From Living Instinctively to Living With History

4 Mar

Listening to my maternal grandparents narrate their experience of living with Muslims was confusing. According to them, Hindus and Muslims lived harmoniously. They also liked each other. Hindus and Muslims wouldn’t eat at each other’s houses or may use separate utensils but that had less to do with discrimination and more to do with accomodating each other’s faiths. Even in their recollections of the partition, I couldn’t detect bitterness. They narrated it as an adventure. But to many Hindus (and Muslims) today, it is hard to think of a time when Hindu-Muslim relations did not have a strong undercurrent of historic grievances and suspicion. Today many Hindus have a long litany of grievances, of repeat Muslim invasions, destruction of temples, and such.

Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies may have an answer to the puzzle.* People may go from a time when the “wider world is unknown” because they are “without the means of understanding this world” to a time when they have the means and the politics that comes with that greater capacity, from living instinctively to living with grievances.

“… The British forces the correspondent William Howard Russell had seen at the siege of Lucknow had been made up principally of Scottish Highlanders and Sikhs. Less than 10 years before, the Sikhs had been defeated by the sepoy army of the British. Now, during the Mutiny, the Sikhs – still living as instinctively as other Indians, still fighting the internal wars of India, with almost no idea of the foreign imperial order they were serving – were on the British side.”

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul

Here’s some color on the sepoy army:

“From Russell’s book I learned that the British name for the Indian sepoy, the soldier of the British East India Company who was now the mutineer, was ‘Pandy’. ‘Why Pandy? Well, because it is a very common name among the sepoys …’ It is in fact a brahmin name from this part of India. Brahmins here formed a substantial part of the Hindu population, and the British army in northern India was to some extent a brahmin army.

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul

“people who – Pandy or Sikh, porter or camp-following…Hindu merchant – run with high delight to aid the foreigner to overcome their brethren. That idea of ‘brethren’ – an idea so simple to Russell that the word is used by him with clear irony – is very far from the people to whom he applies it. …The Hindus would have no loyalty except to their clan; they would have no higher idea of human association, no general idea of the responsibility of man to his fellow. And because of that missing large idea of human association, the country works blindly on ….

the India that will come into being at the end of the period of British rule will be better educated, more creative and full of possibility than the India of a century before; that it will have a larger idea of human association, and that out of this larger idea, and out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there will come to India the ideas of country.”

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul


To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul

* The theory isn’t original to him. Others have pointed to how many Indians didn’t see themselves as part of a larger polity. The point also applies more broadly, to other groups.