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An 'unapologetic' author, who didn't write to 'please an audience'

August 12, 2018 20:40 IST

Celebrated for his extensive commentary on both, colonisers and colonised, in fiction and non-fiction, V S Naipaul walked the controversy tightrope, admired for his prose but scorned by those who perceived him as an apologist for imperial powers.

IMAGE: Naipaul's portraits of Africa, India, West Indies and the Islamic faith brought him hostility for his views. Photograph: Chris Helgren/Reuters

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, or Sir Vidia, as he was sometimes known died at his London home at the age of 85 on Sunday, leaving behind a legacy of lucid prose and unapologetic narratives strewn across dozens of works that earned him both applause and brickbats, say experts.

 

Looking back at the Nobel Laureate's elaborate literary career of over five decades, Patrick French, the author of his biography The World is What It Is, remembered him as a 'very funny and witty' person who was 'always conscious of his Indian family background'.

Born to an Indian family in Trinidad, Naipaul's portraits of Africa, India, West Indies and the Islamic faith brought him hostility for his views.

"In his books, he tried to describe the best and the worst of India as it changed between the 1960s and the 1990s. His conclusions were insightful, even when they were harsh," French told PTI.

After his first three comedic novels, he explored the questions of identity and belonging to a family, a place in A House of Mr Biswas, which was inspired by his father's life.

While the book won him accolades in the literary world, the novel 'destroyed some memories', according to the biography.

Naipaul's prose were strung around the themes of loss, identity, oppression and exile, said author Chanchal Sanyal, describing him as an 'unapologetic author' who was not writing to please an audience.

"Naipaul, not only in his writings but also in whatever he said, was completely unapologetic. For example, his views on Islam, on colonisation, immigration, or even his writings about his visits to prostitutes, he was his own man. We all are pleasing an audience, he was courageous and unapologetic," he said.

Sanyal's The Glass House can be compared to A House for Mr Biswas, both following the theme of a man aspiring to own a home.

"Honestly, I have read a lot of Naipaul, but I don't think anything moved me as much as House for Mr Biswas. But I did read with great interest his writings on America's deep south.

"In some of his short stories in his early writings, there was a certain style they were not completely finished and you could make out the writer was a bit raw, but you certainly felt he showed promise," he added.

IMAGE: Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 'for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories'. Photograph: Reuters

Naipaul's views against the commonplace perception towards colonised countries and their people were not the only thing controversial about the famed author.

In an interview in 2011, Naipaul raised eyebrows when he said he did not consider any female author to be his equal. And then there were also reports of him physically abusing his mistress Margaret Gooding.

Looking at him as a 'flawed genius', international publishing consultant Jaya Bhattacharji Rose said Naipaul will nonetheless be 'remembered as a giant among writers'.

"V S Naipaul was a titan of 20th century English literature, who made visible a landscape beyond the canon that held sway when he began writing. His life experiences frequently appeared as thinly disguised vignettes in his writing, and his references to Trinidad added diversity and depth to his oeuvre," Rose said.

His 1971 book, In a Free State, won him the Man Booker prize.

In An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, and India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul commented extensively on subjects varying from politics to religion, from business to films in the country.

According to Saugata Bhaduri, professor at School of Language Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, his critics loved him too despite the general perception of his writing as a 'problematic rightist kind of politics'.

"He has been somewhat of a trigger in making Indian writing in English become so global, and all Indian writers in English, in spite of him not being an Indian technically, looked up to him.

"His writing style, general mode of characterisation was so good and it often has been perceived as problematic rightist kind of politics.

"So he transcended it, and his greatness is mocked by that. His art is so good, his craft is so good that even his harshest critique would read him with lot of love and passion," Bhaduri said.

***

Why Naipaul never wrote his autobiography?

Naipaul never attempted his autobiography saying it can distort facts.

According to Naipaul, fiction never lies and reveals a writer totally.

But an autobiography, he felt, 'can distort; facts can be realigned'.

In 2008, Patrick French came out with The World is What it Is: the Authorized Biography of V S Naipaul, in which he examined among other things the legendary author's life within a displaced community and his fierce ambition at school.

He then describes how, on scholarship at Oxford, homesickness and depression struck with great force; the ways in which Naipaul's first wife helped him to cope and their otherwise fraught marriage; and Naipaul's struggles throughout subsequent uncertainties in England, including his 25-year-long affair.

Vidyadhar was named for a Chandela king, the dynasty which built the temples at Khajuraho.

His name means 'giver of wisdom'.

"Back in the early 11th century, King Vidyadhar had fought against Mahmud of Ghazni, the first of the infamous Muslim invaders of India. It was an apposite name for the boy. Years later, as V S Naipaul, he would say, 'It's such a grand name, a very special name -- I cherished it for that reason. I think great things were expected of me'," French writes in his book.

Naipaul came to India quite a number of times, the last being for the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2015.

At the JLF session, he narrated what his mother had to say to him on writing about India.

"The only Hindi word my mother carried from India was beta and she said ‘beta please leave India to the Indians'."

"I came to India first because of curiosity about my ancestral land. My publisher had agreed to pay me an advance for anything I would write on India. Although it was a petty amount even then I felt at peace to get it. I didn't know how to move in India but eventually I had to find my way," he had said.

In India, A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul among other things writes about his ancestors and overseas Indian groups.

‘They were miniature Indias, with Hindus and Muslims, and people of different castes. They were disadvantaged, without representation, and without a political tradition. They were isolated by language and culture from the people they found themselves among; they were isolated, too, from India itself (many weeks away by steamboat from Trinidad and the Guianas).

‘In these special circumstances they developed something they would never have known in India: a sense of belonging to an Indian community. This feeling of community could override religion and caste.’

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