Home >Opinion >Blogs >Why Girish Karnad isn’t wrong about V.S. Naipaul

Once the word got around that Girish Karnad had eviscerated Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the Trinidad-born British writer who had been given the lifetime achievement award at the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai, the battle-lines were drawn clearly. Karnad had to be wrong because Naipaul was great and his critics were insignificant (he is a lion and people like me are “rats", as someone on Twitter described me, when I defended Karnad, although Naipaul would have shown off his wider vocabulary, and called his critics “pygmies" or something suitably outrageous); Karnad had insulted his hosts by misusing the stage he was given, since he was invited to speak about his theatre, and not about Naipaul’s failings (even though his session was called, ironically, “Straight Talk"; that Karnad’s own understanding of Indian history was selective and his contribution to Indian culture was puny; that criticizing an award to Naipaul was an attack on free speech; and that Naipaul was somehow a flawless literary lion.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. First, Karnad’s politics is irrelevant in evaluating Naipaul’s worth as a writer. Second, Karnad was invited to talk about his life in theatre. That life represents a certain world-view, certain values, of a syncretic, inclusive India. When he saw someone like Naipaul, who glorifies a worldview built on triumphalism, which justifies inter-generational transfer of guilt and who has supported vandalism (the Babri Masjid destruction) as a sign of “inevitable retribution," Karnad uses the stage – he is an actor, after all – and tells a story of why honouring Naipaul is wrong. If you think Naipaul is right, you haven’t understood my theatre, my worldview – that’s Karnad’s underlying message. Third, one can of course challenge Karnad’s own reading of history and debate with him. But anyone who thinks “Hayavadana" and “Tughlaq" don’t matter in understanding modern India has the worldview shaped by growing up on a tiny island. Fourth, Karnad’s remarks do not attack Naipaul’s free speech; seeking to silence him attacks Karnad’s free speech. And nobody has suggested any lunatic idea, such as Naipaul’s books to be banned, that he be denied entry into India, or that his books be burned.

But what about the fifth part: Naipaul’s significance as a writer? Far too many critics have written eloquently about Naipaul’s prose – how good it is, how perspicacious and prescient he is, how uncanny his predictions have turned out to be, and, since the award is being given in India, to a writer of Indian origin, how deep his understanding of India is.

Karnad is right to challenge that. But it is worth noting that Karnad is not the first to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Think back and recall Nissim Ezekiel’s magnificent essay, “Naipaul’s India and Mine" which I read many years ago in Adil Jussawalla’s anthology, “New Writing in India" or William Dalrymple’s essay outlining the gaps in Naipaul’s retelling of India’s past. Naipaul’s fellow-Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott once called him “Sir V.S. Nightfall." His former friend Paul Theroux, (they have since been civil to one another) wrote an anecdote-rich, entertaining but ultimately bitter biography, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow" which showed many instances of Naipaul’s meanness. And Patrick French’s majestic biography “The World Is What It Is" revealed an emotionally-stunted man with a pathological dislike for most people except those who agreed with him.

Neemrana, 2002: soon after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naipaul was being feted in India, the subject of three of the more than 30 books he has published. Those present portray a near-unanimous picture of an impertinent guest, unhappy with everything. During one of the sessions, when Nayantara Sahgal was making the rather sensible points about India’s failure in educating its children, how the country needed to do more to promote literature in Indian languages, and talked of the yoke of colonialism subjugating Indian languages, Naipaul interrupted her, saying he hadn’t come to listen to a political lecture. She held her ground; he raised his voice, and Ruchir Joshi stepped in, telling Naipaul he was being obnoxious and he should stop the inquisition.

Hardly the first time. A few years ago at the South Bank Centre in London, French, who was then working on his authorized biography, was interviewing Naipaul about his writing. Once the session opened for questions from the audience, a young American student asked Naipaul about his identity. Did he see himself as British, Indian, or Caribbean? Instead of answering, he called her ignorant, saying she had asked the question only because she liked listening to her voice. (This, apparently, is a recurring insult, usually directed at women: I know of at least two similar instances). Then a year ago at the Hay Festival, Naipaul said no woman, not even Jane Austen, was his literary match , and called the writing of Diana Athill, who edited Naipaul for years at Andre Deutsch, as “feminine tosh."

Why the boorishness? French talks about a Caribbean trait, picong, which is supposed to be light comical banter deliberately said to provoke someone, but not the kind of verbal outrageousness that it becomes when Naipaul uses it.Good or bad, its origin is at least not Indian. Should one make a cultural consideration for Naipaul, when he does not offer the same courtesy to cultures he finds reprehensible? If Naipaul can give, surely he can take what Karnad offers?

These are not unknown secrets about Naipaul. He is his favourite subject. Throughout his life, scattered across continents,encompassing the colonial rule, the response to it, early hopes of nationhood, and the inevitable disappointments that followed, he has carried a magisterial air, saying, “I told you so."

But he was never the only one, nor the most original.

Should Naipaul’s meanness matter? Do we overlook the frailties of the painter Pablo Picasso, the film-maker Woody Allen, and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, because of the haunting reality of Guernica , the delightful charms of Annie Hall , and the sublime beauty of the 40th Symphony? Telling the man apart from his work is difficult in Naipaul’s case because so much of one influences the other. His life has its roots in resentment that displacement causes, a linear narrative begins with the arrival of Indian indentured labour in the Caribbean after British reforms ended the more blatant form of slavery from Africa, replacing it witha less crude form of slavery, this time from India. The nascent Indian community in the Caribbean included Naipaul’s ancestors; his father dreamt of becoming a writer, and Vidiadhar wanted to leave the small islands: his stage was meant to be bigger.

Carrying resentment on his sleeve, he despised the former colonized nations he encountered, calling them “half-made societies" in the post-colonial world, and grandly proclaiming, “Africa has no future,"unsympathetic to the humiliation of colonialism the society suffered. (David Hare mocks such a character brilliantly, naming him Victor Mehta, in his play, “A Map Of The World".

There is an air of armchair intellectualism in the acuity of observations that he makes. What French describes in his biography about how he operates in India is not unlike how he has operated elsewhere, while observing other societies: “During his journey through 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."

In “A House for Mr Biswas," Naipaul described his father as inadequate, lonely, but unassailable. Naipaul may not perhaps accept that he has certain inadequacies, but he believes himself to be unassailable. That explains his loneliness.

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