Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul


Rating: (Recommended)




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In his latest novel, Magic Seeds, V.S. Naipaul reprises character Willie Chandran, whom he introduced in Half a Life. While reading the earlier book may add to an understanding and appreciation of Willie’s search for identity, Magic Seeds stands alone. By the end of Half a Life, Willie had moved from India to London and on to Africa where he married a Portugese woman and seemed to settle down. Magic Seeds picks up eighteen years later, and finds Willie living with his sister, Sarojini, in Berlin, six months after leaving his wife. Sarojini spurs Willie to return to India and join a revolutionary group of communist guerillas, which he does. After a stint in an Indian prison, Willie returns to England and picks up relationships from decades earlier, and continues to try to figure out who he is and what his place is in the world. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Five, “Deeper in the Forest,” pp. 98-106:


He got to his base—it had been his and Bhoj Narayan’s, his commander—late the next afternoon. It was a half-tribal or quarter-tribal village deep in the forest and so far not touched by police action; it was a place where he might truly rest, if such rest was possible for him now.

He arrived at what some people still called the hour of cow-dust, the hour when in the old days a cattle boy (hired for a few cents a day by the village) drove the village cattle home in a cloud of dust, and the golden light of early evening turned that sacred dust to soft, billowing gold. There were no cattle boys now; there were no landowners to hire them. The revolution­aries had put an end to that kind of feudal village life, though there were still people who needed to have their cattle looked after, and there were still little boys who pined to be hired for the long, idle day. But the golden light at this time of day was still considered special. It lit up the open forest all around, and for a few minutes made the white mud walls and the thatch of the vil­lage huts and the small scattered fields of mustard and peppers look well cared for and beautiful: like a village of an old fairy tale, restful and attractive to come upon, but then full of men­ace, with dwarves and giants and tall wild forest growth and men with axes and children being fattened in cages.

This village was for the time being under the control of the movement. It was one of a number of headquarters villages and was subject to something like a military occupation by the guer­rillas. They were noticeable in their thin olive uniforms and peaked caps with a red star: trousers-people, as the tribals respectfully called them, and with guns.

Willie had a room in a commandeered long hut. He had a traditional four-poster string bed, and he had learned like a villager to store small objects between the rafters (of trimmed tree branches) and the low thatch. The floor, of beaten earth, was bound and made smooth with a mixture of mud and cow-dung. He had got used to it. The hut for some months had become a kind of home. It was where he returned after his expe­ditions; and it was an important addition to the list he carried in his head of places he had slept in, and was able to count (as was his habit) when he felt he needed to get hold of the thread of his life. But now the hut had also become a place where, without Bhoj Narayan, he was horribly alone. He was glad to have got there, but then, almost immediately, he had become restless.

The rule of privacy, of not saying too much about oneself and not inquiring into people’s circumstances in the world out­side, which had been laid down during his first night in the camp in the teak forest, that rule still held.

He knew only about the man in the room next to his. This man was dark and fierce and with big eyes. When he was a child or in his teens he had been badly beaten up by the thugs of some big landlord, and ever since then he had been in revolutionary movements in the villages. The first of those movements, his­torically the most important, had faded away; the second had been crushed; and now, after some years of hiding, he was on his third. He was in his mid or late forties, and no other style of life was possible for him. He liked tramping through villages in his uniform, browbeating villagers, and talking of revolution; he liked living off the land, and this to some extent meant living off village people; he liked being important. He was completely uneducated, and he was a killer. He sang dreadful revolutionary songs whenever he could; they contained the sum of his political and historical wisdom.

He told Willie one day, “Some people have been in the movement for thirty years. Sometimes on a march you may meet one, though they are hard to find. They are skilled at hid­ing. But sometimes they like to come out and talk to people like us and boast.”

Willie thought, “Like you.”

And repeatedly during the evening of his return, hearing the man next door singing his revolutionary songs again and again (the way some boys at Willie’s mission school used to sing hymns), Willie thought, “Perhaps some feeling of purpose will come back to me.

Once or twice during the night he got up and went outside. There were no outhouses; people just used the forest. There were no lights in the village. There was no moon. He was aware of the sentries with guns. He gave the password, and then a lit­tle while later he had to give it again, so that as he walked he felt the strange word “comrade” echoing about him, as question and reassurance. The forest was black, and full of sound: sudden wing-beating, amid cries of alarm and pain from birds and other creatures, calling for help that wouldn’t come.

Willie thought, “The most comforting thing about life is the certainty of death. There is no way now for me to pick my way back to the upper air. Where was the upper air? Berlin? Africa? Perhaps there is no upper air. Perhaps that idea has always been a mirage.”

In the morning someone knocked on the door of Willie’s room and came in before Willie answered. The man who came in carried an AK-47. He was as pale as Einstein, but much smaller, about five feet. He was very thin, with a skeletal but handsome face and bony, nervous hands. Another six or seven inches would have given him an immense presence.

He said, “My name is Ramachandra. I am a unit commander. Your unit commander now. You are no longer a courier. We have received instructions that you are to be admitted into my unit. You have proved yourself. Today or tomorrow we will be having a section meeting to discuss the new situation. The meet­ing will be here or somewhere else. I don’t know as yet. You must hold yourself ready to start marching this evening.”

He had small, hard, mad eyes. He fingered his gun with his bony fingers all the time he spoke. And then, attempting another kind of style, he turned abruptly and walked out of the room.

Like Einstein, Ramachandra was a man of an upper caste, perhaps the highest. Such people were having a hard time in the world outside; populist governments had set up all kinds of barriers against them since independence; many of them, fear­ing slow impoverishment at home, were now migrating to the United States, Australia, Canada, England. Ramachandra and Einstein were doing something else. Within the movement, they were embracing their persecutors. Willie, with his mixed back­ground—his upper-caste father, placid, inactive, with a strain of asceticism, always expecting things to work out; his more fiery mother, many stages down, wishing to seize the world—Willie understood these men very well.

He thought, “I thought I had left all of this behind. But now it’s all here, just as it was, leaping out at me. I have been around the world, but still it’s here.”



There was no night march through the forest for Willie, to his great relief. The section meeting was held in the village where he was. They assembled all the next day, arriving not in various disguises, as they did in the town, but in uniform; and in a great show of fellowship they ate the simple village food, peppery lentils and flat bread made of millet.

Einstein came. Willie had been fearing to meet him again, but now, after Ramachandra, Willie was ready to forgive the malevolence in his eyes and even ready to think that Einstein had softened.

There also came the leader of the camp in the teak forest, who all that time before had sent Willie with Bhoj Narayan to the street of the tanners. He was smooth and civil, even seduc­tive, with wonderful manners, speaking softly and yet careful in his intonations, like an actor. Willie had mentally put him in a grey double-breasted suit and made him a university teacher or a civil servant in the world outside. Wondering what had driven a man apparently so complete to the guerrillas and their hard life in the bush, Willie, following some kind of instinct, had seen him as a man tormented by the infidelities of his wife. Willie had later thought: “I wasn’t making it up. I saw that because for some reason he wanted me to see it. It was the message he was transmitting to me.” Now, meeting the man again after two years, still seeing the far-off pain in his eyes, Willie thought, adhering half in a joke to his first assessment, “Poor fellow. With that awful wife.” And treated him like that right through.

The meeting was in Ramachandra’s hut. It began at about ten; that was the usual time for these section meetings. There was a pressure lamp. In the beginning it roared and was daz­zling; then it settled down to a hum, and became duller and duller. Brown jute sacking had been spread on the earth floor, and over the sacking there were cotton sheets and blankets, with pillows and bolsters.

The civil man, the leader at the camp in the teak forest, gave the news. It was very bad. Much more had been lost than the men in the railway colony. They were only part of one squad, and three full squads had been wiped out by the police. All the weapons that had been assembled piece by piece over a year had been lost. That was a loss of many hundreds of thousands of rupees, and there had been nothing to show for it.

The leader said, “In a war losses have to be digested. But these losses are exceptional, and we have to rethink our strategy. We have to give up our plan to take the war to the small towns at the fringe of our liberated areas. It was perhaps too ambitious at this stage. Though it should be said that in war ambition some­times pays off. We will, of course, start up again in those places, or places like them. But that’s in the future.”

Einstein said, “The poison of Kandapalli’s teaching is respon­sible for what has happened. The idea of organising the people through the people sounds pretty, and people abroad will applaud it. But we who know the reality know that the peasants have to be disciplined before they can become foot soldiers of the revo­lution. You have to rough them up a little bit.”

A dark man said, “How can you talk like this when you your­self are of a peasant family?”

Einstein said, “That’s why I talk as I do. I never hide what I come from. There is no beauty in the peasant. That is Kanda­palli’s teaching. He is a man of a high caste, though he sup­presses his caste suffix. He is wrong because this movement is not a movement of love. No revolution can be a movement of love. If you ask me, I will tell you that the peasants ought to be kept in pens.”

Somebody else said, “How can you talk in this cruel way when people like Shivdas serve the movement so loyally?”

Einstein said, “Shivdas is loyal because he needs us. He wants people in the village to see how close we are to him. He uses our friendship to terrorise the villagers. Shivdas is very black and very thin and he gives us his bedroom and he talks revolution and land redistribution. But he is a crook and a thug. The big landowners and the old feudal officials have run away. There is no policeman or surveyor in his village, and every year Shivdas reaps many acres of other people’s crops and ploughs many acres of other people’s land, If people didn’t think we were with him they would have killed him long ago. The day Shivdas thinks it will serve him better he will betray us to the police. The revolutionary has at all times to be clear-sighted, and to understand the poor human material he might have the misfortune to work with. If Commander Bhoj Narayan hadn’t been led astray by our African friend we wouldn’t have had the calamity we have come here to discuss.”

People looked at Willie. Ramachandra’s eyes were hard.

The man acting as chairman, the leader of the camp in the teak forest, and clearly now the section leader, said to Willie, “I think you should have the opportunity to say some­thing.”

Willie said, “The commander is right. I feel responsible. I feel especially responsible for what happened to Bhoj Narayan. He was my friend. I wish to say that too.”

Einstein looked appeased. And there was a general relaxation in the meeting. Self-criticism was part of these meetings. When it came quickly it had a good effect: it bonded people together.

The leader said, “Chandran has spoken generously. I think he should be commended for that.”

Gradually, then, through many interruptions, through in­quiries about the loss of the squads and the arms, and the arrest of Bhoj Narayan, and through long discussions about the nature of the peasantry as compared with the nature of the urban pro­letariat (a favourite topic), the leader came to the new strategy that the movement had decided on.

The section leader said, “We will give up taking the war to the small towns, as I said. Instead, we will push deeper into the forest. Each section will take over a hundred and fifty villages. We will administer these villages, and we will announce that we have expanded the liberated areas. This will help with the loss of morale. It will not be easy. It will be hard, but it is the way ahead.”

The meeting ended after three hours. Long before then they had said what they wanted to say. They began to repeat things. They began to say “Personally I feel” or “I very much feel,” to add passion to what they had said before; it was a sign they were flagging. The pressure lamp itself gradually dimmed; and then could not be pumped higher.

Afterwards—the pressure lamp fading fast to its limp brown mantle, the meeting breaking up, some people hanging around for a few last words, but standing now (in bare feet or olive socks) on the sheets and sacking and amid the pillows and bol­sters where they had been sitting, others recovering their boots from the many boots at the doorway, and then picking their way with flashlights to their huts, the flashlights making the forest bigger and the surrounding night blacker—afterwards Einstein came to Willie just before he left the hut and said in a neutral voice, “The weaver-caste man went to the police, didn’t he?”

Willie said, “It looks like it.”

 “He paid the price. So I suppose the police will get Bhoj Narayan under Section 302. Did people see?”

Willie said, “The brother.”

Einstein’s eyes became far away. A second or two later he blinked, gave a little nod as if acknowledging something, and pressed his lips: a man filing away information.

Willie thought, “I hope I haven’t made another mistake.”



While Naipaul’s politics can be distracting for some readers, Magic Seeds can be appreciated for the fine prose, and the consistent motif of looking for one’s place in the world.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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