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Post- Colonial View of India in the Travel Writings of V. S. Naipaul and Clarke Blaise


Post- Colonial View of India in the Travel Writings of V. S. Naipaul and Clarke Blaise


Dr. Nagender Singh Nathawat


Shri Bhagwandas Todi College

Lachhmangarh, Sikar

Rajasthan, India



There are two travel accounts of Empire. They are V.S. Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ and Clarke Blaise’s ‘Days and Nights in Calcutta’ (1977). Both the writers show different attitudes in their travel writing to India and Indian culture. Naipaul’s attitude is that of a colonial which is reflected in his descriptions being satirical, contemptuous and full of mockery. On the other hand, there is an attempt on the part of Blaise to understand India and Indian culture which makes his descriptions ironical, humorous and full of exotic images. 


Keywords: post-colonial, satirical, contemptuous, ironical, exotic images




The post-colonial view of India in V.S. Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness” (1964) is that “there will be continuity but no quality difference”. His images of India include continuation of class hierarchy, degrees of degradation, mimicry of the ways of the British by a section of Indians though remaining untouched inwardly, a big gap among Indians’ profession and practice. He believes that “England of the Raj still lived in India” and Indians have “no sense of history”.


Naipaul’s Post-colonial View of India


Naipaul believes that class hierarchy, a legacy of the British Empire still continues in India. The difference between a clerk and a messenger still continues. The job of a messenger will not be done by a clerk even in the most critical situation. Recounting his experience at the customs office in Bombay, the writer says that his companion fainted. He asked the clerk, Miss Desai to get some water. But she wouldn’t. Then he cried to the male clerk to get some water. He rose saying nothing, walked to the end of the room and vanished. The male clerk also returned waterless and sat down at his desk. He said nothing and went on with his work. Commenting on this the writer remarks:


It was worse than impatience. It was ill-breeding and ingratitude. For presently, sporting his uniform as proudly as any officer, a messenger appeared. He carried a tray and on the tray stood a glass of water.  I should have known better. A clerk was a clerk, a messenger was a messenger. (p. 21)


Commenting on this kind of class hierarchy, Naipaul asks whether this is categorization or a degree of degradation. Giving further examples of distinction he says:


And the man who makes the dingy bed in the hotel room will be affronted if he is asked to sweep the gritty floor. The clerk will not bring you a glass of water if you faint. The architecture student will consider it a degradation to make drawings, to be a mere draughtsman. And Ramnath, the stenographer, so designated on the triangular block of wood that stands on his desk, will refuse to type out what he has taken down in shorthand. (pp. 47-48)


About the Indians’ habit of mimicry, the writer says that no people are as capable of mimicry as Indians (p.57) in their buildings, railways, a system of administration, the intellectual discipline of the civil servant and the economist. The writer observes:


The Indians army officer is at a first meeting a complete English army officer. He even manages to look English, his gait and bearing are English; his mannerisms and his tastes in drink are English. His slang is English.” On the Indian setting this Indian English mimicry is like fantasy. (p.37)


 But the person who is imitiating the English is only pretending to be colonial. The person who is imitating the English considers himself superior to most men and what is noteworthy is that the inner world continues “whole and untouched”. But it seems to me that what Naipaul says is no longer true. Now more and more people feel proud to be Indians in their behavior in the post-colonial era.


Further, Naipaul comments on Indians’ habit of defecation in the open and their ill-founded belief that they are the cleanest people in the world. He dramatizes the whole act of defecation interspersing it with over tones of humour:


Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets, they never look for cover. (p.70)


Defecation in the open for an Indian is a religious act of self denial. It is a social activity. A peasant does it because he suffers from claustrophobia if he uses an enclosed latrine. Giving another reason for defecating in open, the writer says ironically, “Indians are poetic people and nothing is as poetic as squatting on a river bank at dawn.” (p.70)


 Commenting on the squatting habit of Indians the writer comments humorously:


Fearing contamination, they squat rather than sit and every lavatory cubicle carries marks of their misses” (p.72).


But things have changed now in India after the clean India movement and construction of lacvatories.


According to Naipaul, labouris  a degradation for an Indian. As a result of this, most of the Indians have become “the shortest lived, most resourceless and most exploited”. Giving the example of a passenger on the train, he says that he (the passenger) wanted to change his seat but he wouldn’t change his bedding. The writer did it for him. But it seems to me that the things have changed in this connection since Naipaul’s visit.


According to Naipaul, England of the Raj still lived in India. It lived in the division of the country, towns into cantonments’ civil lines’ and bazaars. It lived in army officers’ messes…It lived in the clubs, collectorates, the Sunday morning bingo, it lived in the dance floors of city restaurants. “It was an England more full blooded than anyone coming from Trinidad might have thought possible. It was grander, more creative and more vulgar. It was to be seen in a comic mixture of customs and widely spread use of an imperfectly understood language.” (p.190)


Commenting on the Indians’ sense of history, the writer says that they have ‘no sense of history’ in that they would not be able to read the history of 1000 years without pain and anger. Instead of learning anything from history, they retreat into “fantasy and fatalism”. They trust the stars in which the fortunes of all are written. India is above all a land of ruins – the ancient glory is gone.


What is the impact of the British Empire in India? The English did not become a part of India and in the end they went back to England. They left no noble monuments behind and no religion except a “concept of Englishness as a desirable code of behavior – of chivalry tempered with legalism”. (P-201) This concept of Englishness will survive in India because it is the product of fantasy.


If we critically examine Naipaul’s views about India, we discover that his is the opinion of a person who has put on himself a mantle of colonialism, an air of superiority and who looks down upon other cultures instead of understanding the socio-economic dynamics of a culture. Though he is an insider-outsider in that his forefathers migrated from India to Trinidad and he has his roots in India, he forgets his past and in commenting on India assumes the role of a white man. When he dramatizes the act of defecation in the open, he fails to understand the economics of it. His reference to class hierarchy is a legacy of the colonial rule in India, which still continues and which still is a backbone of beaurocratic set up in officers. His view that post-colonial societies hold forth no hope, no new idea of human excellence; that they are doomed; they constitute ‘vast areas of darkness’ holds no water and has been disproved. India with her great progress in the field of science and technology, in the field of industrialization due to liberalization and globalization has proved to people like Naipaul that India holds forth great hope to be a world power. Some people forget that an unbiased view of a culture would be to try to understand it in its own terms without imposing their own prejudices on it.


Clark-Blaise’s Post-colonial View of India


Clarke Blaise (1977), a Canadian novelist, presents a balanced and precise image of India. He records his travel experiences in the I Part of the book “Days and Nights in Calcutta” (1977). He presents vignettes of persons, places, sights and scenes, which are based on his actual experiences. His descriptions of people and places are anecdotal. In his own words, he presents “texture and design” of India without “distortion” (P.18). His descriptions of post-colonial men and women are graphic and full of details. When we look at his pattern of descriptions, the following three pictures emerge. First, his descriptions of people and places are without distortion. Second, his pictures are presented with exotic images. Third, there are humorous and ironic overtones in his descriptions. We shall discuss his view of India under these three heads. These categories are not always distinct but overlap.


Clarke’s descriptions are graphic, vivid and without distortion. He is very true and loyal in details. Clarke describes Calcutta as a garbage heap and unlike Naipaul, he goes into the reasons for the dirt in Calcutta:


Is Calcutta the world’s largest public urinal and garbage heap simply because ten million people are sharing the space and facilities that were outmoded a century ago by half a million? (p.82)


This description combines both the techniques of presenting the picture without distortion and describing things by leaving the conclusion to the readers. The interrogative marker achieves the latter.


About urination in Kolkata, he presents a picture without distortion and also goes into the putative reason for open urination:


Well dressed men can be seen stepping down from taxis or from their own cars in order to urinate against any convenient wall. (p.82)


Calcuttans urinate against a well…out of a uniquely Hindu standard of personal cleanliness. (p.83)


Family life is valued most in India even at the cost of an individual. So much so it becomes a sort of tyranny for the individual. Contrasting the family system with that of the west, the writer observes:


Family, family, family. In India, all is finally family. If we in the west suffer the nausea of dis-connectedness, alienation, anomy, the Indian suffers the oppression of Kinship. (p.92)


In India a father decides which school, his daughter or son will go to, that is whether they will go to a Hindi medium school or an English medium school. Decisions about marriage are also taken by fathers. Commenting on this picture of India, the writer observes:


In India, of course, identity never has to be sought; it is the lone certainty and one’s identity nearly determines nearly everything. The father decides his son’s career as surely as he chooses his daughter’s husband. (p.93)


  The uses of cow-dung and dowry system are facts of Indian life. The writer is not wrong or prejudiced when he comments:


The cow-dung sellers had set their hamburger sized patties out to dry. (p.77)


After college, the various nieces will require dowries, unless they succeed in falling in love. (p.79)


Thus we see that Blaise’s picture of India is balanced and without distortion unlike Naipaul. It would not be improper at this place to compare Clarke Blaise to Gary Snyder (1972), who presents a similar picture of India with pluses and minuses:


Dishonesty, cheating, hostility, rudeness, loudness, thoughtlessness are on sides in India. Again perhaps part of being a country overrun by so many aggressors and full of so many groups constantly confronting each other. Yet there is a kind of honesty in India, which is ultimately lacking in Japan. (P.96)


Blaise’s descriptions are replete with exotic and fine images. One cannot help feeling mesmerized by these descriptions bordering on poetry. Describing Bombay now Mumbai the writer says:


Bombay is built on a long narrow peninsula like the dangling neck of a mythic diving bird. (p.15)


Describing the villagers in a Calcutta (now Kolkata Z00), the writer observes:


Their eyes round unblinking, deeply socketed, profoundly wrinkled, it was like looking into the eyes of old apes…….. They moved through the snake house crowds of Calcutta like a vast gray amoeba, three elders striking out like pseudopodia while the others filed in behind. (p. 19)


One day the writer was caught in pre-monsoon showers. Describing the change in the atmosphere the writer observes:


It was as though the sky has pasted in a vision; the high glaze of summer has been rolled back like a planetarium roof, revealing a primordial backdrop of purple fused with bolts of lightning. (p.48)


Presenting the character-sketch of Dimma (Indian grand-mother of Clark Blaise, 76 years old), the writer describes her in a graphic way with the help of appropriate images:


She seems to me merely a presence in the flat, like the old furniture lugged from Dacca, and cared for like a house plant. (p.81)


Blaise’s descriptions of India, whether of places or people or animals are interspersed with irony and humour. His humour is not harsh or vituperative like Pope or Swift but very gentle like rainfall. The humorous and ironical passages interlaced with exotic images make the description very lively and graphic. Take for example, cow menace and the business of streets in Calcutta\Kolkota. The writer humorously observes:


In Calcutta the pedestrian is King. On the sidewalks the merchant is prince, and in the gutters, cows are queen…Cars are not part of the nobility, they are another addition to the elastic roadway, the latest addition. The human rickshaws with their lungi clad Bihari pullers and their human cargo of fat women shoppers, or babus from the office, or stern old men in dhotis under an umbrella, have the true priority. (p.63)


 Mark the wit in the following lines which are about garbage heap in Calcutta:


True garbage is what no living creature has further use for. And by that definition, Calcutta is a lot cleaner than Montreal. (p. 64)

Clarke B1aise married Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian. She has a number of relatives such as boryo, momu, choto, ,dimma, rephews and nieces. So they also become relatives of B1aise. B1aise presents their character- sketches in a very interesting way interspersed with humour and irony. B1aise says about his borromomu in an ironic way about his sack from work: “It is said that borromomu refused to take a bribe and was fired for it.” (p.79)


One of the character- sketches in the book is a professor who is expert on Tagore. He is very fond of sweets. Describing the sweets consumed by him, the writer observes humorously and ironically:


…we bought 250 gram clay pots of laldol, the sweet, red chilled yoghurt, for our daily lunch and we would sit in the shade of the veranda spooning it out until the sides were scraped clean and fleeks of clay began discolouring the residue, or until we had gotten too close to the dead ants that every now and then lay curled like surprises under the final curds (if ants lined the delicate 250 gram bhar, what more ravenous creature lay immolated in the one-killo basket? (p.87)




Thus we see that Naipaul presents a picture of India which is one-sided, prejudiced and sordid. He is riding the piggyback of colonialism and hence notices only class-hierarchy, degrees of degradation, mimicry of the ways of the British and open-air latrines. His picture of India is limited and he sees only bad things in India. In Clarke B1aise’s book Journalist Upadhayaya asks Clarke a question, which is applicable to Naipaul rather than to Clarke. It is worthwhile to repeat that question because it suitably characterizes Naipaul’s colonial approach to post-colonial India:


How it was that all whites in India, like Ronald Segal (The Crisis of India), assumed an unassailable superiority. What was it, did I think, about their training that made them feel that their standards, their judgements, were all clearer, sharper and more just than the local’s. (Days and Nights in Calcutta 106)


Clarke B1aise (1977) presents an interesting picture of India at Societal and familial level. He presents the picture of bazaars, hats, streets, cows, rickshaw-pullers, his family members etc. with objectivity and truthfulness in an humorous and ironic way with the help of exotic images. What is most heartening is that though he belongs to the colonial fraternity and is in a country, which was once colonized, but his descriptions do not have that colonial superiority which one finds in the descriptions of the expatriate writer, V.S. Naipaul. Our image of a country depends upon our cultural affiliation, pre-conceived notions and perceptions.


Note: In the article, colonial names of the cities appear which have been renamed as Mumbai and Kolkata now. So many other British names, symbol of slavery have been changed now.


Works Cited


B1aise, Clarke. 1977. Days and Nights in Calcutta. New York: Doubleday and Company Inc.


Critical Responses: Department of English, Osmania University, Hyderabad, 1996. New Delhi, Sterling Pvt.Ltd.


Naipaul, V.S. 1964. An Area of Darkness. Middlesex England: Penguin Private Books Ltd.


Snyder, Gary. 1972. Passage through India. San Francisco: Gary Fox Press.