The Book of the Week is “India, A Million Mutinies Now” by V.S. Naipaul, published in 1990. While visiting India a few times, in 1962, in the 1970’s, and the late 1980’s, the author interviewed several Indians from a range of castes, and reminisced with them about how cultural mores changed through the decades. The author provided a bit of historical backdrop with each vignette.
The author was born in 1932 in Trinidad, to which his ancestors migrated from India. They were peasant farmers. The Indian diaspora (prompted by political, religious and economic turmoil) spawned new Indian communities. Through the decades after the 1947 establishment of India’s partition with Pakistan, the culture of the people who left India diverged with Indians who stayed. The former were subject to the culture of their adopted countries. They moved to, in addition to Trinidad– Fiji, South Africa and England in large numbers.
The author interviewed someone who practiced the (extremely non-violent) Jain religion. By the 1960’s, a devout believer such as the latter could no longer work in the construction industry in India, as organized crime had forced him out. He could, however, make a living in the securities industry.
Over the course of half a century starting in the 1930’s, the Untouchables caste (or the Dalits, as they were renamed) had been slowly achieving upward mobility, helped by the inspirational leader, Dr. Ambedkar, who died in 1956. By the 1980’s, they had allied with the Muslims, other victims of discrimination. Speaking of oppressed groups, “The sexual harassment of women in public places, often sly, sometimes quite open, was a problem all over India.”
On his last visit, the author commented on the horrible air pollution in Bombay. Local residents breathed brown-black smoke emanating from motor vehicles fueled partly by kerosene. He also remarked on the Indian mentality, that natives were willing to make the sacrifice of living in the most disgusting, cramped conditions imaginable, thereby saving money on housing, in order to get started making money; then move to a better place later, when their financial situation improved. One indication of this was a humungous shantytown just outside Bombay, where a range of different groups (from the political to the swindling) were just beginning their struggles in the capitalist vein.
The author described conditions back and forth in time, including the atrocious religious, ethnic and skin-color conflicts between and among all different Indians.
In the 1930’s, India practiced segregation in public facilities between Brahmins and other castes similar to the way Americans did between its light-skinned people and those of other phenotypes. Beginning in 1937 in the Indian state of Tamil-Nadu, there was the Hindi-language war in education similar to the mid-1990’s ebonics controversy in Oakland, California (except that the former forced the schools to use Hindi only). The year 1967 saw Brahmins (the top caste) in the southern part of the country violently expressing their hatred for the non-Brahmins in the north. The Dravidians were fighting the Aryans.
On another topic, in India it was commonplace for a bride’s family to incur excessive debt due to various customs, including paying for: all of the venue and food-related expenses of wedding guests comprising the family’s entire community, two days’ worth of traditions, rituals, and a dowry that in modern times involved expensive toys such as motor scooters or electronics, clothes, jewelry, cookware, housewares, bedding; plus ceremonies and festivals throughout the year. A family of sons paid only for their education.
Just to push the point on how universal some of India’s problems are that prompt political upheaval: “Where there isn’t a sense of history, myth can begin in that region which is just beyond the memory of our fathers or grandfathers, just beyond living witness.”
Read the book to learn much more about India’s political, economic, cultural and social problems, as seen through the eyes of all different Indian castes, ethnic groups and religions (such as Jains, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs) in different decades (1930’s through the 1980’s) in different Indian regions, including Bombay, Calcutta and Lucknow.