Naipaul's "Beyond Belief"--a Complete Reading Experience
Naipaul’s book is a travelogue, not an ordinary specimen of the genre but a profoundly crafted literature. The section I recently finished reading for the second time gave me a kind of mixed feeling: a proud feeling in discovering the branches of the Indian past beyond the seas and a feeling of historical degeneration and nostalgia. Indonesia used to be a place for Hindus and Buddhists and the relics of the past are still there despite the conscious effort of the followers of the “revealed” religion to cleanse the face of the earth according to their tenets. Adat must go to uphold sharia and kitab. In the words of Mr Naipaul:
“The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only to one people—the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet—a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted peoples. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at), Islam, submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.”
The first chapter starts with the description of a success of Indonesian aeronautics—the building and test flying of N-250 on the seventeenth day of August in the year 1997. How the whole thing is touted as the harbinger of industrial revolution in Indonesia, the technological self-reliance and so on and so forth—Naipaul gives his tongue-in-cheek narrations. It was told, but along the irony way. “Islam is ennobled by the success of N-250”, “It wasn’t absolutely certain how the designing and building of aeroplanes with imported components could lead to a general technological and scientific breakthrough…”, “Imaddudin gave un-Islamic and modern-sounding names to his Islamic ventures”—these and many more instances of ironical references to the half-hearted technological ventures make the chapter an interesting reading.
Through and through, the remarkable undertone in this chapter is one of irony. One could discern that, almost without effort. If Naipaul has to narrate about an intelligent character, he would say the admirers of that personality believe that he is a prodigy. While giving a reason why a Muslim does not embrace socialism easily, he says that the particular religion teaches all the good things for which Socialism is known and hence socialism is not necessary for a Muslim! ‘Praying in office is like virtues on display, like office trophies or diploma,’ that is what Naipul has to quip about the provision of prayer paraphernalia at the modern workplaces. “Accelerated evolution” is the alternative of “revolution”, “In crowded yards at night I saw boys sitting in the darkness and before open books and pretending to read”—there are many such expressions that convey much deeper meaning in the context than the words are ordinarily capable of doing that. Even when an Oklahoman gets converted to Islam, Naipaul makes a subtle point that the fellow does that not for any specific attraction for the faith but for making him qualified for marrying a Muslim girl. The Oklahoman retains his sense of difference: he is a westerner, not an Indonesian, even after his conversion.
Then Naipaul goes deeper to show how exactly the Indonesian society has a cultural pluralism. He takes an example of an educated lady coming of a tribe of the uplands in West Sumatra. She is educated, well-placed, and religious; yet she has not gone away from her tribal system of beliefs. She is a proud member of her matrilineal clan that had made the first clearing of the forest in the ancient past and had entered into a special agreement with the spirits of the jungle. Even to this day the spirits are to be propitiated by offering meat during family festivities. Her tribe still possesses the unique ability of calling rain and it is because of this specialty, they have to take additional precautions at the time of organizing a function at their premises.
Naipaul, in his bid to emphasise such pluralism in the converted society, goes to a catholic. His name is Linus and he is a poet who is presently undergoing the pangs of poverty but has not gone away from his Indonesian root, for it gives him inspiration to write, like the poverty he is enduring inspires him to go creative. He is a frequent visitor to Gamelon, the shadow play on the Ramayana themes; he has not left the idyllic village setting amidst rice fields and thickets of evergreen surroundings; he takes care of his mentally differently abled sister with a quiet grace; he collects daggers with mystic significance abut them—and he is the beneficiary of a strange psychic phenomenon: Buddha’s spirit comes to write words of wisdom on the palm of his friend which his other woman friend can read!
Then Naipaul goes to trace the impact of modern business and technology on people who have made up to it. He has taken examples of the publishers of two women magazines and a software professional. They are the religious fellows in their way, but it is not the religion alone which is the focus of their attention. Business is about making money—whether going emotional or controversial on the pages of the women’s magazines to attract readers or co-operating with an influential man to push software projects, it is money that is at the back of all their efforts. A software entrepreneur is without friend, a lot delayed in finding a match for him, believes in ghost and still prays five times a day. The ambivalence has been so well portrayed that the readers are left free to make their interpretations whether the fellow is really religious in the Muslim sense of the term! Similarly, the women’s magazines do not think it anything irreligious if they are to carry fashion features on their pages to portray a white-clad big sort going on pilgrimage.
It is really remarkable to depict such a variety of characters and settings and to go into them for digging so much a detail when what one is writing is just a travelogue. Naipaul does it with élan. Especially when he has to say something delicate leaving the tone of irony, he makes it clear. There could be no misunderstanding about that. The chapter “Below the Lava” is par excellence. Linus’s mentally disabled sister questions: “Why am I not married?” brings forth the element of pathos openly. Linus goes on to sale a portion of his land and it is shown as if he is selling it to help his neighbour. But the underlying poverty of a family of a struggling poet, handicapped girl, an old working mother says the meaning, loud and clear: the fellow is selling his asset to manage, to tide over his penury. Nothing is said so clearly, but it is amply understood in the context.
I’m yet to finish the book, yet whatever I’ve gone through so far is a complete feeling. In my schooldays we used to read a lot about the brave merchants of my state Orissa going to Java, Borneo and Sumatra for their maritime trade. This is taken to a glorious chapter of Orissan History. Similarly, the beloved leader of Orissa Mr Biju Pattanaik had once rescued the president of Indonesia in an act of daredevilry by flying a plane to the president’s place and rescuing him. This is only a present history. The legendary figure Mr Biju Pattanaik was awarded the highest award of that country “Bhumiputra”. So there is a background why this section of Mr Naipaul’s book should captivate me so much. Even before finishing the book I started writing about what I felt reading the first eight chapters out of it. It’s a sort of complete experience for me.
Labels: Book Review