Sir Vdiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, a Nobel Laurate in literature of Indian descent, who, as an astute observer of human condition, having written 30-odd books that indeed caused many storms in readers’ minds, died peacefully in bed on 11th August in London.
Today, as I was flipping through the morning newspapers, there came a test message in the name of our Prime Minister stating, “Aaiye swachha Bharat kaa nirmankare, 15th Sep se swachhtaa hi seeva se judee,...” (Lets strive to create a Swachh Bharat…). It at once reminded me that I have over-delayed paying my tributes to one of the 20th century’s most admired and contentious story-teller, VS Naipaul, who died in his home in London, aged 85. And hence the following lines ….
Naipaul was the grandson of a Brahmin from the Benares region who went to Trinidad in the 19th century as an indentured labourer. He was born in Chaguana, Trinidad in 1932 and later his family moved to its capital, Port of Spain. It is this shift which he claims to have transformed him from “a child [who] knew almost nothing, nothing beyond what [he] picked up in [his] grandmother’s house” to an acute observer of “the life of the street” —the outside world. No wonder, if it had become the setting for his Miguel Street — a collection of stories that won him Somerset Maugham Award in 1959.
In 1950, winning a government scholarship Naipaul went to study at Oxford. Later, it is at BBC World Service where he analysed West Indian Literature that he found his footing as a writer. His breakthrough as a writer came with his first published novel, “The Mystic Masseur” in 1957. In it he presented a dialogic intercourse between two cultures: the conservative Indian culture and the European liberal capitalist culture that treats the reader with an authentic history of the powerless people in a Trinidad ghetto. It is through caricature and irony that he presented “the aspirations, energy, vulgarities, inconsistencies and corruption of characters who belong to a rapidly changing society in which there are few stable values.” Ganesh Ramsumair, the protagonist of the novel presents himself as the bundle of all the controversies of the colonial society as he, oscillating between his traditional Indian values and the lure of the modern consumer capitalism, rises from “teacher to Masseur, from Masseur to mystic, from mystic to MLC” quiet spectacularly. As the novel comes to an end, this struggling Pandit Ganesh Ramsumair, becoming G Ramsay Muir—a complete “transformation into a colonial puppet”—even defends British colonial rule. Interestingly, while narrating these two cultures, their institutions, process and products Naipaul never sided wholly with either the Hindu way of life or that of the European way of life.
Drawing up on his real experiences among East Indians in Trinidad, Naipaul went on writing his earlier novels—The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Miguel Street (1959), A House for Mr Biswas (1961) — narrating the struggle of charlatans, braggarts and dreamers to eke out their life with social respectability in their new world of settlement. However, it is his fourth novel, A House for Mr Biswas that had won him major recognition. Drawing from the experiences of his father, Naipaul, narrated the struggle of the protagonist of the novel, Mohan Biswas, an Indo-Trinidadian, to free himself from the predicaments of the family, custom, and religion. Being the son of a poor labourer and having lived as a guest in one inhospitable house after another, Biswas vows to “get a job on my [his] own. And I am going to get my own house too.” And finally, journeying through a variety of jobs from a sign painter to journalist, Mr Biswas acquires a house of his own, which in his view is the signpost of his independence. But under the stress of getting the house repaired and the burden of repaying the debt he suffers a heart attack and dies soon afterwards but leaving a house behind for sheltering his family for generations to come. Naipaul, while narrating the struggle of Biswas for dignity and independence, successfully explored the themes of family, poverty, and the impact of colonialism on the economy of the vanquished colonial-world from the post-colonial perspectives. The novel could thus succeed in making an entry into Time magazine’s “Time 100 best English-language novels from 1923 – 2005.”
Moving away from Trinidad, Naipaul used other national settings in his subsequent novels — In a Free State (1971), Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), A way in the World (1994) — but continued to explore the relationship between violence, contingency and politics and the emerging personal and collective alienation experienced by the victims in the new milieu emerging out of the struggle between native and Western-colonial heritages. In a Free State (1971), a novel with two supporting narratives and set in different countries that won him Britain’s Booker Prize was hailed by Neel Mukherjee as “remarkable, clear-eyed, truthful and brutal meditation on exile and displacement.” He accomplished this task by resorting to four techniques: in “One out of Many” he resorted to first-person narratives through the voice of Santosh, an Indian servant in Washington, in “Tell Me Who to Kill” it is the poor Indian-Trinidadian who narrates the story in London, and in the “In a Free State” he adopts a third-person narrative to tell about a long car journey undertaken by two English persons, Bobby and Linda across an unnamed African country, and mind you, in all this narration, one hardly comes across author’s presence.
Among his other novels such as The Enigma of arrival (1987), A Way in the World (1994), Half a Life (2001) he examined carefully his inner demands and analysed even his deceptions through the protagonists. Some critics consider The Enigma of arrival as his masterpiece. Here, the narrator —is perhaps no other than Naipaul— in his own melancholy sense of rootlessness takes many journeys, starting from colonial Trinidad, both imaginary and real, to the English countryside to become a writer! Interestingly, the narrator-migrator, choosing to inhabit a pastoral England, invents the earth below his feet and in the process feeling as though the new piece of land has given him “a second chance, a new life, richer and fuller than any I had had anywhere else”, he practises his writer’s trade. Later, in the second part of the book, the narrator, under the spell of sickness, observing the world around him from the perspective of an outsider—perhaps, more as an anthropologist—describes in a sad, melancholic tone the collapse of an old coloniser.
It is his non-fiction works that are large-sized narratives of his travels to different countries over different periods of time — An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded civilization (1976), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990); The Five Societies in the West Indies (1963), Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998) that had attracted for him immense critical hostility and anger, particularly from the post-colonial world. But first things first: let us first examine what he had written under these titles.
At the time of publishing his first book on India, An Area of Darkness — a chronicle of his first visit to his ancestral homeland — India was indeed passing through darkness: it was just limping back from the humiliation inflicted by the Chinese aggression. Owing to the wide-spread drought and the resulting shortage of food grains, we were then living off the American wheat supplied under its PL480 programme. And it was this despairing and hungry India that confounded him when he landed in Bombay airport and yet Naipaul with his declared state of mind — "I am profoundly Indian in my feeling, profoundly Indian in my sensibility…but not in my observation” — said, “from the railway train and from the dusty roads, India appeared to require only pity. It was an easy emotion, and perhaps the Indians were right: it was compassion like mine, so strenuously maintained, that denied humanity to many.” At the very outset of his landing in Bombay airport he encountered bitterest experience: despite having permit for the two bottles of liquor that he had brought with him, they were confiscated by custom authorities stating that “transport permit” is needed for which he had to run from office to office, table to table facing every official behaving either indifferently or arrogantly. Thereafter, it was the all-pervading poverty and squalor that gave him a rude shock. He wrote: “I had seen the starved child defecating at the road side while the mangy dog waited to eat the excrement.” What was more distressing to him was that it was not only a village scene but such habits could be seen on the slopes of Himalayas, at the bus-stand of Madras and in the beaches of Goa. He went on penning:
Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover… the peasant, Muslim or Hindu suffers from claustrophobia if he has to use an enclosed latrine.
In the same vein, he loathed the corruption prevailing in the country and pained to note that no shame is coming to those corrupt people , instead a lot of social prestige and status is bestowed on such unscrupulous officials:
It is estimated that in Kashmir, as in the rest of India, one-third of development funds drains away in corruption and the exchanging of gifts. No disgrace attaches to this. The Kashmir tailor spoke with envious admiration of his patwari friend, a surveyor and type of records-keeper, who in one day might collect as much as a hundred rupees; a lorry-driver had a similar admiration for a traffic inspector he knew who received monthly protection money from various lorry-drivers.
He thus concluded that corruption has become deep-rooted in the Indian system of government and society. And now, however sore we may feel about these observations, can we deny the fact that the same system of defecating is prevailing in the country even after about 50 years of Naipaul’s visit? And even after 70 years of independence, the malady of corruption is haunting us albeit, with more ferocity.
By the time he wrote his second book, India: A Wounded civilization (1976), the nation was passing through the pangs of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi. And, of course, poverty was relentless, while corruption mounted up in all walks of life. While the leaders were tweeting socialist slogans, the country-side presented a grim scenario of undernourished children. And in this book too, Naipaul continued to be dismissive of India: “No civilization was so little equipped to cope with the outside world; no country was so easily raided and plundered, and learned so little from its disasters." He further elaborated: "The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded civilization that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead." No wonder, if such comments attracted outrage from the Indian readers.
In his final book on the trilogy of India, India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul appeared to have mellowed down. Or, by the 90s India was on the cusp of evolving into a nation, a promise in the emergence? Perhaps! Although he witnessed a new generation of intellectuals crying in hoarse empty words, he could see India somehow managing to survive, and indeed evolving: “Independence had come to India like a kind of revolution; now there were many revolutions within that revolution. . . . All over India scores of particularities that had been frozen by foreign rule, or by poverty or lack of opportunity or abjectness had begun to flow again.”
It is obvious that such a probing and the resultant writing brought a barrage of protests from the intellectuals of India. Some critics accusing him of “look [ing] at India through Western kaleidoscope which takes myriad unreal shapes when aimed at lighted areas”, questioned him: “Why use the Western criteria in determining India to be an area of light or darkness?” Even a reputed Indian critic as CD Narasimhaiah in his paper, “VS Naipaul: A Case of Bizarre Reputation” observed: “I must confess I was disturbed when someone spoke of the possibility of a Nobel Prize for Naipaul. I asked myself if the world’s most prestigious award was instituted to honour someone who has injected so much poison into the world’s body politic and seems to gloat over it?” In the same vein, his other books such as Among the Believers, Beyond Belief drawn similar criticism. Edward Said said that while Naipaul, in the west, is “considered a master novelist and an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy of the third world, in the postcolonial world he’s a marked man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him—though that doesn’t exclude people thinking he’s a gifted writer.”
Reverting to his writings on India, can we ignore the fact of our struggle to cope up with the “long buried disruptive peculiarities” — of religion, region, caste, clan, subalterns, the chasm between the Centre and States that has outgrown beyond the political sense of winning elections, etc—and the resultant strife in building a new India, in redefining the very sense of our economic independence. Ironically, the present government’s call for “Swachh Bharat” very much vindicates Naipaul’s writings.
Naipaul, in his long career of almost half a century, trusting his intuition wrote and travelled across the globe dispensing sound bites that caused trouble to his audience in the name of truth telling about colonialism and decolonization, exile and the struggles of people in the developing world and finally won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001 for his revelations about “suppressed histories.”
Let me now stop here by paying my tributes to Sir Naipaul, the “philosophe” who “transformed the rage into precision” and “allows [ed] events to speak in their own inherent irony” for us to react in whatever way we want.
Image courtesy: Sathiraju Sankara Narayana