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“One Out of Many” by V.S. Naipaul Essay

Read “One Out of Many” by V.S. Naipaul (in the Anthology, A World of Difference, pp. 261-94). Discuss the ways in which the author explores the concept of freedom in the story.

“One Out of Many”, a short story by the famous Trinidad-born British writer V. S. Naipaul, first published in his anthology In a Free State in 1973, is a story which concerns a young Indian man from Bombay who starts a new life and struggles with his own personal identity in the city of Washington D.C. Through narrative structure within the short story Naipaul seems to question the meaning of freedom, and what constitutes freedom on both a societal, and personal level.

In order to fully explore the theme of freedom within the plot and the narrative of “One Out of Many”, it is worthwhile to mention a few of its key elements, and how they fit into a wider political, and social context. There are a number of important events that happen to the main protagonist, Santosh, that help to shape his own sense of self identity and thus bring him to question the freedom which he has in his own life. The first of these events is Santosh’s emigration to Washington D.C. with his employer, which causes Santosh to leave his wife and two children behind. Even at this early point in the story Santosh is divided.

“Was there a job for me in Bombay?” Santosh questions himself, showing a reluctance to stay on in his native city without the security that has been provided for him by his vocation and his employer. Sometime into his stay in Washington D.C., Santosh seems to gain a greater sense of self-identity (which will be looked at in more depth later), and a sexual encounter with a “hubshi” woman at the time of the race riots in Washington D.C. leads him to abandon the life he has with his employer and to become a more independent citizen.

This leads our protagonist on to what could be seen as one of his most important realisations in terms of his own sense of personal freedom within a wider context. Having met an Indian restaurant owner named Priya, Santosh discovers that a lot of his fellow employees within the restaurant are indeed Mexicans who wear turbans in order to give a façade of being Indian men. “Their talk amid the biryanis and the pillaus was all of papers and green cards,” notes Santosh, “They were always about to get green cards or they had been cheated out of green cards or they had just got green cards”. It is this talk of legal and illegal citizenship that leads Santosh to question his own freedom within US society, and eventually make a very important decision that will bring him a certain amount of freedom. Naipaul uses first person narrative effectively in order to bring the reader closer to the main protagonist, Santosh. Through this first person narrative the reader gains an insight into Santosh’s naivety within his new surroundings in Washington D.C., and his initial experiences within it.

At times, therefore, it could be said that it is necessary for Naipaul to portray Santosh as a rather simplistic character in order to show just how little Santosh knows of the USA and the cultural differences between it and his native Bombay. Naipaul manages to achieve a much more, it could be said, “personal” experience for the reader through these means, with the reader also also being able to feel the same “fish out of water” feeling that is portrayed throughout Santosh’s travels and the “adventure” which unravels before him. Naipaul really emphasises the theme of freedom when Santosh seems to speak directly to the reader, and this is no more evident than when Santosh, upon realising his living space is a cupboard, says, “I understood I was a prisoner. I accepted this and adjusted … I was even calm”.

He is a prisoner not just of circumstance, but of his place on the class ladder. Later, upon leaving the confines of the cupboard and going on his “adventure”, he pursues what some would call the “American Dream”, and it is effective how Naipaul seems to allow the reader to question themselves with regards to just how “free” Santosh becomes. Another example of this effective use of first person narrative is when Santosh describes his guilt and desire for repentance directly after what he sees as a shameful sexual encounter with a “hubshi” woman. Incidentally, this is a key event in Santosh’s eventual pursuit of freedom.

Throughout the story Santosh seems to gain a greater sense of identity, and a stronger perception himself. On his flight to Washington D.C. Santosh, thrust into an environment which is entirely alien to any aspect of his life in Bombay (which is described thoroughly and affectionately at the beginning of the story), Santosh immediately begins to note the reactions that people have to him. He especially notices an “airline girl”, and notes that “[she] didn’t like me at all”. The girl then proceeds to ignore Santosh, and this first cultural encounter with Western people who look down upon his somewhat shabby appearance teaches him to question the way he comes across to others. This is reflected throughout the story in Santosh’s various mentions of mirrors, and his own reflection within them.

It is later on when Santosh has his first walk through the streets of Washington D.C. that he himself finds himself looking down on other people – the “hubshi” people, or African Americans, whom he has never encountered in his own life until then. Even though Santosh himself has been looked down upon by many people on his journey west, for example the aforementioned girl on the plane, he still percieves the “hubshi” people to be below him, an opinion which was held very widely at the time the short story is set. Meanwhile, Santosh seems to constantly fight an internal battle between his old spiritual identity, and the more materialistic, consumerist American way of life. By writing in the first person, the author really outs this point across as the reader is given a deep insight into the inner turmoil that Santosh experiences as a result of his own culture shock. A key incident in the short story which makes Santosh think about the differences in these two cultures is when a wealthy man comes to dinner, and seems to insult his employer by describing an incident in which he paid a servant to cut off a statue’s head within a temple in India.

Santosh’s disagreement with this sacreligious, “illegal” act is heightened by the reader’s existing knowledge of Santosh’s own spirituality, which is derived from a previous incident in which Santosh described praying to ornamental Eastern statues which have been erected in his employer’s apartment. From a political point of view, it could be said that it is somewhat crucial that Santosh arrives in Washington D.C. during the civil rights movement in the US, shortly before the race riots of the 1960’s, which occur sometime into the story, with Santosh describing “the city on fire”. Even though Santosh is looked down upon by many people he encounters on his journey west, for example the air hostess on the plane there, he still percieves the “hubshi” people he finds in Washington D.C. as below him. This is highlighted by many of Santosh’s statements throughout the short story, and indeed when he questions if his punishment for having sex with the hubshi maid may be being reincarnated as a “hubshi” himself. It could be argued that the character Santosh’s lack of freedom in his own life is shown by Naipaul by the number of things that happen to him in his life that are out of his control.

However, this seems to be altered towards the end of the story with Santosh’s final decision to marry the hubshi woman who has sought him out in order to gain legal US citizenship. This piece of advice is ultimately suggested to Santosh by Priya, who has seen Santosh living with anxiety in the knowledge that he is an illegal immigrant and could be deported. On a purely societal level therefore, Santosh has gained a superficial form of freedom through his marriage to the hubshi maid. The power that the short story has, as a medium, to convey many ideas and concepts within a relatively short narrative space is, it could be said, proven by the many concepts and themes that V.S. Naipaul explores within the story. All of these themes seem to relate back to the concept of freedom. In the first few paragraphs of the story alone, Santosh brings up many of the ideas that are explored throughout his change of setting and his struggles brought on by it. He describes the “respectable people” as opposed to “riff raff”, and then, while observing “the workings of fate”, mentions “the importance of his employer”. This could be seen as a metaphor for the question that the whole story centres around, and that is, how much freedom does the character Santosh have, and how much of his life is ultimately in his own control?


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