Friday, March 19, 2004

Dear Mr Dalrymple

Though I share your disapprobation for the xenophobia of Hindu fundamentalism, I find that your review in the March 20 edition of the Guardian, "Trapped in the ruins," smacks of an apologia for imperialism.

Take, for example, the following passage:

[T]he Hindu kings of Vijayanagar appeared in public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India, but dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume - the Islamic inspired kabayi, a long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba, symbolic, according to [respected American Sanskrit scholar Philip B] Wagoner, of "their participation in the more universal culture of Islam".
Replacing the kabayi with a three piece suit and Islam with the West brings the obscured cultural imperialism into sharp relief.

Naipaul exhibits an oversensitivity to the negative aspects of imperialism and dismissiveness of its positive consequences. He is far from alone in this. The history of Islamic violence in India is important because it is not so easily dismissed by postcolonial theory. Quite the contrary, it raises the issue of the postcolonialist critique as applied to the Islamic world as conqueror rather than conquered. Outside of Naipaul, there is little awareness or acknowledgement in the West of Islamic imperialism because of what Neeladri Bhattacharya describes in your article as "political and community sentiments of the present [defining] how the past has to be represented." Out of one side of their mouths, apologists for Islamic fundamentalism deny the role of violence in the spread of their religion; out of the other, they celebrate the present day continuation of that violence. In the current climate, after the World Trade Center, the Indian Parliament, Bali and Madrid, Naipaul's take on medieval Indian history provides a necessary and long overdue corrective.

You criticize Naipaul for ignoring the ecumenism of Akbar the Great and Dara Shukoh while yourself ignoring the atrocities of Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb. Your accounts of Hindu-Muslim interactions whitewash the dynamics of power, domination and hegemony that would have colored them.

The goal of your review seems to be the correction of Naipaul's distortions in much the same way that I see Naipaul correcting the distortions of Islamic fundamentalists. Any impressions of partiality would be dispelled were you to subject, say, Edward Said to the same treatment.


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