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A house for Mr. Naipaul

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The restless travels of the Trinidad-born winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature have not given him any sense of belonging anywhere but have resulted in more than a score of unforgettable books.

SOMETIME in 1944 a schoolboy in Port of Spain, Trinidad, wrote a solemn vow on the endpaper of his Latin Grammar that he would leave the island within five years. He left after six. A scholarship to England at the age of 18 made it possible for Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul to escape from the country of his birth, never to come back, except on brief visits. "I never wanted to stay in Trinidad", he wrote in The Middle Passage and his unsentimental rejection of this "unimportant, uncreative" island stands in sharp contrast to the other intellectuals from the erstwhile Third World who took the first opportunity to migrate to lands of milk and honey, but once there, never ceased to be nostalgic about the "lost country". Naipaul is never nostalgic; like his fictional alter-ego Anand Biswas, he was convinced at an early age that everything about Trinidad was provisional, makeshift, temporary and England was "surely where real life was to be found".

It seemed for a while Naipaul blended into this "real life" easily. After four years at Oxford and a stint with British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), he received literary recognition in London without too long a struggle, and has managed to remain a writer all his life without having to take up any other job. He became a British citizen soon enough, his first wife was an English-woman, he came to own land and property in England and has eventually been knighted. How much more English can one get? He left one island hoping to get permanently settled in another, and yet his work - his best work in any case - does not indicate a strong mooring in any culture. His restless travels around the world have resulted in more than a score of unforgettable books but have not given him any sense of belonging. History, geography and his own individual traits combined to ensure that he would remain an outsider everywhere. This unhousedness could be seen as a problem that has haunted him all his life - but it is also his source of strength, providing him with a detached and ruthless precision that marks his vision as well as his prose.

Despite the Indian media's unseemly scramble to appropriate V.S. Naipaul the Nobel Laureate as an Indian, his actual links with the subcontinent are tenuous indeed. His ancestors left eastern Uttar Pradesh as girmitiyas (as indentured labourers were called) more than a century ago, and if he is to be considered an Indian writer, by the same logic Toni Morrison, another Nobel winner, would have to be called an African writer, because her ancestors were shipped to United States as cargo in the slave trade. Naipaul himself had no personal connection with India until he was 30. His family's past was to him part of a "historical darkness". Many years later in Finding the Centre (1984) he reflected on this: "The India where Gandhi and Nehru and the others operated was historical and real. The India from where we had come was impossibly remote, almost as imaginary as the land of the Ramayana... I lived easily with that darkness, that lack of knowledge. I never thought to inquire further."

When he did inquire further into that darkness, the first attempt was a disaster because what he found was not what he had expected. The anger in the earliest of his three Indian travelogues - An Area of Darkness (1965) - was directed as much towards the disorder and squalor of the country as towards himself who came to look for roots here. In the 1960s Naipaul was almost as unpopular as Nirad C. Chaudhuri among the Indians who read English books ; both were alleged to be India-haters. Sir Vidia had to write two more India books, progressively benign, to redeem himself to his Indian readers and to obliterate his earlier fame as one who avidly documented roadside defecation.

In his post-Nobel euphoria, Naipaul has declared that this is the result of his success in educating the Indian people. "The trouble with people like me writing about societies where there is no intellectual life is that if you write about it, people are angry. If they read the book, which in most cases they don't, they want approval. Now India has improved. The books have been accepted. ... forty years ago India was living in rituals. This is one of the things I have helped India with." The venerable Sir Vidia seems to have become the kind of character the author of Miguel Street or Mystic Masseur would have loved to caricature. Claims of changing a vast country through his books, where the number of people who read English books of any kind are miniscule, would sound pompous if it had not been comic.

It is possible, more than his books, his occasional pronouncements on the wounds Islam has inflicted on Hindu civilisation have gone a long way to make his name known in India, specially among people who normally might not have been concerned with his books at all. One such statement came after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the other more recently when he lamented the lack of a sense of history in R.K. Narayan who, Naipaul felt, did not show enough awareness of the damage done to his civilisation by the Muslim invaders. Constructing a "pure Hindu" past for India has become an obsessive need for the unhoused Mr. Naipaul in his continued attempt to search for order in a generally disorderly world. His views naturally become controversial in the land of his ancestors where most people, most of the time, casually accept their jumbled and plural heritage and a richly tangled culture. In his eagerness to tidy up this mess Naipaul plays into the hands of the Hindu right and a global lobby of anti-Islamic fundamentalists.

But there is much more to Naipaul than his India connection. Before coming to India he had already published five books - one travel book and four novels - including his unquestionable masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) . Forty years ago when the world had not yet turned post-colonial, long before hybridity and migration became modish concepts, it must have taken unusual courage and conviction to write this long - nearly 600 page - novel about the life of an unremarkable family of Indian migrants in Trinidad. The subject was totally unfamiliar not only to the Western readers whom his London publishers Andre Deutsch would normally target, but to everyone else, including us in India. It would have been familiar only to a small population of people of Indian origin living in the Caribbeans who, in any case, as Naipaul has never tired of telling us, do not read books.

But A House for Mr. Biswas created its own intricate universe with bright lucidity, piling up vivid details, naming every object,creating numerous characters with humour and compassion. Like all of Naipaul's fiction this novel is written in a straightforward realistic mode and in a language that is direct and chiselled. ("I always avoided style. To me it is simply getting at what you mean, and that takes a lot of refining because words can be deceptive.") Yet by the end it acquires a metaphoric resonance - the unaccommodated man's repeated attempts to find a stable location in a ramshackle and random world gets imbued with traces of colonial history and memories of coercive dislocations. Every Naipaul reader knows that it is a fictional account of the author's father's life, and by the end of the novel, the author's own memory as the son takes over. Suddenly the autobiographical aspect is laid bare - remembrance becomes a ritual, investing the past with reality. Today Naipaul might expunge his West Indian past from his Nobel acceptance speech, but it was his unresolved tensions with Trinidad - that insignificant 'dot in the map of the world' - that initially pushed him into being a writer. His two earliest books of fiction, Miguel Street and The Suffrage of Elvira, one of his finest books of non-fiction, The Middle Passage, as well as his magnum opus, A House for Mr. Biswas, all drew upon his West Indian experience.

Even later in his life he has gone back to this experience - in Finding A Centre, which includes a 68-page 'Prologue' to an autobiography that never got written - and then again in The Enigma of Arrival (1987) which ends with an achingly poignant description of his return to Trinidad in 1984 for the funeral of a sister who had never left the island. The Enigma, a book set largely in the English countryside, turns into a rumination on the issues of exile and home, mellowed by pain. The subtitle of the book calls it a novel, but it cannot be easily categorised. Naipaul has successfully blurred the boundaries of genres; travel, autobiography, narrative, reflection and history get conflated in a protean non-fiction mode, which he has used repeatedly as others have done after him.

His career in travel writing and in excavating forgotten histories began when 10 years after he had left Trinidad he went back there on a three-month fellowship and was asked to write an account of his travel and stay in the Caribbean islands. Since then he has not stopped travelling - to Africa, to the Arab countries, to East Asia, to South America, the U.S. and of course repeatedly to India. He set several novels in Africa, and a superb short story titled "One Out of Many" in Washington D.C., but strangely enough, until his most recent novel Half A Life (2001), India was never used by him as the background of fiction. He prefaces the book by saying "This book is an invention. It is not exact about the countries, periods or situation it appears to describe." Yet of the three locations presented in Half A Life, only India and Africa remain inexact and vague. London is accurately presented with street names and other markers mentioned clearly. Apparently for Naipaul, England is situated at a different level of reality, firm and stable, while other regions can be relegated to haziness.

Naipaul calls travelling "one side of a writer's business... adding to his knowledge of the world and exposing himself to new people and new relationships." The last bit of this sentence is intriguing because while his insights into history and his documentation of cultures are insightful and sharp, human relationship is hardly something that enters Naipaul's non-fiction books. Even in fiction, there is a singular absence of tenderness in human dealings ; friendship or love are seldom his concerns, and women are peripheral. In fact there is a definite revulsion in his work about the physical aspect of man-woman relationship, a distaste which probably extends to everything related to human body or the enjoyment of the senses, including food. In his travel books people are acutely observed, their views are documented and analysed in impeccable prose, but the writer remains cautiously outside their emotional life. On only one occasion when I had a chance to meet Naipaul - at a dinner in a friend's house in Delhi - I had this uneasy feeling of being turned into data in his next travelogue. He sat aloof, watching people and making mental notes. When I was introduced to him he asked me politely what I taught. I thought it would be quite boring to talk about my usual Dickens and Jane Austen classes and decided to tell him about a course on West Indian Literature I was teaching at that time at the M.Phil level. "West Indian Literature?" he sounded incredulous. "Is there any literature there? Who are the writers?" "You, for example", I said. He disagreed violently. "I carry a British passport," he said, "and my ancestors came from India. I am not a West Indian." That remains his self definition even after the Nobel Prize. "A writer after sometime carries his world with him, his own burden of experience and literary experience - one deepening the other," he wrote in 1984, implying that a writer does not need a house after all. Yet I continue to wonder at his consistent denial of the country of his birth and his entire childhood, which ironically, provide an enduring strand of memory running through his work, saving it from the cold brilliance of unmitigated cerebration.

An academic and critic, Meenakshi Mukherjee was earlier Professor in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is now Honorary Professor, University of Hyderabad.

Works by V.S. Naipaul

1957 The Mystic Masseur1958 The Suffrage of Elvira1960 Miguel Street1961 A House for Mr. Biswas1963 The Middle Passage, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion1965 An Area of Darkness1967 The Mimic Men, A Flag on the Island1970 The Loss of El Dorado1971 In a Free State1972 The Overcrowded Barracoon1975 Guerrillas1977 India: A Wounded Civilisation1979 A Bend in the River1980 The Return of Eva Peron1981 Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey1984 Finding the Centre1987 The Enigma of Arrival1989 A Turn in the South1990 India: A Million Mutinies Now1994 A Way in the World1998 Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People2000 Between Father and Son: Family Letters2001 Half a Life

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