At the conclusion to Magic Seeds, Indian-born, English-educated Willie Chandran tells himself, “It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts.” Coming from another writer, or at the end of any other novel, this judgment might be dismissed as a stagy literary sigh, a weary refusal to deal with ideas. During his long career, however, Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul has witnessed and written about both ideals and mischief in India, Pakistan, South America, the Caribbean region, the United States, Indonesia, Africa, and Iran. Willie's remark comes from deep, prolonged observation, and if Naipaul seems obdurately jaundiced, he nevertheless speaks for people who have been cast loose from the protective mooring of nationality and culture.
Willie Chandran is such a drifter, and not by preference. Magic Seeds is the sequel to Half a Life. In the first novel, Willie leaves his family ashram in India to be a scholarship university student in England following World War II. It is a tremendous break for him, a door out of what he views as a confining, stifling Indian traditional life, opening onto a wide intellectual world. He founders, however, unable to grasp English ways, and although he publishes a book of short stories, he readily abandons his ambition to become a writer in order to marry and live the insulated life of a colonist in Africa. When a revolution ends that life, he abandons his wife and flees to Berlin to live with his sister, Sarojini, who has also left the family ashram to become a documentary filmmaker in Germany.
Magic Seeds opens after Willie has spent six months with his sister in a pleasantly otiose, dreamlike existence. He has exasperated Sarojini with his indolence. She is an idealist in the sense that evidence of injustice angers her, and she makes documentaries for German television about revolutionaries who want to correct social inequities. She is impressed by an Indian thinker who proposes recasting his country without the class warfare that turned other revolutions into bloodbaths, and she pushes her brother to join the philosopher's rebel army, which has succeeded in taking over a rural region.
Willie acquiesces, thinking such a commitment to revolution might bring purpose to his life. After much hardship, he is taken to a rebel training camp, and in a sense the remainder of the novel is a tale about his new self that Willie wants to tell to his sister, the idealist. Long sections are in the form of letters to her.
Repelled at first by the brutal life of a guerrilla, he finds to his surprise that he is good at it. When his superiors make him a courier, because of his experience surviving an African revolution, he has a startling perception: Never having felt at home anywhere, he is yet able to look at home anywhere. The ability serves him well in evading police scrutiny, and he becomes trusted. He develops bonds with a series of squad leaders, recognizing that each of them has become a rebel out of some private need to leave society and strike out against it and not out of idealism; they are “action men,” which is to say that they do not hesitate to kill.
The first, Bhoj Narayan, would appear to be an Indian success story, a man who came from a low-caste family to join the middle class, but in fact shame still dogs him. Hatred of Indian landlords, remnants of a feudal system, moves him to join the rebel army. He becomes Willie's mentor. For a while, Willie is content in his role. A poor recruit, Roja, is their downfall. Although likeable, Roja is unreliable and eventually betrays Willie to the police; however, Bhoj Narayan is accidentally captured in Willie's place. The episode teaches Willie two things: that an old veteran rebel can suddenly fail and that Willie himself can kill, for he executes Roja.
After that, two experienced leaders, Ramachandra and Einstein, both violently angry men, take Willie into their confidence. The first is killed in an ambush because he simply lacks basic combat skills, and the second, after woefully botching a kidnapping, surrenders to police and persuades Willie to do so, too. Willie realizes that the guerrillas are led by incompetent field commanders who have little idealism, while the leaders of the movement in general, the philosophers and strategists, do not understand the practicalities of the guerrilla warfare that they...
(The entire section is 1797 words.)