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.
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.
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.)