Currently reading V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India, a travelogue of the author’s first trip to India. Even though I have only read the prelude and first chapter, it is a book that is strongly resonating with me: trying to connect with a country that, for a long time, existed only in my imagination.
For any traveler, first impressions are important. In the prelude, Naipaul reounts his maddening ordeal trying to reclaim two bottles of spirits that were confiscated by custom officers on his arrival in Bombay. Naipaul was sent on a wild goose chase through the serpentine Indian bureaucracy: having to obtain this permit and that permit, to talk to this fellow or to that fellow, never getting a straight answer. And he never reclaimed his bottles. Naturally, for Naipaul, it left a bad impression.
As a young child and teenager, I remember the trips I took to India with my family vividly, if not always fondly. Our arrival coincided with my first impressions of India: the stifling humidity, the ramshackle terminal building, surly immigration officers, greedy custom officers; the usual malaise and apathy that afflict third-world, socialist dysfunctions like India. The custom officers, especially, took perverse pleasure in torturing fellow Indians, fleecing them for bribes, threatening them if they did not pay them.
This whole experience tainted my later observations of India, and I think it tainted Naipaul as well.