Naipaul’s leap into Hindutva

January 30, 2002

WHEN someone complained about the rising wave of Hindutva in India and compared it with Muslim fundamentalism, some respectable cultural ideologues dismissed the analogy with a vehemence which was quite perplexing. They thought it was erroneous to gloss over the distinction between cultural and religious nationalism.

Isn’t it true that most of our life has been spent on finding ‘subtle’ distinctions in issues which didn’t require any subtle differentiations of meanings? It is strange that some Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) ideologues chastise Muslim fundamentalism and glorify Hindutva-based cultural nationalism of India without caring that no amount of sophistry could absolve Hindutva nationalism of the religious bigotry and fanaticism which it entails.

I am not interested in suggesting that Muslim fundamentalism is conducive to any real understanding of Islam or it could be less hostile to other faiths, but Muslim theologians have been affirming all along that Islam is a way of life — a Deen — as opposed to being a religion in the narrow sense. But it is not proper for a religious group to relate its upsurge to the territorial and cultural nationalism while denying a similar phenomenon, for example,— Islamic or Christian fundamentalism — as something very different from its own phenomenon.

What makes me take up this discussion is the transformation of V. S. Naipaul, the Nobel prize-winning English novelist who got the coveted award last year. Having interviewed him for Dawn when he was busy writing Among the Believers and seeing him blush at the mention of Majnoon Gorakhpuri and Firaq Gorakhpuri as the two great men of Urdu literature for the reason that both of them belonged to Gorakhpur — the city of Naipaul’s own ancestors — I had found Naipaul look like an intellectual descendant of Lord Curzon, a pucca Gora Sahib. His main hobby was India- bashing.

I had remonstrated with him that he shouldn’t like to be classed with those who derived pleasure from India-bashing. He had shown his preference for the Germans and I failed to find anything amiss in his predilection. Had he been an India-lover, I could have traced back this built-in streak for his unstinted love for Germany for the unbelievably great crop of Indologists who had become the chief public relations men of Indian and Hindu culture. I didn’t give any attention to this equation. But now that he has made a U-turn — from a chronic India-bashing to his falling in the lap of Mother India of the VHP — I am a bit surprised how easy it becomes to be on the other end of the pendulum.

I have yet to come across even a highly liberal and emancipated Indian who may not be having some or gross confusion about juxtapositioning of ‘religious’ and ‘cultural’ elements in one’s mental make-up.

In India, religion and culture are almost identical terms and it is not utterly wrong to read ‘cultural nationalism’ as a clever phrase for religious nationalism. The Hindutva ideologues are happy that a Nobel laureate of the standing of Naipaul — who prospered in the business of India-bashing for too long — has joined their ranks and there are jubilations in the VHP circles that Naipaul has joined their ranks. He has written something very intriguing. Perhaps his publishers may have desired this controversial statement from him so that the readers of his works in the Muslim bloc could have another reason to go for his books. The typical Naipaul piece gleaned from one of his recent writings is as follows:

“... Islam is an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert (sic). Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his...”

What a statement! But coming from a writer who is used to somersaults — the one who ripped the image of India asunder to earn him the accolade of a writer whose pen is dipped in sulphuric acid, it made me only wonder at the suddenness of change. Now he regards India as a country whose intellectual attainments knew no bounds. I don’t disagree with his views about India. Everyone is entitled to one’s leaps of faith. I thought that Naipaul’s marriage to a Pakistani woman might change his views to some extent.

One’s marriage with someone belonging to a different faith modifies one’s opinions about the cultural mainsprings of his life-partner, but the Pakistani wife of Naipaul couldn’t, perhaps, do more than prepare some Pakistani cuisines. The Englishman in Naipaul (however in an induced form) couldn’t be happy because he moved upwards on the social scale where ‘hot’ dishes were an anathema.

In India some Urdu writers — with the All-India Muslim Majlis-i-Mushawarat and some hardliners of the communist parties —have taken exception to Naipaul’s remarks. They think that his remarks have been published at a time when the West is busy proving Samuel Huntington’s thesis embodied in the The Clash of Civilizations as quite an appropriate diagnosis. After all, the Western economies need an abnormal fervour — and Islam-bashing provides an ideal game in the post-Cold War era.

I didn’t appreciate Naipaul’s books Among the Believers and Beyond Belief for the simple reason that a writer shouldn’t appear biased against a religion and culture right from the first word of his narrative. The moment a writer betrays his own bias, his claim of being ‘objective’ becomes ridiculous.

I believe Naipaul has adopted Dr Monje of the Sangathan Movement (in the 20s of the last century) as his spiritual mentor because he believed in the theory that every religion has a Matri Bhumi as Hindustan is for the Hindus and Arabia should be the natural Matri Bhumi of the Muslims because Islam originated in Arabia.

How the world is going to react to this awful formulation I do not know, but an immediate response from me is whether Naipaul would allow the aboriginals of the Americas, India and Australasia to move to their Matri Bhumis. In that case Naipaul should be looking for a home in Central Asia. Being a Brahmin, his claim on Central Asia could be entertained.


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