Thursday, 26 January 2012

Salman Rushdie and the Indian Literary Festival: the Saga Continues

‘He is a w**ker of the highest order. I am not at all sorry that the Indians have asked him to f**k off,’ the man delivered his verdict, chomping on the deep fried KFC chicken wings.

Let’s assume that the man was an Asian Muslim, liberal enough to masticate on non-halal meat at the KFC (powered down his gullet by the 400 calories of milkshake which goes by some silly name I can neither pronounce nor spell) but not liberal enough to feel even a smidgen of sympathy for the w**ker.

Let’s also assume that the man is of Pakistani descent, a country generally considered to be the arch enemy of India. If you think the Brits and the French dislike each other, that is nothing compared to the animosity between these two countries.

In usual circumstance a Pakistani can be trusted to tie a rock round his neck and lie down at the bottom of Thames than say anything that might have an outside chance of being construed as praise for his country’s giant neighbour.

But not on this occasion. The Pakistani (how I came to be sharing a table with him at the KFC is an interesting story, but not for this post) attacking  the KFC zinger meal with the gusto of a Taliban attacking a US post in Vaziristan approved wholeheartedly that the man addicted to solitary sexual pleasure was asked to find sex elsewhere by the Indians.

The w**ker is Salman Rushdie, who was supposed to appear at a literary festival in India, but in the end did not because the Muslims clerics  went apeshit over him speaking at the festival, and the organizers chickened out.

Actually, that is not true strictly speaking. The organizers—William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy—wanted Rushdie very much to attend. Indeed, at the first whiff of the trouble—when a cleric from a Muslim seminary in India went public demanding Rushdie not be invited—Dalrymple went into the kind of laudatory hyper-drive last heard when Barak Obama was elected as the US president (Yes we can!).

 I can’t help feeling that it was a strategy doomed to fail.

Look at it this way. Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, and incurred the wrath of ‘tens of millions of Muslims’, according to the Muslim cleric in India (and that is just Indian Muslims). He announced that Rushdie (himself a Muslim by birth) had insulted Islam and the Muslims will never forgive him.

Do you see? The clue is in the adverb ‘never’. The cleric said the Muslims will not forgive Rushdie. Not now; not ever. They will not forgive him on any occasion. Absolutely not. Don’t even mention the word forgiveness: in no way the Muslims will forgive Rushdie. Absolutely not. Don’t bother, because we won’t bother. Don’t even mention it. We would rather swim naked in the Ganges with paper-cuts on our nipples than forgive Rushdie. We would rather eat our own snot than forgive Rushdie.

And what does Dalrymple do? He calls Rushdie one of the greatest Muslims to have come out of India who had contributed to humanity more than Gandhi. Therefore—so went Dalrymple’s argument—Muslims should welcome Rushdie with open arms and press him to their metaphorical armpits.

Not a clever thing to do, if you ask me.

Perhaps Dalrymple was hoping to appeal to the better nature of the Muslim cleric. Therein lay his second mistake: these guys don’t have one.

Since it was not Dalrymple’s intention to piss off the Muslim cleric who was already hopping mad that Rushdie was invited for the festival, I can only assume that the man is extraordinarily naive.  How did he think the cleric was going to respond to his heart-wrenching appeal? He (the cleric) was hardly going to say, ‘I am so sorry! What was I thinking? Of course! Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest Muslim figures to have emerged out of the Indian Muslim community.  And there I was; thinking the man is an infidel who has insulted our prophet and should be punished by stoning to death (followed by chopping of the hand that wrote the blasphemous novel). You have opened my eyes, sir! I can’t thank you enough! I shall immediately send a telegram of apology to Mr. Rushdie after which I shall start organizing a welcome party for him that will include my four wives and twelve children.’ Not very likely.

I have to sadly conclude that Dalrymple no more understand the minds of religious zealots than I understand the technicality of the surgery that created Eve from Adam’s ribs.

Anyway, Rushdie, to begin with, was pretty gung ho about it. He declared that he was going to attend the festival; he wasn’t banned from travelling to India; and travel to India he would. And the cleric of the Islamic seminary could put it in his hookah and smoke it.

Rushdie’s intrepid announcement had a number of consequences. 

Firstly the Muslim cleric upped his ante, and he was joined in his condemnation of Rushdie by other clerics (who probably wouldn't be able to pick out literature from an identity parade). 

Secondly, a number of politicians (mostly local) from the two major political parties in India—the Congress and the right-of-the-centre BJP— opened their gobs and came out in support of the Muslim cleric. They were not as loud (and ridiculous) as the cleric, but opined that it was ‘inappropriate’ for Rushdie to come to the festival in the circumstances.

What are the circumstances?

If you thought the circumstances are related to the ‘hurt Muslim sentiments’, you could not be further from truth.

The circumstances, reported in The Guardian and The Telegraph are that several states in the Indian federation are poised for key provincial elections; and in several constituencies, Muslims form significant minorities and can influence the outcome of the election if they choose to vote en mass for one or the other party. That is the reasons the politicians thought it was ‘inappropriate’ of Rushdie to visit India; because neither Congress nor BJP can afford to piss them off. What the politicians meant was that it was inconsiderate of Rushdie to make matters awkward for them.

In the past few years (again, according to reports in the Western newspapers) Rushdie, who is of Indian descent, has visited the country of his birth on many occasions. He has even visited Jaipur, the city where the literary festival was being held. Nobody cared then. We didn’t hear the Muslim cleric howling in protest then, nor did the Indian politicians weighed in with their ill-advised remarks.

There is, therefore, prima facie case to consider that the reason the Muslim cleric was confident his voice would be heard was because the elections are round the corner. That is democracy Indian style, I guess.

The politicians were no doubt further inconvenienced by Rushdie’s refusal to budge. India being an open, democratic etcetera etcetera country, they could not prevent Rushdie from travelling to India, and appearing at the festival if he so wished.

So the police stepped in. Rushdie was informed—either directly or indirectly—by the intelligence agencies that there was a threat to his life if he appeared at the festival; the agencies had obtained information that paid assassins from the Mumbai Muslim underworld would be boarding trains for Jaipur to kill him, if he turned up at the festival.

In a statement read out on Rushdie’s behalf, he announced that while he had some doubts as to the accuracy of the intelligence, he had decided to withdraw from the festival, as he thought it would be irresponsible of him to come to the festival in these circumstances.

Circumstances. They had changed. Again. But had they? Really? The rumours started floating in the festival venue that this was false intelligence; that the Mumbai underworld Dons had more  worthwhile hings to do (smuggle in gold, diamonds, Nepali prostitutes) than send assassins to kill an author who managed to survive Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.

Salman Rushdie immediately smelt a rat; not just rat—he also smelt a chipmunk, a squirrel, a hamster, a jerboa and a whole raft of rodents. He figured out that there was no plot to kill him. It was an attempt, no doubt engineered by the cynical Indian politicians at whose beck and call the Indian police apparently are, to keep him away from the festival and avoid pissing of Muslims voters.

It was now Rushdie’s turn to feel pissed off. Julius Caesar probably felt less betrayed when Brutus plunged the kitchen-knife between his shoulder blades.

Rushdie announced on twitter, from America (this great figure from the Indian Muslim community whom the British taxpayers spent millions to protect after Khomeini’s fatwa, embraced American nationality a few years ago, citing that Britain was boring; he was right, but truth still hurts):

‘I have investigated and believe that I was indeed lied to. I am outraged and very angry.’

(I do not know what ‘investigation’ Rushdie carried out into the alleged Mumbai underworld plot to assassinate him, but he is a clever man. I am sure that he quickly figured out that the assassins, if they valued their own lives, would not have dared to travel on the Indian trains, as they would have been suffocated (or crushed) to death themselves before the train reached Jaipur. Rushdie must die, but not if they end up dying too.)

The fire-breathing Muslim clerics were not embarrassed that their country faced severe criticism in The Guardian and The Telegraph over the whole affair. They did not beat about the bush. They did not hide behind namby-pamby euphemisms we Brits are so good at. As one cleric told one of the Indian television channels, the matter was simple: Rushdie had written a book insulting Islam. (No, he had not read it; he would not pollute his eyes by reading the infidel’s book; also he couldn’t read English). The man had shown or expressed no remorse for his heinous crime. And the Muslims were not going to forgive him. He was happy that Rushdie was not coming to the festival. Allah be praised!

There were a couple of final twists to the story. The British novelist (of Indian descent) Hari Kunzru and another Indian novelist decided to read aloud excerpts from TheSatanic Verses in the festival (presumably to show solidarity to Rushdie). Kunzru is a good writer (his debut novel, The Impressionist, was very impressive, as was My Revolutions), but he really must desist from such stunts. In any case both the novelists were prevented from reading aloud from the novel by the organizers, which peeved Salman further and he demanded explanation. (The explanation was: The Satanic Verses remains banned in India and reading from the novel probably constitutes a crime in that country.) I think the organizers did Kunzru a favour. Spending a nice weekend in the air-conditioned comforts of the hotel in which the festival was held is one thing, but I don’t think Kunzru would have found the hospitality of Indian jails quite up to the same standards.

The organizers then arranged a video-link conference at the venue with Rushdie. That too had to be cancelled at the last minute. Once again, the Indian police were very canny. They knew that they could not stop the organizers from holding the video conference. So they prevailed upon the owner of the hotel to withdraw permission to the conference (telling him that there might be violence in the hotel and thousands might riot on the streets) which left William Dalrymple feeling ‘personally disgraced’.

What actually happened was about 50 youths (presumably Muslim) entered the venue and started intimidating people. The organizers could not explain how the men managed to breach the security code. The police said they let the men in because they had the requisite delegate passes. Make of that what you will.

The police chief of Jaipur was remarkably unabashed about it. ‘In view of the simmering resentment in the city [against Rushdie], I feared there would be problems in the festival and riots outside, so I advised the owner to cancel the video broadcast,’ he said.

What does all this mean for the world’s largest democracy? On the face of it, it is spectacularly cringeworthy. It is not an edifying spectacle when cynical politicians with eyes on the votes bow down to religious extremism. Rushdie wasted no time in castigating Indian politicians and  Muslim religious leaders. Said Rushdie:

‘Currently the people who claim to be speaking for India's Muslims are either not the true leaders, or they are certainly extremely bad leaders. And the fact that the political system plays with those leaders, wants to placate them, and curry favour with them, that of course is the fault of the political system.’

Rushdie probably has a point. This is no doubt sociological experts would call as the paradox of modern India. On the one hand the country is poised to become one of the economic giants in the coming decades, with a proportion of its citizens—certainly the educated and the well off classes—having the same sensibilities and values of Western civilizations; on the other hand are religious leaders (and, by the looks of it, some politicians) who are living in medieval times. 

That said Rushdie is a tad harsh on the country of his birth. Rushdie might have been born and lived in India when he was young, but it was not India but Britain that intellectually nourished him. In his thinking Rushdie is a Westerner, and (perhaps understandably) takes for granted certain values like freedom of speech in a supposedly open, democratic and secular country. The thing is (I know, I know; it is a cliché) India is at once an ancient civilization and a very young country. India as we know it today has existed for only sixty years, after the British left. What is happening is India trying to squeeze in sixty years what took centuries in Europe. Nobody promised the ride wouldn’t be bumpy.

Ultimately, I believe, the middle classes—the intellectual guardians of any culture—will determine which way India will go. There are almost 400 millions of them, and growing. Which suggests there is hope.

As for Rushdie, I think he should offer unhesitating apology to the Muslim world. He has to accept that there are parts of the world where folk are not as laid back about religion as some of us are in Britain. Where—even in democracies such as India— the Western concept of freedom to say offensive things is not readily appreciated. He might not have intended to cause offence, but cause offence he did. Why not accept with humility that you might have inadvertently offended a culture, and apologize with good grace? 

Salman Rushdie is a great writer, who has written many excellent novels. It would be a shame if he is forever linked with the controversy  surrounding one of the novels (which is also an excellent novel).

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses and Hurt Muslim Sentiments

The Vice Chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband is annoyed. He (I am assuming the vice chancellor is a man) is cheesed off. He is about as happy as Gordon Brown was on the May 2010 election day.

Why is the vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom Seminary in Deoband peeved? What is making him more sore than bleeding haemorrhoids? What has caused him to be as comradely as a starving grizzly bear that can’t get to the bee-hive at the top of the branch?

I can clarify.

The vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary is in a towering rage (and we are talking at least forty stories here) because the infidel is coming to town.

I think more clarification is in order at this stage.

The first question requiring an answer is: where in Allah’s name is Darul Uloom seminary? That is easy. The answer, given in the first line of this post, is: Deoband.

The next question: where in the name of Mohammad is Deoband? I can answer this, too. Deoband is a town (I am assuming it is a town seeing as it has a seminary which boasts of a vice chancellor, although calling a cleric in a seminary a vice-chancellor is a bit like a chiropractor calling himself a doctor) in India.

Where in India, I hear you asking, is Deoband? There you have got me. I don’t have a f**king clue. But wherever it is, the infidel would be well advised to steer clear of it. Because he is not welcome there.

The infidel in question is Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize winning author of Midnight’s Children, who, in 1988, wrote a novel entitled The Satanic Verses, which incurred the wrath of the then supreme leader of the Islamic republic of Iran, the AyatollahRuhollah Khomeini. Khomeini, in his infinite wisdom, decreed that Rushdie had insulted the prophet and any punishment short of execution was too kind. And Khomeini was not in a mood to show mercy to the insulter of the prophet (and by extension Islam). He took out a fatwa against Rushdie which gave permission for the infidel to be killed wherever he (the infidel) was.

The densely written The Satanic Verses, which I doubt would otherwise have been heard of, let alone read, in the Muslim world, achieved instant notoriety following Khomeini’s fatwa. Rushdie went into hiding and had to stay hidden for several years (the British taxpayers’ money was well spent in protecting him).

The Satanic Verses was banned in many countries, most of them Islamic.

India was one of the first countries to ban The Satanic Verses. The book is still officially banned in India, although, according to an Indian friend of mine, for a while after Khomeini’s fatwa the novel was one book that was smuggled the most into the country (until the Indians realised that it was unreadable).

(As an aside, I read somewhere that The Satanic Verses has sold more copies than Midnight’s Children. It is Rushdie’s most commercially successful novel to-date, all thanks to Khomeini’s fatwa, although I doubt that that was Khomeini’s intention when he took out the fatwa.)

Salman Rushdie is of Indian descent (he was born and brought up in Mumbai, India), and he was said to be deeply hurt that the country of his origin banned the book even before it was banned in some of the Islamic countries.

India, of course, is not an Islamic country. It is a secular, democratic country. However, it has a sizeable Muslim population. Muslims form almost 14% of India’s population (more than 100 millions). One guesses that the Indian authorities were not overtly keen to piss off the already pissed off Muslim population by allowing the novel to become freely available.

In due course Rushdie came out of hiding. I am not exactly sure, but I think after Khomeini’s death (I hope he is enjoying the delights of the paradise after leading a life of piety) the Iranian government found some sort of face-saving formula, managing, in the process, the kind of intellectual contortions that would have British politicians nodding with approval; and essentially said that they were taking back Khomeini’s fatwa (and were happy to wait, instead, for the infidel to be struck by the full wrath of Allah).

India might have banned The Satanic Verses, but it has not banned Rushdie from travelling to India.

Rushdie is invited to attend a literary festival that will be held in Jaipur, Rajasthan later this month. It is this invitation that has raised the hackles of the vice-chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary.

Rushdie is not the only prominent writer (in the Western hemisphere) who will be in attendance. Other prominent authors attending this literary festival include the Pulitzer Award winning American novelist, Annie Proloux; the 1991 Booker Winner Ben Okri (we shall ignore for the moment that Okri has written little of consequence since his Booker win twenty years ago); the British playwright David Hare; and Richard Dawkins. The last name is interesting. I have not read Richard Dawkins (he bores me with his constant anti-God, anti-religions hectoring), but I should hazard a guess that Dawkin’s views about all religions, God, and figures—historical and current that claimed to have had a special relationship with or an exclusive channel of communication with the Supreme being—are likely to be even more sceptical than those expressed in one section of The Satanic Verses.

(I should briefly clarify my position on God and religion, here. Having given the matter considerable thought over the years, I have decided to hedge my bets and have settled on a position of agnosticism. It is like this: if you spend all your life believing that God exists, that there is afterlife, and that you would be answerable for your deeds in this life after your death; and if God does not exist, if there is no afterlife, what have you got to lose? You die, and there is nothing after that. On the other hand, if you spend all your life bad-mouthing God, and if he does exist, then, upon your demise, you are going to meet a Supreme Being that is more f**ked off than the vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband, India.)

So, this is the situation. There is a literary festival in India, to which Salman Rushdie is invited. The vice chancellor of a Muslim seminary in India is upset about it. He does not think that the infidel who has insulted the great religion and its founder should be invited in any official capacity to India.

I have no reason to believe that the vice chancellor is an unwise man. I do not know whether he has actually read The Satanic Verses. If he has never left India, he would not—at any rate, should not—have read the offending novel, which is banned in that country. (May be he travelled to the UK with the specific aim of reading the novel and deciding for himself whether Rushdie offended the Muslim sentiments; or perhaps he was content to put his faith in the sound judgment of the late Ayatollah of Iran and considered The Satanic Verses blasphemous even if he has not read the novel himself. It does not matter. You have a right to feel offended about or have view against something you have no personal experience of. I am totally against greenhouse gases; I think it is bad news for the planet. I also believe that America, China, and India, in that order, are currently the worst offenders; and the politicians—power-makers in case of China—in their short-sightedness are making our planet a more dangerous place. Believe me, I hold very strong view on the matter; I have seriously considered going on marches (before rejecting it in favour of shouting abuses at the TV screen at the Ten o’clock BBC news). I could not explain to you, though, what exactly greenhouse gases are and in what way they are endangering the planet. But that does not stop me from having very strong views on the subject.) The point is: people can have very strong views on matters they know little about, or, in some cases, are even misinformed about. That is life. Therefore, while it is possible that a vast majority of the tens of millions in the Islamic world who feel deeply offended by the alleged anti-Islamic views of Rushdie in The Satanic Verses has not actually read the novel, that does not make the sentiments ersatz in my view. I would rather they read The Satanic Verses and decide for themselves whether or not Rushdie offended Islam. (May be some of them did and feel, after reading the novel that Rushdie insulted their religion. I have known a few educated Muslims over the years and with some of them, whom I became friendly with, I tried to discuss The Rushdie issue. Not a single one of them admitted to have read The Satanic Verses. None of them called Rushdie an infidel, either, I should point out; or wished him a horrible death. There was, if anything, a marked reluctance to discuss this on their part, which I suspected was because they did hold strong views on the matter. But that is my guess.) I could also go on the Net and find out more about it so that I can have an informed opinion on the matter; but I can’t be bothered.

So what is the vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband saying? According to the article in The Daily Telegraph, the vice chancellor, who goes by the impressive name of Maulana Abul Qasim Nomeni, is calling upon

‘the Muslim organizations of the country [India] to mount pressure on the centre to withdraw the visa and prevent him [Rushdie] visiting India where [tens of millions] community members still feel hurt owing to the anti-Islamic remarks in his writings The Muslims cannot pardon him at any cost.’

Abul Qasim Nomeni, it would be fair to say, is not feeling particularly benevolent towards Rushdie, which, one might say, is only to be expected of a man whose name rhymes with Khomeini. He is (or thinks he is) speaking on behalf of tens of millions of community members (Muslims), who, he assures us, are still hurt over the anti-Islamic remarks in Rushdie’s writings. (Interesting that Maulana does not actually mention The Satanic Verses; instead he uses the generic term ‘writings’. Does this mean that Rushdie has made remarks that can be construed as anti-Islamic in his other writings?—I have read half a dozen Rushdie novels and The Satanic Verses is the only one which can be viewed as anti-Islamic. Or is it the case that the pious Maulana can’t bring himself to even utter the name of the infidel’s novel?)

The headline under which The Daily Telegraph chose to publish the article is also interesting. The headline is:

Sir Salman Rushdie facing threat of Muslim reprisals over Jaipur Literature Festival appearance’.

Maybe I am missing something, or The Daily Telegraph has chosen to keep hidden a vital piece of information from its readers.

What Abul Qasim Nomeni is, according to the Telegraph’s own article, asking is: (a) the writer’s centre withdraw invitation to Rushdie, and / or (b) withdraw the visa to Rushdie so that he cannot travel to India. (The second calling is presumably to Indian authorities; I wouldn’t have thought that the writer’s centre that has organized the festival would have any say in the matter.)

That hardly qualifies as a threat of Muslim reprisal. The vice chancellor is not exhorting the ‘community members’ to tie explosive to their genitals and blow themselves up in the festival. He is encouraging the community members to put pressure on the Indian government to withdraw Rushdie’s visa. One might disagree with the vice chancellor; one might feel that his views are not adequately informed; but one can hardly take an issue with his methods.

In recent years, the UK has banned a number of organizations, books and pamphlets, which the government (read security agencies) feels is inimical to the fabric of the society; the government has also banned individuals from entering the country. The vice chancellor Nomeni wants a ban on Rushdie visiting his country. He is entitled to his views, however misguided we think they are, and, in a free country, he has every right to voice them. India is a country with free speech; it is not country with free visiting rights.

The worry, of course, is that while the learned vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom university might not be espousing violent methods to get the message across, his clarion call might just be the kind of encouragement some radical ‘community members’— who have come to the conclusion that the world does not change through somebody asking nicely and whose chief mode of communication, therefore, is hand-made bombs—do not need.

Let’s go back to India’s banning of The Satanic Verses. I don’t know why India banned the book, but I can guess. The Indian politicians probably concluded that (a) the Muslim sentiments were indeed hurt by the novel, and (b) publishing of the book might lead to law and order problems. And they decided that the best way to deal with the situation and prevent it from escalating further was to ban the book.

The Satanic Verses was not the first, and won’t be the last, book to be banned. The list of novels banned in the UK and America in the twentieth century, because they fell foul, in some way or the other, of the powers that be, is longer than a lemur’s tail.

That does not make the banning of The Satanic Verses right, mind, in my view; however, as the cliché goes, time is the best leveler, and decisions which either make perfect contextual sense or serve some or the other expediency (political, cultural etcetera), will look, with the passage of time, cynical, dishonest and wrong.

Is Abul Qasim Nomeni, the vice chancellor of Darul Uloom seminary, a fundamentalist Muslim? He might be, or he might not be. All I can say is Islam is not the only religion which generates fundamentalists. Christianity has its own brand of religious headcases. Like the organization in Russia which wants the Bhagvad Geeta (sacred book of Hindus) to be banned in Russia because it is anti-Christian, apparently. Or the American nutter who was going to burn the Koran. There is no dearth of Christian Evangelists who are bat-shit mental and go into proselytizing over-drive, spreading the true message of Christmas (and generally being a pain in the neck) every December. True, in recent years, the Christian fundamentalists have not been involved in acts of spectacular violence; but that might be because Christian lands have not been invaded by Muslim armies.

However, let’s get back to the Rushdie affair. In recent years, Rushdie is the second author that I know of who has invited disapprobation for his alleged anti-Islamic views. In 2010, V.S. Naipaul withdrew from giving the inaugural speech for the European Writers’ Parliament, in Turkey, after a slew of Turkish writers and journalists, criticized the decision to invite Naipaul, who, according to them, was anti-Islamic. (Commented on this blog.)

Rushdie—bless him!—has so far shown no inclination to withdraw. Instead he has given out a statement (bold or belligerent, take your pick) to the effect that he fully intends to attend the festival, and because he is of Indian origin he does not even need a visa to visit India.

Rushdie, in the words of William Darlymple, the organizer of the Jaipur Literary Festival, has made a major ‘contribution to multiculturalism, pluralism and co-existence.’ He is (Dalrymple, again) ‘one of the greatest artists India has created’. He is also (Dalrymple hasn’t finished yet) ‘one of the greatest figures to come out of Indian Muslim community.’

This is high praise indeed. I do not know about Rushdie’s contribution to all the isms Dalrymple is talking about; neither do I possess knowledge of great Muslim figures that have come out of the Indian Muslim community (I am happy to take Dalrymple’s word for it). What I do know (having read six of his novels) is Rushdie is a superb writer. Three cheers for Rushdie.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Top Gear India Special-: Clarkson Does it Again

As I have written in the past on this blog, I am not a car enthusiast and I am not in the habit of watching, regularly at any rate, car-related programmes; certainly not when they are fronted by not very good looking middle aged men. (Come to think of it, I wouldn’t watch them even when they are presented by good looking blokes.) 

Therefore I did not watch the Top Gear—India Special that was aired on the BBC, twice, during the Christmas period.

Top Gear, of course, is a hugely popular (in the UK) programme on cars, presented by three middle-aged men: one—tall with a huge belly, big teeth, and hair that look from a distance like  islands of grey broccoli (Jeremy Clarkson); another—of average height, also parading a beer belly and hair that look as if he blow dries them with the propeller of a Jet-plane, which conspire to have the net effect of making him look as though he woke up in a ditch (James May); and a third one, who is tiny but is not fat—in fact he is nothing; he is like a sack half-filled with sticks—and has limp hair that look as if they resist any attempts at styling (Hammond; I can’t remember his first name).

       Jeremy Clarkson (This is what happens when you live on a diet of potato fat and lager)

                                             James May (Where is my absinthe?)

                                                     Hammond (Am I a t**t?)

However, I should hazard a guess that the viewership of this vastly popular programme on the BBC (mostly comprising men, I should guess) is not attracted to it because of the stunning good looks of these three men. They watch it because—difficult as it is for me to believe it—they are utterly fascinated by cars. I don’t get it. I am constitutionally unable to appreciate comments—however witty they are—on the hydraulic functions of the engines or the horsepower (or whatever it is called); they don’t interest me..

The quasi-technical jibber-jabber on these programmes is, as far as I am concerned, a language spoken on Jupiter, a planet I have no intention of visiting. Thus when Clarkson or May or Hammond circles round a car in the studio (with a simpering crowd of mostly men and a few women (with heads like racing mullets) in the background—the Room Intelligent Quotient, you would imagine, being slightly above that of farmyard animals), mouthing things like ‘2.0-litre, 16 valves turbocharged engine’ with the air that they are revealing the secret of the elixir of life, I do not share their awe. Or, when Clarkson goes all dewy eyed about some car, say, Lancia, that went out of production in the  last century (probably because it was crap and there was no demand for it), or describes some long-since extinct Half-Estate-Half-Sport-Coupe as drop dead gorgeous, I cannot  share his sentimental nostalgia. Or, when he describes wrathfully some car as the most unreliable pile of over-rated rubbish on wheels, the only emotion I experience is amazement that anyone can froth at mouth about a car he is getting to test-drive for free; it is not as if he has spent his undeservedly earned money on it. And with the best will in the world I can’t get myself to feel ecstatic about pointless information such as 0 to 60 miles in 5 seconds or whatever. What is the use of this information? It is not as if you would be able to put this function to use in your day-to-day life. Why would you want to go from 0 to 60 in less than five (or three) seconds anyway? It’s a bit like Prince Andrew’s sex appeal: what is the point?

Most of the cars reviewed on the programme are unaffordable, anyway; I bet more than 90% of people who are glued to the box when the programme is aired, can’t afford to buy them.  

Watching Top Gear type programmes is, for me, about as exciting as watching your nails grow. Tiresome does not even begin to describe it.

Mind you, I have nothing against blokes who harbour unhealthy interests in cars; you never know what will move one’s rocks. Over the years I have known people with peculiar habits. At one of my workplaces was a guy who was borderline obsessed with squid. Another was into German board games. A girl I used to go out with was interested in French literature.

Indeed I can empathize with the strong affection people come to invest in things—because I have unhealthy interests of my own—books—which may seem peculiar to others—, even though I can’t understand why the objects of their affection come to yield the influence they do on the besotted: rhinestone jewellery or absinthe; or cars.

But I digress. Back to Top Gear—India Special. I did not watch this special edition aired over Christmas—I am interested in India (it is a fascinating country) but not interested in cars—which have raised the hackles of Indians. Or, Indian High commission in England, to be specific.

The Indian High Commission in London has sent a formal letter of complaint to the BBC. On the face of it, that is one more country Clarkson and his co-presenters have managed to offend (Mexico and Albania being other).

It is interesting, however, that after the programme was aired the BBC received only 23 complaints. This suggests that the Indian Diaspora in Britain was (a) not offended; or (b) was offended but did not complain to the BBC; or (c) (I hope to God this is true—) did not watch the programme.

So one cannot say that the complaint about Clarkson’s antics on Top Gear has arisen from the ‘over-sensitive’ minorities in this country, which, as any Daily Mail reader will tell you, are pampered.

The complaint has come from the official representative of a country, which allowed the BBC to film this programme in that country.

As per the letter published in the Daily Telegraph, when the producer of Top Gear wrote to the Indian High-Commission, requesting for permission to enter and film in India, the High Commission was given assurance that the programme would be a ‘light-hearted road trip’ that would focus on the ‘idiosyncrasies of the cars’ the three presenters would drive, as well as on ‘the country and scenery’ along the way. The programme was going to involve ‘spontaneous interaction between the presenters and their environment and people, in an incidental manner’. The key-ingredients were going to be ‘local charm and colour within these locations’ and illustration of the local car culture’.

The formal letter of complaint from the Indian High Commission accuses that the programme was ‘replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour, and lacked cultural sensitivity.’ The letter goes on to accuse that the BBC was ‘clearly in breach of the agreement’ it ‘had entered into, completely negating’ the High Commission’s ‘proactive facilitation.’

What the Indians (or the Indian High Commission, to be specific) seem to be saying is—there is no kinder way of putting this—the BBC told them lies to get permission to film in their country; accepted all the help that was offered; and then made a programme that was contrary to the spirit of the agreement it had entered into.

I watched the programme on the BBC i-player that has so offended the sentiments of the Indian High Commission and (one Raj Dhutta, of Manchester Indian Association, who described the programme as tasteless).

It is a long programme: 1 hour and 30 minutes. I managed to watch the first 50 minutes, at which point of time the computer stopped broadcasting, giving the message, instead, that the band-width was not enough. Which was just as well, as I was contemplating in my mind what would be more painful: slashing my wrists or watching the programme.

I am a bit disappointed with the tone of complaint of the letter sent by the Indian High Commission. I would have understood if they were offended (I think the letter uses a milder word: 'disappointed') that the Top Gear presenters managed to make a programme about such a colourful and vibrant country as theirs that was so utterly boring.

I also agree with Raj Dhutta (of Indian Association in Manchester) that the programme was remarkably crass and tasteless. It was more than tasteless. It was sad.

The trouble with the Top Gear, as far as I am concerned, in addition to being about a boring topic such as cars, is: it is presented by three boring old farts (with combined age in three figures) who insist on behaving and speaking as if they were hormonal teenagers.

At one stage in the programme the three presenters put up a banner on a train which said ‘Eat British Muffins’. Then when the train carriages are decoupled, the banner tears and the camera focuses on ‘Eat British Muff’. Honestly. I could just about have tolerated this level of humour if the presenters were younger (and fitter). But when it comes from the likes of Clarkson (as handsome as a prize ox), May (who looks like a tramp) and a midget (will be blown out of the room if you sneezed in his face), it is just pathetic. As you watch the three of them howling like a simultaneously sexed up and seriously injured dog,  when the carriages move, the paunches of two of them wobbling unattractively, all that is missing—you feel—is: shaved heads, biceps swollen by anabolic steroids, flags of St George tattooed on one arm and of  naked women  on the other—and lo and behold! You are looking at perfect English gentlemen.

Since my computer gave up showing the programme at the fiftieth minute, I was spared the spectacle of Clarkson taking off his trousers in front of Indian dignitaries (the photograph in one of the tabloids shows that there was a woman present as well) and showing them how to use a trouser press. He apparently joked that he used it to make nan bread. I cannot believe that this was a ‘spontaneous’ interaction the producer had assured the Indian High Commission in London they would be filming. It was clearly a staged event. Which suggests to me two things: (1) the Indians were probably given an indication what Clarkson was going to do. (2) The woman in the crowd was very brave. I mean Clarkson, even when fully clothed, is not a sight for sore eyes (or sensitive stomachs). His teeth are enough to scare toddlers, and when he laughs his face comes to hold an uncanny resemblance to a bullfrog gulping in pain. He has a big face, which, still, is not big enough to handle his nose adequately. Having to look at his ugly mug, I would have thought, is punishment enough. Why would you want to be there when this man, who essentially is a mule combined with an ass combined with a bear, takes off his trousers, parading his flabby, pasty-white thighs? The woman must have been a glutton for punishment.

There was another scene in the programme when the three presenters were seen, with another fat (and ugly) bloke (presumably the producer of the programme), on a train from Mumbai to Jaipur, singing songs to the accompaniment of a drum and cello (which, no doubt, materialised ‘spontaneously’ in the carriage), generally creating a ruckus and disturbing other passengers, who seemed to tolerate the antics with bemused tolerance.

When will these idiots realise that when they behave in this fashion they are not being quaint; they are not being eccentric; they are just pain in the bum.

When the presenters were not juvenile, crass, obnoxious (and generally insufferable), they were behaving like toffee-nosed wankers.

The level of humour in the programme made the Carry On films—which, let me say this clearly, are third rate—appear like acme of intellectual sophistication. (As an aside, I have always struggled to fathom why the Carry On films are considered by some to be some sort of national treasure. They are not funny in the least; they are just smutty; the actors couldn’t act; utterly dreadful).

All of the above are of course my subjective views. It is possible that there are people out there who found the Top  Gear—India Special  fascinating, funny, and watchable, just in the same way there are those who find the WWF fighting genuine and thrilling.

There is an American friend of mine who tells me that he is tired of listening to English colleagues in his company telling him all the time that the Americans do not get English humour. ‘I can’t seem to get across to these morons,’ he tells me, ‘that I don’t find their toilet humour funny, which is different from not getting it.’

There is a thin line between comic use of stereotyping, as the BBC disingenuously tried to put to the Mexicans after the midget Hammond said offensive things about their culture, and plain boorishness. Bullshit—even when said in the  posh BBC accent—won’t always baffle the brain.

I can see why the Indian High Commission was peeved with the BBC and Top Gear. The thing is: when we go to other countries and cultures; enjoy and take advantage of the hospitalities offered by these cultures in good faith; and make programmes full of crude and low level humour, we run the risk of portraying an image of our culture that does not make a pretty viewing. However, I do not expect that the likes of the producers of Top Gear, who are so up their own arses that they can practically drink their own bile, to appreciate this.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Book of the Month: The Masque of Africa (V.S. Naipaul)

In the second section of his most recent, quite possibly his last, non-fiction book, Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, V.S. Naipaul recounts an incident. He is in Nigeria and, in the company of his local guide, a Muslim named Adesina, he is visiting a babalawo —a soothsayer. On a little table in front of the babalawo are his magic things (Naipaul’s words), amongst which is a ‘sensationally dirty’ school exercise book. After the fee of the consultation is settled—the soothsayer initially demands a thousand dollars, but Adesina, ‘used to this kind of outrage’ remains calm and beats him down in the end to something much smaller—Naipaul has to ask the babalawo a question. Naipaul asks, ‘Will my daughter get married?’ (Naipaul does not have any children of his own, but his second wife has a grown-up daughter from her first marriage). The babalawo is thrown by this question. He says, ‘I thought only black people have such problems.’ The babalawo is nevertheless willing to give an opinion. He consults his exercise book, performs some rituals using cowry shells and two small gourds tied with a piece of string. Finally he is ready to tell Naipaul the future: ‘The girl,’ declares the babalawo portentously, ‘is not going to get married. You have many enemies. To break their spells we will have to do many rituals. They will cost money, but the girl will get married.’ Everyone in the room is quite excited. Adesina and his brother (both of whom, despite being Muslims, believe in and have maintained links with the traditional religion), Naipaul remarks, ‘the babalawo had them all in the palm of his hand.’ Then Naipaul says, ‘But what he [babalawo] has told me is good. I don’t want the girl to be married.’ Naipaul concludes the incident with the wry comment: ‘I believe only the reverence of Adesina and others saved the day.’

The above is a rare moment of light relief in an otherwise doleful book.

V.S. Naipaul, the recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, is a man who has reinvented himself in a literary career spanning more than five decades during which he has produced approximately thirty works of fiction and non-fiction.  He started off with novels. His early novels were brilliant works of satirical comedies with the Caribbean islands (where he was born and bred) as the backdrop. The two works from this period which stand out, for me, are Miguel Street and The House for Mister Biswas. Naipaul’s later fictional work became more sombre, assumed, for want of better phrase, more gravitas, and, as years went by, the humour—so fresh and evident in his early novels—vanished completely. You get a flavour of things to come in his 1967 novel Mimic Men, which, in parts, still has comic moments. The grave, almost mythical, tone of his fiction is really set from A Flag on the Island (which won the 1971 Booker Prize) onwards. The three novels from this period which I think are outstanding are (in chronological order): A Bend in the River, An Enigma of Arrival, and A Way in the World. A Bend in the River is perhaps my most favourite Naipaul novel, but A Way in the World is extraordinary, too. It is not a conventional novel at all; rather it is a complex interweaving of personal memories, stories of possibly real life characters, and historical metafiction: it is, quite simply, awesome.

Naipaul did not build his reputation solely on fiction, though. Had Naipaul restricted himself only to writing fiction, he would still have earned his place in the annals of world literature. I do not know what the critics would have made of his later fiction, but certainly his early fiction would have been acknowledged—perhaps still is—as fiction which opened gates for talented Commonwealth Writers (Salman Russhdie, Rohinton Mistry, Caryl Philips etcetera).

However, Naipaul did not write only fiction. From 1960s onwards, he began to travel. He travelled to different corners of the European Empires. The fruits of his travels were a kind of reportage books with a difference.  Naipaul has written a trilogy of books on India, the country of his ancestors; on South Americas; the Caribbean; and two books of astonishing prescience from his travels in the Islamic countries. In these books Naipaul evolved a style that was adopted by other writers, most notably Paul Theroux and Shiva Naipaul (Naipaul’s younger brother who died of a heart attack when he was only forty, and is a largely forgotten name these days). These travel writings—they are not typical travelogues, as already mentioned—established Naipaul’s reputation as a contrarian writer, who was not afraid to express views that were considered as ‘politically incorrect’. (Add to this Naipaul’s recent penchant for making seemingly outrageous statements in his interviews, which generate a lot of ill-feeling towards him—although he seems not to care, revel, even, in this persona (should we call it a masque?)—and you get an idea why Sir Vidia has become a controversial character in British literary scene.) In these peregrinations Naipaul casts himself as an ‘outsider’. He has no allegiance to anyone or anything except truth, or what he sees as truth. He is not wedded to any ideology or philosophy and tells it as he sees it. As far as possible he lays out for the reader what he sees or discusses (with others) without any sensor (as it were); on the rare occasions when he passes a judgment (or comment) he appears acutely aware of the limitations—prejudices if you may—of his vision. It is this, together with the quality of his writing, that has won Naipaul his fans (probably not many) amongst whom I include myself.

The Masque of Africa with its somewhat imprecise subtitle—the Glimpses of African Beliefs—is Naipaul’s first work of non-fiction in over a decade. In it he returns to the continent he first visited 44 years ago and which provided a backdrop to some of his fiction. Starting with Uganda—where he spent several months as a writer in residence at the Makerere University in Kampala (a version of which he used some years later in A Bend in the River—the country, not the university)—Naipaul visits five more African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa.

Naipaul is mainly interested in finding out about the traditional religions of Africa, the older, animistic beliefs and practices that were prevalent in the continent before the two great religions of the world—Christianity and Islam—arrived and  asserted themselves—imposed, even,—on the population. Naipaul wants to know, bearing in mind the theme of his travel, what has happened to the traditional religions of Africa.

The theme is not new. It has been examined—in particular the clash between the older and the more modern (for want of better phrase) religions and the apparently unbridgeable differences between their doctrines and explanatory models—in fiction before: the superb Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) and almost equally remarkable Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). What we get in The Masque of Africa is the non-fiction version, or Naipaul’s version of it.

Naipaul famously said once, ‘An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.’ By his own yardstick, The Masque of Africa lends itself vulnerable to the charge of Naipaul distorting or not reporting faithfully— either because his memory has played tricks with him or because what he has heard does not fit into his pre-conceived notion about Africa—what he hears in his meetings with the Africans. Indeed in his review of the book William Boyd (a favourite writer of mine; he writes entertaining novels, but let’s face it—he is never going to write anything that would make you pause and think and examine your conceptions) brazenly says that the ‘transcribed monologues’ seemed ‘bogus’ to him. That is an astonishing accusation to hurl at a writer renowned for his searing honesty. Boyd gives some bogus sounding (to me) explanations why he doubts the veracity of Naipaul’s conversations with the Africans:  it would appear that Boyd’s view of Naipaul’s travel writing is changed forever by what he calls the French Effect (referring to warts and all ‘authorized’ biography of Naipaul by Patrick French, never mind that both Naipaul and his second wife have since expressed bitterness and reservations about the biography). At the end of the day these are subjective impressions which cannot be explained away rationally. For what it is worth none of the conversations with the various people Naipaul meets in the course of his travels seemed inauthentic to me. However, it would be fair to say that some of the conversations make uncomfortable reading. Here is an extract of the conversation between Naipaul and a distinguished academic, a former dean of the University of Gabon, a man of mixed ancestry (French father and African mother) but, who, Naipaul comments, ‘like many people of mixed ancestry, appeared to be embracing the African side of his inheritance.’ This man, a lawyer by profession, who thinks of himself as a political scientist and teaches political anthropology at the University of Gabon, is also a passionate believer in the traditional religion of Gabon and has, as Naipaul puts it, ‘come to a poetic understanding of the place of forest in the Gabonese mind.’ The lawyer gives Naipaul examples of his encounters with the supernatural. When Naipaul asks him whether he can define the religion of forest more closely, he replies, ‘in a precise, academic way’:

‘We cannot call it a religion. It is a set of beliefs. We don’t pray to God because in our understanding God is not accessible to humans. It [he meant the idea of God] has many other problems and has no time for humans.’

Does this sound ‘bogus’? How about the following? After describing to Naipaul the levels of ‘organic world’, the lawyer explains the ‘initiation ceremony’:

‘You remain afraid. Initiation and ritual only give you a path through the forest. You are not protected against others, women especially. Women are very important in the society. They are the real power. A woman may not exercise power, but she gives it to her son. We are a matrilineal society, and women give life. This country was not made for men. Women’s bodies are stronger, and so they are witches. There are many ritual sacrifices where the eyes are removed and tongues torn out of living victims. Every day there is a ritual sacrifice. White skin is very prized here, and for that reason I cannot let my light-skinned children out in the evening.’

Naipaul then asks the lawyer the importance of the tongue and the lawyer replies that ‘they’ remove the tongue to get energy. When Naipaul asks him what he thinks about it, the lawyer replies, ‘There is no name. It is too shocking.’ Then, for the first time in this entire piece, Naipaul gives the reader a glimpse of what he thinks, his judgment as it were: ‘It was a relief to hear him say that. He had spoken of ‘energy’ in such a positive way I thought he might have been more accepting.’

The format of The Masque of Africa is similar to Naipaul’s earlier travel writings, a genre that he created. He travels to countries; he visits places in these countries and observes; and he talks and listens. He meets people and asks them questions. You get the impression by the very nature of these encounters that they are not random; that the people Naipaul meets are ‘recruited’ by his contacts in the country he is visiting because they are ‘interesting’. Almost everyone Naipaul meets during his African travels and whose conversations he records for the reader is a well educated African occupying a high position or holding down a white collar job, who has interesting things to say about Africa and its old religion.

And what does Naipaul find when he speaks to these selected individuals? He discovers that underneath the patina of Christianity and Islam, the old, traditional religion lives on. Some of these individuals are comfortable with it and in their minds have dual identities without any cognitive dissonance, such as some of the Nigerians Naipaul meets, who consider themselves Catholic Christians belonging to the Yoruba tribe and have no hesitation in performing traditional rites not approved by ‘modern’ religions. Some others, like Nicole, the lady police body-guard Naipaul is provided with in Gabon, have rejected the old religion totally and become staunch Christians. In Gabon Naipaul, with Nicole, visits an isolated establishment in the village of Lope, deep in the forest, where the tribal chief has promised to show him the siren of the river—a white woman. As it happens Naipaul does not avail himself of this offer as he is feeling too tired. This is what Naipaul says:

‘She [Nicole] was Christian, but she had the old Gabonese anxiety about water, an inauspicious element. The talk about the white sirens at the bottom of the river wouldn’t have pleased her at all; and she had been praying and praying, against hope for much of the time, that the river trip wouldn’t take place. Now, miraculously, her prayers have been answered, giving her, I suppose, yet another proof of the power of the prayer.’

In Libreville, where Naipaul is invited to witness an initiation ceremony—a performance, as Naipaul is aware, for the benefit for the visitors, arranged by a Frenchman who has married a Gabonese woman—Nicole accompanies Naipaul. But she refuses to go to the ceremony. Naipaul comments:

‘She was a Christian and wanted no part of this spirit talk. The drumming and chanting might have been done only for tourists, but it agitated her. Working her lips but not speaking loudly, she was saying ‘Hail Mary’ again and again, speaking her Christian charm against whatever charms were in play here, and unwittingly paying tribute to the power of African spirits.’

Not all Africans Naipaul meets are as won over as Nicole is by Christianity. In Uganda he meets an educated middle class woman who is raised as a Christian. Naipaul describes her as ‘someone overtly Christian but with a love for her roots’. This woman equates the traditional African religion with the African culture.  Says she:

‘Modernity wants us to sweep our culture away, and that will manifest itself in a political upheaval. A conflict between Christianity and traditional religion. In the Lango tradition when there was a drought, or it was prolonged, all the elders got together and made sacrifices, and it would rain while they were at it. My grandmother told me this. But the missionaries called it devil worship. Culture does not die—today it is called witchcraft. My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over their grave, to protect and shade them. Every year my grandmother went there to tend the shed, feed the grave, and sing and dance there. When she became a Pentecostal she had to stop that, as it was not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her living children. I talk to myself so as not to get confused. To me it is all about belief and what treats you well. In traditional religion it was not about money. It was a communal spirit and people come together for common cause like the drought.’

And, Naipaul concludes:

‘Gradually from the tragedies . . . and from conversations with good people, the visitor arrives at the unsettling idea of a poor country, still vulnerable—in its people, living on their nerves, and even its landscape, which might be despoiled—after forty years of civil conflict, still waiting for an upheaval which may solve nothing.’

Depressing? Yes. Far-fetched? I am not sure. Racist? Definitely not.

Although Naipaul does not directly say this, the impression you are left with—the impression Naipaul wants you to be left with—is that on the whole ‘outside’ religions such as Christianity, foisted upon the Africans by a bunch of fanatical missionaries—exemplified by ‘Doctor’ Schweitzer (who is briefly mentioned)—, who had no love or respect for the old African beliefs, were inimical to the African culture. The Africans were told, as the Christianity sought to impose its intellectual superiority, that their traditional beliefs and ideas about nature and divinity were mere superstitions, of low value. The Africans were compelled, almost, to feel ashamed of their heritage which was dismissed as mere mumbo-jumbo (the book traces the origin of this word and links it to an ancient African (Nigerian) custom). It was cultural imperialism of the worst kind, and its effect was calamitous. The closest Naipaul comes to voicing this is to imply that if left to its own traditional beliefs Africa ‘might have arrived at its own more valuable synthesis of old and new’. It is a compelling argument, all the more so because Naipaul does not actually make it; he leaves it to the reader to figure it out.

For the best part Naipaul refrains scrupulously from making any value judgments. Occasionally, though, the mask slips; and what is revealed is weary exasperation. For example, in Ivory Coast, the land of ivory, but ‘now without the elephants that by their death provided the ivory of their tusks’, he describes two ‘cruel’ elephant monuments: one of a female elephants with her calf (elephants, Naipaul informs, is food in this part of Africa), and a tall, awkward obelisk composed (Naipaul says, ‘wickedly’) of elephant tusks alone.  In the same section, towards the end, there is a detailed description of how bats are caught and boiled before they are eaten in the Ivory Coast. These fruit bats or their fleas, the reader is informed, are carriers of the deadly Ebola virus. ‘The victims bleed helplessly till they die. No one knows for sure how the virus jumps from bat to man; but a good guess is that the virus is transmitted by the eating of the bat.’ Naipaul ends the section with a prognostication that is almost Biblical:

‘So the darkening of Abidjan [capital of Ivory Coast] sky at dusk was not only part of the visual drama of West Africa: it was like a plague waiting to fall on the men below.’

In the first country he visits, Uganda, Naipaul talks about a chimpanzee sanctuary set on one of the islands of Lake Victoria: forty two animals, he informs, whose parents and animals had been killed and eaten by Africans, who are ‘great relishers of what they call as bush meat’ and—Naipaulian acerbity, this—‘given guns and left to themselves would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife.’

Naipaul is similarly unsparing when it comes to looking at (and presenting to the reader) his own instincts and impulses; and they, too, at times, make uncomfortable reading. In Gabon, Naipaul comes to know about the Pigmies, ‘the small people’—‘the first inhabitants of the forest’—, from the local Africans, although he never actually meets one.  After listening at length to Claudine, one of his guides in Gabon, this is how Naipaul records his feelings:

‘Even with Claudine’s knowledge of the pigmy ways, and her love for them, it was hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals. Perhaps they weren’t.’

This need not appear as chilling (or racist) as it did to some reviewers. What Naipaul seems to be saying here is that he found it very difficult to understand how it might be to be a pigmy, so different (or alien) he found their ways from his. He is acknowledging a deficiency. In any case, not all the Gabonese Africans seem to have the love for the ‘first inhabitants of the forest’. Naipaul meets a Gabonese tribal chief and traditional healer of the Fang tribe (appointed by the Gabonese government). This man, who was baptized and confirmed, but decided that ‘the traditional religion was strong in him’, tells Naipaul how he was trained in the religious rituals of the tribe. This is what he says:

‘My grandfather had gone south on an old walking road and he had captured two pigmies. He owned them. The pigmies have the power and we keep them just like you keep pets. You can do anything you like with your pet, but there is something in the pet that you don’t have. We kept them and we pitied them. . .’

While the main theme of these travels, as suggested in the title, is to understand—or try to understand—the traditional African beliefs, there are two parallel streams that run throughout the length of the book.
The first is Naipaul’s affection towards animals, in particular domestic pets such as cats and dogs. This is the only time the otherwise detached, at times almost haughty, Naipaul comes closest to betraying his emotions. And Africa provides him with unending supply of starving kittens and dogs with skin conditions. Whenever possible Naipaul gives them milk or feeds them; on many occasions, however, he is a helpless observer to their misery.  It is only when he is describing the plight of these animals that Naipaul’s prose appears to lose its cool, as in the following paragraph:

‘The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear. From the desert countries to the north long-horned cattle are sent for slaughter here in big, ramshackle trucks, cargoes of misery that bump along the patched and at times defective autoroutes to Abidjan, to the extensive abattoir area near the docks. And there in trampled and vile black earth these noble creatures, still with dignity, await their destiny in the smell of death, with sometimes a calf, all alone, without a mother, finding comfort of sort in sleep, a little brown circle on the dirty ground, together with the beautiful goats and sheep assembled for killing. The ground around d the abattoir goes on and on. When sights like these meet the eyes of the simple people every day there can be no idea of humanity, no idea of grandeur.’

A tad over the top, perhaps, towards the end, but heartfelt; it seems almost as if that Naipaul reserves such empathy as he has for the animals and has nothing left for the humans.

The second stream is Naipaul’s anxieties about money. He comes across as a miser. In his travels he visits a number of shrines, tombs, witchdoctors, and soothsayers in different countries. And they all want money or gifts, which Naipaul is most reluctant to give them. In almost every meeting with the medicine-men and tribal chiefs he is inwardly calculating and agitating about how much it is going to cost him, worried that he might be ripped off. And the funny thing is he does not pay for anything on even a single occasion; he makes his African guides pay the money every time. In one visit to a tribal chief in Ghana, Naipaul is expected to present the chief with a bottle of schnapps (the only alcoholic drink the chief is allowed to accept) which would then be offered as libation to the ancestors. Naipaul does not take with him schnapps—which, you think, wouldn’t have emptied his bank account—, and notes nonchalantly that it was a good thing that his African guide had brought with him the liquor bottle. I didn’t quite know what to make of this (other than that it fit the description of Naipaul as skinflint in Paul Theroux’s memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow). It is quite funny, though I am not sure that it is intentional.

With a few exceptions—Ghana and South Africa—Naipaul generally steers clear of the political contexts of the countries he visits. I do not think it is an oversight on part of the great man, and absence of political context does not detract a jot from the enjoyment the reader derives from the book. The Masque of Africa is an attempt to examine the cultural, traditional beliefs of the African countries Naipaul visited and the extent to which these beliefs, subterranean under the Christian and Muslim dogmas, guide the daily lives of inhabitants; it is not a chronicle of the political upheavals in these countries, which, in any case, are too many (and too frequent, in some cases) to have been done justice to in this book.

Naipaul is a keen and acute observer. Nothing escapes him. This is his strength, as in his meetings with the former military leader of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, and the former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela. Naipaul is in his elements when he describes these meetings. At other times, though, he strikes a slightly shrill note in his descriptions of poverty and dirt (which seem to be everywhere he goes); it tends to get a tad wearisome after a while. That is not to say however that what he has written is untrue. In one of the countries he visits Naipaul is appalled by what he sees: the roads are in disrepair; garbage litters the sides of the road, uncollected; trim bungalows are replaced by ugly, corrugated shacks— themselves in dilapidated states; and the green hills he remembered so well have all but disappeared. He writes simply:

‘It seemed to me I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.’

The country is Uganda which saw its population, in the forty years since Naipaul first visited it, explode from 5 million in the 1960s to 30 million in the first decade of 21st century, despite decades of civil war and AIDS epidemic, and which, lest we forget, was not without its own brand of racism when, during the tyrannical reign of Idi Amin, it persecuted and ultimately drove away tens of thousands of Asians who had lived peacefully in that country for generations, for no other reason than they were of a different race.

Over the years Naipaul has been accused of many things by his detractors: misanthropy, misogyny, cruelty, racism and, following the publication of The Masque of Africa, of Fascism (by Robert Harris who earns his living by writing racy thrillers which, while they might be made into F grade Hollywood films and fetch him a packet, would not require, it would be safe to assume, to exercise more than 10% of the neurones of an averagely intelligent person). The viciousness of the attacks on Naipaul has reached a higher decibel since he was awarded the Nobel. I have to say that none from the usual list of accusations thrown at Naipaul was evident to me in Masque of Africa, which—give or take an odd loose sentence—is an honest attempt by a non-believer (ancient or modern religions) to arrive at a humane understanding of the centuries-old African beliefs.

The Masque of Africa is an outsider’s view of the African countries he visits. The outsider does not claim to have special knowledge of the African countries; he does not even claim to have special affection for these countries; neither does he have any pre-conceptions; he is a visitor who owes allegiance to no one and nothing save his artistic integrity. He sees, he notes, and he tells what he sees. If that makes some of us uncomfortable, that is of no concern to him.

And when the observer is the greatest living prose writer of our times the result is a dazzling spectacle of melancholic beauty.