By Dilip Menon
Dilip Menon is the Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of the Witwatersrand
No author in contemporary times more willfully damaged his reputation with cantankerous observations as did VS Naipaul. He had extreme and contrarian opinions on the big issues of the day, from colonialism to Islam and the travesties of nationalism in Asia and Africa.
A generation of readers who came of age in the last decade of the 20th century saw, and heard, him at his worst, even as his literary career was capped with the ultimate accolade of the Nobel Prize in 2001. The citation emphasized his “perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”
But it must have seemed incomprehensible to those who had only listened to his intemperate words and read his later work which seemed like tired caricatures of his earlier oeuvre.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s early life was lived in the detritus of the colonial history of indenture and the vast forced movement of people from the South Asian subcontinent to Africa and the Caribbean. Between 1833 (the abolition of slavery) and 1922, 3.5 million Indians were transported under a system of debt bondage to work on sugar plantations in European colonies.
The memory of Indian civilization was scattered along an archipelago of labour across two oceans – the Indian and the Pacific. Men and women living in countries as disparate as South Africa, Trinidad and Fiji were trapped in small lives of drudgery, gossip and congealed tradition yet still aspiring to a life of the mind.
Vidia’s father Seepersaud Naipaul was the first Indo-Trinidadian reporter for the Trinidad Guardian. He wrote short stories that he hoped would be published in London and lift the family from its genteel poverty. He, and his sons, Vidia and Shiva, mined the messy intricate lives around them for affectionate and searing portrayals of ambition, intrigue and ennui within the Indo-Trinidadian community.
Never has so small a community been mined for so large a literary canvas. A House for Mr. Biswas, Flag on the Island, The Suffrage of Elvira, The Mystic Masseur, and his brother Shiva’s Chip Chip Gatherers and Fireflies were the first great novels coming out of the history of indenture.
Both Vidia and Shiva went up to Oxford, but their writing was both an act of faith to their origins as much as an act of treason against the language bequeathed them by Empire. Naipaul’s early novels affectionately and grittily recreated the Indo-Trinidadian argot at a time when postcolonial writing was marked by the well-behaved cadences of the Queen’s English. This act of temerity is often forgotten, as every word committed treason against a colonial enterprise of education.
Characters that spoke to the world
His novels were not simply quaint local evocations as became clear in the literary accolades that came his way so easily. Mr. Biswas (A House for Mr. Biswas 1961), Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystic Masseur (1957) (who would retitle himself Ramsay Muir) and others were characters that spoke to the world much as did characters from the books of French literary artist Balzac: small people who occupied the world in large ways.
It’s worth remembering that this act of rendering the register of Trinidadian lives as universal marks an ambition that few postcolonial writers possess even today. Indian and African writers in English write correct, unambitious prose where the register of local English is always rendered as comical. This embarrassment is evident even in Salman Rushdie’s “chutnified” English which bears no relation to forms of English spoken anywhere in India, but is a form of caricature that marks the yawning distance between the writer and the landscape that he occupies.
Indo-Anglian writers are most comfortable in ventriloquizing their own class. Naipaul’s characters and their speech are not the result of mere acute observation, but of a location within a matrix of social relations.
This attention to, and affection for, the odd and the eccentric, even repugnant, individual characterized his later move into a higher journalism in books like India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) and his closely observed travel account of the southern states of the US, A Turn in the South (1989). He is able to summon up the fertile anarchy of one space and the underlying melancholy of the other through fine-grained conversations, attentive to every word spoken even by people lost to the national imagination.
The epigraph to A Turn in the South is from Shakespeare:
There is a history in all men’s lives.
What irritated critics bred on liberal hypocrisy was the fact that Naipaul wore his opinions on his sleeve. Even as he lavished a single-minded devotion to the rhythms of speech of his interlocutors, and rendered their selves in an uncannily distinctive fashion, he never held back on his disappointment on what could have been.
The experience of having pulled himself up from a narrow world meant that he judged harshly; even himself. Readers of his letters to his father from Oxford Between Father and Son (2000) are exposed to a self-indulgent, self-pitying and entitled son. He’s prodigal in every way, writing, and not often, to a father who waited to live vicariously, through every letter, a life that he could never have had.
Naipaul was hard on himself as on others. Patrick French, in his magisterial biography titled it with the Naipaulian credo: The world is what it is. One made one’s life or one didn’t. It was the harsh lesson of someone for whom the experience of indenture was one generation away.
What lay behind his novels – set in Africa – as well as his historical accounts of the Caribbean, was what he saw as the refusal of the postcolonial citizen to take the world for what it was, and move on.
He saw both the colonizer and colonized as wrapped in sentimental nostalgia for what might have been. The Middle Passage and The Loss of El Dorado are as much about the overweening ambition and rapacity of the Europeans as much as their failure. And the inept violence of the colonizer was mirrored in the inability of the colonized to come into their own.
When he wrote An Area of Darkness in 1964, it was too close to the euphoria of independence for Indian elites to accept. It prompted prissy nationalist ripostes, like that of the poet Nissim Ezekiel who accused Naipaul of solipsism, that he wrote exclusively from the point of view of his own dilemma.
Time has shown that the dilemma stains all Indian thought, the burden of a non-modernity.
On Naipaul’s passing, another Indian poet, Keki Daruwalla, was to write about him that he was like a mother bird rummaging in a nest of doubts.
And doubt about liberal certainties and postures was what Naipaul left us with, even as he devoted his entire focus and lapidary prose to the little people.
VS Naipaul, writer, born 17 August 1932; died 11 August 2018.