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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Naipaul And Bombay

I had four blank, frightening days in the glamorous hotel, during which I did the dispiriting thing of keeping a self-conscious journal with nothing to say. I didn’t like the journal form; it blurred vision. I preferred distance, and the sifting of memory. The comparison that comes to mind now is that of Ibsen, still more poet than playwright, struggling to keep a journal on his trip to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Momentous days, fabulous sights: made for a journal, one would have thought; but it must have fatigued Ibsen to be on the outside, dealing only with the externals of things, and he simply stopped. In some such way in Bombay I broke down and gave my dour journal up; and looked around to make another kind of start.

A big board in the hotel lobby advertised a resident or “in-house” fortune-teller; I was often tempted in those four days to go for a reading, to find out whether I would do the book. I didn’t have to do that. One does more in anxiety than one suspects. The book did get started — “Bombay is a crowd” is the opening line I alighted on, and then it moved fast.

Ideas are abstract. They become books only when they are clothed with people and narrative. The reader, once he has entered this book and goes beyond the opening pages, finds himself in a double narrative. There is the immediate narrative of the person to whom we are being introduced; there is the larger outer narrative in which all the varied pieces of the book are going to fit together. Nothing is done at random. Serious travel is an art, even if no writing is contemplated; and the special art in this book lay in divining who of the many people I met would best and most logically take my story forward, where nothing had to be forced.

I had to depend on local people for introductions, and it was not always easy to make clear what I was looking for. Many people, trained in journalistic ways, thought I was looking for “spokesmen” for various interests. I was in fact looking for something profounder and more intrusive: someone’s lived experience (if I can so put it) that would illuminate some aspect, some new turn, in the old country’s unceasing adjustment to new thought, new politics, new ideas of business. So in this book one kind of experience grows out of another, one theme develops out of another.

Part of my luck was the decision, made for no clear reason one day in the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, to do the religiously inauspicious Indian thing and travel round India in an anti-clockwise direction. To have gone the other way, north to Delhi and Calcutta and the Punjab would have been to get to the meat of the book too quickly, to leave the rest of the country hanging on, in a kind of anti-climax. To go south first, as I did, was to deal in a fresh way with important things like the influence of caste on the development of Indian science, the little-known century-long caste war of the south, the dispossession of the brahmins. This could be said to prepare the reader (and the writer) for the disturbances of the north: the British in Calcutta, Lucknow, Delhi — all the history of the past century, just below the present.

I have often been asked about note-taking methods during the actual time of travel. I used no tape-recorder; I used pen and notebook alone. Since I was never sure whether someone I was meeting would serve my purpose, I depended in the beginning very often on simple conversation. I never frightened anyone by showing a notebook. If I found I was hearing something I needed, I would tell the person I wanted to take down his words at a later time. At this later time I would get the person to repeat what he had said and what I half knew. I took it all down in handwriting, making a note as I did so of the setting, the speaker, and my own questions. It invariably happened that the speaker, seeing me take it all down by hand, spoke more slowly and thoughtfully this second time, and yet his words had the rhythm of normal speech. An amazing amount could be done in an hour. I changed nothing, smoothed over nothing.

Ambitious and difficult books are not always successful. But it remains to be said that in England this book has been reprinted 32 or 33 times. I marvel at the luck.
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