VS Naipaul: Fear, Loathing and Racism, But in Luminous Prose
Abheek Barman muses on the contentious legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning author.
(This article was first published on 17 August 2015, and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of VS Naipaul’s birth anniversary.)
On Vidiadhar Surajprasad’s birth anniversary, I have to confess that of his total oeuvre of nearly 30 books, including fiction, travelogues and general non-fiction, only a handful appeal to me.
His best books, probably, are The Suffrage of Elvira, a darkly humorous tale of an election in a fictional Caribbean state; A House For Mr Biswas, a thinly-fictionalised account of his father’s life and his 1990 travelogue, India: A Million Mutinies Now.
The first two were written in 1958 and 1961, respectively, when Naipaul was a struggling young writer, straddling the worlds of Trinidad, where he was born, and England, where he came to study and stayed on.
He was always uncomfortable with his identity,a white man, or so he thought, trapped in a brown skin. The fact that his Trinidadian ancestors were descendants from India also rankled for some odd reason. All this created a complex person with extreme opinions, capable of writing luminous prose.
As time went on, and his fame grew, his inherent bigotry and misogyny became apparent. He wrote three books on India,of which Million Mutinies is a superb piece of reportage. It is not particularly opinionated, letting the reader draw her own conclusions from what he wrote.
Of the previous two, An Area of Darkness and AWounded Civilisation, the less said the better. In one of them (I forget which)he stands among the ruins of the Vijaynagar civilisation in the Deccan and muses that this was the ‘last bulwark’ of Hindu civilisation against marauding Muslims.
He was, of course, incorrect. Historians like Richard Eaton and Burton Stein have shown how the kings of Vijaynagar absorbed huge elements of Islamic culture, art and techniques of warfare from the Deccan sultanates. In fact they had become nearly-Islamised themselves. They also fought, often on behalf of some sultan or the other against another rival.
Such historical niceties did not bother Sir Vidia, as he later came to be known, unnecessarily. It was enough to cast a jaundiced eye on India and Indians, dash off a book and be done with the subject. His white man’s sensibilities were rankled by most things non-white.
Tales of his misogyny are legend. His long-suffering first wife Pat kept a diary for 25 years. This records his rudeness, pursuit of prostitutes, increasing insecurity and growing biases.Naipaul’s long-time mistress Margaret Murray later spoke about his “chronicphysical abuse.”
Over time, his biases would entirely colour his books. His tales of Africa are totally racist, and critic-philosophers like Edward Said panned them. Paul Theroux, who he met in Africa in 1966, became along-time friend.
But even that friendship soured after 30years. Theroux distils all the bitterness and rancour in his 1998 book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow.
Smitten with Anti-Islamism
His Islamic travelogues Among The Believers(1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), were purportedly attempts at understanding the religion and its followers.
I say ‘purportedly’ deliberately: he starts with a preconceived loathing towards Islam and its peoples; he concludes with the same. Nothing he sees or does changes his pre-conceived notions.
Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Naipaul’s anti-Islamism suddenly became politically fashionable in the Western establishment where he so wanted to be accepted in. The same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
It is remarkable how quickly Naipaul shed the humanism and warmth of his early fiction and descended into a spiral of hatred against almost every culture, race and religion. But to be sure, he wrote it all down in beautiful prose.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.)
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