V.S. Naipaul, and his conflicted relationship with India
A zoom into the details of V.S. Naipaul’s relationship with India—one of tension between attraction and repulsion
Just after his 17th birthday in 1949, an Indian-Trinidadian calling himself “Vido” dispatched a series of letters from Port-of-Spain to Benares, where his older sister Kamla was studying in her ancestral homeland on a government scholarship.
He complained about “green slime” turtle soup he’d flamboyantly spurned at a school reunion, and fussed about a photograph, “I had always thought that, though not attractive, I was not ugly. This picture undeceived me…an Indian from India could look no more Indian than I did. He proffered audacious opinions clearly meant to rile, “Jane Austen appears to be essentially a writer for women: if she lived in our age she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the women’s papers. Her work really bored me. It is mere gossip. It could appeal to a female audience.”
Then, young Vido wrote some remarkable passages of advice nominally addressed to his sister, but evidently meant to cohere into something like a personal manifesto.
After asking for confirmation of his impression of India as “a wretched country, full of pompous mediocrity, with no future” he declared, “Asia today is only a primitive manifestation of a long-dead culture; Europe is battered into a primitivism by material circumstances; America is an abortion. Look at Indian music. It is being influenced by Western music to an amusing extent. Indian painting and sculpture have ceased to exist. That is the picture I want you to look for—a dead country still running with the momentum of its heyday…I am planning to write a book about these damned people and the wretched country of theirs, exposing their detestable traits. Grill them on everything.”
Some fifty years after that correspondence winged air mail between continents, it re-emerged in Between Father and Son: Family Letters edited by Gillon Aitken.
My first American edition has New York 2000 on its title page, but it was actually released in the winter of 1999, because I remember walking through Christmas-lit snowdrifts to the Rizzoli bookstore on 57th street in Manhattan to (an extreme rarity!) pay full price of $26 to secure the prize. By this point, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was by far the most celebrated writer of Indian origin since Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913. He had collected the Booker Prize (in 1971, for In a Free State), and a peerage (in the 1990 New Year’s honours list).
In due course, he won his own Nobel Prize for Literature, cited in 2001 for being a “modern philosophe...he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.”
Examine the intense confidences shared by teenaged Vido, and there seems a direct line connecting those early intuitions to a good part of the extraordinary oeuvre about which the Nobel committee said “Naipaul’s literary domain has extended far beyond the West Indian island of Trinidad, his first subject, and now encompasses India, Africa, America from south to north, the Islamic countries of Asia and, not least, England. Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.”
In response, during his acceptance speech in Stockholm, Naipaul also rooted his world view firmly in his background, saying “in Trinidad, bright boy though I was, I was surrounded by areas of darkness. School elucidated nothing for me.”
Much the same at home, “We looked inwards; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing.”
Then, “When I became a writer those areas of darkness around me as a child became my subjects. The land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world, to which I also felt myself related; Africa; and then England, where I was doing my writing. That was what I meant when I said that my books stand one on the other, and that I am the sum of my books. That was what I meant when I said that my background, the source and prompting of my work, was at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly complicated.”
Zoom into the details of the writer’s relationship with India, and a more apt word would be “conflicted”. That tension between attraction and repulsion is already readily apparent in the letters published by Aitken, where the newly independent nation looms large as potential safe haven.
His father Seepersad urges job-seeking with the Indian Diplomatic Service, and his achingly desperate-sounding son reassures him, “I am to go to India as an executive assistant in the Western India Match Company…Jobs like that are fairly easy to come by. Simply because one has an Oxford degree!”
But no padded sinecure came Naipaul’s way. Instead he crafted the building blocks of his literature by hard graft, while only barely alleviating his poverty. Finally in 1962, he sailed to Bombay on a journey which “broke my life in two”.
This led to An Area of Darkness (1964), where he railed in anguish, “It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain?”
Changing ideas of India
Those lines dumbfounded me when I first read them in the book stacks of the public library in Forest Hills, in New York City where my family had relocated from India a couple of years earlier. It was 1984, and I was 16.
Every time we drove into Manhattan, my father would point to the angled skyscraper headquarters of Citibank, to remind us the company’s annual budget exceeded that of India. The comparison always rankled. My parents strove to place me and my brother into private school, where many Queens celebrities were alumni.
Not Donald Trump, however, who had been expelled, and completed his education elsewhere. But the current President of the US’s notorious sentiment about “shithole countries” was nonetheless omnipresent in my life in those years.
Still, it was one thing for diaspora Indians to hear those prejudices (with their hurtful ring of truth) and another for the entire culture to get kicked where it counted by Naipaul writing, “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.” After publication, An Area of Darkness was immediately banned in its subject country for “its negative portrayal of India and its people”.
Poet Nissim Ezekiel wrote saying he did not dispute “these condemnatory judgements of his, so fiercely, so blazingly expressed. My quarrel is that Mr Naipaul is so often uninvolved and unconcerned. He writes exclusively from the point of view of his own dilemma, his temperamental alienation from his mixed background, his choice and his escape.”
In retrospect, of course, the angst was misplaced. Certainly, there was no dramatic cleaving of ties. Instead, there was constant back-and-forth, producing the acerbic India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) and the sprawling India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), as well as late marriage to the Pakistani journalist, Nadira Khannum Alvi, who survives as Lady Naipaul. Writer Amitav Ghosh perceptively put it a few years ago, “An Area of Darkness created a sensation because of its tone of derision and outrage. Yet, on careful reading, I think it is not hard to see that the target of Naipaul’s rage is none other than himself and his own past. His derision stems not from what he sees in India but rather from his disillusionment with the myths of his uprooted ancestors.”
The author expanded on similar lines to journalist Tarun Tejpal in 1999, saying “We are not born with full knowledge and people of my background were granted very little of it at school. Writing is a process of learning. The writer writes himself into an understanding of his world and it has taken me many years and much writing to arrive at the understanding which I now have.”
By this time, there’s another unexpected twist. To the great delight of the ascendant Hindu right, Naipaul seemed ready to offer up apologia for any number of violent excesses. He told Tejpal that Hindu militancy was “a necessary corrective…a creative force.”
Almost inconceivably, Naipaul even tried to spin the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid that led to thousands of deaths across the country, “Ayodhya is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity.”
The final curtain
Many people write stupid, hateful things. But maybe a handful throughout history have simultaneously managed a lifetime of transcendent, utterly beautiful and unique work alongside. Sitting smug in that rare position is Sir Vidia Naipaul. Less than 48 hours ago, the poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote tweeted, “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” is a vexed doctrine. So far, I have declined five invitations to write an obituary for VS Nightfall (in Derek Walcott’s accurate phrase). I am appalled by the rivers of praise flowing for a man who was in equal parts narcissist, bigot, racist, and cad.” When I informed my friend he would not like what I was working on (this essay) he instantly responded, “I know my phrasing was uncharacteristically brutal, but I’ll stand by my critique of the man and much of his work. And yet I’d also hold on to A House for Mr Biswas, The Suffrage of Elvira, and A Bend in the River :)”
I see that list, and raise it another handful of unforgettable masterpieces. But what is the point of quibbling over this book or the other?
In his brilliant biography The World is What it Is, Patrick French summarizes the bottom line most usefully, “This achievement does not mean that all his writing was good, or that his behaviour was exemplary, but rather that his cumulative achievement outstripped his contemporaries, and altered the way in which writers and readers perceived the world. Using simple sentences, he would look at complex modern subjects: extremism, global migration, political and religious identity, ethnic difference, the implosion of Africa, the resurgence of Asia and the remaking of the old European dispensation in the aftermath of empire. His achievement was an act of will, in which every situation and relationship would be subordinated to his ambition.”
The breadth of work produced as a result of that relentless single-mindedness has galvanized Indian writing for over 50 years.
Amitav Ghosh puts it best again, “The word ‘influence’ seems inadequate for a circumstance like this: it is as though Naipaul’s work were a whetstone against which to sharpen my own awareness of the world.” Though just a teenage reader, with only very secret literary aspirations, it cannot be denied something very similar happened to me. It took some time to get there.
First I read everything else available by an Indian author in 1980’s Queens. Then, a librarian recommended Suffrage of Elvira, and that was that. I re-read those early Trinidad novels three or four times before returning them, and then methodically read everything else Naipaul had published.
When I applied to colleges in 1986, my main essay subject was his books, paeans so embarrassingly fulsome that even their flickering memory makes me shudder. I eventually went to Wesleyan, where I worked in the admissions department, and hunted down my application: the Naipaul bits had been approvingly underlined. That’s what got me in. A few years later, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I had a chance to spend a couple of months anywhere we wanted. My choice? Trinidad. I bought her a copy of A House for Mr Biswas and off we went to Valsayn, a suburb of Port-of-Spain. Now we trawled the island knee-deep in Naipauliana: from Chaguanas to Caroni. I even went and met his sister, Savi, to quiz her at length about family stories and early childhood memories that showed up in his writing.
Fast forward two decades later, and all this is racing through my mind, while V.S. Naipaul is sitting stone-faced right in front of me. We are close to the riverfront where I live in Goa, and the Nobel winner is chief guest at Tarun Tejpal’s splashy (and eventually ill-fated) ThinkFest. I’ve been watching him all along, he is usually surrounded by a crowd and always hawkishly guarded by his wife. But no, he is quite alone, and so here I go.
“Mr. Naipaul, such a pleasure and honour to meet you finally, I find it overwhelming.” Hm, he says. Then it all spills, fandom and college and Trinidad. His eyes go moist. “That’s very kind of you, very kind of you,” he finally says. Then, looking around alertly, “would you mind staying a bit? I’d like you to repeat those stories to Nadira.”
Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer.