17 June 2004

Naipaul on Sacred Places

My first eighteen years were spent two oceans away, on the other side of the globe, in the New World, on an island in the mouth of one of the great South American rivers. The island had no sacred places; and it was nearly forty years after I had left the island that I identified the lack.

I began to feel when I was quite young that there was an incompleteness, an emptiness, about the place, and that the real world existed somewhere else. I used to feel that the climate had burnt away history and possibility. This feeling rnight have had to do with the smallness of the island, which we all used to say was only a dot on the map of the world. It rnight have had to do with the general poverty and the breakdown of the extended family system that had come with us from India. It might have had to do with the wretched condition of India itself; and with the knowledge at the same time that we who were Indian were an immigrant people whose past stopped quite abruptly with a father or grandfather.

Later, years after I had left--knowledge of things never corning all at once, but in layers--I thought that the place was unhallowed because it hadn't been written about. And later still I thought that the agricultural colony, in effect a plantation, honored neither land nor people. But it was much later, in India, in Bombay, in a crowded industrial area--which was yet full of unexpected holy spots, a rock, a tree--that I understood that, whatever the similarities of climate and vegetation and formal belief and poverty and crowd, the people who lived so intimately with the idea of the sacredness of their earth were different from us.

There would have been sacred places on the island, and in all the other islands to the north. On the tiny island of St. Kitts, for example, there were--hidden by sugarcane fields--rocks with crude pre-Columbian carvings. But the aboriginal people who knew about the sacred places had been destroyed on our island, and instead of them there were--in the plantation colony--people like us, whose sacred places were in other continents.

Too late, then, I remembered with a pang a story I had heard about when I was a child, and later read another version of (in Charles Kingsley's At Last, 1871). Every now and then, according to this story, groups of aboriginal Indians in canoes came across the gulf from the continent (where remnants of the tribes still existed), walked to certain places in the woods in the southern hills, performed certain rites or made offerings, and then, with certain fruit they had gathered, went back home across the gulf. This was all that I heard. I wasn't of an age to want to ask more or to find out more; and the unfinished, unexplained story now is like something in a dream, an elusive echo from another kind of consciousness.

Perhaps it is this absence of the sense of sacredness--which is more than the idea of the "environment"--that is the curse of the New World, and is the curse especially of Argentina and ravaged places like Brazil. And perhaps it is this sense of sacredness--rather than history and the past--that we of the New World travel to the Old to rediscover.

So it is strange to someone of my background that in the converted Muslim countries--lran, Pakistan, Indonesia--the fundamentalist rage is against the past, against history, and the impossible dream is of the true faith growing out of a spiritual vacancy.
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 51-52

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