& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dionne Brand, VS Naipaul, the Indian and African Diaspora in the Caribbean

In her autobiography / memoir, A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand analyses VS Naipaul’s writing on India from the prism of Indian and African Diaspora.

Brand refers to Naipaul’s The Overcrowded Barracoon and other Articles and one of its essays “In the Middle of the Journey” published in 1962 in the Illustrated Weekly of India.

I have not read a better or more original interpretation of Naipaul’s writing; a better or more lucid explanation of his prejudices; a better or more empathetic attempt at understanding his anger and a complete identification with his angst.

Over to Brand:

"He (Naipaul) is determined, it seems at the outset, to conclude that India is wanting in some sociopathic way – the landscape is ‘monotonous,’ its ‘simplicity’ is ‘frightening,’ its people are Philistine and myopic...

"The essay is less interesting for what it may offer by way of any description of India than for Naipaul’s choice of words and emotions that indicate his state of mind. Of course India is overwhelming, of course it is vast, but that does not give one the sense of dread that Naipaul attaches to these words. This dread one suspects arrived with him. The stories he must have heard as a child of the Kala Pani, the black water of the journey of indentured labourers from India to the Caribbean, the experience of those workers for whom India might have been both a curse from which they left or a haven from which they were plucked. When Naipaul travels to India to send this report he is making the return trip across the Kala Pani...’Vast tracts which will never become familiar, which will sadden.’ They will never become familiar because two generations have missed their shape, more than one hundred years have passed since his family has been there. It exists only in memory, which is sometimes untrustworthy; it exists in the stories of his family passed down, each image dependent on the story-teller’s gift and skills.

"Many read Naipaul as spiteful...But in some ways I read Naipaul as spitefully sorrowful...Those vast tracts which will never become familiar are not merely description of a physical landscape but discourse on ancestral estrangement and filial longing. The dread he feels in the essay and the urge to escape are even more interesting. It is the dread of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the possibility of rejection...the possibility that in fact one is unwanted back home, perhaps hated, perhaps even forgotten. The wound of forced exile generations ago is made more acute by indifference, by forgetfulness. No one in India remembers him or the experience he represents. Yet he carries within him this particular accursed ancestral memory and this crushing dislocation of the self which the landscape did not solve. Instead he finds himself afraid and wishing to escape – to escape the “endless repetition of exhaustion and decay.” To anyone else this sound like merely “life” – the existential dilemma. To the descendants of the nineteenth-century Indian and African Diaspora, a nervous temporariness is our existential dilemma, our descent quicker, our decay faster, our existence far more tenuous; the routine of life is continuously upheaved by colonial troublings. We have no ancestry except the black water and the Door of No Return. They signify space and not land. A ‘vastness’ indeed ‘beyond imagination.’ It is not India which is beyond imagination; it is the black water. Fear is repeated so many times in his essay. Naipaul in fact admits that ‘the despair lies more with the observer than the people.'"

Image: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/brand/index.html

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