A Bend In the River
by V. S. Naipaul

an excerpt

from chapter 9: Indar’s revelation to Salim

“I awakened to where I was.  I was walking on the Embankment, beside the river, walking without seeing.  On the Embankment wall there are green metal lamp standards.  I had been examining the dolphins on the standards, dolphin by dolphin, standard by standard.  I was far from where I had started, and I had momentarily left the dolphins to examine the metal supports of the pavement benches.  These supports, as I saw with amazement, were in the shape of camels.  Camels and their sacks!  Strange city: the romance of India in that building. And the romance of the desert here.  I stopped, stepped back mentally, as it were, and all at once saw the beauty in which I had been walking -- the beauty of the river and the sky, the soft colours of the clouds, the beauty of light on water, the beauty of the buildings, the care with which it had all been arranged.

“In Africa, on the coast, I had paid attention only to one colour in nature - the colour of the sea.  Everything else was just bush, green and living. Or brown and dead.  In England so far I had walked with my eyes at shop level; I had seen nothing.  A town, even London, was just a series of streets or street names, and a street was a row of shops.  Now I saw differently.  And I understood that London wasn’t simply a place that was there, as people say of mountains, but that it had been made by men, that men had given attention to details as minute as those camels.

“I began to understand at the same time that my anguish about being a man adrift was false, that for me that dream of home and security was nothing more than a dream of isolation, anachronistic and stupid and very feeble.  I belonged to myself alone.  I was going to surrender my manhood to nobody.  For someone like me there was only one civilization and one place -- London, or a place like it.  Every other kind of life was make-believe.  Home -- what for?  To hide?  To bow to our great men?  For people in our situation, people led into slavery, that is the biggest trap of all.  We have nothing.  We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves. ‘Here take my manhood and invest it for me.  Take my manhood and be a greater man yourself, for my sake!’  No!  I want to be a man myself.

“At certain times in some civilizations great leaders can bring out the manhood in the people they lead.  It is different with slaves.  Don’t blame the leaders.  It is just part of the dreadfulness of the situation.  It is better to withdraw from the whole business, if you can.  And I could.  You may say -- and I know, Salim, that you have thought it -- that I have turned my back on my community and sold out.  I day: ‘Sold out to what and from what? What do you have to offer me? What is your own contribution?  And can you give me back my manhood?’ Anyway, that was what I decided that morning, beside the river of London, between the dolphins and the camels, the work of some dead artist who had been adding to the beauty of their city.

“That was five years ago.  I often wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t made that decision.  I suppose I would have sunk.  I suppose I would have found some kind of hole and tried to hide or pass.  After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.  I would have hidden in my hole and been crippled by my sentimentality, doing what I doing, and doing it well, but always looking for the wailing wall.  And I would never have seen the world as the rich place that it is.  You wouldn’t have seen me here in Africa , doing what I do.  I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, and no one would have wanted me to do it.  I would have said: ‘It’s all over for me, so why should I let myself be used by anybody? The Americans want to win the world.  It’s their fight, not mine.’ And that would have been stupid.  It is stupid to talk of the Americans.  They are not a tribe, as you might think from the outside.  They’re all individuals fighting to make their way, trying as hard as you or me not to sink.

“It wasn’t easy after I left the university.  I still had to get a job, and the only thing I knew now was what I didn’t want to do.  I didn’t want to exchange one prison for another.  People like me have to make their own jobs.  It isn’t something that’s going to come to you in a brown envelope. The job is there, waiting.  But it doesn’t exist for you or anyone else until you discover it, and you discover it because it’s for you and you alone.”

A Bend in the River
by V. S. Naipaul
Vintage International

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