Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, who passed away in London just a few days before his 86th birthday, was born in Chaguanas, rural Trinidad, on August 17, 1932. We in India like to claim Naipaul as our own, for he was, after all, of Indian origin. Naipaul’s grandfather was transported by the British from India to the Caribbean as an indentured labourer in the 19th Century. Fate willed it that Naipaul should be born and raised in Trinidad, till he left for England as a university student in his early twenties, never to return to the West Indies again. Naipaul made England his permanent home.
Naipaul has always had a love-hate relationship with India. Given a choice, he would have preferred to grow up in India than in Trinidad, for in India he would not be displaced from his roots. In Trinidad, on the other hand, he lived a deracinated existence among the Indians and Africans of the country, who had little in common and had a poor sense of their history. They also belonged to different religions, the Indians being Hindu and the Africans being Christian and Muslim. Naipaul thought of population of Trinidad as an unnatural mix of races.
Naipaul was a modernist to whom, as to TS Eliot, a sense of tradition was very important. He hated the Caribbean because it possessed no tradition at all. Speaking about the Caribbean, he once wrote, “History is made up of creation and achievement, and nothing was achieved in the Caribbean.”
Naipaul’s dissatisfaction with life in Trinidad led him to visit India in 1960. But he was disillusioned with what he saw of India. He wrote a book in which he scathingly called ‘India An Area Of Darkness,’ the title of the book says it all. He hated everything about India —its climate, its bureaucracy and red tape, the irrationality of its people. The poet Nissim Ezekiel wrote a rejoinder to Naipaul’s book in an essay titled “Naipaul’s India and Mine.” He rubbished Naipaul’s claims in the book, accusing him of being alienated from the people and the culture of India due to long years of absence from the country. Naipaul, of course, was unfazed by the criticism. Some years later, Naipaul wrote his second book on India. Its title, ‘A Wounded Civilization,’ was no less harsh than that of his previous book, ‘An Area of Darkness,’ and so was his point of view. But somewhere deep within him was also a love for Indian philosophy — the notion of karma, and the idea that the world is an illusion. This, as the critic Bruce King suggests, was on account of Naipaul’s Brahmin heritage.
As Naipaul grew older and wiser, he began exploring his Brahmin heritage with a view to reclaiming it. By the time he wrote his third book on India, titled ‘A Million Mutinies Now,’ he had made a complete turnaround. Now, Naipaul praised Indians, and especially Hindus, for giving their enemies a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye. ‘A Million Mutinies’ was published around the time the move to build a Ram Temple at site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya was gaining momentum. While India’s liberal intelligentsia condemned the BJP for whipping up a religious frenzy among the Hindu masses through their idea of Hindutva, giving birth to Hindu fundamentalism, Naipaul saw this as a Hindu resurgence. The demolition of the Babri Mosque by the BJP’s Kar Sevaks on December 6, 1992, pained him on account of the violence it fomented. But it also gladdened him because, to his way of thinking, the Hindus were, at last, overcoming their passivity, which in the past had led to a series of foreign invasions. In ‘A Million Mutinies,’ Naipaul sees India through the eyes of Bombay’s sex workers whom he interviews at Kamatipura, the city’s red light district.
In 2001, the 9/11 year, Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was sore that the world’s top literary prize came to him rather late in life, at the age of 69, while other Nobel Laureates had won it much earlier. Naipaul believed that the Nobel Prize for Literature should have been awarded to him sooner. Even so, he remains the only writer of Indian origin (other than Rabindranath Tagore) to have won the Nobel Literature Prize.
In the 21st century, literary and scholarly interest shifted from VS Naipaul to Salman Rushdie. Although both Rushdie and Naipaul are of Indian origin and have made England their home, it was Rushdie who was the more flamboyant of the two, with a penchant for being in the news. Naipaul, by contrast, was reclusive. Through his use of magic realism, Rushdie also has a more endearing way of telling his stories. Naipaul’s fiction is a mixture of storytelling and drab history, which makes him tedious to today’s readers. If Rushdie is a post colonial writer, Naipaul is merely a commonwealth writer. Yet Rushdie and Naipaul have much in common. Apart from being of Indian origin and settling down in England, both men were incorrigibly romantic, having had multiple marriages and love affairs.
After winning the Nobel Prize, VS Naipaul came to India several times to attend literature festivals. He was invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival in its inaugural year. Here, he had a famous showdown with the writer Shashi Deshpande whom he accused of having an agenda at the expense of art. This was ironic, considering that Naipaul’s own work has never been free of politics. He had a similar spat with the playwright Girish Karnad at the Literature Live Festival in Bombay a few years ago. Naipaul also made enemies with the British writer Paul Theroux, and somewhere along the way, he seems to have rubbed the Pakistani-British writer Hanif Kureishi the wrong way, for the latter wrote a satirical fictional biography of Naipaul called ‘The Last Word.’ The only Indian writer Naipaul got along with was Tarun Tejpal, whose literature and culture festival, ‘Think,’ he attended in Goa and was all praise for Tejpal. VS Naipaul was the most famous writer in his extended family. But there were other writers in the family as well. His father Seeprasad Naipaul was a small time writer. His younger brother Shiva Naipaul had literary genius, but he died early, at the age of 45. Naipaul’s nephew Neil Bisoondath is also a writer of considerable achievement.
The literary landscape of the world will be poorer without the presence of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Perhaps, there will never be another Naipaul for a long time to come.
(R Raj Rao is a writer and former head of English department at Savitribai Phule Pune University)