Seeds that donít sprout
Rajnish Wattas

Magic Seeds
by V. S. Naipaul. Picador. Pages 294. Rs 495.

"It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world.

Thatís where the mischief starts. Thatís where everything starts unravelling."

ó V. S. Naipaul

Magic SeedsNaipaulís magic with elegant prose never fails, but his Ď"seeds" of social revolutions can falter. This time, he wields the wand to confront the questions of individual identities and convulsions of half-made societies in realising the ideal. Magic Seeds is a continuum of his constant engagement with the lives of the dispossessed and the unmade worlds they inhabit.

Naipaulís last book, Half-a-Life, was his acclaimed comeback work of fictionójust when he had grandly declared its "demise" as a genre of literature, but the Nobel laureate now seems to be smitten with it as a "latter-day passion".

Even if Naipaul denies, this is a sequel to Half-a-Life. Not because the story continues with the protagonist of the previous book, Willie Chandran, but for the common thread in both books: unmade lives, unmade societies and unfinished stories of life. Thatís where the genius of Naipaul lies. His relentless passion to understand the forces of societal changes and the sensibility to get under the skin of human lives; individuals fighting their inner wars in pursuit of the ideal world.

Magic Seeds revolves around Willie Chandran, first introduced in Half-a-Life as a prisoner of the destinies thrust upon him. Now, in his early 40s, after a wandering life of failures, he falls into the pressures of his aggressive, left-wing revolutionary sister, Sarojini, based in Berlin, and joins an underground movement in India aimed at liberating the lower castes. However, after seven years of revolutionary campaigns, Willieís despair and disillusionment with the failed revolution is telling: "They seem to carry a distillation of the countryís unhappiness ... you canít take a gun and kill that unhappiness. All you can do is to kill people."

Later, in a dramatic and somewhat contrived twist, Willie escapes to London, from where his rootless wanderings initially began. There also, he finds another unexpected social revolution turning into failure: like the unfolding of a permanent DNA encoded in his destiny.

This is Naipaulís first fictional work set in India, a kind of symbolic homecoming, and happily so, after his searing and scathing Areas of Darkness like works. He catches the subtle nuances of the people and landscapes with exquisite prose. Willieís journey in a rickety passenger train through hinterlands is described as, "At every halt, there was commotion and racket and pushing and shoving and grating voices raised in complaint or protest or just raised for the formality of the thing. At every halt, there was dust and the smell of old tobacco and old cloth and old sweat."

Naipaulís descriptions of the forest landscape have a poetic beauty: "With the relief of dawn, there had also come the amazing cry of a far-off peacock, the cry a peacock makes in the early morning after it has had its first drink of water at some forest pool `85"

A surprise insertion in the book is fulsome praise for Gandhiís autobiography conveyed through the words of Sarojini: "A remarkable book `85 very simple, very fast, very honest `85 It would be a modern Indian epic if people read it. But people donít. They feel theyíd known it all. They donít have to find out. Itís the Indian way."

In London, too, another kind of failed social revolution that is going on is symbolised by the failed lives of the characters he meets there, including Roger, a dubious lawyer who helped in his escape from the prison in India.

The novel reaches the climax in a raucous wedding scene where the loud, absurd music played by the band is a telltale sign of the false success of the event and its organiser. There is not much difference between the worlds. Willie has escaped from and the one he has stepped into.

Magic Seeds is written in a racy pace, sustaining your interest in spite of the fact that the main protagonist is a nowhere man, a floater, a failure at every endeavour: a colourless, boring person. There are a few other characters also to hold parallel interest. Itís a lean, minimalist, but packed story. However, itís the story of most of us: goalless lives, failed ambitions, and there are no magic seeds that produce fabled beanstalks on which one can climb up to in life.