Monday, April 16, 2007

Appropriating Vidiadhar Suraj Prasad Naipaul

It is mysterious that the ambition should have come first - the wish to be a writer, to have that distinction, that fame - and that this ambition should have come long before I could think of anything to write about.

I first read V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate, ten years ago in the second year of my Bachelor's. I had heard mention of his book, A House for Mr. Biswas which was the prescribed reading for the B.A. (English) department and then I had vested interests in that department. Most of the people I knew then held the opinion that Naipaul was a difficult author to read and he was mostly riled. Surprisingly, I discovered later that most of them, I would not be wrong if I dare say, none of them had ever read him. It is not the same now though, Naipaul after his Nobel Prize, is a much admired figure in India. Naipaul still evokes strong feelings in India though over the past decade I have met a number of people who have actually read him.

The first book that I borrowed was a collection of short stories called, A Flag on the Island. Till then I had no inkling to the fact that there was an Indian origin community in the Caribbeans. Despite being aware of Indian names in the ranks of the collective West Indies cricket team. It was eye opening. The Indian link got me all curious and I was soon hooked to Sir Vidia and his mapping of the world for me.

The controversy that surrounds Naipaul is owing to his non-fiction/travel writings which are pedantic and critical. His first book on India was called, An Area of Darkness(1964). Naipaul's writings are dominated by his origins and his background as a descendent of the girmityas (agreement) labourers that the British Colonial government contracted to man sugar plantations and lower administration to its other colonies (Fiji, Maldives, Mauritius and the Caribbeans). It is a fascinating history of how the contractors fulfilled their duties by sometimes abducting and kidnapping people. The labourers were obliged to serve their contracts for five years and buy their passage back to India. Naipaul's grandfather was one such person, though we do not know in what capacity did he make the fateful voyage. The Indian community kept the fire of India burning in their hearts and minds and the most consistent thought was of buying their passage back to India. Most never came back despite the intentions and even when they could afford it. The few that dared to re-trace their way home could not take the chaotic, crowded, poverty stricken gigantic (by standards of the islands) land mass. And so it was with Naipaul on his first visit to India in the 1960's. An Area of Darkness is a difficult book to read for Naipaul coming to face with a reality which in exile was merely an idea that comforted and provided reassurance. The India of their consciousness did not exist or had ceased to exist.

The second book on India, India: A Wounded Civilisation, was written in 1976. It is in the second book that Naipaul's controversial thesis, that the repeated Muslim invasions destroyed the vitality of the Hindu world, was articulated. The second book was also important in the hardening of the Indian elite opinion against Naipaul's incisive and cruel analysis of the slovenly, lazy and didactic Indians.

These two books were followed by his other two controversial books on Islam, Among the Believers (1979), a journey among the non-Arabic Muslim countries (he calls them converted). In 1990, Naipaul travelled the same route (Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malayasia) when he wrote, Beyond Belief's in his efforts to map what is called today the rise of political Islam.

It is Naipaul's thesis articulated in A Wounded Civilization and the two books on Islam apart from his press statements and some journal essays which put him on the wrong side of the secular brigade. The Indian elite remains offended at his bitter, unsavoury representation of the country. Here was a successful writer of similar origins who they would have loved to embrace and call their own but for his unflattering opinions of India and Indians. The historians pointed out that Naipaul's reading of Indian history is selective and determined by his thesis and not the other way around. Naipaul has also over the years been associated with providing intellectual justification for the fascist agenda of the Hindu right wing.

Naipaul's third book on India is called India: A Million Mutinies now. It is said to be a more positive reading of post-Mandal/mandir India and the creative energies released by the domestic political processes after the fall of the Congress Party's hegemony in New Delhi.

The blog post prior to this appeared in the Tehelka and it was good reading Naipaul after such a long time. I have not been able to read Naipaul's fiction of late. Though I should emphasize that Naipaul's early fiction is perhaps one of the most important in 20th century literature and his zenith was reached with A House for Mr. Biswas. And in going back to his Mutinies book, Naipaul's discussion of ideas, the practicalities of taking notes and carrying out research is a welcome insight into how the great mind worked. However, for people who want a deeper look into Naipaul's writings, I strongly recommend, Finding the Center, a book that consists of two essays. The first is called, "Prologue to an Autobiography" and the second is a travel piece in West Africa. The the most exciting and the most enlightening piece on writing that I have ever read. In the essay, Naipaul ruminates about his time in the BBC World Caribbean Radio service, the impetus of the opening lines of Miguel Street, his first published work, a collection of short stories and the latent push required to move beyond the first few lines and get the story going. Naipaul's writings are said to be characterised by a sense of exile, homelessness and the inability to belong. Ian Burruma, in the Penguin introduction to A House for Mr. Biswas, writes that for Naipaul, 'ambition ran into the sand' in his island of Trinidad. And as the previous post mentions, Naipaul never really returned home after he left for England.

In 2003 Naipaul got his father's (Seeparsad Naipaul) writing efforts published in a book titled, The Adventures of Gurudeva and other stories. The book is a testimony of the influence that the father had on the son. The ideas and characters of his father's book resonates in the early Naipaul books like The Mystic Masseur and Miguel Street. What is even more amazing is that Naipaul had a younger brother Shiva Naipaul, fourteen years his junior, who also published a few books. I have read his travel books and two novels, which were very good reads, despite the dominating presence of his elder brother's writings and the similarities of theme. For secondary readings on Naipaul, Paul Theroux's, Sir Vidia's Shadow is a stupendous achievement. Sir Vidia's is the first biography of Naipaul and is unauthorised and was a result of a celebrated friendship gone sour. For a more personal peek into Naipaul, Letters from Father to a Son, is highly recommended despite its morbidity.

Patrick French is working on the authorized biography of VS Naipaul. French is famous for his biography of Francis Younghusband and also the author of the sophomoric, Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division.


aya said...

If i speak like "we go take we coffee and we busicuit, eh?", please assume that I have just read Nipaul's stories set in Trinidad. haha

disillussioned_me said...

I agree with aya! Also i did enjoy reading A House for Mister Biswas(recommended on our reading list too)