No dharma bums
A Strange Kind of Paradise, that looks at foreigners’ views of India through the ages, Sam Miller presents the reactions of the young Allen Ginsberg and VS Naipaulbooks Updated: Feb 15, 2014 12:59 IST
A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes
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In the spring of 1962, two of the most influential writers of the latter half of the twentieth century arrived in India. They were both born in the Americas; both misfits in the land of their birth; each of them now on a year-long voyage of discovery — a pilgrimage of sorts. But in other ways they could hardly have been more different. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg — gay, Jewish, a hero of the burgeoning counter-culture; and the young novelist VS Naipaul — obsessive, judgemental, a Trinidadian of Indian descent. Ginsberg would have a wild old time in India, hanging out happily with burning corpses and sadhus at cremation grounds, while a nauseated Naipaul appears to have spent most of his year in India trying to avoid any encounters with human faecal matter.
It was fairly predictable that Naipaul would not take to his ancestral homeland. As a seventeen-year-old, in 1949, living in Trinidad, he had written to his sister — then studying in Benares — about what he called those ‘damned inefficient scheming Indians’. And, he continued, ‘I am planning to write a book about these damned people and the wretched country of theirs, exposing their detestable traits.’ And this is what he did, with a travelogue called An Area of Darkness, published fifteen years after that letter — to much acclaim. It is an angry book, with telling contradictions. In the preface he wrote: ‘My India was full of pain. Sixty years or so before my ancestors had made the very long journey to the Caribbean from India . . . So, writer though I was, I wasn’t travelling to Forster’s India or Kipling’s.’
But actually Kipling, perhaps crossed with Katherine Mayo (who is not mentioned by Naipaul), is Naipaul’s intellectual forebear — on the subject of India, at least. He even declares, towards the end of An Area of Darkness, ‘It was all there in Kipling, barring the epilogue of the India inheritance. A journey to India was not really necessary. No writer was more honest or accurate.’
He had similar views to Kipling’s about Indian servility, but Naipaul strikes out on his own in his obsession with the subject of shit. He spends many pages discussing what he primly refers to as defecation, including one remarkable passage that has a Churchillian cadence. ‘Indians,’ he intones, ‘defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.’
Naipaul admires Gandhi, but his greatest ‘failure’ was that he didn’t reform defecation. And there’s much more from this high priest of scatology. All India’s woes, from inefficiency to colonialism, can be blamed on what Naipaul terms ‘casual defecation’, which causes the problem of sanitation, and ‘sanitation was linked to caste, caste to callousness, inefficiency and a hopelessly divided country, division to weakness, weakness to foreign rule’. And so shit is at the heart of all that ails Naipaul’s India. In a letter to an Indian friend, he declares, after spotting a particularly filthy toilet at Delhi airport, ‘I wonder, wonder if the shitting habits of Indians are not the key to all their attitudes. I wonder if the country will be spiritually regenerated if people were only made to adopt the standards of other nations in this business of shitting.’ Unsurprisingly, many Indian readers of An Area of Darkness were appalled by the book; as they would be by Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and diaries, which depict his journey into a malodorous underworld unfamiliar to most English-speaking Indians and visitors.
Allen Ginsberg’s purposes in coming to India were very different from Naipaul’s. He was certainly more open-minded, some would say too open-minded, and his expectations of India read almost like satire — a manifesto of the first hippie, perhaps.
He told an Indian acquaintance in New York, a short while before his departure, that he wanted to touch real poverty, he wanted to find a guru and he wanted to experiment with drugs. And then, as an afterthought, that he wanted a ‘gay guru’, one whom he could love. He travelled through much of north India and certainly saw lots of poverty, searching for it in many places; and he took a wide range of drugs, some of which were sent by post from the USA. His search for a gay guru was inconclusive.
Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, eventually published in 1970, contains poems, dreams, notes, drawings and very little traditional narrative. He is an aficionado of the interior monologue, of the hyphen — and barely uses the full stop. There are long, detailed notes about how human corpses burn at the cremation ghats of Calcutta and Benares; diary entries about having oral sex with his travelling companion, and about their various gastro-intestinal illnesses; breathless morphine-influenced dream sequences, and poems about leprous beggars; and a scribbled drawing of the Taj Mahal.
There are photographs, some of them of crippled beggars lying in the street with the author standing nearby; others show a disembodied hand and foot spotted near the railway line. Ginsberg’s journals are not for the weak of stomach.
The India that Ginsberg loved was largely the one that Naipaul hated — and neither searched hard for other Indias.