blog | werkgroep caraïbische letteren

A Matter of Identity: Anil Ramdas and his autobiographical Novel Badal

by Kees Snoek

On 16 February, 2017, Anil Ramdas (1958-2012) was commemorated in Amsterdam, precisely five years after his suicide. This Surinam born author and media personality of Hindustan ancestry, had developed in the course of the years into a thought provoking intellectual, popular with the progressive elite of the time. The themes he cherished in the essays he wrote for the press and his work for Dutch television were migration and identity, the values of western civilisation and the need for civility. On his return to the Netherlands, in 2003, after a three year stay as a correspondent in India, he became aware that the general cultural atmosphere had changed and that tolerance for immigrants had diminished. It made him question his own role as a ‘non-western intellectual’.

In February 2011, Ramdas made his debut as a novelist, with Badal, a novel of ideas on an autobiographical basis. Most reviews of the novel only emphasised the autobiographical aspect, including Badal’s alcoholism: Badal had to be identical to Anil Ramdas. In this article, Badal is interpreted as a complex, multi-layered, a-chronological novel, which explores the same themes as Ramdas’ essays, using intertextual references to other novels and especially to songs and films. In the final analysis, it is a novel about the human condition, about loss and the demise of illusions.


On 16 February, 2017, the cultural centre ‘De Balie’ in Amsterdam was the scene of an evening programme in commemoration of Dutch writer and media personality Anil Ramdas, who precisely five years beforehand, on his 54th Birthday, had put an end to his life. The commemoration took the format of the interview programme Het blauwe licht (The blue light), which Ramdas, along with his friend Stephan Sanders (*1961), made for television between 1997 and 2000. On the basis of fragments of televised programmes, they would discuss the state of the world with two different guests. In Ramdas’ opinion, this interview programme was the high point of his television career, since it had allowed him to broach important themes dear to him, such as migration and identity, the values of western civilisation and the need for civility. In the unique restaging of this programme, Stephan Sanders and some other presenters discussed the state of the world with a number of guests who are known participants in the public political debate in the Netherlands.

The commemorative programme in De Balie was organised in cooperation with the Anil Ramdas Foundation, which months previously had opened a competition for an Anil Ramdas essay prize; 106 people answered the call to write an essay on the theme of identity and civility. The prize was awarded to Nurnaz Deniz (*1971) who wrote an essay under the title ‘Somewhere in Europe I lost my shoes’. Ramdas’ own writings, for the most part consisting of essays, received a lot of attention as well. His former publisher De Bezige Bij announced it would make all his books available online. To top the evening, Querido Publishers presented a collection of Ramdas’ articles and essays, edited by Kawita Ramdas (Anil Ramdas’ sister) and Pieter Hilhorst under the title: Ik had me de wereld anders voorgesteld (I had imagined the world differently). Some months earlier, on 27 October, 2016, Hilhorst had published an article in the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer on the topicality of Anil Ramdas, preceded by an incentive editorial statement: ‘Ramdas’ voice is sorely missed in the current political debate in the Netherlands’. The programme in De Balie was both an homage to Anil Ramdas and an attempt to draw attention to the human values he upheld throughout his life.

The life and career of Anil Ramdas (1958-2012): overview and an assessment

Anil Jaiprakash Sadaphal Ramdas, born in 1958, raised in the provincial backwaters of the Surinam region of Nickerie, was nineteen years old when he went to the Netherlands to study social geography. He came from a Hindustan family from the highest, Brahman caste; his parents belonged to the sparse Nickerie intelligentsia, his father was a teacher and his mother a radio programmer. When Anil Ramdas moved to the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo to attend high school over there, it was in a department store that, for the first time in his life, he saw an escalator. Even more surprises were in store for him. He became aware that his Hindustan background and his Brahman status were not met with due respect by his black fellow students. He was challenged, badgered and on occasion even beaten up, and he felt humiliated. Anil Ramdas refers to these and other autobiographical details in the essays he wrote since the nineteen nineties. For him, the personal was political. His view of the world evolved from personal experience, from the tension which existed between on the one hand his traditional cultural identity, and on the other hand his life as a migrant striving for progress, meeting with diverse, and also adverse, reactions. We may call this course of events destiny, a destiny first of all determined by the choices one makes in life, but partly also by circumstance and something like the Zeitgeist, the mentality of a particular period.

A recurring topic in Ramdas’ writings is the emotional consequence of life between two cultures, the migrant’s experience. His intimate friends claim that his life has been a combat against several demons in the triangle between the Netherlands, Surinam and India, the country of his forbears. Before Ramdas moved to the Netherlands, he had already been employed as a journalist by the Surinamese weekly Volkskrant (People’s Paper). He was an inquisitive young man, keenly aware of racial differences, desiring to explore the world and to expand his personality. As he wrote later, coloured people obtain freedom by migrating, and to accompany this statement he sometimes quoted the Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall (1932-2014), who claimed that he migrated to England in order to get away from his mother. The other side of migration is, as Ramdas put it, ‘the total cultural confusion which manifests itself in the transition from one culture to another’. In Ramdas’ case, the confusion was also caused by the transition from pre-modern society to modern society.

Much later, when he had become a recognised intellectual, he argued that his cultural identity shifted according to the way he was perceived in the different countries of that ominous triangle. His skin colour in combination with his behaviour gave him away: ‘Here [in the Netherlands] I am a coloured man, but not in Paramaribo. In Paramaribo I am a Hindustan, but not in India. In India I am a westerner, but not in the Netherlands.’ And he goes on to say that migrants are by definition hybrids, people with a discontinuous history and splintered memories. It is sometimes claimed that the migrant is the prime example of the post-modern identity characteristic of modern man, who is often seen as a nomad. Ramdas however, in keeping with Stuart Hall, rejects this post-modern identification. The migrant’s experience is different: the migrant is bound to continually translate one thing into another, he never feels quite at home, his is a double consciousness. This statement sums up Ramdas’ struggle, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Anil Ramdas was a very successful migrant, who strived for an academic career before he became a well-known media personality. He obtained, in 1986, his Master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam, cum laude, on a theoretical thesis about the ways in which people integrate dominant ideologies into their personal lives. The following step for the academic career he pursued was writing a PhD thesis. He picked a topic close to heart: he did research on how the life histories of refugees were construed by the police service whose task it was to interrogate asylum seekers. For this project about investigational procedures, he made use of materials of the Dutch Department of Justice. In 1987, he published a chapter of his PhD thesis in a report of Amnesty International. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against him, because he had violated confidentiality of the people involved: officers and the aliens in question. Ramdas gained some notoriety because of this lawsuit; he went on to win the case, but on appeal, the Department of Justice was given gain of cause: Ramdas was ordered to omit all personal names. Whereupon he decided to drop his PhD project, and to abandon the pursuit of an academic career.

In 1989, he became a journalist and editor for the progressive weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, and a few years later a regular contributor to the cultural supplement of the quality newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, which greatly increased his readership In 1992, he was invited to be interviewed in the television programme Zomergasten (Summer guests). The format of this programme is such that the ‘summer guest’ fills an entire evening (three hours) with his choice of fragments from films and documentaries; after each fragment he is interviewed about the motives for his choice, and eventually a psychological portrait of the interviewee should result from this vivid exchange between him and the interviewer. The connecting theme Ramdas chose for his evening was the question of migration and identity, while the materials he used (such as interviews with foreign sociologists) were largely unknown in the Netherlands. He became an instant celebrity: this erudite and eloquent immigrant with original opinions about migration, identity and the modern world, and he was given a cordial welcome by the then prominent Dutch progressive intelligentsia. As a sort of follow-up, he was given airtime for a television programme in which he interviewed international scholars about the clash between cultures. Among his guests were his master of thinking Stuart Hall, as well as the Indonesia specialist Benedict Anderson, Edward Said and a score of other foreign intellectuals. To many viewers, these debates were a refreshing eye-opener, while Ramdas’ intense, involved style of interviewing added to the intellectual adventure.

Anil Ramdas continued to write essays, give lectures and make television programmes until 2000, when he became a correspondent for NRC-Handelsblad in India, his ancestral country. He didn’t want to play the role of a regular correspondent who goes after events that catch the public eye. He developed a kind of oblique view, the view of a sociologist and anthropologist, who attempts to look beyond external events, into the souls of the people. Indians saw him as a western man, but he spoke Hindi, which allowed him to draw a more intimate picture of the people, moreover in areas rarely visited by western journalists. He spent three years in India, together with his wife – his childhood sweetheart, a Surinamese Hindustan like himself – and his two children. But as time passed, he drifted apart from them, perhaps because of the intensity that devoured him. He developed a drinking problem and withdrew more and more into his work and his writing. Alcohol and his study were the cocoon in which he thought he would thrive. Nevertheless, he wrote lucid essays about the value of ‘beschaving’: a civilised attitude in life, which he defined as ‘keeping down instinct’. The Indians taught him that ‘beschaving’ begins with ‘considering something as sacred which is external to your own self’. At the same time, he agreed with his other master of thinking, the writer V.S. Naipaul (*1932), that there was another, cruel and violent side to India. In his final analysis, he made the following statement: ‘self-criticism is a fundamental precondition for civilisation’, and he added to that: ‘the person who allows himself to be carried along by blind loyalties, is always double-hearted, untrustworthy and usually unforgivably boring.’ This sounds like a plea for a personality without prejudice, open to the world, sensitive to other cultures and willing to transgress borders. A few pages later, a psychological insight pops up, when Ramdas writes that, since the divorce of his parents, he had lost the feeling of being rooted.

In 2003, Ramdas was called back to the Netherlands. He became director of cultural centre De Balie in Amsterdam, but at the end of 2005 he was discharged because of his malfunctioning as a manager. By then, his drinking problem had worsened. Ramdas had returned to a country which, to his utter disgust, was in the grip of a populist reaction. He felt that the heyday of the leftist elite was over, and he felt ill at ease over the diminishing tolerance for immigrants. But he was in for yet another change when, in 2007, he became a correspondent in Paramaribo, for one year only. He went there without wife and children, who were to come over later for a visit. In the book he published afterwards about Paramaribo, De vrolijkste stad in de jungle (The merriest city in the jungle), he was very critical of the hierarchical Surinamese society, the impotence of the authorities to modernise their country, and their general lack of vision. His relative isolation in Paramaribo made him evaluate his own evolution since he had come to the Netherlands as a young man. In the beginning, he had done everything that removed him from his cultural roots, including eating beef: ‘Disavowal, spitting on your origin, self-criticism, all was allowed. […] I developed a plural identity, as it was solemnly expressed in the social sciences.’ However, he realised that, after all his peregrinations, there were certain values he took to heart, a distinct attitude that he describes as follows: ‘Dealing respectably with your fellow human beings, keeping your word if possible, possessing something like a conscience, remaining as closely as possible to the truth. Unfortunately, an attitude like that didn’t have a name, so therefore I just said I’m a Hindu.’. Ramdas’ book about Paramaribo contains some conclusive remarks about identity – ‘all those preferences which have shaped you’ – and about migration – ‘a right, albeit a painful right, with lots of suffering, displacement and discomfort. People don’t migrate because it’s so nice, but because they have no options left.’.

This last statement doesn’t truly sum up the case of Anil Ramdas himself, but it shows his sensitivity to the ordeal of people who, in a period of mass migration, are striving for an existence elsewhere: refugees, asylum seekers as well as more traditional migrants. Ramdas liked to quote Naipaul, who claimed that destination is more significant than origin, and he often referred to his first encounter with Naipaul, in his early years in Holland. Naipaul had asked him what he wanted to do in life. Ramdas replied that eventually he wanted to go back to Surinam to be useful there, whereupon Naipaul had turned around peevishly, saying: ‘Let him go back to his country and bang his drums.’

Badal. A novel: a novel of ideas on an autobiographical basis

Salman Rushdie once said: ‘A novel doesn’t exist until it is studied.’ When Badal came out in February 2011, most Dutch critics did not see the need to study this novel, as they were quick to comment that the book was just a thinly disguised autobiography. There is no denying that Badal is largely based on autobiographical details of Ramdas’ life and career, although presented in an a-chronological order. Discarding the novel as a mere autobiography, however, doesn’t do right to the complexity of the book. The kind of attention the novel received in the Dutch press is illustrative for the increased obsession with the details of personal life that the tabloid press usually chooses to wallow in. In a certain way, Ramdas himself had provoked such attention, as he evokes in the novel the demise of his alter ego Badal, with his tremendous alcohol addiction. When Anil Ramdas committed suicide, precisely on his 54th Birthday, 16 February, 2012, some critics were eager enough to claim that Badal had a predictive aspect, since at the end of the novel, as Badal lies alone on the beach, at night, he suddenly begins to wade into the sea, his head filled with various music tunes, and lets himself be rocked in six eight time. An ending strongly suggestive of suicide.

Anil Ramdas claimed that he was only partly Badal: using the ‘Wikipedia data’ of Anil Ramdas, he had distorted or enlarged them. In an interview with Elsbeth Etty, he says: ‘The historical events, the conversations about them are reproduced as honestly as possible, non fictional characters such as Paul Scheffer and Frits Bolkestein figure with their real names, but as soon as I begin to transform people, when I twist their words and when I adapt their stories to fit my purpose, they get other names.’

A similar remark could be made about two well-known autobiographical novels in Dutch literature: Max Havelaar (1860) by Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker) and Het land van herkomst (Country of Origin, 1935) by E. du Perron. In both novels we come across historical persons who figure with their real names, such as Karta Natanegara, the Regent of Lebak, in Max Havelaar, and the fraudster Serge Stavisky in Het land van herkomst, as well as fictionalised characters, i.e. characters based on existing people, whose fictional identity doesn’t reflect their whole personality. Only those traits of a person which serve the literary purpose are magnified, sometimes to a certain degree of distortion.

In another interview, Ramdas stated that he had transformed his colleague Stephan Sanders (who figures under the name of Henry) into a kind of dominant smart-alec, because he needed an entity which could counterbalance Badal’s insecurity. This insecurity is symbolised in the Babu, a Hindi word for a poor Indian, as opposed to the Sahib, who is the British coloniser. Badal feels like a Babu in relation to the Sahib Henry, a coloured man raised in the Netherlands. The characters in Ramdas’ novel assume characteristics of their models in reality but subsequently they are shaped according to the function they need to fulfil in the novel.

The name Badal itself means cloud or rain; written with a schwa it stands for transformation or metamorphosis. Badal is a culturally pessimistic book, consisting of nineteen chapters, with titles that mostly refer to songs. The title of the first chapter is indicative for the basic tone of the book: This is the end beautiful friend, the song of The Doors (1967) which was used for the opening scene of the Vietnam film Apocalypse Now (1979). The novel abounds with references to music, popular songs as well as classical and Indian music, to films and literature. All references, including autobiographical anecdotes and more elaborate accounts of social debates, are integrated into the narrative, which for a good part consists of conversations Badal has with three different female friends, with a group of colleagues from the ‘Weekly magazine’, and with the chief editor of ‘the Supplement’ (in whom we recognise the chief editor of the Cultural Supplement of NRC-Handelsblad. Badal is a multi-layered, a-chronological novel, alternating between past and present, leaping back and forth in time.

The setting in the present is the tourist resort of Zandvoort in which Badal has taken residence (as did Ramdas himself) in order to study what he calls with an English term white trash. Zandvoort happens to be the city with the largest percentage of people who voted for the political party PVV (Partij Voor de Vrijheid, ‘Freedom Party’) and their populist leader Geert Wilders (*1963), who appealed to numerous voters with his much trumpeted rejection of Moroccans, Muslims and refugees. Just like the politician Bolkestein (*1933), Wilders appears with his own name in the novel; he is called: ‘the bitterest xenophobe of all, Bolkestein’s apprentice, the Frankenstein brought forth by white trash, the new Anton Mussert.’ Badal’s aversion to populism is but one of the themes in the novel, connected to his loss of ideological appeal, but also to the possibility of making a comeback with an analytical article about white trash.

In an interview, Ramdas stated that his book is about the political changes which have taken place in the past ten years: ‘The main figure, the progressive intellectual of Surinamese-Hindustan background, Harry Badal, considers the demise of his ideals as a personal failure, like he also considers his alcoholism, the failure of his marriage and career as a personal failure. Therefore he must perish. Already in the first chapter I give that away. But I, Anil, I am still there, my marriage has never been at stake, I have my alcohol consumption under control – so those elements in my novel are not autobiographical.’

Anil Ramdas. Portret door Nicolaas Porter.

Judging from Ramdas’ statements in the course of time, we may conclude that he had become increasingly pessimistic about human nature and the direction into which the general cultural atmosphere developed. As early as 1997, he gave a lecture, the so-called Socrates lecture, in which he compared honesty (the Dutch ‘straightforwardness’) to politeness. He condoned honesty, but continued to say that being honest can also imply being rude and obtuse, coarse and heartless, vicious and hypocritical. The panacea, according to Ramdas, citing Socrates, was friendship, which is based on reciprocity, heterogeneity, and altruism. As this lecture still reveals a degree of optimism, Ramdas’ tone became more dejected with the passing of time. During an interview in 2003 , he was asked: ‘What is the best place to live?’ His immediate response was: ‘Not on this earth. I have been just about everywhere, and I feel nowhere at home.’

The novel Badal may be viewed in several ways: as it employs facts and anecdotes taken from the author’s personal life, it is an autobiographical novel (the one aspect most Dutch critics commented upon). It is also a Bildungsroman or educational novel, as it shows Badal’s personal and intellectual evolution from the time he set foot in the Netherlands up to his self-imposed exile in Zandvoort. Third, as the novel treats some of the same themes as Ramdas’ essays, it’s also a novel of ideas. In all three ways, Badal can be compared to Het land van herkomst, which, as I have pointed out above, is an autobiographical novel using literary artifice and fictional transformations, but also a Bildungsroman as well as a novel of ideas, dealing with the themes of friendship and loyalty, marriage and fidelity, and with political involvement and individualism in the face of the threat of fascism. Ramdas says as much that Du Perron’s novel was a source of inspiration to him.

Moreover, Badal contains a discussion of an essay by Du Perron’s friend Menno ter Braak, Het nationaal-socialisme als rancuneleer (‘National- socialism as a doctrine of resentment’, 1937). It is in a conversation with the chief editor of the Cultural Supplement that Badal says that Ter Braak’s essay is still valid for our time. It comes and goes, in a wave motion: those hateful people who throughout history become bigger and smaller and then bigger again. The chief editor asks if Badal really believes that Muslims will be put on trains as happened to the Jews. No, replies Badal, ‘the deportations back then were the work of an enormous machinery of regulatory bodies, government officials, stool pigeons, social planners, and state violence.’ Badal is more interested in ‘the spectators, the people who shrug their shoulders. The people who thought: it’s about time. Good riddance to bad rubbish.’ Slowly but surely a consensus was built up among the masses, a consensus which is always underestimated by the intellectuals. At this point in his novel, Badal says that it is the task of intellectuals to ‘always tirelessly seek the truth, advocate decency and champion the cause of civilisation. Because Menno ter Braak stated unequivocally that the doctrine of resentment was nothing new. It was not an exceptional circumstance. It was an essential feature of western culture. So it needed to be combated at every turn. Especially when it was on the rise. Otherwise, there would be no point calling yourself an intellectual.’ The chief editor replies that there are colleagues who esteem that Badal doesn’t practice journalism, but produces ego-documents. The chief editor himself, however, is a liberal man: he accepts Badal’s proposal to write an essay about white trash. He adds ironically that Badal has come full circle: in the beginning, he was looking for the ideal western intellectual, but now he wants to show how much that intellectual failed.

The theme of the demise of the once applauded non-western intellectual is central to the novel. In the flash backs to Badal’s career, he is pictured as a young migrant blessed with an indestructible optimism who is eager to elevate mankind to a higher level. He regrets the loss of the western civilising mission. As he is welcomed into the circle of progressive western intellectuals, he remains cautious with regard to ‘the applause of whites, the approval and recognition he enjoyed’, the ‘rancid support, as Henry once called it.’ He is also critical of the blind unequivocal support that those intellectuals lend to Salman Rushdie. Didn’t they know that Rushdie had been supportive of Khomeiny when the latter started the Iranian Revolution? With the passing of time, Badal is disillusioned by the increase of populism and the diminishing support for multiculturalism. It eats away at his self-confidence.

Besides being a novel of ideas, Badal also portrays the self-destruction of a man who tries to forget the harrowing reality by fuddling his mind with all sorts of drink. Another inspiration for the novel was Under the volcano by Malcolm Lowry, which lends its title to chapter 11. Lowry’s novel is just as full of erudite facts and allusions as Badal, reported through the eyes of a man who while remaining lucid drinks himself into oblivion.

What makes Badal a good read, more post-modern in its structure than the two novels by Du Perron and Lowry, are the dialogues he engages in and which intersperse the narration in a lively manner. There was just one Dutch critic, the philosopher Simone van Saarloos, who had an eye for this aspect of the novel. She states, in English, about Badal’s conversations: ‘Thus, a knowledge exchange in the form of a modern Socratic dialogue is created. This leads to a playful narrative; Ramdas alternates memories of the successful past of Badal with his reflections in the present. As a result, the ostentatious fame and the lush intellectuality of Badal is nowhere annoying.’

Just like the autobiographical novels of Du Perron and Lowry, Badal also treats the theme of love. Badal is alienated from his wife, as is the Consul in Under the volcano, and for the same reason: his continuous state of intoxication. But unlike the Consul, Badal entertains relationships with a few female friends, which, however, remain largely platonic. His Hindustan friend Sita, who had changed her name to S. as a self-imposed penitence after transgressing the Hindu cultural taboo on eating beef, is his main confidant. She appears in fourteen of the nineteen chapters. She works in intercultural communication, an occupational field that Badal deems faddish, but she is a good companion. She frequently calls him to ask how he is doing and they often get together in cafés and restaurants in Zandvoort, where Badal has withdrawn after the breakdown of his marriage. His wife, tired of his alcoholism and his neglect of family life, had asked him to leave. Badal settles down in Zandvoort and quits drinking cold turkey. During his meetings with S. he drinks Seven-Up. In the second place, there is the Indian woman Isha, who takes notice of him at a drinking at party in Delhi: she sees more in him than the comical outsider he is to most Indians. Moreover, she likes a stiff drink herself, and she challenges him and his ideas, for instance his defence of Naipaul, whom she views as a colonialist thinker. She also is just a good companion to Badal. And finally there is Anh, a Vietnamese travel correspondent Badal meets all over the world, whenever their paths cross. She is also a great boozer, which tightens their relationship. Badal looks upon her as a cosmopolitan woman, but in essence she is a lonely soul. One of the songs which characterise their relationship is: ‘What’ll I do, when you are far away, and I am blue, what’ll I do.’ Erotic attraction is never far away when Anh is around, but she seems more keen to commit herself to him than he is to her. It’s in Cape Town that they have their last encounter. Badal had noticed that she looked at him in an appraising manner, as if she was taking a decision. They were both drunk when they arrived at the hotel. At breakfast Anh said to him that she would go to Cambodia, where she would have kids. He shouldn’t call her any longer. Badal tells this anecdote in Zandvoort to S., who reacts: ‘Gee, and here I was trying to cheer you up by talking about her.’

The novel ends when Badal, who was visiting a festival to learn more about populist culture, hails a taxi and asks the driver to bring him to the city where his wife lives. He repents and wants to go back to her, but as he is on his way, he gets doubts about the kind of reception he will receive and decides to go to his former local pub instead. There he learns that one of his drinking mates has died. Badal had ordered Seven-Up, but he now orders a double whisky to drink to his deceased mate. And there it begins again. In the end he is too drunk to drive, and Kitty, one of the pub friends, drives him back to Zandvoort. It’s the middle of the night, they chat, she takes him to the beach. She kisses him, he lets it happen; she wants him to touch her, he backs off. She gets up abruptly, asks him if he will arrive home safely, and leaves him there lying in the sand. Here the novel ends: Badal hears several songs, all mingled together in his head, Gotan Project, Amy Winehouse and Gerry Rafferty. And with this musical turmoil in his head he enters the sea.


The novel Badal explores the evolution of the main character against the background of the confrontation between western and non-western civilisation. One of the examples Badal uses to make his point is Christopher Columbus: when during his journey into the unknown the supplies aboard his ship diminish, he has to make a decision: to turn back or to continue with his exploration. He decides to go on. It is the point of no return.

For the young Badal, Columbus is a hero of sorts, although he recognises the latter’s endeavour ‘to civilise. Slash: subjugate’. He was a colonialist, nevertheless a ‘discoverer of new worlds’ and ‘wasn’t every novelist also a discoverer of new worlds? And wasn’t the novel just as typically Western, which both Naipaul and Rushdie recognised, Naipaul even more outspokenly?’ When Badal’s appointment as a correspondent in India after a three year stay is suddenly terminated by the newspaper, he comes back to the Netherlands, a country in which the cultural atmosphere has drifted toward conservatism. In an exchange, some time later, with the chief of the Cultural Supplement, this ‘Sahib’ tells him, the ‘Babu’, that the other editors of the newspaper are of the opinion that Badal no longer comes up with journalism, but produces ego-documents instead. He says this in response to Badal’s news that he works on an essay about white trash, which should help to bring about his comeback. Then the following conversation ensues:

‘You’ll have come full circle with this essay,’ said the chief. ‘Do you remember your essay on Columbus? The one in which you were searching for the ideal western intellectual. And now you are going to be writing about how badly he has failed.’

‘Columbus was a racist,’ said Badal, ‘but he had a higher goal. He wasn’t only concerned about accumulating wealth, but in the promotion of science as well. He wanted to increase our knowledge about the earth.’

‘That smacks a little of the civilising mission of the European colonial powers,’ said the chief.

‘But there was one: I’m convinced that the colonial oppressors sacredly believed in their mission civilisatrice. The white man’s burden that the British spoke of, they truly felt it: the heavy burden of having to spread civilisation everywhere.’

‘Or was all that talk of civilisation only meant to appease their own consciences?’ said the chief.

‘No, I don’t think it was a con. It was about a genuine ideal, like Joseph Conrad said, something in which they could truly believe, like some higher power, who you knelt to and offered flowers. Of course there were plenty of conmen among the colonists, but there were also whites who were convinced they had to fulfil a mission, that they did their tiny bit to implement a gigantic superhuman plan, called civilisation.’

‘And now you see that civilisation failing on the home front?’ said the chief.

‘Yes. The whites who crossed the oceans were certainly also racists, but they had an ideal, an idea of civilisation, no matter how vague and confused it was. The whites living in the older neighbourhoods in the Netherlands are still racists. But they lack an ideal. They content themselves with crudeness, with tastelessness, with vulgarity.’

‘They harbour the ideal of vulgarity,’ said the chief.

‘You could put it like that, yes.’

A few pages later, as Badal attends the festival in Venlo where he wants to study populist culture, he abhors of ‘the naked torsos, arms, legs, intimidating looking; a park that would be crawling with moving limbs, pale, pink fleshed. Natives, savages, like Joseph Conrad saw when he came to the end of his river – innocent souls, one in three of whom were fanatic Wilders supporters.’ Badal presents thus a reversal of the eighteenth-century concept of the native, the savage: these savages are white-skinned.

Badal is someone who has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t want to represent anybody. ‘He wanted to be alone. To go deeply into himself and never come back out.’ He says to S.: ‘If postmodernism has taught us anything: there is an absence of essence. Which means to say that nothing is, but that everything is becoming.’ And finally the existentialist recognition breaks through that ‘life is an accidental delay. You shouldn’t attach too much importance to it, dying is making room for something better, that’s how evolution wanted it.’ Having exhausted his possibilities, Badal decides to disappear. In the final analysis, Badal is a novel about the human condition, about loss and the demise of illusions.


Bons, Martin, ‘Zelfportret van Anil Ramdas (1958-2012): “Ik ben zo’n beetje overal geweest en voel me nergens thuis”’ [‘Self-portrait of Anil Ramdas. “I have been just about everywhere, and I feel nowhere at home”’, interview with Anil Ramdas], HP/De Tijd, nr. 35, 2003.

Cohen, Mischa, ‘We zijn allemaal expats’ [‘We are all expats’, interview with Anil Ramdas], Vrij Nederland, 18 May 2011.

Etty, Elsbeth, ‘Ik wou dat we nog gevaarlijk waren’ [‘I wished we were still considered a danger’, interview with Anil Ramdas], NRC-Handelsblad, 17 February 2011.

Hilhorst, Pieter, ‘Over de actualiteit van Anil Ramdas. Meneer Bovary’ [‘About the topicality of Anil Ramdas, Mister Bovary’], De Groene Amsterdammer, 27 October 2016.

Ramdas, Anil, De papegaai, de stier en de klimmende bougainvillea [The parrot, the bull and the climbing bougainvillea] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1992).

Ramdas, Anil, Zonder liefde valt best te leven [Without love you could still lead your life] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2004).

Ramdas, Anil, Paramaribo, de vrolijkste stad in de jungle [Paramaribo, the merriest city in the jungle] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2008).

Ramdas, Anil, Badal. Roman [Badal. A novel] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2011).

Saarloos, Simone van, ‘Een socratisch gesprek met een Surinaams accent’ [‘A Socratic conversation with a Surinamese accent’], Recensieweb, 9 April 2011.

Saarloos, Simone van, ‘Wij zijn uit de grotten gekomen, weet je nog?’ [‘We have come out of the caves, remember?’, interview with Anil Ramdas], Recensieweb, 13 July 2011.

Saarloos, Simone van, ‘Anil Ramdas, een ondergesneeuwde held’ [‘Anil Ramdas, a snowed under hero’], Filosofie Magazine, 24 February 2012.


I wish to thank Annemarie Toebosch, lecturer in Dutch at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for organising the 18th biannual Interdisciplinary Conference on Netherlandic Studies, June 2-4, 2016, where I presented a lecture from which this article has developed. I am grateful to my Research Group REIGENN at Sorbonne University, under the direction of Marie-Thérèse Mourey, for its contribution to my travel costs. I thank Jack Mc Martin, PhD candidate affiliated with the Centre for Reception Studies at the University of Leuven, for his stimulating comments on the potential of a translation of the novel Badal, and Nezjma and Kawita Ramdas, respectively the daughter and the sister of Anil Ramdas, for their support. Finally, I thank Scott Rollins, Amsterdam based literary translator, for taking up the challenge to translate the entire novel. All quotes from Badal are taken from his translation.

Notes on contributor

Kees Snoek was from 2006 until 2020 full professor in Dutch and Flemish literature and civilisation at the Faculty of Germanic and Nordic Languages, Dutch section, of Sorbonne University in Paris. He specialises in Dutch (post)colonial literature and history, biography and modern Dutch poetry. Book publications include the biography E. du Perron. Het leven van een smalle mens (2005), the anthology O God, er is geen God! Multatuli over geloof en godsdienst, co-edited with August Hans den Boef (2008), and his edition of a selection of letters of Sutan Sjahrir (1931-1941), along with his biographical portrait of Sjahrir: Sjahrir, Wissel op de toekomst. Brieven van de Indonesische nationalist aan zijn Hollandse geliefde (2021).

Correspondence to: Kees Snoek. Email:

[Bewerking van een lezing die Kees Snoek in de zomer van 2016 in Ann Arbor gaf op een congres van de American Association for Netherlandic Studies: “A matter of identity: Anil Ramdas and his autobiographical novel Badal (2011)”. In: Dutch Crossing (London College), January 2018, p. 1-12.]

Your comment please...

  • RSS
  • Facebook
  • Twitter