A complicated man: On Sir Vidia

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, who passed away at his London home on August 11 just six days short of his 86th birthday, will continue to challenge his readers and critics after death as he did in a writing career spanning more than five decades. It’s the way with great writers, and Naipaul’s claim to being among the greatest of them was settled long before he won the Nobel prize in 2001 — but he defied simple appraisals more than anybody else. To read Naipaul, to listen to him, to follow his life story, was to be perpetually nudged to reassess not just him, but also his subject matter and one’s own view of the world. He once said, “All my work is really one. I am writing one big book.” In that big book, he kept pushing back the chronological beginnings to understand how colonialism and migration shaped the modern world, and travelling ever wider to examine how post-colonial societies shape-shifted. It was an endeavour that started, and never veered too far, from his own biography. Born in Trinidad to parents of Indian origin, whose forebears had come to the West Indies as indentured labour, Naipaul was consumed by one ambition: to be a writer. It was, in large measure, acquired from his father, a journalist in Port of Spain struggling with the needs and bickering of a sprawling family and the lack of intellectual wherewithal to realise his dream. His father’s story would inspire Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas (1961), part of an early-life burst of brilliant fiction that began with Miguel Street, written when he was just out of Oxford University, and concluded in 1979 with A Bend in the River.


It was Naipaul’s travels, however, that spanned the greater part of his writing life as he crafted his own way of seeing the world. He said in his Nobel lecture that as a child in Trinidad he felt himself “surrounded by areas of darkness”, and these became his subjects. He travelled across continents, always with a theme in mind. He opened up lines of inquiry on identity and progress. His unsparing eye and spare, clear prose ensured that readers could not un-see what he saw, whether they were in agreement or not. He was criticised for depicting the developing world through an imperial filter; he was accused of Islamophobia in his travels in Muslim countries; he raised hackles with his India trilogy — An Area of Darkness (1964), A Wounded Civilisation (1977), A Million Mutinies Now (1990). But he presciently bookmarked the debates that coming events would spark. There was definitely low-grade bigotry at play, and misogyny, too. Naipaul’s writings are too important to be overlooked on account of his intolerance; equally, his opinions cannot be excused while understanding his literary legacy.

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