History ran through the life and work of VS Naipaul, one of the greatest writers of English, who died on Sunday. It is for that reason that his legacy will remain as deeply divided as the man himself. One might choose to memorialise the Naipaul of his early magical works, whose sentences turned the streets of Trinidad into a world of tragicomic possibility. Or, one might flinch from and rail at — and how can one not — the man who caricatured whole civilisations and cultures as “half-made” places, which could never achieve the perfection of the West. What one cannot do, however, is choose not to engage with his work.
Born in 1932 in Trinidad, Naipaul’s grandparents were indentured labour swept into the Caribbean by the brute-wave of colonialism. It was the primal trauma that forever defined his relationship with his origins. “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it,” he wrote. He strove to escape that fate of placelessness — and it is no coincidence that the theme of his greatest work, A House for Mr Biswas, is this search for a home. His brilliance and ambitions ensured him a passage to England, where he created a trailblazing literary career — with more than a little help from the women in his life. In that respect, he was the arch-male novelist from a feminist dystopia, whose work cannibalised the physical, intellectual and emotional labour of the women he professed to love. He not only dismissed women’s writing as insignificant and predictable, but his relations with women were characterised by disturbing violence. The line that divided Naipaul the man from the writer was blurry — he was the prime example of the self-loathing, colonised subject he wrote about with so much perspicacity. Similarly, the violence and misogyny of his life seeped into his works, forever tinging any literary reckoning of his work.
And then, there was the irascible celebrity himself, whose list of blood feuds kept literary circles abuzz. As a writer on India, he offered the outsider’s bewildered, shocked perspective on the “million mutinies” that raged within. But his gaze was not of empathy. His description of “Ayodhya as a passion” was complicit in demonising an entire community. In the end, however, his work will continue to speak to the many cleavages in the life of the post-colonial people.