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The plain object of writing

Words, put imaginatively on a page, thought and observation laid out in a pattern, represent in this volume a striving toward perfectibility, says AMITAVA KUMAR.

THE formal achievement of V.S. Naipaul, his prizes as well as the controversies, draw upon a singular interest in well-made objects, whether they be books or enamel basins. And his writings return again and again to the examination of the ways in which different societies either thwart or make it possible for ordinary people to give shape to objects, and possibly, also to their larger history.

At a roundtable discussion in Delhi, during the literary festival in February last year, Naipaul held up in his hand a plastic bottle of mineral water and said, "This bottle is extremely beautiful." The most ordinary, created objects can have an attractive form. But Naipaul was making a larger point about our uneven, unshared modernity, a point which became clearer when he went on to say, "The poor need these things. The poor need beauty. The poor need consumerism."

I was reminded of what Naipaul had said in Delhi when I began reading his essays, some taken from earlier collections and others freshly assembled or published, in the impressive volume The Writer and the World. In the volume's very first piece, written in 1962, he notes with pleasure the brick-topped roads in India and the rice planted in neat rows. Made objects are reassuring for Naipaul because they result from action. A chemical plant in Hyderabad ("where much of the equipment is Indian-designed and manufactured") is clearly for the visiting writer more real than grand words about independence.

Words can be counterfeit, but when used with care, they take you beyond cliché. Much more than plastic bottles and chemicals, it is words — words put imaginatively on a page, thought and observation laid out in a pattern — that represent in this volume a striving toward perfectibility. For the reader, these are not necessarily the words of the writers that Naipaul engages in the essays, whether it be Conrad, Borges, Steinbeck, Mailer, or even, by way of his journal entries, Christopher Columbus, but the words of the writer that we are reading, who is Naipaul himself.

Naipaul's interaction with the world, and therefore the basis of his non-fiction in this volume, is novelistic. In other words, these are a novelist's accounts of his travels in India, the Caribbean and Africa, and also the Americas. They offer to us people who reveal themselves in unusual ways, and these narratives work because the writer is attentive to the language that people use to explain themselves. You are reminded of Naipaul's remark, in the prologue to his 1998 book, Beyond Belief, that it took him a long time to see that "the most important thing about travel, for the writer, was the people he found himself among."

People appear real and often compelling in The Writer and the World because Naipaul is alert to their grace as well as their pettiness, and how they inhabit the arc of history; and Naipaul can be remarkably acute when, like a fingernail scratching shrilly across a board, he nervously traces the violence only partially hidden in our surroundings. Here he is, his grim humour mixed with gentleness, observing from the deck of a boat near Kinshasa the monkeys killed for their meat:

...grey or red monkeys, the tips of their tails slit, the slit skin of the tail tied around the neck, the monkeys bundled up and lifted in this way from the dugouts, by the tails, holdalls, portmanteaux, of dead monkeys. ... On the throbbing steel deck the monkeys can appear to be alive and breathing. The wind ruffles their fur; the faces of the red monkeys, falling this way and that, suggest deep contented sleep; their forepaws are loosely closed, sometimes stretched out before them.

The people that the reader meets in these essays include the writer himself, or at least the version that he presents on the page. We get glimpses, for example, of the man and his reasons for admiring a plastic bottle of mineral water and wanting it to be available for everyone. This is not so much a former colonial smirking at the unconventional use of lavatory bowls ("impermeable vessels, useful for soaking cassava in"); instead, it is a writer who marvels at the usefulness of made objects ("not essentials, not luxuries; but things that made ordinary life easier"). As Salim, the tradesman-narrator of A Bend in the River, had put it: "to people looking for a large vessel that wouldn't taint water and food, and wouldn't leak, imagine what a blessing an enamel basin was!"

In the book's last essay, Naipaul pays homage to the civilisation that allowed him to enter as an outsider and fulfil the ambition to become a writer. Characteristically, he stresses the "mundane side of things" rather than the "personal, romantic aspect" of writing: "To get your name on the spine of the created physical object, you need a vast apparatus outside yourself. You need publishers, editors, designers, printers, binders; booksellers, critics, newspapers, and magazines and television where the critics can say what they think of the book; and, of course, buyers and readers." And in this list of things you are indirectly given a history, a history of a writer who has moved not only across space but also across time. You begin to grasp the complicated context for the enigma of his arrival.

But the context, the background, is not the entire man. The self that you encounter in Naipaul's writings is only the writing self. He is a bit like Borges, about whom Naipaul writes that he "combines the middle-class ideal of self-effacement and the gentleman's manners with the writer's privacy, the writer's need to save himself for his work." Like Borges, Naipaul often repeats, though not in this volume, the story of his literary awakening, a gift from his journalist father, and his entry into the world of letters. And in the repetition, it is possible that what is kept intact is the privacy of the writer and the person that he was or has become.

"I am the sum of my books," Naipaul had said in the course of his Nobel lecture. But books contain clashing worlds; they are composed of light and dark shadows. The reader wants to be aware of this essential drama in what the writer writes about himself.

And Naipaul understands this too. In an essay, also included in this collection, on the Guyanese leader Cheddi Jagan, Naipaul makes a revealing remark about autobiographies. For Naipaul, Jagan's writing about his youth, just like Gandhi's writing about his days in London, is quick, detailed, but also dense — because the men were "coming to terms, in their different ways, about experience which, as it occurred, they were far from understanding." This is good, but what is subtle is the line that follows: "Both men write so transparently of their early days that their words can be studied again and again."

I cannot think of a better invitation to read. Yet, this is also a remark about Naipaul, who has been read — read easily, given his transparency, the transparency of his prose, but also the pose of the open, outspoken self — but not always studied again and again. It is fascinating to read The Writer and the World with the aim of understanding what forces the brilliant clarity and, at the same time, to surmise what has been withheld. The reader is being asked to be attentive to the history, founded in observations spanning several decades, of this book as a well-made object.

The Writer and the World, V.S. Naipaul, edited by Pankaj Mishra, Picador, p.524, Rs. 395.

(Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos; his latest book is Bombay, London, New York.)

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