Subrahmanyam's Brilliant Salvo

I almost forgot to mention a now-old review of V.S. Naipaul’s latest from Sanjay Subrahmanyam in the LRB. It is insanely good, and I say this despite the fact that I’m clearly more sympathetic to Naipaul than Subrahmanyam (which, mind you, isn’t necessarily saying very much). Naipaul is known for his hard-headed “realism,” for insisting that the only undergraduate literary prize he’d award would be Third Prize. But Subrahmanyam manages, successfully I think, to reduce Naipaul to an anthropological curiosity, an angry man who fails to recognize that he is a prisoner of his own particular context. This is pretty much the worst thing you can do to an intellectual, particularly one as self-consciously iconoclastic as Naipaul.

After diagnosing the “neo-Hinduism” of the Indian diaspora,

envious of the West and its superiority, suspicious of Islam and Muslims, often with a healthy contempt for many of the practices and ‘superstitions’ of the old motherland that had been left behind

Subrahmanyam drops the hammer, so to speak

Naipaul is wide of the mark in his claim that most Indians today in the US ‘wish to shake India off’ and would rather ‘make cookies and shovel snow’ than deal with their Indian past. On the contrary: these are communities which often greatly admire Naipaul, share his roots in various sorts of neo-Hinduism, claim insistently that Islam is a worldwide threat, agitate over school textbooks in California which state that Hinduism is chaotically polytheistic, and wear surgical masks when they visit India and their relatives, who stir tea with their forefingers. For, ironically, ‘Indianness’ is the chief element in the cultural capital of such groups, as it is for Naipaul himself. On the distant other side, Protestantism beckons, but most Protestantism does not go together with cultural métissage; it is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal. Further, Indians living outside India have, it is well known, been rather racist when it comes to other people of colour, and the anti-black rhetoric that pervades Naipaul’s writings (including the first chapter of this book) is once again only symptomatic of a larger malaise that extends from East Africa to New Jersey. So, in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself. This book, like his others, should be read together with those of Munshi Rahman Khan for a deeper understanding of the Indian diaspora and its ways of looking, feeling and suffering.

This seems incredibly, incredibly right to me, but I’ll bet many will find it more than a little offensive.

How can the LRB run pieces this good and others that are so bad? One of my best friends recently identified several factual howlers in this piece, and he was basically in sympathy with the author’s argument (if you can call it that). I guess inconsistency is the price you pay for a daring product.