Since the publication of A Passage to India in 1924, British writing about India has in many cases replicated the basic structures and themes of F. M. Forster’s novel. One thinks of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, in particular the first volume, The Jewel in the Crown (1966), where the plot turns on the rape of an Englishwoman by rioting natives; or of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1975), in which miscegenation and an Englishwoman’s rebellious curiosity motivate the novel’s major events. The hold of what Edward Said has called “orientalism” over the British imagination of the subcontinent—even for those who are not British by birth but whose cultural formation reflects the persistence of late imperial fantasies—remains strong indeed.
The marks of British imperial ideology are everywhere apparent in India: A Million Mutinies Now, but what is perhaps most striking to someone whose training is in British literary tradition is how the book—self-consciously, one presumes—reproduces features from Forster’s novel. The latter opens with a description of the mud and general squalor in the mythical North Indian town of Chandrapore that is echoed in Naipaul’s brief evocation of Bombay upon his arrival there:
Bombay continued to define itself: Bombay flats on either side of the road now, concrete buildings mildewed at their upper levels by Bombay weather, excessive sun, excessive rain, excessive heat; grimy at the lower levels, as if from the crowds at pavement level, and as if that human grime was working its way up, tide-mark by tide-mark, to meet the mildew.
It is not that Naipaul’s portrait is in some gross sense false—Bombay surely is hot and damp—but that placed here, in the opening paragraphs of a book that will, purportedly, tell the story of contemporary India, it reassures a literate Western readership that they are on familiar ground. The India they will see is one they are already prepared to understand, one that has been, as it were, prefabricated for them by countless previous narratives from Rudyard Kipling and Forster to the film Gandhi(1982).
Nor do the parallels with A Passage to India end here. It is quite striking that the final chapter, “The House on the Lake: A Return to India,” takes place in Kashmir. While Forster’s novel ends in an unnamed princely state, where Dr. Aziz has moved to escape the oppression of British India, David Lean’s film indelibly fixed its imaginative location by shooting the final episode in Kashmir’s stunning landscape. Moreover, the whole apparatus of corrupt locals (a boatman extorts an exorbitant fee from Naipaul for his services), the proximity of the lake to the dwellings and hotel, the tensions between Hindus and Muslims (a theme that recurs throughout the narrative), not to mention the appearance of a man named Aziz—all these obviously staged details are intended to recall the final section of A Passage to India, as Naipaul assumes the role of Forster’s omniscient narrator, commenting on the futility of the independence movement. Naipaul, as it happens, is not so pessimistic about what independence has brought, but it remains clear that he is far from cheerful about the nation’s current prospects.
Naipaul’s subtitle refers to the famous sepoy rebellion of 1857, in which native troops rose up against their British commanders and seized control of large sections of Northern India from the Punjab to Uttar Pradesh (then part of the United Provinces). He writes of this historic event some two-thirds of the way through the book, speaking contemptuously of the nationalist interpretation that took the Mutiny to be the first blow in the struggle against the British Raj:
The British annexation of Oude was one of the things that led to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In colonial times, and for a period afterwards, this was called by some the First War of Indian Independence. But this was a 20th-century view, 20th-century language, and a kind of mimicry, seeking to give to old India something of the socialist dynamism the Russians found in their own history. The Mutiny was the last flare-up of Muslim energy in India until the agitation, 80 years or so later, for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan.
Naipaul symptomatically adopts the British spelling for Awadh, the Mughal province that was still ruled by the Nawab until 1856, when Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general, annexed it on the slender pretext of corrupt administration. Naipaul’s account omits mention that this annexation was part of a systematic policy...
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