In an obituary on VS Naipaul who died at 85 on Saturday, August 11, The New York Times paid a rich tribute and in the first paragraph said: “What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself.”
He did have an interesting eye and he could smell blood from afar. While his writing had the taut rhythm of a stringed instrument, his political ideas were about relentless drumbeating. I ceased to see him as a fine writer the moment he began to come across as a spokesperson for reductionist politics. Was he pleasing himself alone? That would then reveal his stripes.
The NYT piece further states: “Naipaul’s unsympathetic views of postcolonial life made him among the most controversial writers of his time. No white Westerner could have spoken as he did. He wrote of the “primitivism” and “barbarism” of African societies. He fixated in India on the lack of plumbing: ‘They defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks; they defecate on the streets.’ He denigrated the country of his birth: ‘I was born there, yes. I thought it was a mistake.’ He was a critic of Islam.”
He certainly made good of the mistake by capitalising on it and even being seen by the rightwing as some sort of authority on India. He came across as a bigot, a casteist, and projected a bird’s eye view as reality.
There will be some fine reviews of his literature. I’ll reproduce what I wrote in 2006:
Sir Vidia has done it again. Speaking in Brussels at the Belgian Festival of India, he took on an almost Huntington-like language when he said about a country he has never lived in, that there "could be a very radical kind of revolution — village against city".
At a very real level this is a potent premise, except that V. S. Naipaul does not see it as the dumbing down of urban culture and the upward mobility of rural ethos. He skirts the issue of romanticising the village idyll, which would have at least been an honest Bollywoodesque take, and instead lambasts the urban dweller: "People in cities are turning their backs to Indian civilisation. They want green cards. They want to migrate. They want to go to England. They want to go to the US" and this he deems is "parasitic and awful".
This is a man who is sitting in England, cashing in on his Indian origins and West Indian breeding. He does not have the basic decency to acknowledge the place he was born and brought up in. For him, Trinidad is, "A billion people and a little island, which has done almost nothing for me." Talk about being parasitic.
We know what his idea of Indian civilisation is, given his political views. Even if one were to accept that, where does he get the idea that such civilisation rests in stasis?
He is even more alarmist when he states, "Caste is a great internal series of friendly societies and in bad times it kept the country going. But people don't understand this. It has to be rethought and a new way of looking at it. In India it is having trouble at the moment because it rules politics. Foolish people think that the upper castes are oppressing the lower castes. It is the other way."
Factors such as the number of deaths of lower caste people, the continual disparities that exist due to this "friendly societies" theory that essentially means people should stick to their lowly status, the complex issue of what constitutes caste politics all seem to have been lost to this intellectual giant.
Everyone and everything is Lilliputian in his scheme of things. I insist on repeating the phrase I have used for his ideas: 'Naipaul's Malgudi – an imagined town'. The reason being there are real people in it, but he places them where he wants to. It is his conformist plan, and conformist he is.
He wants to be an establishment totem, and it suits the knight to ride a shining 'White' steed, taking his Englishness rather seriously. No wonder he protests against a larger world-view. As he once said, "Multiculturalism is a very much left-wing idea that gained currency about 20 years ago. It's very destructive about the people it is meant to defend."
Why would one want homogeneity? Even in non-global villages, the uniformity is superficial, as in a geographical identity. Culture, by its very nature, revolts against being boxed in. That is the reason it is reinvented and updated, unlike tradition that tends to be static.
The global village is really utopian. So, we must look at it through an idealistic prism. How many dis-similarities can it accept and encourage? How much dynamism is possible without causing chaos? Is tolerance a patronising term or does it encourage dissent? Is dissent welcome or a nuisance?
V. S. Naipaul wouldn't know that even if it hit him on the head. According to his self-proclaimed Dr Watson Farrukh Dhondy's recollections of the recent meeting, Naipaul believes, " India is undergoing a cultural revolution. There is the vast mass of the population whom he will call the 'temple-goers' and then there are the elite who look outward from India towards America and get their fashions, fads, wastefulness and aspirations from there. He chooses to call them the 'green-card-wallahs'. They may not possess such a card but they form a category. The clash he predicts, while not venturing to spell out what form it will take, will be a clash of these cultures rather than the predicted battles between the rich and the poor."
Trust Sir Vidia to reduce the vast mass of people to 'temple-goers', such is his completely closed mindset. While one does agree a bit with his stereotype of the green-card-wallahs, how would he explain the possible clash? Isn't this elite the one that builds temples? And is his disgust ideological or merely an echoing of the racist anti-immigration voices?
He does not say it aloud, but when he talks about meeting a culture half-way, he is propping up an ideal nationalism. It fits in perfectly with his crusade. Contemporary nationalism has indeed become a renewal of a religious or quasi religious identity. It may be obvious in states where they happily call themselves, say, the Islamic Republic or a Buddhist state, but the West is using religious terminology all the time for electoral/emotional purposes.
Therefore, the belongingness and shallow shared values would be based on a limited 'need'.
Naipaul takes the thesis of historical value to further abuse Indians. "There is no tradition of reading in India. There is no tradition of contemporary literature. It was only in Bengal that there was a kind of renaissance and a literary culture. But in the rest of India until quite recently people had no idea what books were for," he said.
Such arrogance belies ignorance. He has been miffed with the reception his books have received, essentially his discourses 'An Area of Darkness' and 'A Wounded Civilisation' as well as his journeys through the Islamic world. Naipaul as novelist is quite different from Naipaul the social observer. The moment he ceases to be a litterateur, he will be judged by norms one would use for a social analyst or a critic.
There is some worth in writings from the diaspora. Nirad Chaudhari did a good job of playing the 'insider' outside by almost caricaturing himself; Solzhenitsyn's exile was more real in that he was silenced intellectually. Naipaul prefers to play the maverick Brown Sahib.
This proves that he lacks conviction as a commentator. It has been said that most Indians objected to Naipaul's books on India because they were uncomfortable truths. That is not true. The problem is he saw only what he wanted to see. He was censoring the truth to fit in with his bird's eye-view and calling it the caged reality.
One can understand the need to politicise certain aspects of that vision, but to give it the stamp of verisimilitude is dishonesty. At one level, even a Kipling does not make us uncomfortable because he made no claims over us. Sir Vidia tends to get proprietorial, much in the manner a gypsy would with a tent. It is time he realised that the landscape is a bit more than the ground beneath his feet.