining reading, field observation and interviewing — he says: “I see what is to be done, and I do it.” At a public reading the night before we spoke, the question came: what was the happiest moment of your writing career? “I suppose it would have occurred when one was very young. Because, you know, there are no happy moments now. When you are young the future is a great big ball, and anything is possible. So if you do a good review for The New Statesman and you feel good, it can make you quite happy, although it is a petty business… I know the future is small and eternally shrinking around me.”

Naipaul’s new book is called The Masque of Africa: it’s an inquiry not into politics or progress but into religion broadly: the magical systems of belief in Old Africa. “The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top,” says a classic Naipaul informant, a lawyer and former university dean in Gabon; his punchline is a perfect short Naipaulian thematic sentence: “Inside us is the forest.” Africa might well be better off today, Naipaul supposes, had its “forest beliefs” been spared foreign intrusions. Africa is a “wounded civilization,” he reflects, applying the phrase he used in one of several books on his ancestral India. But there is no going back, and perhaps no recovery from the loss of self and sovereignty. Naipaul was not at all impressed with my own “fantasy” that in both India and Africa it may be time, for some anyway, to rediscover the village possibilities, the chance that “Things Come Together.” Naipaul himself, of course, fled the colony (Trinidad) for the capital (London) long ago. His verdict is final: “the village is an awful place.”

On his best behavior, V. S. Naipaul knows how to be entertainingly grumpy. He does not forgive the English literary establishment for cold-shouldering him these many years, for snubbing even his Nobel Prize in 2001. He remembers one official personage sniffing: “It isn’t as though it’s the Booker Prize.” He is proud to have marked Tony Blair as a “pirate,” long before the Iraq War. “A calamity,” he judged. Wouldn’t he care, I asked, to offend somebody before we were done? “No, no, no, no,” insisted. “That is not part of my job.”

Podcast • February 10, 2011

India-Pakistan: Vazira Zamindar on the raw wound of Partition

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3) Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow” Vazira Zamindar is filling in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow”

Vazira Zamindar is filling in a critical back story of fury and fear in our world, The Long Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and after. It was one of the great post-colonial wounds, and it keeps on wounding, visibly and invisibly. Partition has been the root of endless public miseries: ethnic cleansing, chronic warfare, constructed “national” and religious hatreds. It’s also, as Professor Zamindar testifies for herself, “a wound within.” It’s the mother of many millions of individual identity crises that seem never to go away.

Ahmed Rashid’s recent “lament for a troubled Pakistan” makes a similar zig-zag connection from 1947 to 2011, from the corrupted legacy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and the frenzied fundamentalism behind the murder last month of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab state. He writes: “Jinnah was a liberal, consensual, inspired Muslim who categorically and repeatedly stated that Pakistan would be a state for Muslims to pursue their religion and culture, but never an Islamic state. He welcomed all minorities to live and worship in freedom. Jinnah himself never sold his house in Bombay. That was the kind of vision needed for a new country that was multicultural and multi-ethnic, one that had been the seat of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. That was the Pakistan we grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s. But that Pakistan is now rapidly being lost…”

Vazira Zamindar, on the history faculty at Brown, is herself a child of one of those many “divided families” that never saw the division coming. Jinnah, she is reminding us, was a cosmopolitan lawyer who never envisioned an Islamist state.

Something that’s easily forgotten today is that the whole region was a multi-religious society, and people lived together… [with] class conflicts, and ethnic conflicts, and resource conflicts which often got translated in terms of religious boundaries… And still it was a profoundly multi-religious society, so any project to create a Muslim Pakistan or a Hindu India would necessarily have to be an extremely violent one…

The argument for Partition was decided in 1947 by a narrow elite. Instructively, ironically now, the Muslim religious leadership at the time opposed partition. Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last British viceroy, was accused of rushing it. Nehru and Jinnah can both be charged with a heedless ambiguity about the consequences. A democratic choice in the matter would have come out differently, Vazira Zamindar is saying: “The way people actually live on the ground … is with a heterodoxy of practices. People learn to live together in ways that governments don’t learn to live together. 

I would argue that in 1947, it was still unclear how these two entities called India and Pakistan would inscribe themselves as two nation-states. I think it is the following decade that’s quite decisive, and one could say it’s still an ongoing process of creating this distinction: the need to constantly articulate this distinction, through hostilities, through enmity, through making the border between these two states almost impossible for citizens of the region to cross.

There is a line on the ground that disappears very quickly when people cross it.

Vazira Zamindar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, January 31, 2011.

We are talking about the many reasons Partition is debated to this day. The fact that people keep reflecting on the question marks the spot, Vazira Zamindar says, to begin “a critique of the present… I want to hold onto that question as a sign that people can still imagine a multi-religious society. It’s a sign that people are fed up with our terribly divided present, that they don’t want these wars. They don’t want conflict.”

Podcast • September 3, 2010

Real India: Ashis Nandy’s ‘intimate enemies’

NEW DELHI — Ashis Nandy has a big idea about “loss and recovery” in the history of colonialism. The bumpersticker version is that the conquerors and colonists lose in the end; the vanquished victims win. ...

NEW DELHI — Ashis Nandy has a big idea about “loss and recovery” in the history of colonialism. The bumpersticker version is that the conquerors and colonists lose in the end; the vanquished victims win. He is talking, of course, about England and India. By chance on the day of our conversation, England’s new prime minister David Cameron was visiting New Delhi — hat in hand, shopping for deals in the land that now owns Jaguar autos and most of British steelmaking, the only place (we read in the papers) where British Petroleum might find a bailout buyer, if it had to. But Ashis Nandy is keeping score not of capital accounts but, in effect, of moral and spiritual well-being. Taking many subtle measures of “post-colonial consciousness,” he finds India mending and Britain still warped and wounded by its old habit of domination. But colonialism, as Nandy observes it, does not end when the colonists are finally forced out. The “hidden message of colonialism” and the beguiling message of Ashis Nandy’s most famous book, The Intimate Enemy, is that “what others can do to you, you also can do to your own kind.” In the deep emotional compact that is colonialism, native elites learn to play by the rules of the hegemon’s game — the game known today, in a word, as “development.” With the result that in our post-colonial world, “the colonial mantle is now worn by native regimes” on most of the planet, “who are willing to do what the colonial powers did.”

Ashis Nandy is a widely beloved independent scholar, a social-psychological theorist, a prolific writer and talker “beyond category.” Our conversation, too, roams beyond borders and disciplines:

AN:Malcolm Muggeridge once said that Indians are the only surviving English in the world. I would go further. I think that only in India will you find Victorian England surviving in pockets so confidently that you can consider it, in museumized form, the last remaining vestige of Victorian England. Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, forgotten in England, survive here as the standards of detective and comic novels. There are people here who can give you street directions in London without ever having been there…

CL: Barack Obama will be coming to India in November. What would you want him to know about this country in a young century?

AN: I’d say he would be wise for him not to take the middle class as the be-all-and-end-all in India. The first principle is that he must take into account how the majority of Indians think about public life and global politics… Indians are looking for a more human and compassionate regime. Indians are not accustomed to impersonal government which works like a well-oiled machine, which gives them high growth rates but cannot take care of the more obscene forms of poverty and destitution. Actually, if you look at it, poverty is not a problem in India. Many sectors of Indians have lived in poverty for a long time, and their needs are very little. That is why most surveys show that most Indians are happy with their economic state though large sectors live in poverty. I think our problem is not so much poverty as destitution, what you might call absolute poverty where, if you don’t have the money you starve to death. You don’t starve to death in a tribal society for want of money. Only if the whole community doesn’t have money do you starve to death. I suspect that instead of trying to pull people above the poverty line, if we could directly attack this kind of destitution, we shall go much further.

CL: How would you attack it?

AN: By providing direct support to impoverished families — instead of a process of trickle-down effort where, by the time it trickles down, the bottom 10 percent will die perhaps, so you will eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. Actually this has happened in many countries. I don’t want it to happen in India. I don’t think Obama can do anything about that, but he can at least be aware that the Indians he will be talking to are not the whole of India. They are a small minority.

A compassionate society is not impossible in India. It is tacitly accepted that it would be better that way, and an open society gives you scope to fight for it. But these battles are delegitimized by new power structures that Indians are not accustomed to handling. For example India never had multi-national corporations. They never had this plethora of billionaires who bestride Indian public life now in such a flamboyant manner, pontificating about everything. Indians are not used to this kind of heavy media exposure. They have not developed the kind of skepticism that Americans have after watching television for 60 years; Indians have seen it only for 15 years or so. Their judgments are too influenced by media. The newspapers are trying to imitate television now, becoming entertainment dailies instead of newspapers.

So it looks as if this is all of India: information technology; this proliferation of engineers and technical education of all kinds; the large number of Singapore-style malls you see in all Indian cities; the fashion parrots; Bollywood. These seem to be the New India, but it is not the New India.

New India is those who embarrass you by scratching their backs with forks, sitting in Parliament. That’s the New India, and you don’t like to recognize them because they’re new to power, new to the urbanity to which you are accustomed. Even that embarrassment that the middle class feels about these crude, slightly rustic hillbillies coming to power — that represents something of the New India, because they’ve expanded political participation and released new energies from the bottom of the society. New kinds of political leaders will come from these people, or at least from their children. This is the price you pay for democracy and an open society. The challenge is not to close up society and hand over initiative only to the technocrats. The challenge is how to allow to allow greater political participation and listen to the voice of the people.

Ashis Nandy in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • February 8, 2010

Ghana Speaking (I): The "living wound" at Cape Coast Castle

I’m in Ghana for a week — starting from Cape Coast, toward the western end of Ghana’s Atlantic shore. Cape Coast is a university town and a major fishing center in West Africa. It’s the ...

I’m in Ghana for a week — starting from Cape Coast, toward the western end of Ghana’s Atlantic shore. Cape Coast is a university town and a major fishing center in West Africa. It’s the spot where First Lady Michelle Obama locates her ancestors. It is the site of the Castle that President Obama and his family visited last July. No ordinary tourist attration, the Castle is the place that haunts human history eternally as the point where millions of Africans were warehoused, then shipped in the infamous Middle Passage to slavery in the new worlds of North and South America.

I am picking up many threads (starting with slavery) of a conversation that began most of ten years ago with the poet and teacher Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, at the University of Cape Coast. His voice has become for me one of the beautiful deep songs of Africa. Before I’d ever met Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, his book of poetry and prose, Cape Coast Castle jumped into my hands off a bookstore table in Accra, and many of his lines seemed to clutch my heart and never let go:

Slavery is the living wound under the patchwork of scars. A lot of time has passed, yet whole nations cry, sometimes softly, sometimes harshly, often without knowing why…

… perhaps the most horrendous experience of the victim society belonged to a group hardly ever mentioned in the literature: the damned who survived, those deprived relatives of the captured African. These included parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and other relatives and friends who knew and cared for the captive. In a way, theirs was a lot de profoundis, a lost of deepest death. For they were denied the cathartic benefit of a burial for their loved ones. Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century African abolitionist, tells the story in his autobiography of 1789 of how, as a greening youth, he and his sister were kidnapped from their Igbo village by slavers while their parents were at the farm… And yet what we read is not the full story, only a portion of it. For Equiano’s mother came home from the farm one evening to find her only daughter and youngest son stolen, never to be heard from again. We do not know her story. Nobody knows the story of her grief…

The Castle is a standing provocation to thought and action: upon its disarming rests a whole people’s freedom. Cape Coast Castle, the metaphor and the edifice, is a society in itself, a society of experiences, a system or order whose fundamental concepts are planted in the disordering of our society. We kneel because it stands, and it stands for a system of production, distribution and exchange. But it does not tend what it produces, does not nurture what it distributes, does not value what it exchanges. There is no tending, no nurturing, no valuing…

The fact is that the pressures of our societies today, the tributes we play in blood — colonialism, neo-colonialism, even poverty in the lopsided world order — are largely the effects of the slave trade. In the trade, societies were ransacked, the land was gutted, its human loam was washed to the sea, its potential was stunted…

Slavery gives the enslaved nothing but a legacy of pain, alienation, fear, and worst of all, a fetish erected around the denial of the fact and lasting effects of enlavement. It is a fetish that allows us to pretend that our world is whole; thus we nullify the castle by incorporating, then ignoring it. And so we live in a shattered world with an eroded sense of history in a world we swear is whole.

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, Cape Coast Castle, A Collection of Poems, 1996. Pages 1 – 10.

I associate Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang with a broad and deep unofficial drive in Ghana to break an old silence around slavery. About the time his book was published, a troupe of Jamaican musicians and dancers refused to perform at Ghana’s first Pan-African Arts Festival, precisely because it was being held in the Castle where their forebears had been stockpiled in chains. In public and private, Ghana’s conversation about itself has never been the same again. In my first Cape Coast reunion with Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang we’re trying to keep the inquiry perpetually open-ended, as he says, “so that every new generation may visit it to quarry its lessons.”