In Paris, for example, Sonia Rykiel's fancy showrooms on windows on the Boulevard St Germain are filled with copies of the French translation of Beyond Belief, intermixed with the scarves, belts and handbags. This of course is one kind of tribute, although Naipaul may not be very pleased about it. On the other hand, the book has been reviewed everywhere in the prestige English and American press, paid tribute to as the work of a great master of shrewd observation and telling detail, the kind of demystifying, thorough exposé of Islam for which Western readers seem to have a bottomless appetite. No one today would write a similar kind of book about Christianity or Judaism. Islam on the other hand is fair game, even though the expert may not know the languages or much about the subject.
Naipaul's, however, is a special case. He is neither a professional Orientalist nor a thrill seeker. He is a man of the Third World who sends back dispatches from the Third World to an implied audience of disenchanted Western liberals who can never hear bad enough things about all the Third World myths -- national liberation movements, revolutionary goals, the evils of colonialism -- which in Naipaul's opinion do nothing to explain the sorry state of African and Asian countries who are sinking under poverty, native impotence, badly learned, unabsorbed Western ideas like industrialisation and modernisation. These are people, Naipaul says in one of his books, who know how to use a telephone but can neither fix nor invent one. Naipaul can now be cited as an exemplary figure from the Third World. Born in Trinidad he is originally of Hindu Indian stock; he emigrated to Britain in the l950s, has become a senior member of the British establishment and is always spoken of as a candidate for the Nobel Prize -- someone who can be relied on always to tell the truth about the Third World. Naipaul is "free of any romantic moonshine about the moral claims of primitives," said one reviewer in l979, and he does this without "a trace in him of Western condescension or nostalgia for colonialism."
Still, even for Naipaul, Islam is worse than most other problems of the Third World. Feeling his Hindu origins, he recently has said that the worst calamity in India's history was the advent and later presence of Islam which disfigured the country's history. Unlike most writers he makes not one but two journeys to "Islam" in order to confirm his deep antipathy to the religion, its people, and its ideas. Ironically, Beyond Belief is dedicated to his Muslim wife Nadira whose ideas or feelings are not referred to. In the first book he does not learn anything -- they, the Muslims, prove what he already knows. Prove what? That the retreat to Islam is "stupefaction". In Malaysia, Naipaul is asked "what is the purpose of your writing? Is it to tell people what it's all about?" He replies, "Yes, I would say comprehension." "Is it not for money?" "Yes. But the nature of the work is important." Thus he travels among Muslims and writes about it, is well paid by his publisher and by the magazines that run extracts of his books, because it is important, not because he likes doing it. Muslims provide him with stories, which he records as instances of "Islam."
There is very little pleasure and only a very little affection recorded in these two books. In the earlier book, its funny moments are at the expense of Muslims, who are "wogs" after all as seen by Naipaul's British and American readers, potential fanatics and terrorists, who cannot spell, be coherent, sound right to a worldly-wise, somewhat jaded judge from the West. Every time they show their Islamic weaknesses, Naipaul the Third World witness appears promptly. A Muslim lapse occurs, some resentment against the West is expressed by an Iranian, and then Naipaul explains that "this is the confusion of a people of high medieval culture awakening to oil and money, a sense of power and violation and a knowledge of a great new encircling civilization [the West]. It was to be rejected; at the same time it was to be depended on."
Remember that last sentence and a half, for it is Naipaul's thesis as well as the platform from which he addresses the world: The West is the world of knowledge, criticism, technical know-how and functioning institutions, Islam is its fearfully enraged and retarded dependent, awakening to a new, barely controllable power. The West provides Islam with good things from the outside, because "the life that had come to Islam had not come from within." Thus the existence of one billion Muslims is summed up in a phrase and dismissed. Islam's flaw was at "its origins -- the flaw that ran through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the faith. It offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything -- but who had ceased to exist. This political Islam was rage, anarchy." All the examples Naipaul gives, all the people he speaks to tend to align themselves under the Islam vs. The West opposition he is determined to find everywhere. It's all very tiresome and repetitious.
Why then does he return to write an equally long and boring book two decades later? The only answer I can give is that he now thinks he has an important new insight about Islam. And that insight is if you are not an Arab -- Islam being a religion of the Arabs -- then you are a convert. As converts to Islam, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and Indonesians necessarily suffer the fate of the inauthentic. For them Islam is an acquired religion which cuts them off from their traditions, leaving them neither here nor there. What Naipaul attempts to document in his new book is the fate of the converted, people who have lost their own past but have gained little from their new religion except more confusion, more unhappiness, more (for the Western reader) comic incompetence, all of it the result of conversion to Islam. This ridiculous argument would suggest by extension that only a native of Rome can be a good Roman Catholic; other Catholic Italians, Spaniards, Latin Americans, Philipinos who are converts are inauthentic and cut off from their traditions. According to Naipaul, then, Anglicans who are not British are only converts and they too, like the Malysian or Iranian Muslim, are doomed to a life of imitation and incompetence since they are converts.
In effect, the 400-page Beyond Belief is based on nothing more than this rather idiotic and insulting theory. The question isn't whether it is true or not but how could a man of such intelligence and gifts as V S Naipaul write so stupid and so boring a book, full of story after story illustrating the same primitive, rudimentary, unsatisfactory and reductive thesis, that most Muslims are converts and must suffer the same fate wherever they are. Never mind history, politics, philosophy, geography: Muslims who are not Arabs are inauthentic converts, doomed to this wretched false destiny. Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I would call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order.
The pity of it is that so much is now lost on Naipaul. His writing has become repetitive and uninteresting. His gifts have been squandered. He can no longer make sense. He lives on his great reputation which has gulled his reviewers into thinking that they are still dealing with a great writer, whereas he has become a ghost. The greater pity is that Naipaul's latest book on Islam will be considered a major interpretation of a great religion, and more Muslims will suffer and be insulted. And the gap between them and the West will increase and deepen. No one will benefit except the publishers who will probably sell a lot of books, and Naipaul, who will make a lot of money.
(Source: Outlook Magazine, October 30, 2001)
Sustaining the Myth of Hostility
“There was in India now what didn’t exist 200 years before: a central will, a central intellect, a national idea,” wrote Vidiadhar S. Naipaul in 1990 in India: A Million Mutinies Now, his third book on the land of his forefathers. Sir Vidia’s construction of the Indian nation, his views on certain major episodes in contemporary history, his interpretation of Islam, and the role of minorities in secular India have always been controversial. Last week, they came under attack again, this time from Girish Karnad. Since then, some have rushed to Naipaul’s defence, others to Karnad’s. As a historian, I too would like to join the debate.
To remind readers, Naipaul’s ancestors left India in the early 1880s as indentured labourers for the sugar estates of Guyana and Trinidad. He returned to India with An Area of Darkness, advertised as ‘tender, lyrical, (and) explosive.’ Thereafter, he chronicled the histories of a wounded civilisation and a million mutinies in India. In between, he aimed salvos at Islam not once but twice, in laboured projects.
‘Indigestibility of Muslims’
Naipaul wholly subscribes to the views of Samuel P. Huntington, a controversial American political scientist who earned his reputation by arguing that the New World Order is based on patterns of conflict and cooperation founded on cultural distinctions and identifications. He talked of “the indigestibility of Muslims” and their propensity towards violent conflict, which makes them threatening.
Naipaul too warns readers of Islamic ‘parasitism,’ and endorses the Orientalist belief that Islam as a coherent, transnational, monolithic force has been engaged in a unilinear confrontational relationship with the West. His essentialist reading of history allows him to sustain the myth of an inherent hostility between two antagonistic sides.
I am not qualified to judge Naipaul’s standing in the literary world, but I have no doubt in my mind that he is ignorant of the nuances of Islam and unacquainted with the languages of the people he speaks to. He records and assesses only what he sees and hears from his interpreters. In the most literal sense, he finds the cultures indecipherable, for he cannot transliterate the Arabic alphabet. He had known Muslims all his life in Trinidad, but knew little of Islam. Its doctrine did not interest him; it didn’t seem worth inquiring into; and over the years, in spite of travel, he has added little to the knowledge gathered in his childhood.
He continues to subscribe to the illogical mistrust of Muslims he had been taught as a child: a particular greybeard Muslim, described in An Area of Darkness, has come to embody ‘every sort of threat.’ Much like Nirad Chaudhuri, who was guilty of disregarding common sense to feed his own petty prejudices towards the Muslim communities, Naipaul’s encounters with them “are suffused with a sense of youthful bigotries.”
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is permeated with the sentiment that Islam sanctifies rage — rage about faith, political rage, and that Muslim societies are rigid, authoritarian, uncreative, and hostile to the West. In Indonesia, he runs into Imamuddin who confirms him in the stereotype. In Iran, Behzad leaves him convinced that, “now in Islamic countries there would be the Behzads who, in an inversion of Islamic passions, would have a vision of society cleansed and purified, a society of believers.” In Pakistan, he reminds us of the power of religion and the hollowness of secular cults in a fragmented country, economically stagnant, despotically ruled, with its gifted people close to hysteria.
In most of the description, otherwise nicely woven into a coherent story, there is hardly any reference to the debilitating legacy of colonial rule. The civilised, innovative, and technologically advanced West stands out as a vibrant symbol of progress and modernity, whereas the Muslim societies Naipaul encounters, despite their varying experiences and trajectories, are destructive, inert, and resentful of the West. With Naipaul relegating colonialism and imperial subjugation of Muslim societies to the background, the West appears an open, generous and universal civilisation.
In fact, it is the West that is consistently portrayed as exploited by lesser societies resentful of its benign, or at worst natural, creativity: “Indeed,” as scholar Rob Nixon points out, “Naipaul is so decided in his distribution of moral and cultural worth between the cultures of anarchic rage and the ‘universal civilization’ that he ends up demonizing Islam as routinely as the most battle-minded of his Islamic interlocutors demonize the West.”
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted People (1998), chooses Islamic bad faith as its theme, portraying “the same primitive, rudimentary, unsatisfactory and reductive thesis” that the Muslims having been converted from Hinduism, must experience the ignominy of all converted people. In India: A Million Mutinies (1990), the 1857 revolt is regarded as the last flare-up of Muslim energy until the agitation for a separate Muslim homeland. So far so good. But when Naipaul finds the Lucknow bazaars expressing the faith of the book and the mosque, for example Aminabad, a crowded marketplace, serving the faith, it becomes too much to swallow.
On Babri Masjid
Two years after A Million Mutinies, Naipaul defends the destruction of the Babri Masjid by calling it “an act of historical balancing.” “Ayodhya,” he reportedly told a small gathering at the BJP office in 2004, “was a sort of passion … Any passion has to be encouraged. I always support actions coming out of passion as these reflect creativity.” Whose passion? Of those Muslims who, despite the bitterness since December 1992, still weave the garlands used in the temple and produce everything necessary for dressing the icons preparatory to worship?
The fraternity of writers to which Naipaul belongs strongly contests not only his reading of the calamitous effect of Islam, but also his virtual justification of vandalism in the name of Islam. Salman Rushdie and others have written with infinitely greater sympathy and comprehension, and cultivated a distinctly secular point of view which had grown out of a reaction against Partition. Many others write convincingly about Islam as a living and changing reality, what Muslims mean by it is constantly changing because of the particular circumstances of time and place. They study it in its historical reality, without value judgments about what it ought to be.
There is however no place for these sentiments in Naipaul’s jaundiced views. To him, Hindu militancy is a necessary corrective to the past, a creative force. He therefore rejects the possibility of Islam, a religion of fixed laws, working out reconciliation with other religions in the subcontinent. This is, in short, the clash of civilisations theory.
Karnad is right
Girish Karnad is right. Naipaul is as ill-informed about India as Huntington was about the world outside the western hemisphere. One more related point. He talks of a fractured past solely in terms of Muslim invasions and conveniently forgets the grinding down of the Buddhist-Jain culture during the period of Brahmanical revival. He fumes and frets even though a fringe element alone celebrates the vandalism of the early Islamists who were driven more by the desire to establish the might of an evangelical Islam than to deface Hindu places of worship. With anger, remorse, and bitterness becoming a substitute for serious study and analysis, Naipaul’s plan for India’s salvation collapses like a pack of cards.
Hence the devastating enunciation of his Beyond Belief by Edward Said: “Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I’d call an ‘intellectual catastrophe of the first order’.”
In the recent debate over Karnad’s remarks, several analysts have considered Naipaul’s interpretation of Islam as valid. I take issue with them. I believe writers like him widen the existing chasm between the Muslim communities and the followers of other religions. We need writers, poets and publicists who create mutual understanding and interfaith dialogue rather than create distrust and promote intolerance.
Peter Geyl reminded us that the historian should be interested in his subject for its own sake, he should try to get in touch with things as they were, the people and the vicissitudes of their fortunes should mean something to him in themselves. “Let Colour Fill the Flowers, Let Breeze of Early Spring Blow,” wrote the Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
If ever Naipaul wants to write a travelogue on Muslim countries, the sense of Islam as something more than words in texts, as something living in individual Muslims, must emerge from his pen.
(Mushirul Hasan is a historian and Director General of the National Archives of India.)
(Source: The Hindu, November 7, 2012)
Trapped in the Ruins
There was some surprise last month when Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul turned up at the office of India's ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and gave what many in the Indian press took to be a pre-election endorsement not just of the party but of the entire far right-wing Hindu revivalist programme. India was indeed surging forward under the BJP, the Nobel Laureate was quoted as saying, and, yes, he was quite happy being "appropriated" by the party.
More striking still was the quote attributed to Naipaul about the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Babur's mosque, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, a decade ago: "Ayodhya is a sort of passion," he said. "Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity." For a man whose work contains many eloquent warnings of the dangers of misplaced political passions - the Islamic Revolution in Iran to take just one example - this might appear to be a surprising volte face, especially when one considers the horrific anti-Muslim pogroms that followed Ayodhya, when BJP mobs went on the rampage across India and Muslims were hunted down by armed thugs, burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the streets. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone.
It might seem unlikely that a Nobel Laureate would put himself in a position of apparently endorsing an act that spawned mass murder - or commend a party that has often been seen as virulently anti-intellectual. Indeed, one commentator in the Times of India wondered if Naipaul had not been misunderstood. The paper pointed out that Naipaul told his hosts at the BJP in Delhi: "You cannot carry the past with you or you will not progress. Leave this behind in history books and move on."
Yet Naipaul's earlier statements, especially his remarks that the first Mughal emperor Babur's invasion of India "left a deep wound", are consistent with ideas Naipaul has been airing for many years now. In 1998, for example, he told the Hindu newspaper: "I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions ... The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed." Such attitudes form a consistent line of thought in Naipaul's writing from An Area of Darkness in 1964 through to the present.
Few would dispute Naipaul's status as probably the greatest living writer of Indian origin; indeed some would go further and argue that he is the greatest living writer of English prose. For good reason his views are taken very seriously. He is a writer whose fiction and non-fiction written over half a century forms a body of work of great brilliance, something the Nobel committee recognised in 2001 when it awarded him literature's highest honour, and singled out his analysis of the Islamic world in his prize citation.
Naipaul's credentials as a historian are, however, less secure.
There is a celebrated opening sequence to Naipaul's masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilization. It is 1975 - a full quarter century before he won the Nobel - and Naipaul is surveying the shattered ruins of the great medieval Hindu capital of Vijayanagar, the City of Victory.
Naipaul leads the reader through the remains of the once mighty city, its 24 miles of walls winding through the "brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders". These days, he explains, this part of south India is just "a peasant wilderness", but look carefully and you can see scattered everywhere the crumbling wreck age of former greatness: "Palaces and stables, a royal bath ... the leaning granite pillars of what must have been a bridge across the river." Over the bridge, there is more: "A long and very wide avenue, with a great statue of the bull of Shiva at one end, and at the other end a miracle: a temple that for some reason was spared destruction, and is still used for worship."
Naipaul goes on to lament the fall of this "great centre of Hindu civilisation", "then one of the greatest [cities] in the world". It was pillaged in 1565 "by an alliance of Muslim principalities - and the work of destruction took five months; some people say a year." It fell, according to Naipaul, because already the Hindu world it embodied had become backward looking and stagnant: it had failed to develop, and in particular had failed to develop the military means to challenge the aggressive Muslim sultanates that surrounded it. Instead, Vijayanagar was "committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it [only] preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated ... The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead end."
For Naipaul, the fall of Vijayanagar is a paradigmatic wound on the psyche of India, part of a long series of failures that he believes still bruises the country's self-confidence. The wound was created by a fatal combination of Islamic aggression and Hindu weakness - the tendency to "retreat", to withdraw in the face of defeat.
Naipaul first developed the theme in An Area of Darkness. The great Hindu ruins of the south, he writes there, represent "the continuity and flow of Hindu India, ever shrinking". But the ruins of the north - the monuments of the Great Mughals - only "speak of waste and failure". Even the Taj and the magnificent garden tombs of the Mughal emperors are to Naipaul symbols of oppression: "Europe has its monuments of sun kings, its Louvres and Versailles.
But they are part of the development of the country's spirit; they express the refining of a nation's sensibility." In contrast, the monuments of the Mughals speak only of "personal plunder, and a country with an infinite capacity for being plundered". In a recent interview, Naipaul maintained that "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."
Not many other observers have seen the Taj Mahal - built by the emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, and usually perceived as the world's greatest monument to love ("a tear on the face of eternity", according to Tagore, an earlier Indian Nobel Laureate) - in quite such jaundiced terms. Nevertheless, Naipaul's entirely negative understanding of India's Islamic history has its roots firmly in the mainstream imperial historiography of Victorian Britain.
The Muslim invasions of India tended to be seen by historians of the Raj as a long, brutal sequence of pillage, in stark contrast - so 19th-century British historians liked to believe - to the law and order selflessly brought by their own "civilising mission". In this context, the fall of Vijayanagar was written up in elegiac terms by Robert Sewell, whose 1900 book Vijayanagar: A Forgotten Empire , first characterised the kingdom as "a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests", a single brave but doomed attempt at resistance to Islamic aggression. This idea was eagerly elaborated by Hindu nationalists, who wrote of Vijayanagar as a Hindu state dedicated to the preservation of the traditional, peaceful and "pure" Hindu culture of southern India.
It is a simple and seductive vision, and one that at first sight looks plausible. The problem is that such ideas rest on a set of mistaken and Islamophobic assumptions that recent scholarship has done much to undermine.
A brilliant essay published in 1996 by the respected American Sanskrit scholar, Philip B Wagoner, was an important landmark in this process. Entitled "A Sultan Among Hindu Kings" - a reference to the title by which the kings of Vijayanagar referred to themselves - pointed out the degree to which the elite culture of Vijayanagar was heavily Islamicised by the 16th century, its civilisation "deeply transformed through nearly two centuries of intense and creative interaction with the Islamic world".
By this period, for example, the Hindu kings of Vijayanagar appeared in public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India, but dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume - the Islamic inspired kabayi, a long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba, symbolic, according to Wagoner, of "their participation in the more universal culture of Islam".
Far from being the stagnant, backward-looking bastion of Hindu resistance imagined by Naipaul, Vijayanagar had in fact developed in all sorts of unexpected ways, adapting many of the administrative, tax collecting and military methods of the Muslim sultanates that surrounded it - notably stirrups, horse-shoes, horse armour and a new type of saddle, all of which allowed Vijayanagar to put into the field an army of horse archers who could hold at bay the Delhi Sultanate, then the most powerful force in India.
A comprehensive survey of Vijayanagar's monuments and archaeology by George Michell over the past 20 years has come to the same conclusion as Wagoner. The survey has emphasised the degree to which the buildings of 16th-century Vijayanagar were inspired by the architecture of the nearby Muslim sultanates, mixing the traditional trabeate architecture of the Hindu south with the arch and dome of the Islamicate north. Indeed some of the most famous buildings at Vijayanagar, such as the gorgeous 15th-century Lotus Mahal, are almost entirely Islamic in style.
Moreover, this fruitful interaction between Hindu - and Muslim-ruled states was very much a two-way process. Just as Hindu Vijayanagar was absorbing Islamic influences, so a similar process of hybridity was transforming the nominally Islamic Sultanate of Bijapur. This was a city dominated by an atmosphere of heterodox inquiry, whose libraries swelled with esoteric texts produced on the philosophical frontier between Islam and Hinduism. One Bijapuri production of the period, for example, was the Bangab Nama , or the Book of the Pot Smoker: written by Mahmud Bahri - a sort of medieval Indian Allen Ginsberg - it is a long panegyric to the joys of cannabis:
"Smoke your pot and be happy -
Be a dervish and put your heart at peace.
Lose your life imbibing this exhilaration."
In the course of this book, Bahri writes: "God's knowledge has no limit ... and there is not just one path to him. Anyone from any community can find him." This certainly seems to have been the view of Bijapur's ruler, Ibrahim Adil Shahi II. Early in his reign Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rudraksha rosary of the sadhu. In his songs he used highly Sanskritised language to shower equal praise upon Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning, the Prophet Muhammed, and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz.
Perhaps the most surprising passage occurs in the 56th song where the Sultan more or less describes himself as a Hindu god: "He is robed in saffron dress, his teeth are black, the nails are red ... and he loves all. Ibrahim, whose father is Ganesh, whose mother is Sarasvati, has a rosary of crystal round his neck ... and an elephant as his vehicle." According to the art historian Mark Zebrowski: "It is hard to label Ibrahim either a Muslim or a Hindu; rather he had an aesthete's admiration for the beauty of both cultures." The same spirit also animates Bijapuri art, whose nominally Islamic miniature portraits show "girls as voluptuous as the nudes of south Indian sculpture".
This creative coexistence finally fell victim, not to a concerted communal campaign by Muslim states intent on eradicating Hinduism, but to the shifting alliances of Deccani diplomacy. In 1558, only seven years before the Deccani sultanates turned on Vijayanagar, the empire had been a prominent part of an alliance of mainly Muslim armies that had sacked the Sultanate of Ahmadnagar. That year, Vijayanagar's armies stabled their horses in the mosques of the plundered city. It was only in 1562, when Rama Raya plundered and seized not just districts belonging to Ahmadnagar and its ally Golconda, but also those belonging to his own ally Bijapur, that the different sultanates finally united against their unruly neighbour.
The fall of Vijayanagar is a subject Naipaul keeps returning to: in an interview shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, he talked about how the destruction of the city meant an end to its traditions: "When Vijayanagar was laid low, all the creative talent would also have been destroyed. The current has been broken."
Yet there is considerable documentary and artistic evidence that the very opposite was true, and that while some of the city's craftsmen went on to to work at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, others transferred to the patronage of the sultans of Bijapur where the result was a significant artistic renaissance.
The remarkable fusion of styles that resulted from this rebirth can still be seen in the tomb of Ibrahim II, completed in 1626. From afar it looks uncompromisingly Islamic; yet for all its domes and arches, the closer you draw the more you realise that few Muslim buildings are so Hindu in spirit. The usually austere walls of Islamic architecture in the Deccan here give way to a petrified scrollwork indistinguishable from Vijayanagaran decoration, the bleak black volcanic granite of Bijapur manipulated as if it were as soft as plaster, as delicate as a lace ruff. All around minars suddenly bud into bloom, walls dissolve into bundles of pillars; fantastically sculptural lotus-bud domes and cupola drums are almost suffocated by great starbursts of Indic deco ration which curl down from the pendetives like pepper vines.
This picture of Hindu-Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and artistic fecundity, is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the Naipaulian or BJP view of Indian medieval history as one long tale of defeat and destruction. Today most serious historians tend instead to emphasise the perhaps surprising degree to which Hinduism and Islam creatively intermingled and "chutnified" (to use Salman Rushdie's nice term); and an important book has been published that goes a long way to develop these ideas.
Anyone wishing to understand the complexities and fusions of medieval India would be well advised to look at Beyond Turk and Hindu, edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce Lawrence, (University Press of Florida, 2000). A collection of articles by all the leading international scholars of the period, it shows the degree to which the extraordinary richness of medieval Indian civilisation was the direct result of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious character, and the inspired interplay and cross-fertilisation of Hindu and Islamic civilisations that thereby took place.
The historians do not see the two religions as in any way irreconcilable; instead they tend to take the view that "the actual history of religious exchange suggests that there have never been clearly fixed groups, one labelled 'Hindu' and the other - both its opposite and rival - labelled 'Muslim'." Indeed, as one author points out, there is not a single medieval Sanskrit inscription that identifies "Indo-Muslim invaders in terms of their religion, as Muslims", but instead they refer more generally in terms of "linguistic affiliation, most typically as Turk, 'Turushka'". The import of this is clear: the political groupings we today identify as "Muslim" were then "construed as but one ethnic community in India amidst many others".
Of course this approach is not entirely new. From the early 1960s until only a few years ago, Indian history textbooks emphasised the creation in medieval India of what was referred to as the "composite culture".
This cultural synthesis took many forms. In Urdu and Hindi were born languages of great beauty that to different extents mixed Persian and Arabic words with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of north India. Similarly, just as the cuisine of north India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of India with the kebab and roti of central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar, now the Indian instrument most widely known in the west. In architecture there was a similar process of hybridity as the great monuments of the Mughals reconciled the styles of the Hin dus with those of Islam, to produce a fusion more beautiful than either.
These Nehruvian-era textbooks were the work of left-leaning but nonetheless internationally regarded scholars such as professors Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra and Nurul Hasan - of whom Naipaul does not appear to think much. In the same 1993 Times of India interview in which he defended the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, he remarked that "Romila Thapar's book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history, which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating." The new set of far right-wing history textbooks recently commissioned by India's National Council of Educational Research and Training at the behest of the BJP government - such as that on medieval India with its picture of the period as one long Muslim-led orgy of mass-murder and temple destruction - are no doubt more to Naipaul's taste.
Thanks partly to the influence of the earlier textbooks on generations of students, there is still a widespread awareness in India of the positive aspects of medieval Islam - aspects noticeable by their absence in Naipaul's oeuvre. It is widely known, for example, that Islam in India was spread much less by the sword than by the Sufis. After all, Sufism, with its holy men, visions and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual's search for union with God, has always borne remarkable similarities to the mystical side of Hinduism. Under Sufi influence it was particularly at the level of village folk worship that the two religions fused into one, with many ordinary Hindus visiting the graves of Sufi pirs - some of whom are still considered to be incarnations of Hindu deities - while Muslim villagers would leave offerings at temples to ensure the birth of children and good harvests. To this day, Sufi dargahs still attract as many Hindu, Sikh and Christian pilgrims as they do Muslims.
Yet Sufism, clearly central to any discussion of medieval India, barely makes an appearance in Naipaul's work. "Islam is a religion of fixed laws," he told Outlook magazine. "There can be no reconciliation [with other religions]". In this one sentence he dismissed Indian Islam's rich 800-year history of syncretism, intellectual heterodoxy and pluralism. The history of Indian Sufism in particular abounds with attempts by mystics to overcome the gap between the two great religions and to seek God not through sectarian rituals but through the wider gateway of the human heart. These attempts were championed by some of south Asia's most popular mystics, such as Bulleh Shah of Lahore:
Neither Hindu nor Muslim
I sit with all on a whim
Having no caste, sect or creed,
I am different indeed.
I am not a sinner or saint,
Knowing no sin nor restraint.
Bulleh tries hard to shirk
The exclusive embrace
of either Hindu or Turk.
In Beyond Belief (1998) Naipaul writes of Indian Muslims as slaves to an imported religion, looking abroad to Arabia for the focus of their devotions, which they are forced to practise in a foreign language - Arabic - they rarely understand. He seems to be unaware of the existence of such hugely popular Indian pilgrimage shrines such as Nizamuddin or Ajmer Sharif, the centrality of such shrines to the faith of Indian Muslims or the vast body of vernacular devotional literature in Indian Islam, much of it dedicated to the mystical cults of indigenous saints.
Also notably absent in Naipaul's work is any mention of the remarkable religious tolerance of the Mughals: neither Akbar nor Dara Shukoh makes any sort of appearance in Naipaul's writing, and his readers will learn nothing of the former's enthusiastic patronage of Hindu temples or the latter's work translating the Gita into Persian, or writing The Mingling of Two Oceans, a study of Hinduism and Islam which emphasises the compatibility of the two faiths and speculates that the Upanishads were the source of monotheism. Such views were far from exceptional and most Mughal writers show similar syncretic tendencies: the greatest of Urdu poets, Ghalib, for example, wrote praising Benares as the Mecca of India, saying that he sometimes wished he could "renounce the faith, take the Hindu rosary in hand, and tie a sacred thread round my waist".
Yet Naipaul continues to envisage medieval India solely in terms of Islamic vandalism. Likewise, he continues to talk of Mughal architecture as entirely "foreign ... a carry-over from the architecture of Isfahan", ignoring all the fused Hindu elements that do so much to define its profound Indianness: the jalis, chajjas and chattris, quite apart from the fabulous Gujerati-Hindu decorative sculpture that is most spectacularly seen at Akbar's capital, Fatehpur Sikri. Yet while architectural historians see a remarkable fusing of civilisations in Mughal buildings, Naipaul thinks "only of everything that was flattened to enable them to come up".
That destruction of Hindu monuments did take place is undeniable; but in what circumstances, and on what scale, is a matter of intense scholarly debate. Perhaps the single most important essay in Beyond Turk and Hindu is Richard Eaton's fascinating account of temple destruction. It is of course a central nostrum of the Hindu far right that between the 13th and 18th centuries, Indo-Muslim states, driven by a combination of greed, intolerance and a fanatical iconoclasm, desecrated as many as 60,000 Hindu temples. This claim is examined in detail by Eaton, who concludes that "such a picture [simply] cannot be sustained by evidence from original sources".
Eaton writes that he can find evidence for around only 80 desecrations "whose historicity appears reasonably certain", and that these demolitions tended to take place in very particular circumstances: that is, in the context of outright military defeats of Hindu rulers by one of the Indian sultanates, or when "Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served. Otherwise, temples lying within Indo-Muslim sovereign domains, viewed as protected state property, were left unmolested."
Indeed Indo-Islamic states involved themselves directly in the running of their Hindu temples, so that, for example, "between 1590 and 1735, Mughal officials oversaw the renewal of Orissa's state cult, that of Jagannath in Puri. By sitting on a canopied chariot while accompanying the cult's annual festival, Shah Jehan's officials ritually demonstrated that it was the Mughal emperor who was the temple's - and hence the god's - ultimate protector."
None of this should be read in any way as challenging Naipaul's importance as a writer: his non-fiction about India is arguably the most brilliant body of writing about the region in modern times, and it is precisely because of this that it is important to challenge his errors.
In the current climate, after the pogroms of Gujerat and the inaccurate rewriting of textbooks, Naipaul's misleading take on medieval Indian history must not go uncorrected. To quote Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, writing recently about the new BJP history textbooks: "When history is mobilised for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest. If we do not then the long night of Gujerat will never end. Its history will reappear again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood and death."
(Source: The Guardian, March 20, 2004)
Naipaul is Unworthy of Lifetime Achievement Award
At a literary festival held in Mumbai on November 2, 2012, the noted playwright Girish Karnad launched a scathing attack on Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the festival organizers. Karnad accused Naipaul of harbouring deeply-entrenched prejudices against Muslims and of misrepresenting the role of Muslims in India. The following are excerpts from his speech.
“The award ceremony held on the 31st of October coyly failed to mention that Naipaul was not an Indian and has never claimed to be one. But at no point was the question raised, and the words Shashi Deshpande, the novelist, had used to describe the Neemrana Festival conducted by the ICCR in 2002 perfectly fitted the present event: ‘it was a celebration of a Nobel Laureate …whom India, hopefully, even sycophantically, considered an Indian.’
“Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal, Naipaul has written three books on India and the books are brilliantly written - he is certainly among the great English writers of our generation. They have been hailed as a continued exploration of India’s journey into modernity, but what strikes one from the very first book, A Wounded Civilization, is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim. The ‘wound’ in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babur’s invasion. Since then Naipaul has never missed a chance to weigh in against the ‘invaders’, accusing them of having savaged India for five centuries, of having brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it and destroying the glorious ancient Hindu culture.
“A point that strikes one immediately about these books is that there is not a single word in any of them on Indian music. And I believe that if you cannot respond to music, you cannot understand India. Music is the defining art form of the Indian identity. Naipaul’s silence on the subject when he is exploring the whole of modern Indian culture suggests to me that he is tone deaf - which in turn explains his insensitivity to the intricate interweaving of Hindu and Muslim creativities, through the Bhakti and Sufi movements, that gave us this extraordinary heritage, alive in the heart of every Indian home. “What Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Islam conceals, however, is that he has borrowed his model of the history of Indian culture from the British musicologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like William Jones.
“…They decided that this once pure - and - glorious music must have been, at some point during the course of its long history, corrupted and mauled - and they found the villain in the invading Muslim. So, according to them, once upon a time there was a pristine Indian musical culture, which the Muslims had disfigured. They therefore ignored the music that was being performed around them and went in search of the true Hindu music. In his analysis of Indian culture Naipaul simply borrows this line of argument and reemploys it - as his original perception. And not for the first time.
“Naipaul accuses R.K. Narayan of being indifferent to the destruction and death symbolized by the ruins of Vijayanagar, which to him was a bastion of Hindu culture destroyed by the maurauding Muslims. But again he gets this interpretation of the history of Vijayanagar readymade from a book by Robert Sewell called A Forgotten Empire, published in 1900. Naipaul, as always in awe of his colonial sources, simply accepts this picture as the unadorned truth and recycles it wholesale as his own.
“…Of the Taj, probably the most beloved of the monuments in India, Naipaul writes, ‘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.’ He brushes off historian Romila Thapar’s argument that the Mughal era saw a rich efflorescence of the mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles, by attributing her judgment to her Marxist bias and says, ‘The correct truth is the way the invaders look at their actions, They were conquering.
They were subjugating.’ To Naipaul, the Indian Muslim remains an invader for ever, forever condemned to be condemned, because some of them had invaders for their ancestors. It is a usage would yield some strange results if applied to the USA.
“As for Naipaul’s journalistic exploration of modern India, mainly in the form of a series of interviews conducted with Indians right across the board, one must confess they are supremely well written and that he is a master in drawing sharp and precise visuals of the people he talks to and of the places he visits.” “…(but) How reliable are the conversations he records? In a well-known essay, Naipaul describes his visit to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, where he stayed with his friend, Ashoke Chatterjee, the director of the Institute. In a recent email to me, Mr Chatterjee said, that Naipaul’s essay was ‘a scenario that could have been but was not what he actually saw. Fragments of reality selected and put together, into a collage of pure fantasy.’ Chatterjee’s friendship with Naipaul came to an abrupt end when Chatterjee told Naipaul that his book, A Wounded Civilization, should be classified as fiction.
“In a recent book, Naipaul takes up for examination the autobiography of Munshi Rahman Khan, who emigrated to Suriname at the end of the nineteenth century, and contrasts it with Gandhi’s. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the historian, has reviewed the essay in the London Review of Books and it doesn’t take him much effort to establish that Naipaul could only have read a third-hand, truncated translation of the text. ‘It is as if a reader in Gorakhpur was reading Naipaul in Maithili after the text had passed through a Japanese translation.’ That doesn’t prevent Naipaul from commenting even on the style and linguistic usage of Rahman Khan.
“…One of the first things Naipaul did on receiving the Nobel Prize was to visit the office of the BJP in Delhi. He who had earlier declared that he was not political, ‘that to have a political view is to be programmed’, now declared that he was happy to be politically ‘appropriated’. It was then that he made his most infamous remark: ‘Ayodhya’, he said, ‘is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity.’ “…In cold blood, Naipaul was glamorizing these events as ‘passion’, as ‘a creative act’. “Salman Rushdie’s response was that Naipaul was behaving like ‘a fellow-traveller of Fascism and (that he) disgraces the Noble Prize.’ …Landmark and Literature Alive who have announced this Award have a responsibility to explain to us where exactly they stand with regard to these Naipaul remarks.
Naipaul is a foreigner and can make pronouncements as he wishes. But do they mean to valorize Naipaul’s stand that Indian Muslims are raiders and marauders? Are they supporting his continued insistence on Muslim buildings in India being monuments to rape and loot? Or are they by their silence suggesting that these views do not matter? The Award givers have much to answer for.”
(Source: Mumbai Mirror, November 3, 2012)