Ravi Shankar Etteth
When I first met V S Naipaul at a party in New Delhi in the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the writer was enjoying a glass of wine, indifferent to the admirers and social voyeurs milling around him, talking little and
observing much as his wife Lady Nadira hovered around; protective and watchful as if the diminutive giant with one of the most famous faces in the world (“After one look from him, I could skip Yom Kippur,”: Saul Bellow) would vanish into Miguel Street where Mr. Popo is yet to build a chair and B. Wordsworth has never got past his first line of verse.
Sir Vidia’s “fastidious scorn”, as the critic Clive James put it, was apparent at a reception thrown in his honour later in the week, as I noticed the long line of guests waiting to shake his hand as he stood sheathed in the armour of polite indifference.
“Mr. Biswas yet to find a house?” I joked.
“I wonder,” Sir Vidia replied laconically in a crisp British accent.
In the mystic subtlety and civilisational complexity of Hinduism, Sir Vidia did find a home. Like Miguel he did in the end escape — but into the great white world of literary triumph, a salon lion and citizen of the world. Novelist Lady Antonia Fraser gave Naipaul his boarding pass to the upper class deck of British society.
“When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he told The New York Times in an interview. “I’m speaking literally.” His Nobel was awarded in the shadow of 9/11, and many considered it a political statement by the West that was grievously wounded by Islam.
There was no love lost between Sir Vidia and liberals who see him as a misogynistic racist and Hindutva icon; Naipaul called the Babri Masjid demolition a “creative passion” and Babur’s invasion a “mortal wound” inflicted on India. Yet he could never belong there: its heritage he loved but the country he couldn’t. Starting with An Area of Darkness, the first of his three India travelogues, the country was a disappointing epiphany; Indians “forced into a nationalism which in the beginning was like a mimicry of the British.”
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on August 17, 1932 to an Indian family that had migrated during British rule to Chaguanas in Trinidad and Tobago, but did not abandon their Hindu roots. He grew up in a literate and influential family; father Seepersad was a journalist and his mother belonged to the powerful Capildeo clan. In 1959, he left for England to study at Oxford, where he suffered a mental breakdown — a “half a person”, “living a borrowed life.”
His writing career began as a colonial narrative in 1954 while working for the BBC as an announcer. His vision of
Third World nationalism was merciless.
Edward Said calls him “a witness for the Western prosecution” full of contempt for newly freed peoples.
He mocked India as a land of defecators and Africans primitive and barbaric. He told The Washington Post once, “Africans need to be kicked, that’s the only thing they understand.” Yet for all his literary elitism, the white establishment did not forgive him his success.
Evelyn Waugh mockingly referred to him as a ‘black face.’ Paul Theroux hated him. Poet Derek Walcott called him “V. S. Nightfall”.
However, all Naipaul was perhaps attempting was to hold up an alternate standard of humanity, a literary drill sergeant’s discipline aimed at ahaming backward cultures to rise to global equality. In truth it was Naipaul who first foresaw the war of civilisations.
In over five decades of his writing career, Sir Vidya published more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction. His
work reflects his conviction that individuals are shaped by history.
The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas, all set in the Caribbean, are irrigated with ironic humor and poignant debasement written by “the laureate of humiliation” as the influential literary critic Dwight Garner describes Naipaul; frustrated writer Ganesh Ramsumair cynically reinvents himself as a miracle man and then a successful politician; in Suffrage of Elvira post-colonial political corruption drowns an individual in its greedy tides. Naipaul’s work is an examination of the existential crisis of newborn nations that struggled to marry their indigenous and colonial heritages, the failed revolutions and the uncertainty of Independence.
In 1971, he won the Booker for In a Free State. In 1961, Miguel Street won the Somerset Maugham Award; the first-ever work by a non-European writer to do so.
In the late 1970s, Sir Vidia’s critical binoculars moved its focus away from the Third World to Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia where political Islamic fundamentalism ruled a cowed citizenry —“parasites” “who lock themselves away in belief shut themselves away from the active, busy world” and lacking intellectual mirrors.
Naipaul believed Islamic societies encourage tyranny since Islam offered no political or practical solution and only the faith.
VS Naipaul had a unique window to interpret history, straddling two centuries. He saw the decline of the British Empire, the rise and fall of fascism and the seismic horrors of World War II. In his lifetime, White Britain changed into a multicultural, multiracial landscape that he never would have expected when he landed in London. New nations were born throughout Africa and Asia exposing hidden faultlines in nascent democracies.
He witnessed the emergence of America’s might that ushered in a new world order. He saw the collapse of Communism and the Berlin Wall. The birth of the military industrial complex, the Internet and the Silicon Valley revolution happened on his literary watch. He also watched the world change as radical Islam began to commit murderous suicide on the civilized world’s shores. The Arab Spring toppled dictatorships only to open the doors to theocratic tyranny, creating one of the largest humanitarian crisis that is now redrawing the map of the world’s most volatile region.
Never in modern history has a writer ever received such a mixed bounty from history: to laugh, weep and sail on its tragic but extravagant tides. Naipaul’s editor always said that his novels needed no work and the words spoke volumes in his inimitably frugal style; perhaps because he had seen too much.
One of the greatest universal writers born in the twentieth century, Naipaul said of literature, “Plot is for those
who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it.” Even after he went into the good night
aged 85 on 11 August, Sir Vidia’s narrative will continue to unfold through the plots milling around the collective subconscious.