For his entire life, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul has resented being placed in a straitjacket. He says exactly what he wants to, irrespective of consequences. And the world has been remarkably kind to him, rewarding him with accolades and awards, including the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize.
Naipaul has portrayed himself as a one-of-a-kind, who doesn’t want to belong to any club of writers. He has said he refuses to read his contemporaries because he probably thinks they are inferior to him. And he bristles when asked about his identity. A few years ago, his biographer Patrick French was interviewing Naipaul at the South Bank Centre in London, when Naipaul attacked a young American student, who asked him a simple question about his identity. He called her ignorant, saying she had asked the question only because she liked listening to her voice.
Naipaul likes his own voice. It speaks with certainty and assuredness, and many critics have confused that swagger and disdain for genius. But oddly, he now wants to belong: Nearly 78, he wants the person of Indian origin (PIO) card so that he can have visa-free travel to India. The Indian high commission in London has shown him the rules. Those rules are onerous, if you haven’t been born in India. You need to get some documentary evidence to show that anyone up to your great-grandparents was born in India.
Naipaul’s forefathers left Gorakhpur many years ago; getting any documentation from the revenue officer there is not for the faint-hearted. The rules need flexibility, but not only for Naipaul. “But how could someone so important as Sir Naipaul be asked to prove his Indian origin,” Naipaul’s fans ask. Some believe that since he was the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the annual jamboree for overseas Indians, officials should overlook that requirement. But surely a cultural recognition is not a legal imprimatur?
Naipaul’s wife, Pakistan-born Lady Nadira, has made her unhappiness known. I find it mildly amusing to picture the official, saying “rules are rules, madam”, to Lady Naipaul as she frets, in the room she describes as “the pits” of the Indian high commission. For good measure, she has also supposedly reminded us that her husband had “given India four books.” (Actually, make that three, ma’am—An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)).
And so what? Those are thought-provoking books, with some good insights, but also some facile, exasperating conclusions. India of the 1960s and 1970s was static in many ways, but Naipaul can’t see the humanity and dynamism of the millions around him. Looking at people emerging from the Churchgate station he feels intimidated. In his pithy essay, “Naipaul’s India and Mine,” the late Nissim Ezekiel’s review of An Area of Darkness, the leitmotif was: “Rubbish, Mr. Naipaul.” In India: A Wounded Civilization Naipaul revealed fundamental weaknesses of India’s “borrowed institutions”, which succumbed so easily during the emergency of 1975-77. But unlike Ved Mehta’s The New India (1978), Naipaul stays gloomy. In contrast, the night of Indira Gandhi’s defeat, Mehta is out on the streets, celebrating with his family. And in India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul notes the rise of Hindu militancy, but is profoundly flawed in seeing that development as positive.
Naipaul has travelled continents and decried the “half-made” societies that emerged from colonial rule. People who have travelled less than him have praised the acuity of his observations. But French’s description of how Naipaul operates in his biography, The World is What It Is (2008), is perceptive: “During his journey to India, Vidia would hone the technique he was to use in his subsequent non-fiction writing: he found experienced local journalists to guide him, took whatever assistance or hospitality was available, interviewed people in great detail, linked what he had discovered to his existing ideas about the country, and wrote up the results fast.”
To be sure, the Indian high commission is not a literary critic; nor should what Naipaul has said about India be the reason to deny him the PIO card. He wants to come “home” often; let him. As a septuagenarian, he deserves politeness and courtesy. But why bend the rules for him alone?
The remarkable part about this story is how the official chose to follow rules when he faced celebrity. For too long Indian officials have bent over backwards to accommodate a “VVIP”. Indeed, the law very likely needs to be changed, but it is for Indian legislators to decide that; waiving the rules only for the Sir and Lady from Wiltshire will reinforce the feudal India that Naipaul apparently despises in his writing, where the privileged few use their connections to jump queues, shouting at officials (calling them “petty”), saying “Do you know who I am?” while the aam aadmi, or the common man—and woman—must wait.
India is what it is, man is nothing.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org