SIR VIDIADHAR Surajprasad Naipaul has died in London, aged 85, his family has announced. Western readers will remember him as a master of prose, both fiction and non-fiction, with a keen eye for reality and an even keener literary blade that stripped off the pleasant fictions and popular delusions which usually hide reality in plain sight. Readers in the former colonies would agree that this was the essence of Sir Vidia. But we also remember certain unpleasant facts and unpopular utterances. An area of darkness containing a wounded civilisation, relieved only by a million mutinies, discovered at a much later date? That’s all? Nissim Ezekiel answered the question very trenchantly in his 1976 essay, ‘Naipaul’s India and Mine’.
The land of Naipaul’s ancestors wished to claim him, and felt spurned. When he focused on dirty streets and cramped cities, it saw him as an inheritor of the estate of Katherine Mayo, whom Mahatma Gandhi had dismissed as a “drain inspector”. Despite criticism, India, from where Naipaul’s grandparents migrated to Trinidad as indentured workers, drew his attention repeatedly from the early Sixties, when he spent a year here and was briefly a columnist for The Illustrated Weekly of India. Three major books flowed from this abiding interest — An Area of Darkness (1964), India: a Wounded Civilisation (1977) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990).
These were stories of homecoming, by a writer who was uneasy in his ancestral home. Such uneasiness about one’s cultural moorings may be seen as an act of assertion, of the need for the writer’s identity to be rooted only in the self. Alternatively, it can be read as plain uneasiness. Naipaul was a plain-dealing writer, and the plainer explanation is more likely to be true.
But in its citation for the Nobel prize for Literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy preferred the first reading, describing Naipaul as “a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself”. But the north his compass rose pointed to was somewhere in the Western hemisphere, and he leaves behind a complex body of work which offers multiple readings, according to the geolocation of the reader. While his admirers read his travel writings from the Third World as blisteringly honest descriptions of cicatrices of the colonial past and self-inflicted wounds of the present, the subjects of the narrative may see only bad caricatures of themselves. While he has been placed in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, who sought to understand the familiar by placing it beyond the rim of the known world, a brown Conrad is a contradiction in terms.
However, contradiction is frequently the basis of good literature, and Naipaul, while providing “a topography of the void”, actually wrote of a densely peopled world, thick with the real action of everyday life. He excelled in a wonderfully deadpan comic form, in which the human condition is inherently funny-peculiar, as in A House for Mr Biswas, his first novel to gain appreciation worldwide. The Indian-origin Mohun Biswas is called Mr Biswas even when his age is in single digits, and he is falling into puddles and embarrassing himself. It lends him a peculiar, precocious gravitas as he prepares to do battle with the world.
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Mr Biswas’s creator was himself famously conflict-prone. Internationally, he was accused of racism for his attitudes to Africa and the Caribbean, which appeared to him to be incapable of history, and of bigotry, for claiming Islam and the Arab conquests to have been worse than colonialism. In India, he sparked off the last battle ever at Neemrana Fort. Here to celebrate his Nobel Prize at the International Festival of Indian Literature in 2002 during the A B Vajpayee administration, he had tried to snub Nayantara Sahgal and Shashi Deshpande by saying that Indian writers repeated themselves because they haven’t much to say. He also rebelled petulantly against their “banalities” concerning colonialism and gender oppression. Ten years after these outbursts, Girish Karnad took him to task in a surprise attack at a Mumbai festival where Naipaul was honoured for lifetime achievement.
Sir Vidia’s thoughts no longer loom over the Indian consciousness as they did in the 20th century. But their shadow has not entirely passed, and the contradictions in the work of this contentious writer will continue to inspire thinking about identity, about points of origin and destination, and about the enigma of arrival. If it is possible to ever arrive at all, in an expanding universe.