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Updated: November 10, 2012 00:29 IST

A reward for Mr. Naipaul

Githa Hariharan
Comment (19)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

Honouring Sir Vidia for “lifetime achievement” means affirming not just his great “craft” but also his idea of India

With the Mumbai Literary Festival recently honouring V.S. Naipaul for “lifetime achievement,” the ironies of rewarding Naipaul’s work have been resurrected. So have predictable “arguments.” Naipaul is a great writer. Writing has no room for politics. Great men are eccentric. Girish Karnad should have spoken about theatre, not Naipaul.

A continuum

Girish Karnad was absolutely right to speak up at the venue where Naipaul was honoured. Karnad has reminded us that for writers, all texts, literary debates and political questions form a continuum. As for propriety, why is it that great men like Naipaul are allowed departures from propriety, but not the great and not-so-great writers at home?

Karnad added that Indian writers, especially those writing in English, have not challenged Naipaul’s views. Like their counterparts in other spheres of middle class Indian life, many writers are wary of making a “political” statement, or taking on the great — especially the great in London or New York — in public. But to set the record straight: I am aware of at least three Indian writers in English who have responded to Naipaul’s statements in public. In a festival session at Neemrana in 2002, the Great Man threw darts at two of his fears: women and Muslims. He said women writers are banal; he finds them boring. In response, Shashi Deshpande said she found Naipaul’s preoccupation with the loss of an imaginary India boring.

Naipaul cut off Nayantara Sahgal as she spoke of post-colonialism, again complaining of banality. Ruchir Joshi made a sharp, timely intervention. Naipaul was not just being rude; he felt Sahgal had not gone back far enough in identifying the colonisers of India. “When did colonialism begin?” he asked, implying that it began with “the Muslims.” This is exactly what Girish Karnad refers to when he speaks of the questionable assumption of a pristine Hindu past sullied by Muslim invaders.

Writers are not necessarily historians; but they are not precocious children with a knack either. Nor are they hermits. Any intelligent reader knows that the written work is informed by the writer’s take on history, politics, socio-economic contexts.

Two important questions emerge when we debate an Indian honour conferred on Naipaul. One is on the context in which Naipaul’s work is located. The other is about the books and writers we choose to reward and what these choices say about us.

To revisit Naipaul’s view of the world, I went back to an essay I wrote when Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What I wrote then is relevant to the present debate. On receiving the Nobel in 2001, Naipaul paid tribute to England, “[his] home,” and India, “the home of [his] ancestors.” Trinidad, where he was born and where he grew up, did not merit a mention though it was home to admirable work such as The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas. But then Naipaul thinks Trinidad is “unimportant, uncreative, cynical … [with] an indifference to virtue as well as vice”.

In fact, Naipaul’s early novels responded to the painful contradictions in these societies struggling to create a coherent narrative of their postcolonial lives. But the later work, particularly Naipaul’s considerable body of non-fiction, took his acute eye and graceful sentence elsewhere. This elsewhere, where mutinies abound (not dissent or movements) are chaotic “half-worlds”. All of them are, without exception, non-western countries. Many of them are yet to recover from their colonial legacies; many still grapple with chauvinist or opportunist rulers, appropriate successors to their colonial masters.

Naipaul places himself outside these struggling worlds. He dissects them fastidiously to arrive at deadly diagnoses. Trinidad is “a place where the stories were never stories of success but of failure.” India is “… a decaying civilization, where the only hope lies in further, swift decay”. “Africa has no future.” So, uncreative Trinidad. Wounded India. Future-less Africa.

Caricatured societies

These caricatured societies, so dirty, so anarchic, so full of people lost as soon as they step out of their societies into one “with more complex criteria,” do serve one purpose. They serve as a perennial foil to the refined, cultivated European ethos. In an earlier time, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness established this tradition of postulating “the other world” antithetical to the European one. A 20th-21st century heir to Conrad’s legacy, a brown heir, seems a cruel anachronism. Just as Conrad’s European travellers “glide like phantoms” in Africa, “cut off from the comprehension of [their] surroundings,” Naipaul glides nervously, unhappily, across the prehistoric world from the Congo to Bombay.

In the West Indies of 1960, he discovers that “the history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” In the Congo of 1965, Naipaul is accosted by “native people camping in the ruins of civilization.” In Naipaul’s Africa, the bush creeps back as he stands there.

India is equally threatening. It reduces him to facelessness in the crowd. Everyone in the crowd looks like him. What then makes him distinct? (Conrad echoes from the past: “What thrilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours…”) In A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul writes, “An enquiry about India … has quickly to go beyond the political. It has to be an inquiry about Indian attitudes; it has to be an inquiry about the civilization itself, as it is.” And the verdict: “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.”

By the time Naipaul wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, he found some redeeming signs of change. He now sees that “what [he] hadn’t understood in 1962, or had taken too much for granted, was the extent to which the country had been remade; and even the extent to which India had been restored to itself, after its own equivalent of the Dark Ages – after the Muslim invasions and the detailed, repeated vandalising of the North, the shifting empires, the wars, the 18th century anarchy…” The country is “full of the signs of growth”, all the signs of an “Indian, and more specifically, Hindu awakening”. This “Hindu awakening” struck Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and has struck other parts of the country since.

It is not surprising then that after terrorists attacked New York and Washington in 2001, Naipaul should describe Islam, (not terrorists of any or no religious persuasion), as “calamitous”; “worse than colonialism… much, much worse in fact.” Was it an accident that Naipaul finally got his Nobel in the same year?

Small army of faithful

Then and now, a small army of the faithful anxiously explains to us how Naipaul’s work must be read. I wish we could assure these interlocutors that Naipaul’s transparent prose makes what he is saying clear to most readers, even if they are Indian; even if they are women. Less dogmatic admirers have admitted that Naipaul’s writing and pronouncements often make them “deeply uneasy”. But writers, they say, must be judged by their writing alone.

How exactly do we do this? Separating what the writer says from her “craft” makes the work toothless. It is difficult to believe that this is what any writer intends. Why not acknowledge that the writer deals with ideas, with ways of looking at the world, and hopes to do it with skill? Though Naipaul has unkindly cast aspersions on Indian intellectual life, we can recall these axioms when debating the politics of rewarding literature.

If we choose to reward Naipaul for his “lifetime achievement” as a “person of Indian origin”, what does this say about us as readers and writers? It may mean we can’t find Indian writers worthy of reward. It may mean we are not confident enough to reward writers unless they are great men in the West. But rewarding Naipaul certainly means affirming, not just his great “craft”, but also his idea of India, and the world at large.

(Githa Hariharan is a writer.)

More In: Lead | Opinion

Gita Hariharan misses the mark when she writes, "A 20th-21st century
heir to Conrad’s legacy, a brown heir, seems a cruel anachronism".
Bankim Chandra, who hit home with,"It seems unlikely that oppression by
one’s people is somehow rather sweet and that by an alien race
especially bitter”, would not have.

from:  meher engineer
Posted on: Nov 12, 2012 at 15:46 IST

Naipaul's descriptions of India are not just his ideas but the plain
truth. Just as we are unable to see, smell the garbage of a society we
live in, we are woefully unable to appreciate the genius of Naipaul.
Leave out the politics and see the art, see the truth. One will then
find enjoyment in his works.

from:  Ravi Kannan
Posted on: Nov 12, 2012 at 07:32 IST

Naipaul is the first writer, or intellectual, who has successfully challenged the uncritical, shallow ideology of Hindu-Muslim Bhai-Bhai sponsored by the Congress Party and its allies. His denunciation of the ravaging of Hindu-Buddhist culture by the Muslim rulers is realistic. Historian K.M.Panikkar rightly stresses that if someone were to ride a horse from Peshawar to Calcutta, he would not come across a single monument built by the Hindus and the Buddhists. Naipaul has reiterated, in his own original way, the same theme as Panikkar's. Even Nitish Kumar who has declared his commitment to rebuild the Nalanda Centre of Buddhist Studies is afraid to say that Indian Buddhism suffered catastrophic destruction by Muslim iconoclasts.

from:  Dr. D. Prithipaul
Posted on: Nov 12, 2012 at 01:26 IST

I have not read Vidia's work. Neither have I read Karnad's. If Vidia
said, Islamic invaders invaded India and destroyed temples, It is a
historical fact. The recent Ayodhya Ramjanmabhoomi verdict also proves
the same.

from:  Siva Bhaskaran
Posted on: Nov 11, 2012 at 22:33 IST

The West rewards those Uncle Sams who make the white man feel good. Though
Naipaul's criticisms have value he did please the establishment in the West. When you
write favorably there are two prizes open to you, i.e. Nobel Prize for Peace & Literature.
Tagore was also awarded the feudal title : The Knighthood , and later the Nobel Prize.
Why? Because he showed signs of undermining Gandhi. Salman Rushdie was Knighted
because he beat the Muslim post and fed the dislike of Islam in the European
consciousness. These so called writers happily accept the feudal titles and use them as
trophies.

from:  P.N.Shreeniwas
Posted on: Nov 11, 2012 at 13:46 IST

Girish Karnad says Indian writers have rarely questioned V.S. Naipaul's pronouncements. Githa Hariharan demurs only by pointing to some superficial exchanges at the Neemrana literary festival in 2002, but otherwise seems to broadly agree. What are they talking about?

In fact Naipaul has had as many critics among Indians as admirers, maybe more, ever since he began writing about India. Aren't either of them aware of the late Nissim Ezekiel's famous essay, "Naipaul's India and Mine", written in the 1960s? Besides there is a full book of essays published as recently as 2002, "The Humour and the Pity", edited by Amitava Kumar, in which at least half the contributors are strongly critical of Naipaul's work. That apart, there have been countless pieces in the Indian press attacking Naipaul over the past five decades. Not a word that either Karnad or Hariharan has said is in the least original.

For an original piece, please see Pratap Bhanu Mehta's "Master of Animosities" in Indian Express

from:  ashish deb
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 21:39 IST

Dear Githa,

A very relevant article. Whie I believe that Naipaul has the right to his views of the world (many of us may consider them 'warped' or ''çynical' if you want to be kind to Naipaul), I think that Indian associations have to go beyond this obsession with foreigners of Indian origin. Such authors, playwrights, poets etc. play to an international audience and they give that audience what they want to hear - a view of the world that confirms that that Western population would like to hear namely, the rest of the world lives in dirty, ugly poverty with little hope for redemption. Naipaul is the most notorious writer of this ilk, given his age and reputation.
For myself, I would like to see more Indian authours who write sensitively about the India they actually LIVE in being rewarded and feted because they are the ones who speak for ordinary folks like me. They write about the civilisation that is India today.

from:  rohini
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 18:02 IST

Did colonialism and oppression in India really begin with the Muslim invasions? If so, where do I fit in the beautiful ideas of caste oppression and untouchability enforced by ourselves on a large percentage of our population for over three millenium? I would not find it surprising if the comments posted in defence of Naipaul's childish views are those of the upper castes.

from:  Vineeth
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 15:57 IST

While it is true that Apolitical writing is easily said than found, it is also true the political idea of a writer may not be put conclusively to a general pattern or ism. Personal is political and every great writer have his own political ideas that form his personal views , may not be the same way it evolves in a political theorist.
However, sensible readers hardly lease their brains out while reading an author. An author raising questions, and coming to his own conclusion corroborated by his own observations, no matter fully right or wrong, is itself a process worth it. The novelty of Sir Vidia precisely lies in the fact that he ventures into unsettling, disturbing zones to penetrate this shabby, apparently feel good, consensus the majority of Indian 'intellectuals' are self gratifying themselves with. The writer makes a Freudian slip as she says 'a small army of the faithful' of Naipaul only to substantiate the stagnant pool of consensus.Besides from when intellection depends on vote?

from:  Sourav
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 15:53 IST

Hat's off to Karnad for his persuasive arguments! We are reduced to a success-mongering people who would accept nonsense from writers who make it big and can be claimed "ours". Many would seek to whisper their stinging lies of hatred behind this self-stoked "greatness" of Naipauls and Gautiers and Bhagwatis. Equating the colonization by the West to invasion and settlement by Muslims is a confusion of history that shows at the same time sycophancy of the West combined with unreasonable suspicion about the present society, which, if Naipauls would look, seeks desperately to thrive and construct.

from:  Pratik Ali
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 14:59 IST

Thanks for the well crafted and insightful article. I have enjoyed reading Naipaul but have
been troubled by what I thought was his cynicism. On reading this article Geeta H has
unlocked Naipaul' s approach by linking it to Conard's approach. We know the
consequences of Conard's view on the continent of Africa. Naipaul has similarly by his
writing particularly on India has reinforced all the bigotry. It is his life time achievement but I
am not sure he deserves a reward for it. Thanks to Hindu and writers like Geeta H for
offering us insights so that we don' t blindly following the written word.

from:  Ravindran
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 13:33 IST

These are the rantings of a failed person against someone who has achieved something in life. This happens every time an Indian or an Indian-origin person achieves great heights. The same happened when Prof. Amartya Sen got the Nobel prize for his path-breaking contributions to economics (especially Development Economics). People (especially Bongs) were busy pointing out that Mr. Alfred Noble had not willed for a prize to be given in the field of Economics. This prize was conceived of and funded by the Swedish Bank and hence cannot equal a Nobel Prize.
As far as personal views and opinions of a man go, even Mahatma Gandhi commented that modern educated women thought that they were the Juliet of dozens of Romeos. Why single out poor Naipaul for criticism?

from:  Avishek Deb
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 12:52 IST

A privately organized literature fest has every right to award whosoever it wants to. I don't ascribe to Naipaul's views but he has an opinion and is obviously very gifted at expressing it. Someone wants to acknowledge that, then let them. We need to become a mature democracy and that means respecting the right of other opinions. If this was a Govt sponsored award then editorials would merit the topic.

from:  AJai
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 10:27 IST

As a writer, one would expect that Ms Hariharan more than others would understand that an author and his characters are not interchangeable. Alas, this does not appear to be the case. It is a shallow reading of Heart of Darkness, which conflates Marlow, a character in the novel with Conrad, the author of the novel.
Worse still it is an ideologue and not a writer or scholar who cherry picks quotes out of context to try and make his case.
As for Mr Naipaul, the world would be a less exciting place without him. The self-hatered of one born colonised has produced startlingly good novels and combative works of non-fiction that discomfit us, anger us, force us to examine our world in ways we may not want to. Our lives are richer for that. It matters not if the writer is a rude, overbearing egotistical man whose opinions you do not care for. Your read him, and so his purpose is served.

from:  Aftab
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 08:08 IST

Githa,
I fail to understand the article , are you criticising his ideas about india.
Well what he has dared to say publically, many respecting Hindus say in private and are scared to say so publically, for some intellectuals like you might call them communal.
Or worse fearing a secular governments backlash.
Isnt it true that Indian temples were destroyed by the marauders form the middle-eastern deserts since 11th Century?
Isnt it a fact that jizia's were imposed, forcible conversions took place in areas conquered by these maruaders?
If these are facts why should Naipaul be criticised for writing those, when others like you pee in your pants for stating it?

As regards to India having no future, its a thought many indians share privately, the country has gone to dogs.
There are scams everywhere, the government,folks in power are competing with themselves to make the next scam bigger then previous one, instituions are filled with chamcha's and no one is ever punished

from:  ANiket
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 07:14 IST

Thank you for an excellent, well-written and reasoned piece...

from:  arvind
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 07:02 IST

This is not 1912, when desi literary heroes who made it big in the west were few and far
between. Therefore we should not have the compulsion to reward at home someone of our
ilk who made it big outside. I do agree that we need to look at potential candidates for
awards more critically. Naipaul is unable into get truly into the skin of someone from a different culture. Forever the outsider, he starts dissecting, adding his own prejudices into the anatomy of the other to
present one damning compendium after another; Trinidad, Africa, India, Iran and more. So
where is India now compared to his area of darkness? Or Africa so rapidly climbing the HDI
indices now forcing india's business houses to queue up afresh? Or Bangladesh, indonesia,
Malaysia each looking ahead and forward synthesising their own cultural mores with the
new? His prejudiced pieces leave a flawed legacy. His rewards, such as the Nobel prize
more than deserved. The lifetime achievement award too.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 06:43 IST

This is the second article within two days against Naipaul. He may have not born in India but his observations and analysis cannot be brushed off. As many great people in recent history it may need to step out of India to look what is happening inside it. Majority of Indians are tolerant and open to other ideas which shows itself in the rich culture. Being tolerant and not rebelling doesn't mean people didn't suffer under different conquerors from the west. Stating these facts as they happened with analysis should not be seen as the source of disrupting the social fabric.

from:  Vij
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 06:08 IST

Can a good writer be separated from his ideologies? can craft and carftsman be put in two separate boxes? will nobel prize be awarded to someone who writes beautiful poetries about gutter and sewage? were virgina woolf, james joyce, aldous huxley considered for nobel prize despite managing to change the writing style over its head? humans however smart or democratic often makes error in judgement of good or bad. nobel committee could have made mistake in giving naipaul the prize. after all gandhi did not receive peace prize-obama did, churchill did. the democratic opinion of writers is naipaul's observations are view-point and rather pointed, opinionated and shallow at that. one can grant him freedom of speech but also can grant oneself freedom and right of judgement.

from:  Goswami M
Posted on: Nov 10, 2012 at 02:40 IST
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