By the time I have sat down to write this, just a day after VS Naipaul’s death, every publication and every writer in the world seems to have paid a tribute to him. But ‘tribute’ is the wrong word here; that generally stands for undiluted praise, a highlighting of the deceased’s qualities of heart and mind, whereas everything you read about Naipaul was conflicted. A great writer, yes. And that without the slightest doubt. A great writer with his heart in the right place? Um, no. If only he had been a nicer man…
Oddly enough, when you met him, he was a nice man. Softly spoken, given to thoughtful speech, he seemed to be far removed from the man with the ferocious temper we had heard about — leaving a press conference abruptly because of the stupidity of the questions, being waspish about other writers, alive or dead. (On EM Forster: “A Passage to India has only one real scene”. On Henry James: “The worst writer in the world”). But personally to me, he was always solicitous: What was I doing? Was I happy doing columns rather than write books? And faced with a room full of admirers as he did at a dinner to which I had invited him, he didn’t play the lion in the room; instead he tried to blend in with everyone, asking each one what they did, and listening intently, as if he really did want to know.
Yet this was the same man who said about his publisher “She was so good as a taster and editor, yet when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh.” He then added, “I don’t mean this in any unkind way”, making you wonder what other possible way he could have meant it. Naipaul didn’t stop there; he went on to say that just reading a few pages of a novel, he would know if it was written by a woman. And none of them were his equal.
Was this difference in the public and private persona a deliberate act, designed to attract attention and headlines? You could have thought that at the beginning of his career, but he was already a name at 29 with A House for Mr Biswas, and the more famous he became, and the more outrageous his public comments became, it only hurt his reputation. For example, with the quotes about Forster and Henry James, some people could have well asked: Was Naipaul jealous of their reputation?
Someone really needs to do a psychological study of Naipaul. What was the source of his melancholia? He doesn’t seem to have had an unhappy childhood – when we gave him the Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award, and he sat on the stage to talk about himself, he quietly wept at the memory of his father. The protagonist of A House for Mr Biswas was not only modeled on him, Naipaul has often said it was his father who inspired him to read. And the young Vidia must have been an over-achieving student to get a scholarship to Oxford to study English Literature. Yet he is said to have had a nervous breakdown at Oxford.
Like most Indians, it wasn’t Biswas which brought Naipaul to my attention, but An Area of Darkness. I suppose if you need an executive summary of the book’s contents, you don’t need to go further than the title: it eschews any ambiguity; there’s no question mark there, it’s a statement of fact. And if you look at the book dispassionately, as I didn’t, and most people didn’t because it was impossible to do so, the book isn’t a compendium of falsehoods. If he says Indians ‘defecate everywhere’, isn’t that a commonplace enough observation for anyone taking a morning local train in Mumbai? When he goes to Gorakhpur, the place in Eastern Uttar Pradesh where his family came from, what he writes about are the flies swarming around a jalebi – hawker, a common enough sight. That’s what made your hackles rise, the unrelenting piling on of negative observations, all of them expressed in the most infuriatingly beautiful prose, without a thought given to the causes that led to the offending effect.
I know some of the people who took Naipaul around when he was researching the book. They spoke of the many joyful moments he encountered on his travels, the many talented and energetic young people he met who were embarking on new directions that gave the country reasons for optimism. But these don’t find any mention in Darkness because it didn’t fit in with his pre-conceived idea of India as a wounded civilisation (which became the title of a later book).
When he had finished with India, he did the same with Africa and the same with Islam. The kindest thing you can say about his books on these subjects is that they are politically incorrect. Yet if an African writer wrote so searingly of his continent, would he be called a racist? He would, instead, be lauded for his honesty. Similarly, if a Muslin wrote about Islam in a similar fashion? People would applaud his courage. The same, I imagine, would be the case if an Indian writer wrote Naipaul’s India books. So there are two things you notice here: Naipaul observations hurt, not because they are untruths but because it’s an outsider making them. Secondly, would an insider actually have written books that were so perversely unsympathetic, so dogged in their determination to avoid any understanding of underlying causes?
Perhaps Naipaul’s philosophy can be summed up in his own words: “If a writer doesn’t generate hostility, he is dead.” Did he really believe that, or was even that said for effect? You can ask the same question of his many other statements. Like “If ever you wish to meet intellectual frauds in quantity, go to Paris.” Or: “Trinidad (where he was born) may seem complex, but to anyone who knows it, it is a simple, colonial, philistine society.” He has said things in that vein about England too where he settled down, lived his entire adult life and now passed away. So was he unhappy everywhere? Did no place meet his exacting requirements, whatever they were?
How do you approach a writer as complex as this? To start with, there are two Naipauls, the writer of novels and the writer of non-fiction. The former shows a lightness of touch, a sly humour which you wouldn’t suspect if you read only the latter. But his reputation really rests with his non-fiction. I would put aside his self-confessed misogyny (why would he tell us in such detail about his cruelty to his first wife, and to his mistress?) because that really has nothing to do with the contents of his books. I would file away in some remote corner of my brain his self-earned reputation of racism and bigotry. I would read him for his exquisite style, language at its loftiest; I would look objectively at his acute observations of the frailty of societies and see the truth in them. Reading Naipaul is to see literature at its finest, and really that’s all that should matter.
That’s really all that mattered to him. Apparently, he never read reviews of his books. If he was misquoted (as he often was), he never bothered to issue a correction. Five years ago at our Mumbai literary festival when we gave him the Lifetime Achievement award, Girish Karnad unleashed a vitriolic attack on him as an alleged hater of Muslims, and an alleged supporter of the Babri Masjid demolition. He didn’t react. It was as if the storm that swirled around the festival because of him, had nothing to do with him. For Naipaul writing was the only thing that mattered: all the rest was noise.