Pankaj Mishra, who edited Naipaul’s essays for this volume, terms Naipaul’s travel writing the self-discovery of a colonial, and Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad of Indian parents, demonstrates in these essays how the colonial experience has shaped the people he encounters in his travels. Equally adept at describing the geographical and the emotional landscape, Naipaul examines the way postcolonial societies, whether in Asia, Africa, or South America, are affected by the myths, rituals, magic, and classes of their past. For Naipaul, these societies, which are essentially consumers of the products of the West, are caught up in a clash between East and West, old and new. As he explores these countries, Naipaul blends his considerable knowledge with literary analysis of the texts of some of the major figures and his own direct experiences with the people with whom he interacts.
The first group of essays deals with his travels to India, where he finds a “closed civilization, ruled by ritual and myth,” a culture addicted to plunder and, amidst the decay of large cities such as Calcutta, vestiges of British influence. His account of Indians Bunty and Andy, with their British mannerisms and golfing, reflects the extent to which Indians look outside India for approval. Noting that many Buntys and Andys are leaving India for the West, Naipaul believes that the financial and technological gap between India and the West is widening and sees a similar gap in sensibility and wisdom between the two cultures. In “The Election in Ajmer,” Naipaul reports on the political campaigns waged by two factions in the Congress Party. Through his conversations and travels with the candidates, an Old Guard uncle and an Indira Gandhi-influenced nephew, Naipaul reveals how tradition, caste, and superstition affect Indian elections and how the media construct myths which outweigh reality.
Part 2 of the book, “Africa and the Diaspora,” begins with an essay on the three-island state of St. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla, with “Papa” Robert Bradshaw, “one of the Negro shepherd-kings of the Caribbean,” as premier. Naipaul describes the conflict between the competing political parties WAM and PAM as “part of the deadly comic- strip humour of Negro politics.” To retain his control, Bradshaw has resorted to stressing black power, although the message of that movement is unclear in St. Kitts; as a result, Caribbean black power differs from its American counterpart. Naipaul claims that both political parties are parties of protest against the dead past of slavery, and that the real battle is about “kingship” rather than political philosophy. Partly because of Bradshaw’s rule, the Anguillans revolted and for a time became independent. That revolt and subsequent events are covered in “The Shipwrecked Six Thousand,” a reference to the entire population of Anguilla. When they looked for help from Great Britain (the Anguillans still considered themselves part of the Commonwealth), the British had a problem. According to Naipaul, “For more than two hundred years, in fact no one had really wanted Anguilla or had known what to do with it. The place was a mistake.” Ultimately, the British “pacified” the would-be island state. For Naipaul, there are several such “mistakes,” countries which are too small and dependent to be economically viable and which are therefore subject to manipulation by rulers who spout impossible promises. Unable to establish industry or to provide employment for young people who have been educated for nonexistent jobs, such countries “export” young people whose only hope is to leave their native countries.
In “The Overcrowded Barracoon,” Naipaul dissects Mauritius, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean. Mauritians are obsessed with the idea of escape from an island “prison,” but only nurses are “acceptable abroad”; as Naipaul puts it, “They are a nation of nurses.” To stay in power, the government stresses unemployment, ignores overpopulation, insists that it is truly black, as opposed to politicians from other parties, and blames problems on the white sugar-cane plantation owners. Unable or unwilling to confront their own shortcomings, the government creates myths. One Mauritian commented, “If the white man did not exist, in Mauritius we would have to invent someone like him.” Naipaul’s description of Mauritius could apply to other similar former colonial countries: “An agricultural economy, created by empire in an empty island and always meant to be a part of something larger, now given a thing called independence and set adrift, an abandoned imperial barracoon, incapable of economic or cultural autonomy.”
“Power?” concerns Trinidad, another small country viable only as part of another country, in this case Venezuela. In this essay Naipaul probes the relationship between carnival and black power, between work by day and fantasy life at night. When the fantasies resulted in the island’s only slave “revolt,” it was crushed, but the fantasies remained in the form of what Naipaul terms “Carnival...
(The entire section is 2075 words.)