V.S. Naipaul

A literary lion

Print edition : September 14, 2018

V.S. Naipaul at his home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, United Kingdom, in October 2001 after it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Photo: CHRIS ISON/AFP

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With the passing away of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1932-2018), the world of literature will be a duller place and inestimably poorer.

IT was not easy to like Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. He provoked ceaselessly and was provoked easily. His words hurt. His pen, indeed, even his spoken words, would often open an old wound and then let one bleed in public. However, but for his eye for unsettling the past—mercifully, he never imagined life to be just a battle to settle the past—An Area of Darkness would not have illumined the world of Indians around 50 years ago. And “a wounded civilisation” may never have had a chance to look into the mirror at all the old wrinkles, the unending creases, the visage gone ugly with time. India: A Wounded Civilisation came at a time when India was going through social and political tumult. Naipaul made no concessions to Indira Gandhi’s streak of narcissism or her cultivated streak of arrogance. He deserves credit even if his honesty, his stubborn refusal to toe the line, was facilitated partly by distance from New Delhi. He stayed honest to his view of a nation that had experienced all that could go wrong with human civilisation. Back then, not many people agreed with him. He appeared both intolerant and intolerable. He cared little. He had his prejudices. He revelled in them. Before long though, people born after India kept its tryst with destiny in 1947 were discussing An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilisation. To grow up in 1970s urban India and not have read either of the books was to be dubbed an ignoramus.

A brave new voice

Like him or loathe him, one could not ignore him. That he was being discussed in the drawing rooms of India, a country where only a handful knew English then, was a rich tribute to a brave new voice in English literature. Indeed, those who had put in the hard yards of liking him were beginning to love him. Seldom did his words not rankle. He was opinionated enough to render a debate on history a meaningless exercise. And he was sharp enough to be an irascible rascal of the literary world. But was that not the world he came to conquer when he arrived in Oxford, England, as a teenager? That journey itself seemed such a huge overachievement for a son of indentured labourers who were taken from India to the Caribbean islands by the relentless momentum of colonialism. And here was Naipaul in the land of the colonial masters, speaking their language and endeavouring to write it better than them! What impudence!

The old racial hang-ups confronted him; the British, he discovered, did not have just a stiff upper lip but showed a marked reluctance to embrace somebody with pretensions. Naipaul had plenty of pretensions and the brazenness that comes only to the young, though in his case it did not leave him when youth had long said its goodbyes. Yet in those early years, for all his overweening ambition and cocky confidence, Naipaul was like a young lion surrounded by a pack of hyenas. He was desperate. He fought through. He found a way.

He did not take the “white man’s burden” theory route to find approbation. That would have been easy enough. Instead, he mined his own childhood. The result? The Mystic Masseur followed by The Suffrage of Elivra and Miguel Street, all in the late 1950s. They were like a load off his chest. He must have felt relieved.

But offloading one’s truck of memories is seldom financially rewarding, and even the acclaim that comes one’s way is either lopsided or prejudiced, maybe both. Not that Naipaul would have been unhappy about that. After all, as subsequent years proved, he thrived on prejudice, peddling his with unabashed grandeur. He could be right, he could be wrong, but one could not be right if one disagreed with him, he believed. Many smirked, some agreed. Most felt compelled to read his books. And in that compulsion of the cynics, the critics and the naysayers lay Naipaul’s greatest success. He could say what he wanted to in his own way and force one to accept him.

Having started with a trip down memory lane, Naipaul discovered a genius within when he penned A House for Mr Biswas, the tale of an Indo-Trinidadian family. That came in 1961, a few years after he had set foot in the dark, bleak climes of Britain. If Naipaul had quit the literary world after this masterpiece, nobody would have grudged him a place among the best writers of the century. Such was the poetic beauty of his prose and his finesse as an author. A House for Mr Biswas though came too early in Naipaul’s career for his own good. He was still searching, still yearning, still discovering. He himself did not know where this endless foray into the known and the unknown would take him. Well, it took him to India, the land of his forefathers. Unlike the land where to equivocate is to be polite, he took on the dangers head-on. He suffered too; not many people were able to fathom the profundity of An Area of Darkness when it first struck the literary world. The common man found it too grave; the discerning claimed it was a shade pretentious.

Naipaul rubbed the political elite, the babudom, the wrong way, and a young nation still taking the baby steps of freedom was clearly not ready for introspection. The book did Naipaul a favour though: having nursed many a dream from distance about his land of origin, he was stripped of his illusions. In many ways, it prepared the ground for his even more acerbic, more trenchant book, India: A Wounded Civilisation. Again, the book hurt many; some said he was selling India’s ugly underbelly to the West. Yet, nobody, absolutely nobody, could argue with him when he claimed: “Hindus have never got over their subjugation of over a thousand years by alien religions.” In one stroke, he forced the majority community to look within and made the non-majority an alien. Quietly, unannounced, the self-consuming ways of “we” and “they” were swept into the literary world.

It was to take Naipaul much longer to finally find in India a warm embrace. The grudging approval of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s was replaced by a warm embrace, courtesy India: A Million Mutinies Now. Here, Naipaul noted with obvious astonishment that India had not just survived as a nation with its seeming contradictions but had also managed to turn the tide in its fight against poverty, squalor and denial. In fact, for a country as young as India, it had done remarkably well to even strive to take everybody along. With this third India book, Naipaul completed the trilogy that started in the mid 1960s with An Area of Darkness. India, finally, was beginning to be an island of gentle glow and sunshine. And Naipaul loved the warm hug of the nation.

The three non-fiction works around India would have sufficed to define Naipaul as a non-fiction writer, just as A House for Mr Biswas would have sufficed to put him in the ranks of fiction writers. Incidentally, A House for Mr Biswas found a place in Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest English language novels. He might not have said much about it publicly, but the inclusion of the work in the list would no doubt have pleased Naipaul and, maybe, made his trip to Britain worthwhile.

However, for all the electric worth of his India foray, it would be a misrepresentation to talk of Naipaul without mentioning his foray into the world of believers, that is, his trip to Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and beyond. Almost 40 years after being first published, Among the Believers remains a book that evokes extreme reactions. It is here he is at his trenchant best; it is here that he sneers with elan. It is here that he wears his prejudices like a badge of honour. If Naipaul had not written about Islam and about India, he would have been appreciated only for his literary genius, the gentle cadence of his sentences, the brevity of his words, the unfathomable simplicity of his expression. Yet, because of his works on Islam and India, he got his identity as a non-fiction writer, which one could love to hate but never dismiss without paying attention to his arguments.

Contrary to what Naipaul believed when he first set out to examine the Muslim world, Islam is a lived reality. Islam stands for equality rather than uniformity and is far from being a monolith. Because he took a reductionist view, Naipaul was shown to be a man bereft of a wide canvas. He could mine childhood memories for his fiction essays. He could walk down the lanes and bylanes of his forefathers for his non-fiction sagas, yet could never quite fathom the intractable unity of purpose of the world of the faithful: how an Indonesian commoner and an Iranian ruler could pray in the same direction or how a community so divided by language, culture, food and apparel could so warmly join hands over faith. Rather than marvelling over this unity, he considered it proof of imperialism. He even went on to label Arabs as the best of imperialists.

Naipaul was not able to comprehend the equality that having a common faith engendered. He called it slavery. He could not be further from truth. Such was the lopsidedness of his reasoning that even Edward Said was compelled to accuse him of having done only a superficial reading of history. At the same time, it endeared him to the Hindutva lobby. The right wing believed he hated Islam, so he was its friend. Muslims believed he hated Islam, so he was their enemy.

The truth is that Naipaul knew, as Said said, only “superficial” Islam, but that did not prevent him from waxing eloquent about the beauty of Mughal architecture in India, much to the dismay of the Hindutva lobby. Islam and Muslims are not synonymous. Not one to take a step back, Naipaul was probably happy that he was being read once again. Indeed, therein lay his greatest success. When Naipaul wrote, the world read. No wonder he got the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. Incidentally, for all his acerbic writing about the world of Islam, Naipaul ended up marrying the Pakistani journalist Nadira Alvi soon after the death of his first wife, Patricia Ann Hale.

With the passing away of Naipaul, the world of literature will be a duller place and inestimably poorer. One could hate Naipaul, and many did for a long time. One could love him, which not an insignificant number did. But there was only one V.S. Naipaul. He offered no concessions to one’s sensitivity. He said it as he perceived it. Truth, with Naipaul, could be debatable. He leaves as an old wounded lion who silenced most of the hyenas in his lifetime. He needs no brownie points from history.


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