By Biko Agozino
Naipual's problem is primarily that of ingratitude which he probably inherited from his father. According to the literary theorist and former Principal of the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, Dr Bho Tewarie, if Mr Biswas was a little more grateful to all the people who were trying to help him instead of constantly griping against them, he may have been a more successful person in life. The son is similarly dismissive of his debts to the Caribbean, to Oxford ('Oxford taught me nothing'), to his parents, wife, and partners, to India and to Africa. The lesson for younger writers is to learn the habit of gratitude and eschew the white-superiorism that might interfere with their writings because even good prose would not be enough to attract and retain significant readership when the personality and ideology are obnoxious and turn-offish.
Yet, we must not throw away the baby with the bath water. As a graduate student in Edinburgh University in the early 1990s, I received my first Naipaul book, India: A Million Mutinies Now, from my book club, Quality Paperback Series. However, before I could read the book, an English friend spoiled it for me by asking why I even bothered buying a Naipaul book given the man's well-known racism in the way he portrayed Indians and Africans as dirty and diseased and with no redeeming qualities. The comment discouraged me from reading the book but when I finally did ten years later before a trip to India, I learned quite a bit from the book.
For instance, Naipaul revealed in the book that when Gandhi went to live in South Africa after his law school in England, he was 'politically naive'. Now, I have never heard anyone describe the great Gandhi as being naive and so I read on. According to Naipaul, when Gandhi arrived in South Africa, he actually believed that colonialism was a good thing but the Zulus quickly reeducated him. Like many good writers, he did not go into detail about what lesson Gandhi learned from Zulus and so I had to go and find out for myself by reading 'Gandhi: the Autobiography'.
In that book, Gandhi himself agreed that he was a product of British education who believed that the white man was in Africa to bring civilization to the dark continent. He believed that the Zulus were lazy and that that was why they were always going on strike. He hoped that the British would teach them the ethics of hard work so that they could become a little more civilized like the Indian traders who had invited him to come and fight for them against discrimination by the British who lumped them together with the natives.
To Gandhi's surprise, the Zulu launched an uprising against the British and he quickly joined the British Army and was commissioned Sargent Major Gandhi. He was put in charge of a group of Indian volunteer nurses supporting the British army. Perhaps, Gandhi wished for some of the British officers to be wounded so that he and his fellow Indians would get an opportunity to treat them and thereby show the British that Indian nurses were every bit as effective as British ones and thereby persuade them that Indians should not be categorized at the same level with Africans.
But when all the wounded turned out to be Zulus, Gandhi was frustrated and started asking them why they were sitting there like sissies and taking the beating instead of fighting back like men. They laughed at him and told him that they were fighting back all right but that they were fighting back non-violently by refusing to pay taxes to a government that did not represent them and by refusing to work for employers who exploited them.
Naipul narrates how Gandhi took this lesson back to India and used it to change the national liberation strategy that was predominantly the militaristic strategy of mutinies which the British easily defeated through the war of manicures in the past. Now the Indians started using the non-violent strategy of refusing to buy salt when the prices were inflated (they made their own salt) and refusing to buy British cotton when the prices were hiked up (they wove their own loin clothes).
The nonviolent methods proved more effective in winning Indian independence and Kwame Nkrumah later adopted similar tactics (Positive Action) for the independence of Ghana but emphasized that it was an African strategy all right. The Civil Rights Movement adopted this African philosophy primarily but the Martin Luther King Jr Museum in Atlanta still mistakenly attributes it to Gandhi without adding that Gandhi himself attributed it to Africans. A graduate student from Howard university told me that the day after she heard me make this point at a recent Association of Black Sociologists meeting in Atlanta, she went to the museum and could not resist correcting a parent who was explaining to a child that MLK borrowed non-violence from Gandhi.
Other surprising lessons that I have learned from Naipul's India include the fact that the Black Panther Party influenced the lowest caste in India, The Dalith, to form the Dalith Panthers Party. He also explained that arranged marriages are more prestigeous in India than what they call 'love matches'. He has a fascinating chapter on a monthly magazine, Indian Woman, that is published by a man but that is very successful among women because of its ability to involve the readers in the interactive development of soap-opera-like themes. When I arrived New Delhi in 2004, the first thing I bought was a copy of Indian Woman and not surprisingly, it came with a free gift: a tampon! Some lesson in marketing.
I have since bought other Naipaul books but I must confess that I have never read any of them from cover to cover. Am I alone in finding his style a touch boring? This might have to do with the attitude of the author to his audience and since postmodernists have proclaimed the death of the author with the arrival of the reader who is free to interpret the work as he/she feels, I agree with those who have pointed out that when it comes down to a competition for my time, there are choice pieces of literature that I have prioritized over those of Naipaul. Yet, I will not deny that it is possible to learn something new even from an unusual Naipaul source. I have not read his new yabbis on Africa but I will not rule it out someday.
It is not enough to condemn his racism and snobbishness. We need to encourage more writers to dwell on the positive contributions that Africans have made and continue to make to world civilization even while critiquing the negative remnants of centuries of slavery, colonialism and post-colonialism in constructive ways that would help us to usher in a greater Africa, the Renascent Africa that Azikiwe announced in 1937 while cursing the 'Old Africa' for blocking progress.