August 08, 2020
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'Christianity Didn't Damage India Like Islam'

Widely regarded as the world's greatest living writer in English, Trinidad-born Sir Vidiadhar talks to Tarun J. Tejpal in what he claims is his "last"interview on India

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'Christianity Didn't Damage India Like Islam'
'Christianity Didn't Damage India Like Islam'

India has a fractured past and a fissured present. What do you think is India’s future? Is it a civilisation in decay?
"Fractured past"is too polite a way to describe India’s calamitous millennium. The millennium began with the Muslim invasions and the grinding down of the Hindu-Buddhist culture of the north. This is such a big and bad event that people still have to find polite, destiny-defying ways of speaking about it. In art books and history books, people write of the Muslims "arriving"in India, as though the Muslims came on a tourist bus and went away again. The Muslim view of their conquest of India is a truer one. They speak of the triumph of the faith, the destruction of idols and temples, the loot, the carting away of the local people as slaves, so cheap and numerous that they were being sold for a few rupees. The architectural evidence-the absence of Hindu monuments in the north-is convincing enough. This conquest was unlike any other that had gone before. There are no Hindu records of this period. Defeated people never write their history. The victors write the history. The victors were Muslims. For people on the other side it is a period of darkness.

Indian history is written about as a matter of rulers and kingdoms shifting and changing. This is why it all seems petty and boring to read and hard to remember. But there is a larger and more tragic and more illuminating theme. That theme is the grinding down of Hindu India. Let us consider two late dates. In 1565, the year after the birth of Shakespeare, Vijayanagar in the south is destroyed and its great capital city laid waste. In 1592, the terrible Akbar ravages Orissa in the east. This means that while a country like England is preparing for greatness under its great queen, old India, in its sixth century of retreat, is still being reduced to nonentity. The wealth and creativity, the artisans and architects of the kingdoms of Vijayanagar and Orissa would have been destroyed, their light put out. Those regions are still now among the poorest in India.

The theme of the last two or three centuries of the millennium-with the Sikhs, the Maharashtrians, and, above all, the British-has been one of slow recovery. This is of course looking at it from the Hindu side. The Muslims see it as a period of decay.

Your three books on India summed up three separate aspects of India-an area of darkness, a wounded civilisation and a million mutinies now. In a sense these are the negatives. What are the positives that help India hang together?
We are not born with full knowledge and people of my background were granted very little of it at school. Writing is a process of learning. The writer writes himself into an understanding of his world and it has taken me many years and much writing to arrive at the understanding which I now have. Somerset Maugham said something like that about his time as a playwright. He said he felt he should apologise to the public for practising on them. My Indian books were written over a period of 27 years. An Area of Darkness is a personal book. A book of shock and concern. A Wounded Civilisation deals with the beginnings of my understandings of the effects of the invasions. A Million Mutinies Now is about a country more than ever like India at present: a country in revolt at many levels, a country, in fact, beginning to deal with its bad past. I don’t think of it as a negative book.

You reckon that India’s civilisational wholeness was shattered by the incursions of Islam and then Christianity. What do you make of the school of thought that asserts these invasions, and later influences, actually enriched Indian culture and life?
Here again I find in the question an element of political politeness. Christianity did not damage India the way Islam had. There are two sides to Christianity in India. There is the fine source of the New Learning that came with the British. There is another, more petty Christianity that came as the personal faith of the rulers and then the missionaries.

When you talk of Islam’s enriching of Indian culture, you are thinking of things like the food and the music and the poetry. But there is a profounder thing to be said. The two great revealed religions, Islam and Christianity, have altered the world forever, and we all, whatever our faith, walk in their light. Over and above their theology, these religions gave the world social ideas-brotherhood, charity, the feeling of man for man-which we now all take for granted. They are the basis of our political ideas and our ideas of morality. Those ideas didn’t exist before, not in the classical world, not in Hinduism or Buddhism.It may be that these two revealed religions have done their work and have little more to offer. But that’s another matter.

What in your opinion is the most debilitating thing about the Hindu way of life?
The philosophical idea of the beauty of surrender, made much worse by the centuries of defeat, and expressed today in the widespread feeling that men should not get above themselves, that men should not make too many demands.

And what is the most enriching?
I feel nailed to the mast of your questions. I have to think about this one. But it isn’t the way my mind works.

Do you think the Gandhian prescription, harking back to an ascetic and pure past, has proven a mistake? Do you think Gandhi, and all he stood for, has resulted in a schizophrenic India, trapped in hypocrisies?
Gandhi shouldn’t be considered as laying down a prescription for anything. He was uneducated and never a thinker. He is an historical figure. He came at a particular moment; he turned all his drawbacks into religion; and he used religion to awaken the country in a way that none of the educated leaders could have done. He has absolutely no message today. People talk too much about Gandhi and study him too little. His first book, Hind Swaraj, written at white heat in two weeks in 1909, is so nonsensical it would curl the hair of even the most devoted admirer. I don’t know Indians who actually read Gandhi. They take from him some vague idea of a great redeeming holiness and they are free ignore the practical side-Gandhi the hater of dirt, the hater of public defecation. That last is still very much an Indian sport. In fact, the Gandhian idea of piety and a very holy poverty is used now to excuse the dirt of the cities, the shoddiness of the architecture. By some inversion, Indians have used the very idea of Gandhi to turn dirt and backwardness into much-loved deities.

At the same time, would you agree that were it not for a modern cosmopolitan leader like Nehru, India would have had trouble establishing itself as a secular democracy?
It is India’s luck that-unlike, say, revolutionary Iran-Gandhi never was responsible for the running of the country. Full tribute has to be paid to Nehru and the others for establishing and extending in independence the British-given liberal institutions.

What do you make of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? Providing continuity and stability or enfeebling the democratic process and the Congress?
We mustn’t waste too much time talking about that. The position of India in 1947 was roughly like the position of the Spanish South American countries after the withdrawal of Spain in about 1810. The big question for many people at that time-the question leading very often to a civil war, which still in some places goes on-the big question was: "Who among the local people is now going to rule us?"The Nehru dynasty provided this assurance for India for a long time. India was lucky to have them but now that democratic institutions have to some extent taken root India no longer needs them. A liberal dynasty like that in a country like Yugoslavia would have greatly helped that unhappy country.

Of all Indian prime ministers, Indira Gandhi remains the greatest enigma. What is your judgement on her: a tough purposeful leader or a wrecker of all national institutions?
To some extent she was created by Indian need.

Though you grew up in faraway Trinidad, two generations removed from India, you carry a lot of India around in you. Where in your personality do you think is it most apparent?
A writer should never review himself. It is really for other people to say.

Also, how has your being Indian shaped you as a man and a writer, particularly the latter?
It has been fundamental. I was born in 1932. So I was always concerned about the independence movement. I was very soon aware that our small Indian community in Trinidad had very little political protection. The easy way out would have been to complain about British imperialism. I preferred to look inwards, to find out why a country like India had been so helpless and so indifferent to its people. That was where my writing began. That was my quest. Even my Islamic books have been part of that same quest.

What do you think of the Hindu resurgence that has been taking place in India over the last decade? Do you think it’s a dangerous militancy that will eventually destroy India’s secular character?
You have asked a loaded question. You say that India has a secular character, which is historically unsound. You say that Hindu militancy is dangerous. Dangerous or not, it is a necessary corrective to the history I have been talking about. It is a creative force and it will prove to be so.

Do you think an unpartitioned India would have worked? Why?
No. As soon as the poet Iqbal, the convert, had made his speech calling for a separate state, that state more or less became inevitable. And considering the Islamic movements of the last 30 years, nearly all the energy of an unpartitioned India would have fruitlessly gone into holding itself together.

Why is it that Pakistan so easily slips into martial/dictatorial ways, while democracy is never threatened in India?
West Pakistan was not particularly well educated. It had almost no political thinkers. It had had only about 90 years of British rule and institutions. It was easy for those institutions to be brushed aside. Jinnah was in many ways an attractive, secular man, but the snare of the Islamic movement he unleashed was like the snare of the Islamic movement in Iran. It assumed that out of a perfect Islam everything would flow: good institutions, good laws and a model citizenry. There was no need to think further; everything would come with the faith.They were also converts and therefore fanatical. Among Arabs, there can be people like the Syrian poet Adonis for whom Islam is only an aspect of his Mediterranean identity. The convert doesn’t have that kind of security. It is also worth remembering that Islamic societies are not democratic in the modern way. They reflect to an amazing degree the state created by the Prophet. Islamic societies need the Quran, the Law and a severe ruler.

How do you see Islam working out a reconciliation with other religions and faiths on the subcontinent?
There can be no reconciliation. Islam is a religion of fixed laws. This goes contrary to everything in modern India. Also, the convert’s deepest impulse is the rejection of his origins.

Do you think India would be better off Balkanising into smaller, more manageable units?
This will be very foolish. People have not been free for very long and they can get carried away by various kinds of populism. The larger association enables these people to be saved from themselves. The people of Bihar and Tamil Nadu have constantly to be saved from themselves. Going further afield, the people of Iran might have been glad of some mechanism that enabled them to be saved from themselves, two or three years after their revolution.

Indians do brilliantly abroad but remain mediocre at home. What is the particular Indian neurosis that accounts for this?
People do well in Europe and in the US because the societies there require excellence. India as yet does not require excellence and people shrink accordingly.

You visit India often. What about it repels you the most?
The old deity of dirt and the modern deity of very brown motor smoke on the streets.

Is it true that by the end of every trip to India, you’re exhausted of the country and eager to return to England, your home? What tires you?
That brown smoke.

Did we make a mistake by going nuclear? What should India’s position be vis-a-vis the rest of the world?
It is important for India to operate at the limit of technology. India must never again fall behind. I actually think that the subcontinent is safer now.

Do you think over time the great Indian aesthetic-architecture, art, music-too has suffered? That India is no longer original in its artistic impulses?
This is actually a very important question. This is where we come face to face with the Indian calamity. When places like Vijayanagar and Orissa were laid low, all the creative talent would also have been destroyed. The current was broken. We have no means of knowing what architecture existed in the north before the Muslims. We can only be certain that there would have been splendours like Konarak and Kancheepuram. Since the current has been broken, there can be no revival. I am thinking principally of course of architecture. The Mughal buildings are foreign buildings. They are a carry-over from the architecture of Isfahan. In India they speak of the desert. They cover enormous spaces and they make me think of everything that was flattened to enable them to come up. Humayun’s tomb is, I suppose, the chastest and the best. The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people. And it is much worse if you think of the nation-building that was going on in Europe at the same time.But, in a way, to have no past is for an architect in India also a kind of liberation. He can’t do a Lutyens: a little Indian or Mughal motif here and there. The architect, having no past, is free to make the best buildings he can at this time. And that’s very hard to do.

So far as painting goes, it depends on patrons. If we have out Ajanta and places like that, painting came with the Mughals. They were patrons, the Rajput princes were patrons, the British for a short time up to 1820 were also patrons. So there is now no tradition of painting, no continuation of a particular sensibility. Painting as a result is all over the place in India. But there are patrons now; for the first time, art is a public affair and not something done in palaces; and the situation may right itself.

Who’d be your nominees for the three most significant Indians of this century? And why?
The first two are inescapable: Gandhi for awakening a country that had been torpid for centuries, Nehru for being a democrat and a humane man who did not abuse his power. I cannot think of a third figure of this stature and I would like instead in a spirit of mischief to nominate two buffoon figures who might stand as a warning to India of the dangers of mimicry. There is the half-witted Vinoba Bhave, the mimic mahatma. And there is Mr Basu in Calcutta, the mimic Marxist. I suppose when he goes his followers might want to embalm him like Lenin and put him on show in the Maidan.

V.S. Naipaul has written 23 books and won virtually every literary award bar the Nobel
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