HALF A LIFE by V.S. Naipaul. Alfred A. Knopf. 224 pp. Paperback. 2001.
V.S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize, was born into a Brahmin family that had immigrated to Trinidad from North India by the end of the 19th century. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950 and took up writing as a full-time career after four years in Oxford. His fiction often reflects a sense of rootlessness. He had no sense of connection to the heritage of his Indian ancestors, or Trinidad where he grew up, or even England where he studied and spent his adult years. He felt alienated everywhere.
His shrill criticism of the colonizers as well as the colonized makes his writings, especially non-fiction, controversial, although he forced the reader to face the bitter truth about colonialism. Whether in An Area of Darkness ;India: A Wounded Civilization ; or Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples his criticism is harsh, bordering on the cynical.
In fiction, he often draws upon his own life experiences and his themes are exile, displacement, cultural confusion, and filial rebellion, and his central characters’ inability to find their authentic center. It is one of the negative consequences of the clash between the colonial experience and imperialism. In A Bend in the River , perhaps, Naipaul’s best novel, he exposes the sham of the history of Africa written from the perspective of the imperial masters. Such a perspective is always slanted. The Nobel citation sums up the importance of showing the one-sidedness of the history of colonialism: Naipaul had “united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”
Coming back to the novelistic genre after seven years, Naipaul recapitulates the themes of his earlier fiction in his latest novel HALF A LIFE. The story of the Chandran family starts in India. The senior Chandran has the intellectual pretensions of the elitist Brahmin, and claims that he was the “spiritual source” of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, a novel in which a restless young Englishman turns his back on the advantages of being the scion of an affluent family, and comes to India in search of enlightenment. The elder Chandran, too, is disillusioned with his Brahminic heritage and follows Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings about caste by marrying a woman of a lower caste—more as a whimsical experimentation in Gandhian ideology than out of a deep-seated conviction of principle. In fact, he is filled with an aversion both for this woman and the son and daughter that she bore him.
Chandran senior gives his son Willie the middle name “Somerset” out of respect for the famous novelist, boasting that he had inspired the author by his asceticism. Willie loathes his father’s chicanery and deceit but accepts his help in procuring a scholarship to study in England. Willie fares no better in England than he did in India. His mixed parentage which made him an outcaste in his native land, haunts him in London and forces him to lead the segregated existence of immigrants from “half made societies.” He reinvents himself with false identities but none of those inventions gives him a sense of an authentic self. His insecurity leads him to indulge in sexual experiments that go nowhere.
In his desire to become a writer, he accepts various writing assignments in radio, and publishes short stories mostly plagiarizing from other authors and movies. He does not have the discipline and perseverance of a dedicated writer. His first novel gets published, not through any conscious effort on his part, with the help of an enterprising friend who introduces Willie to a mercenary publisher. The book receives scant notice and lukewarm reviews till one day, a genuine reader who had actually read Willie’s novel, wrote to him how much she liked it because she could relate to it.
Willie finally finds a good woman who loves him for himself, a half-Portuguese who takes him to Mozambique to share her life on her plantation. He finds less racial discrimination here because most of the settlers are, like him, from half-made societies. Culturally adrift and without any goal, he finds himself outside the protection provided by society or law, or even history—the plight of the marginalized. Even though Willie was not ostracized in the colony as he had been in London and had found a good woman to protect him and love him, he realized ultimately that this too was not his life, but someone else’s.
Willie is more successful in his sexual encounters in Africa than in England, maybe, because it is a colony and not the capital of British imperialism. He attributes his sense of sexual inadequacy to his Brahminic heritage: “We are all born with sexual impulses but we are not all born with sexual skills, and there are no schools where we can be trained.” This is ironic, coming from someone whose native land gave the world the Kamasutra.
The last section of the novel is a flashback to Willie’s life as he describes it to his sister in Berlin. The descriptions of this African colony are full of minute details, indicating Naipaul’s firsthand knowledge of the country and continent, and highly reminiscent of A Bend in the River . The narrative voice shifts to first person once again, but this time it is Willie’s, as it was his father’s voice in the opening.
The novel is rambling and breaks the rules of the traditional novel. It stops abruptly at the end, “a novel both sawed off and finished half a life but with no promise of any more to come,” as Michael Gorra points out in his review in the New York Times.
Naipaul’s body of work is impressive: 12 works of non-fiction and an equivalent number of novels. He is unmatched in his ability to integrate the personal experiences of exile and cultural confusion with the upheavals of history in the troubled passage from imperialism to independence in the colonies.
A Spiritual Journey
INTERLEAVES: RUMINATIONS ON ILLNESS AND SPIRITUAL LIFEby Lata Mani. firstname.lastname@example.org. Paperback 137 pages $12. CD Interleaves (set of 2) $20, Contemplations (set of 2) $20. Available in California at East West Bookshop, Mountain View; Cody’s Books, Berkeley; Sunrise Books, Berkeley; Shambhala Booksellers, Berkeley; Gateways Books, Santa Cruz.
The fateful accident changed her life. Lata Mani was driving on Highway 80, on her way to teach at University of California at Davis, when a stolen Pepsi truck, being chased by several California Highway Patrol cars, hit her from behind at 100 mph, and sent her car spinning out of the freeway. Miraculously, she survived the crash, but sustained a debilitating closed head injury.
In her book Interleaves, Mani records the process of her recovery from this catastrophic injury and illness, a journey that has led her to self discovery. “It just so happened, though it was hardly an accident, that I found myself in the arms of the Divine Mother through an automobile collision of atomic proportions to body, mind, and heart.”
As debilitating as her symptoms were—excruciating pain, extreme sensitivity to sounds, disorientation, dizziness, frequent breakdown of cognition—they were not evident to the casual observer or sometimes even to experts. Visits to the neurologist or specialists drained her mentally and emotionally, but she continued to consult them, because her insurance coverage required their evaluation. Meanwhile, she relied on an osteopath-homeopath for her treatment.
Mani describes how simple acts like taking a shower, or crossing the street, became painful and complex. Even the formulation of thoughts became a challenging exercise. Nevertheless, an acute mindfulness has become the cornerstone of her recovery. One begins to notice her clear and objective observation of her mind in the chapter The View from the Bottom.
Through her ruminations, poems, and prayers, we get to witness Mani’s spiritual awakening. The underlying philosophy is not new—one could read similar conclusions in Vedanta texts. But what makes this writing compelling is that it is an extraordinary account of an individual’s journey. In her lyrical style, Mani recounts with remarkable clarity, the ups and downs, her disappointments and insights, the pain and her ability to transcend it.
In the second part of the book, Contemplations, Mani reflects on the spiritual values that give her strength in her journey. Challenging conventional wisdom, she explores the apparent contradictions between sound and silence, between courage and expressing one’s feelings. She exposes the common fallacies of equating acceptance and resignation, courage and fortitude, surrender and defeat. Vivid use of metaphors like a candle flame, waves in the ocean, and the flight of a bird, help to elucidate ideas that are otherwise difficult to grasp.
Mani’s lyricism is even more evident in the CD version of Contemplations. The clarity and flawlessness of her voice mirror the lucidity of her thoughts and reflections themselves. I was especially struck by her expressiveness in reading her poem Anger Meditation. You can almost gather the meaning of each word from its enunciation.
Despite the unhurried pace of the reading, I found myself hitting the Pause button often to take time to marvel at the clarity of the thoughts, and savor the essence of the words.
Interleaves is an excellent text to use for reading meditation also, and I plan to read it again. Still recovering from her illness, Mani nevertheless inspires us to confront life in its fullest.
|Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.|