Thursday, August 11, 2005


Tehelka - The People's Paper

India, Africa, Islam, the Carribbean and immigrant societies have been the abiding subjects of Naipaul’s work. In part two, Farrukh Dhondy deals with Africa and the Carribbean, and detailing the violent life of Michael X, he illustrates how VS Naipaul eschews all ideologies in his writing

Derek Walcott, poet and Nobel laureate from the Caribbean, famously said that VS Naipaul ‘doesn’t like negroes’. It isn’t a particularly perceptive or profound remark and begs several questions, not the least of which is ‘were Negroes placed on God’s earth for the likes of VS Naipaul to like?’

More damning is the late Edward Said’s ‘judgement’ that VS Naipaul “is a writer who tells western power what it wants to hear about its former colonies.”

Walcott is a poet whose verse and plays are for the most part set in the marooned societies of the Caribbean. His project has been to give these societies a voice. He does, though perhaps not as powerfully, universally or successfully as Bob Marley. Walcott’s international reputation, at least among the readers of literary publications grew when he was awarded the ‘Genius’ prize – a large sum of money dispensed by generous Americans to deserving people. His achievement, very distinct from that of his co-Caribbean writer Naipaul, caught the imagination of the American referees of the award by being celebratory about the small societies of the West Indies. His large work Omeros has been acclaimed as an epic which projects life in the contemporary Caribbean in a modern heroic form.

In that sense Walcott is the perfect candidate and literary standard-bearer for the political mood of the post-sixties decades during which the black population of America began the movement for its civil rights and its long, assertive march through the institutions of the us. The Caribbean too had its black power movement and the slogans of political revolt – Black is Beautiful, Back to Africa – initiated a politico-cultural movement to adjust the self-image of black populations all over the world. Through Black Studies the black populations asserted their distinctions. The academies saw it as rediscovering their own histories. Whether these studies contributed any history of value I cannot judge, but they certainly set out to make their own definitions of the past, to ‘decolonise’ their understanding and this very endeavour supposedly contributed to their sense of dignity, power and strength in the world.

Derek Walcott’s poems undoubtedly made an impact amongst the intellectual population that supported such a movement for black awareness and assertion.

The same cannot be said of VS Naipaul. His work does the opposite of myth-making. The novels and the books of travel and discovery do nothing to flatter the populations of which they speak. Seeing is all. The object and not the ideology is in focus. Naipaul doesn’t lack the inclusive sympathy that assists a writer to see his character whole, but he is wholly innocent of the urge to go with the current of populist or popular feeling. His first book on his journey round the Caribbean, Middle Passage, does nothing to bolster or support the self-image of the emergent ‘nations’ of the Caribbean.

The book rises from his travels in the sixties when the movement for independence from British colonial rule is scattering the Caribbean into tiny unviable nation-state islands. Naipaul sees them as fragmented societies that cannot sustain life as it is evolving in the modern world. They have cars and phones but they are culturally and intellectually starved societies. Their history, he suspects, has made them violent and cruel places.

The novels he has written about the Indian community settled in the Caribbean, mostly in Trinidad and Guyana, drawing on the stories of his father’s and mother’s families are also mercilessly perceptive. Though outwardly they are comic novels – the most notable being A House for Mr Biswas – they are chronicles of a dysfunctional, uprooted community, ravaged to its very soul by the transplantation that colonialism has imposed on it.

In Edward Said’s view, if indeed it can be called a ‘view’ — very little is seen — Naipaul says what the ex-colonial masters want him to say. The ex-colonial masters are dead and so, arguably, are the colonial attitudes of the master to the colonised. To not see that Britain, for instance, has forged a new and freshly nuanced relationship with the people of the subcontinent, is to subscribe to an ideological myth, which insults both the progress of the subcontinent and the cultural gifts of the British. Did Edward Said support the Palestinian cause ‘because Muslims want him to’?

The charge is patently false and can only be made by someone who can’t or hasn’t bothered to read. It may be cheeky to say that about someone who was a professor at an American university, but the evidence of the books is compelling.

Naipaul’s novels of the Caribbean Indian community are an implicit indictment of the cruelty of colonialism and its greedy transplantation of peasant communities, sold into indenture across the globe. They are as damning, despite and through their comic form, of the communities in which they are set, as the works of Dickens are of the social hypocrisy and cruelty of Victorian England. Only with Dickens, there is an indication that a moral awakening and a will to reform may produce happiness. In Naipaul’s work the prevalent sense is that there is, in these communities, nowhere to go.

In a sense Edward Said’s negative opinion is expected if one understands its provenance. Said’s scholarly reputation was built on the critical condemnation of the works and lives of the writers, adventurers and scholars who translated the works of the Orient into European languages. His contention is that these ‘Orientalists’ assisted the exploitative enterprise of colonialism by denigrating the societies whose work, historical and religious texts they collected, explored and translated. Said’s supporters and acolytes claim that he has uniquely explored and exposed the political dimensions of this academic work. Whether such a claim is justified or not, whether Said is another fellow traveller on the anti-colonial impulse and sentiment that has become an ideological current in western universities, is not the subject of this essay. Said may be heroic in his attack on Zionism and deserve the support of the world for it. About Naipaul’s vision he is belittling, insulting and wrong.

Naipaul’s single work of history, though historical tracts and considerations run through all his books, is The Loss of El Dorado, a history of Trinidad and the European conquest of the Caribbean. It is the most spirited and savage attack on the early European voyages of discovery and the colonial exploit which exterminated the native Caribbean population and waded through their blood to set up the plantations worked by imported slaves. It is, as Naipaul tells it, a history of unparalleled greed, cupidity, cruelty and barbarism.

His subsequent historical chapters, scattered in his other ‘novels’ and covering the colonial enterprise in the Caribbean and South America, detailing the humbug and lies of Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda are exposures and not flattery. One can be sure that they would not be chosen by Miranda and Raleigh as their favoured bedside reading. The mud doesn’t stick.

Naipaul’s biographer designate, Patrick French, recently asked me what I knew of one Michael X. He wanted first hand the political atmosphere that gave rise to the subject of Naipaul’s long essay/book The Killings in Trinidad. He had heard that I had been in England during the years of his rise to notoriety and may even have met him or associated with him.

I told him what I knew of the man and the phenomenon that bred him. As an Indian with Marxist leanings in my twenties, I lived and interacted in London with a set of other bed-sit dwellers, mostly Indians, who were writers, painters, poets, dope-dealers and idlers of all description. We felt ourselves, for reasons arising from our alienness, our poverty, arrogance and stubbornness, on the margins of British social life. Those of us who had jobs were, in our working existences, integrated into the fringe immigrant economic activity of the capital. If we had Oxbridge degrees we taught in schools. If we were itinerant musicians we cleaned upper class ladies’ houses for agency wages and tips. We painted houses, walked dogs and washed up in canteen kitchens.

There was a ferment of Black Power at the time. The West Indian population who lived in close proximity to us bed-sit dwellers was alive with the idea of a potential political awakening. The last years of the sixties were deceptively heady days. A generation that had just come to earning maturity, inspired by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, alienated from the misuse of power in the Vietnam war, saw itself as being destined to transform the world. (Much as the misguided Islamic jihadis of today may project the possibilities of their religious revolution). Resistance to the Vietnam war had at that time given a huge boost to the black movement in the usa.

In Britain the black ‘leaders’, mimicking the rhetoric of the us, began to preach. My friends and I followed their lecture circuits. The rhetoric said “when the time comes we have to organise.” We thought the time had come but nobody was offering us an organisation to join.

One of the demagogues who arose as a black leader was a light-skinned Trinidadian called Michael X whose credentials as the leader of the British blacks (‘King of the Queen’s niggers’ as one visiting black American radical put it) were being announced by journalists in the national press.

By this time I was trying to prove my own credentials as a candidate member of an immigrant organisation, of West Indians mixed in with a minority of Indian and Pakistani members, called the British Black Panther Movement. The name and inspiration had been adopted from America to excite and inspire radical youth to join. Nevertheless the organisation seemed perfectly level-headed and dedicated to political agitation to solve the problems facing immigrant populations and communities in Britain. The older members of the movement knew Michael well and had indeed broken away from the North London ‘outfit’ he controlled called The Black House. Some of these older members still interacted with Michael X who was born Michael de Freitas. He came as a seaman to London and was soon enrolled as a thug and enforcer in the pay of a notorious slum landlord called Rachmann. De Freitas was employed to threaten and evict tenants of Rachmann’s tenements who fell into rent arrears.
Bullying people must have been hard work. Michael de Freitas transformed himself into Michael Abdul Malik when the idea of black Islam came to Britain from across the Atlantic and later into Michael X when that mock identity seemed to be the most terrifying and lucrative.

The name changes, the supposed political evolution —the discarding of colonially imposed Christianity, the disowning of the ‘slave name’ of European origin — were duly reported in the British press. The rhetoric was yielding results. John Lennon contributed money to the Black House and the subsequent publicity brought donations from other pop stars and from the rebellious heirs of prosperous business families. Michael X and his project, which amounted to no more than ‘abuse whitey’, terrified whitey and whitey paid to assuage the guilt that X laid on him. X became rich enough to immigrate to Trinidad with three or four followers when his support fell off in Britain. Gail Benson, a young white woman left her respectable husband and home to follow him and his fellow traveller, a man who called himself Jamal, to the ‘commune’ in Trinidad which was to be the hub of world revolution. X and Jamal murdered their young white follower and buried her in the grounds of their house. The Trinidadian police found out and X was hunted down eventually in the remote wastes of Guyana, betrayed by the tribal people from whom he had to beg for food. He was brought back to Trinidad, renounced his X-ness and went back to being plain Michael de Freitas. Lawyers from Britain, still believing that they were acting on behalf of a revolutionary, rushed to form committees and went to Trinidad to defend him but the Trinidadian court convicted and sentenced Michael. The appeals were unsuccessful. He was hanged.

Naipaul examined, researched and wrote the story, first as an essay and then using the same theme and inspiration to transform the material into Guerrillas, a novel. Each in its own form explains the tragedy of a man encouraged by a fantasy of our times to create his own fantastic identity, and delusion of leadership and power – none of which Michael de Freitas possessed. He was no-one, he led no-one and his power only lasted for the moment in which his white donors felt guilty for being who they were in a world in which blacks were seen as emerging from oppression. The fantasy led Michael to murder, to flight, capture and the rope.

Naipaul, from Trinidad himself, identified the hoax, the proclivity to self-deception and the genesis of the encouragement from the whites, themselves self-deluded, that led to it. He didn’t see in the story the progress and counter-revolutionary containment of a radical or a martyr, but the tragedy of a weak man who played the part of a phantom to fulfil the fantasies of millionaire white radicals. X was a creature of their shallow and guilty conscience, an attempt by Britain to keep up with America which had produced a vibrant black movement and Malcolm X. Michael was an unashamed mimic – of the name, of the stance, of the tough talk of the ‘no compromise with whitey’. Whitey lapped it up. And de Freitas who harboured the secret of his part-white ancestry, played along till the end.

At the heart of Naipaul’s account of these happenings is not a ‘dislike’ for the man who wanted so badly to be the leader of the ‘negroes’ (as Walcott would have it), but a perception of the tragic muddle and self-delusion which, goaded on by meaningless rhetoric, led to pointless murder.

I am not ashamed now to admit that I was, albeit sceptically, a contributor to the idea that the tiny immigrant population of Britain could and would seek its own political power. Or to admit that at the time I saw Michael X as a hustling by-product of a genuine movement, a thief among the revolutionaries. It was Naipaul who saw before any of us that Michael X’s stance was nothing but a fashionable form of begging disguised as historical blackmail. And that the movement of immigrants could either integrate as it has with the main body of British politics or, again as it has, throw up new and more institutionalised ways of begging from the state.

This documentary account and the Guerrillas are Naipaul’s only forays into tackling a phenomenon that has distorted the discourse of the last few decades: the rhetoric of race. At the centre of this discourse, or at its beginning, are the historical phenomena of slavery and colonial conquest. The discourse is initiated in America by the articulated resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and the collective demand of American blacks for voting rights, material progress and social and political equality.
In Britain the racial idea was initiated during the adjustment of immigrant communities to living and working in Britain and becoming British in sometimes easy and sometimes difficult ways. It remains a movement which generates fear and leads logically to the investigation of ‘culture’, of schemes of values and has given rise in Britain to the ideas of ‘multiculture’.

Like most ideas in history, its percolation down through a pyramid of interpretations causes it to be distorted and exploited. But it is still a powerful idea. It initiates curiosity about ‘other cultures’ and, beyond the phase of shared cuisines, Pashmina shawls and explained religious festivals, it literally creates the reputations of writers who set out to satisfy that curiosity or exploit it. Novels of slavery, with the pathos of historical atrocity at their heart, are written and published. The uprooted communities of the world, people who have moved from one part of the planet to the other either forcibly or voluntarily in search of work perhaps, begin to tabulate their discontents and search for their ‘roots’. Green-card-holding Americans write about their divided selves while munching hamburgers. Whole genres of prose and poetry in sympathy with this post-colonial enterprise are published and studied. The critical approach to them is constrained, or at the least restrained, by an injunction to political correctness.

VS Naipaul is one writer who has stood aloof from this movement while living through it. He may even claim that he never lived through it, that it existed but passed him by. But the people who have made this myth their raison d’etre or their livelihood haven’t. Yet Naipaul’s is perhaps the truest, non-apologetic and politically unconcerned work. He has observed the societies that interest the modern reader. He has made writing about the displacement of our times his life’s work.

In an interview he once said that what attracted him first to Africa was the idea of discovering a culture that he imagined, never having been there, would be somehow closer to the earth. His various travels through Africa resulted in several long essays and two seminal novels: In a Free State and A Bend in the River. Both novels contemplate the lives of startlingly original, though unquirky and real, characters suffering the consequences of civil conflict. The first book, ‘researched’ through a sojourn in central Africa and the Congo foreshadows the political changes, the wars, the rise of dictatorships and the perpetration of genocide in the tragic continent. A Bend in the River tells the story of a clutch of displaced people, an Asian colonial central character, white adventurers — academic, sexual and militarily mercenary — and Africans, challenged by shifting tribal and political upheavals.

Both novels are unsentimental and both are terrifyingly real. If Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was the seminal fiction of colonised and enslaved Africa in the Nineteenth century, Naipaul’s novels are the essential chronicles of the barbarism of decolonising Africa in the Twentieth. His vision of Africa is devastating only because the tragedy of Africa is such. The novels are uncluttered with any attempt to apologise for or to historicise the ugliness with theories of colonialism. Greed, delusion and cruelty are not the characteristics of any one race.

Those who write about VS Naipaul as a ‘fine prose writer’, an unnecessary compliment which has followed him through his career, may be well-intentioned, but they miss the point. The power of Naipaul’s prose is not in the poise of the sentence but in the cumulative insights into human behaviour, contemporary history and into the writings and products of time.

Asked to pick out two characteristics of his work, characteristics that other contemporary writers do not possess to the same depth or with the same sweep, I would say that all of Naipaul’s work is informed by a sense of history; and that it never exhibits commitment to the causes and casuistries of our time.

At the end of In a Free State, the narrator captures the scene in a restaurant hut in the Egyptian desert. The performers of a touring Chinese circus have arrived there in minibuses and after their meal have lined up the waiters who have served them to give each of them a present in an envelope:

“The ragged waiters stood stiffly, with serious averted faces, like soldiers being decorated, then all the Chinese rose and, chattering, laughing softly, shuffled out of the echoing hut with their relaxed, slightly splayed gait….

“The waiter, his face still tense with pleasure, showed the medal on his dirty striped jibbah. It had been turned out from a mould that had lost its sharpness; but the ill- defined face was no doubt Chinese and no doubt that of the leader. In the envelope were pretty coloured postcards of Chinese peonies.

“Peonies, China! So many empires had come here. Not far from where we were was the colossus on whose shin the Emperor Hadrian had caused to be carved verses in praise of himself, to commemorate his visit. On the other bank, not far from the Winter Palace, was a stone with a rougher Roman inscription marking the southern limit of the Empire, defining an area of retreat. Now another remote empire was announcing itself. A medal, a postcard; and all that was asked in return was anger and a sense of injustice.

“Perhaps that had been the only pure time, at the beginning when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and had seen it
as complete…”

Infused with a sense of history, Naipaul’s work reflects the world he has so restlessly traversed. He has seen it everywhere as incomplete. The ‘committed’ writer doesn’t see the incompleteness. He idealises its end. He or she reproduces the world as that commitment. Only history can prove that the commitment is a deviation or a folly. Only historical prescience can condemn that commitment as a passing phase, a further incompleteness and restore to the task of writing the monocultural values of a shared humanity.


Tehelka - The People's Paper

The VS Naipaul of mass media is a mix of impatient remarks and sensational sound bytes pulled out of context. The VS Naipaul of the books is a nuanced and challenging thinker. In a three part essay Farrukh Dhondy tracks the validity and masterful insight of the writer and his most controversial views

Beyond Belief, VS Naipaul’s second excursion into five Islamic countries was published in 1998. It’s a book of discovery, a follow up to Among the Believers a book of stories garnered through travel in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, which was published in 1977. Both dates are important because they are sandwiched between the Islamic revolution in Iran in the early ‘70s and the murdering attack on the World Trade Centre in 2002. Both books are compilations of stories about people, their journeys, the generations that bred them, the nuances of faith and belief that sustains them.

Beyond Belief may be read as a panoramic portrait of these countries of ‘converts’ as Naipaul calls Muslims who are not Arabs, Muslims who have through history and mostly through conquest converted to the religion that sees Arabia as the centre of civilisation and their own history as an adjunct of the Arab story.
As such, the book is magnificently ambitious, central to the concerns of the world today, portentous and, for those who put their faith in forces outside literary insight, as prophetic.

In the Prologue to Beyond Belief Naipaul anticipates a question that the reader may reasonably ask:

“It may be asked if different people and different stories in any section of the book would have created or suggested another kind of country. I think not: the train has many coaches, and different classes, but it passes through the same landscape. People are responding to the same political or religious and cultural pressures. The writer has only to listen very carefully and with a clear heart to what people say to him, and ask the next question, and the next.”

In India, the metaphor of the train would become real. Sitting in, shall we say, a third class railway carriage, making a sustained journey for any purpose, one’s fellow passengers would open conversation with ‘Where are you from?’ And then the next question and the next. We Indians are used to the locative question and have prepared answers. But suppose (unlikely, but just suppose) VS Naipaul found himself on such a journey in such a train. Any answer he gave to the questions that would follow ‘Where are you from?’ would, in all probability, confound the understanding of the questioners. What would he say?


Or “Trinidad”?

And the remark that followed would perhaps be ‘I apologise, I thought you were Indian.’

VS doesn’t answer such questions because the real answer is that he doesn’t belong to Wiltshire, Trinidad or indeed, in the sense of being circumscribed by its culture and prejudices, to India. He belongs to literature or to ‘writing’, the home of his intellect. But that’s not the sort of answer you give to “Aap kahan se janab ?”

This sense of not belonging has enabled VS Naipaul, the quintessential writer for our times, to look at the world without the constraints of a mission. In a century in which literature, the very art and act of writing, has been coerced into a dedication to Soviet Realism, to ‘progressive’ causes, to feminism to self-discovery, to anti-racist protest, to proselytising in the cause of Islam, Hindutva, Indian secularism, fraudulent spirituality, shallow and humbug ‘life-guidance’, advertising travellogues and ark-loads of imitative ‘novel’ writing, grist to the mill of popular, pap publishing, Naipaul has uniquely, gone his own way. And his own way has always implicitly posed and answered the question ‘What is writing for?’ This is not a question that can be asked or answered independent of a time and place. It’s not a question that can be answered for all societies at all points in their material and cultural development. And yet the word ‘societies’ is not here misplaced. Writing is for and from within a society. Writers need readers. That readership has always consisted of those who will treat the formulated thought, the organised narrative, the expressed subtlety of ideas, the sharpness of insight as definitions of truth, as keys to their civilisation. And that presumes a ‘modern’ readership whose idea of reading is not derived from revealed literature or from ancient epics and myths from which moral prescription may be derived.
Societies produce the literature that they need. Dysfunctional societies, for instance the Stalinist constructs of the Twentieth century, produce the literature that has been prescribed for them, literature they don’t need, distorting literature.

Ancient India, ancient Greece lived by their great epics. Greek society, evolving into city-states and democracies in which there was a profound necessity for a comic and tragic self-consciousness, generated the theatre. Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Europe turned to the novel form to explore the possibilities of life in a changing world to which poetry and the essay could not offer sufficient guidance. Naipaul’s work, from his novels of the Caribbean through his books of discovery and enquiry in Africa, Britain, India and the Islamic countries are essential explorations of our time. Taken together they could define the burden of literature in our times.

Naipaul is not an Indian writer. He writes in English but he is not a ‘post-colonial’ writer in the popular, but doomed, classification of today’s universities. Neither is a he a British writer with neurotic post-imperial concerns or the narrow prospects of the British writers who accept their shrunken perspectives and world.

His personal history is Indian, in so far as India was colonised by the British who sent indentured labour to the West Indies and handed out island scholarships to a handful of the progeny of these marooned islanders to study at Oxford and Cambridge. His childhood was spent in a recognisably Indian but rapidly transforming family whose very language, rural Indian morality, religious observances and traditional professions would change in the space of a generation. The family would be scattered – to England, to Canada. There would be no going back to India.

Except for the writer who acknowledges that India is in his blood and feels both drawn to but removed from it. The exact nature of that attraction and removal is examined several times by Naipaul. In his second book of discovery in the country, India: a Wounded Civilization, he writes, “India is for me a difficult country. It isn’t my home and cannot be my home; and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it; I cannot travel only for the sights. I am at once too close and too far…..

India, which I visited for the first time in 1962, turned out to be a very strange land. As hundred years had been enough to wash me clean of many Indian religious attitudes; and without these attitudes the distress of India was – and is—almost insupportable……

Any inquiry about India has quickly to go beyond the political. It has to be an inquiry about Indian attitudes; it has to be an inquiry about civlisation itself, as it is. And though in India I am a stranger, this starting point of this inquiry has been myself.”

That is what I would call a true statement of commitment to writing: the inquiry that begins with the memory and insights of one’s own life and goes immediately beyond it to an inquiry into a civilisation.

Naipaul’s three books and some essays on India began to draw fire as far back as 1963 when he published An Area of Darkness. One of the attitudes of which he had been washed clean, was the characteristic Indian blindness to poverty, to extreme inequality, to suffering and to the filth around.

I remember reading An Area of Darkness in my college days in Pune. The book caused a furore. It was compared by ‘critics’ to Mother India, a book written by Katherine Mayo an American writer of the ‘20s, who it was said wrote of the suffering and the malpractices of child-marriage and female infanticide in India to put a spoke in the wheels of the Indian Independence movement as it gathered momentum.

Naipaul wrote of his revulsion at the social habits that Indians seemed to ignore – the defecation in public, the total ignorance of social hygiene, the superstition, hypocrisy, double standards and the comic and malappropriate mimicry of the West which he encountered during his year’s sojourn. The Indian intellectual community exploded with righteous indignation. Naipaul was a traitor. He was giving a bad impression of the country. They wrote and spoke of him as though they had hired an advertising agent for the civilisation who had ended up doing a bad job. Even then, and in the face of what can only be seen as the reaction of injured national pride, I admired the vision of the man who stated what should have been obvious, but stated it in an irrefutable style. Did I dare say that to my contemporaries? I can’t remember.

In all the noise generated by this book the objection which seemed to hold some water came from the left, from intellectuals who had presumably evolved a socialistic or communistic outlook as a retreat from the very attitudes which Naipaul exposed. Yes, they said, we were all guilty of turning away from the beggars and the starvation, but Naipaul should understand that this was the inheritance that colonialism left India and we were battling to overawe this legacy with political action. That first book and Naipaul’s perspective were unique. His vision had to have an answer. This leftist critical objection to Naipaul’s vision pacified the conscience of my generation of readers, but certainly left me with begged questions.

Naipaul turned to those questions when he returned to India in 1977 to write A Wounded Civilization. The book contains many more ideas than can be given room here but the germ of an idea, first developed in this book and later becoming the centre of Naipaul’s vision of Indian history, is that enshrined in its title. India is a wounded civilisation. Its wounds were inflicted by continuous conquest, the slaughter and obliteration of culture and continuity that the conquests entailed. And, unlike the historians of the nationalist era who consciously adhere to the credo that the pre-British conquests of India are best left in the shadows of history, lest they inflame irrational and uncontrollable passions, Naipaul points a wagging historical finger.

He is standing in the wide avenue of what used to be the main thoroughfare of the capital of the Fourteenth century kingdom of Vijayanagar. At one end is a temple which, 400 years after the destruction of the city, still stands. At the other, a giant statue of the bull of Shiva.: “That once glorious avenue—not a national monument, still permitted to live – is a slum. Its surface where unpaved, is a green-black slurry of mud and excrement, through which the sandaled pilgrims unheedingly pad to the food stalls and souvenir shops, loud and gay with radios. And there are starved squatters with their starved animals in the ruins, the broken stone facades patched up with mud and rocks, the doorways stripped of the sculptures which existed until recently. Life goes on, the past continues. After conquest and destruction, the past simply reasserts itself.”

Vijayanagar was wiped out by a confederacy of its Muslim neighbours, some of whom had been its allies against others in the years before the final obliteration of the kingdom and its ruling castes.

Naipaul goes on to say that by the time it was destroyed, Vijayanagar represented a fossilised Hinduism. It may not have deserved its fate, but it had ceased to generate the historical energy to withstand it.

Vijayanagar’s fate gives Naipaul the key to the wound that prevents India becoming whole again: “It was in Vijayanagar at this time… that I began to wonder about the intellectual depletion that must have come to India with the invasions and conquests of the last thousand years. What happened in Vijayanagar happened, in varying degrees, in other parts of the country. In the north ruin lies on ruin: Moslem ruin on Hindu ruin, Moslem on Moslem. In the history books, in the accounts of wars and conquests and plunder, the intellectual depletion passes unnoticed.” India makes itself archaic again.

This is the statement of a vast historical probability. Naipaul states this speculatively and then turns, here and in subsequent works, to the original sources of Indian history, to the accounts of travellers in the pre-Muslim and the Muslim and Mughal periods. The idea that begins here is substantiated and detailed in subsequent books and essays.

The book raised a second storm. Naipaul was again vilified by those who had a vision of India that was independent of its reality. A Wounded Civilization goes on o examine and condemn the living legacy of Gandhi. After the thousands of books written on Gandhi and Gandhianism, Naipaul is refreshingly brief and insightful. Through all his books Gandhi is mentioned with the deepest of intellectual respect. From Wounded Civilization to Magic Seeds, the novel which Naipaul has proclaimed is his last book, Gandhi is seen as uniquely honest in the community of Indian writers. Naipaul begins here his assessment of the Gandhian movement, which he says was built in 11 years from 1919 to 1930. Thereafter the structure survived and was the strongest factor in the gaining of Indian independence, but it generated a petrifaction of attitude, a compulsive return to the past which wouldn’t serve the material needs of the new India or propel it out of poverty. Gandhianism leads to an imaginary innocence, one that is not even fully understood, one that belongs to an undiscovered history before the wound. It leads to a cult of poverty – a religion India least requires.

There is a third idea in India; A Wounded Civilization, which has proved controversially prophetic. The book was written after a journey occasioned by the crisis in India’s political life which resulted in the state of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi’s government. In Bombay Naipaul asks to see the chawls, the shanties and slums of the city and writes about the order and small benefits that the organisation of the nascent Shiv Sena has brought to the sanitation and, marginally, to the health and well-being of these filthy and neglected warrens overpopulated by the influx of villagers into the city. It’s 1977 and the Shiv Sena, a novel political movement, restricted to Maharashtra, has hit upon the idea of organising this neglected, all too visible mass of the cities – these people who have been driven by destitution to the metropoles and haven’t the attributes which will municipalise them. They may even be a majority in the city, but they are non-people in its civic life. The Sena sets out to organise and win them. Its patron saint is Shivaji. The Sena’s methods of disciplining and drilling are not far removed from those of popular militant movement in Europe with mystical philosophies and nascent grudges substituted for ideology. Their leader has been known to express an admiration for Hitler. The Sena are labelled ‘fascist’ by the liberals and the left.

“But this is an easy, imported word,” says Naipaul. “The middle-class leadership of the Sena might talk of martial glory and dream of political power. But at this lower and more desperate level the Sena had become something else: a yearning for community, an ideal of self-help, men rejecting rejection.”

At the time of the Emergency I was writing for the radical newspapers in London and remember the horror with which this endorsement of the ‘fascist’ Sena was met. They were fascists. They were extortionists and protection racketeers. The rich and the religious minorities had everything to fear from these political goondas. The combination of the cult of Shivaji and the sight of feeble young men with matchstick limbs parading each dawn in khaki shorts and with lathis may not have filled me with dread, but unlike Naipaul I had no premonition or idea that this movement was a symptom of something larger. At the time, if the police had smashed them into submission with a few cracked heads, I wouldn’t have been sorry.

And yet Naipaul’s premonition proved to be right. The Sena was only one formation which was using legendary icons and allegiances to harness an energy which had to pull India out of Gandhian stagnation, out of a look backward.

Reading India: A Wounded Civilization and holding these three ideas in solution, the historical wound that has left India intellectually handicapped if not sterile, the limitations of the Gandhian project through which ancient stagnations and defeats reassert themselves, to the birth of the organising impulse within the neglected and destitute of India, one can see the book as clearest description of the developments of that era. The measured tones in which the connections are made is masterful. Its witnessed history.

His plea at the end of the book is not for any ‘fascist’ form of organisation, not for Shivaji or any renascent Hinduism. It is the understanding that the stability of the Gandhian India, an idea that came to the fore early in the Twentieth century and persisted, is an illusion. India will not be stable again for a long time: “While India tries to go back to an idea of its past, it will not possess that past or be enriched by it. The past can now be possessed only by inquiry and scholarship, by intellectual rather than spiritual discipline. The past has to be seen to be dead; or the past will kill”

How then did this slayer of the past acquire a reputation for being, as Salman Rushdie so damningly pronounced “A cheer-leader for the bjp?” How then does William Dalrymple, expert on Mughal couture and cuisine, pronounce VS Naipaul to be historically ignorant and a self-confessed “supporter of the entire Sangh Parivar Programme”?

Both Rushdie and Dalrymple are latter-day critics of Naipaul. They join the attack after Naipaul writes his third book of travel and discovery in the country: India A Million Mutinies Now. It remains, even in the words of Naipaul’s critics such as Edward Luce, the clearest and most diverse account of the reality, the flux and the dynamic of contemporary India. It is, to my mind, a growth from, rather than a revision of, the ideas formed during the earlier journeys. It uses the form invented in Among The Believers and is a collection of stories discovered or revealed on a journey round the India from Mumbai, through a turn in the South and Communist Party ruled Bengal, to Lucknow, Delhi and Kashmir. It is a passage through India and Naipaul sees all over, through the lives of people he meets, in the large and small social and political movements, a new dynamic. Sections of society, which have been hitherto silent, for centuries and millennia, are, through the hurly-burly and even through the corruption and confusion of democracy, asserting themselves. The assertion is both the result of and a part of self-discovery, a newfound collective confidence, an atma-vishwas. Its political dimensions are caste politics and this may entail the rise of demagogues who will by force

majeur abolish the pernicious caste system though they may make themselves rich and perpetrate small tyrannies on the way. And caste has to go, even if it means reinforcing its political cohesion.

In A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul uses the strongest language against the practices of untouchability – a quotation would make a Communist party rabble-rouser proud. And the socio-political dimension of this new movement, the culmination of Indian democratic awakening, is the rise of ‘Hindutva’, a realisation after more than a 1000 years of subservience, that the ancient way of life which is Hinduism can also be a force for political cohesion.

“It is not a religion of private conscience and private practice. It comes with certain ‘legal concepts’. These concepts have ‘civic significance’ and create a certain kind of social order. The religious idea cannot be separated from the social order. Therefore, the construction of a polity on national lines, if it means a displacement of the religious principle of solidarity is simply unthinkable….”

No, these are not the words of some Hindutva fascist. It’s a quote from Mohammed Iqbal making a speech in 1930 favouring the formation of Pakistan.
Pakistan was formed. Iran underwent a revolution using Islam as a uniting force to sweep away the modernisations and police state of the Shah. Now Al Qaeda calls on Muslims the world over to unite and aim at a universal Taliban-like Islamic polity and world. The rise of this Islamic force must be understood, I keep being told, even if one doesn’t sympathise with its ultimate aim. It is the reaction to humiliation, suffering and imperialism.

In India the movement of Hindutva is, according to Naipaul a reaction to humiliation suffering and historical imperialism. It doesn’t want to dominate the world. It is an awakening that can stimulate the population as it is into nationhood and that need not, under any tenet of classical Hindu belief turn its energies to suppressing or killing minorities. Awakenings carry criminals in their wake and there are vicious and foolish men who have ridden the wave to gain power and to betray the movement through which India stumbles and moves on. VS Naipaul has publicly, in my hearing denounced them. But should he not see in the contemporary movements of India this awakened energy?


Tehelka - The People's Paper

Taking on VS Naipaul’s most violently contested opinions on Islam, Farrukh Dhondy defends their rationale and unsentimental gaze


“But few could see the obvious, being blinded by the glitter of the Mughal emperor’s mountainous hoard of gold and gems, his marble palaces, the Peacock throne, the Taj. But behind the imperial façade there was another scene, another life – people in mud hovels, their lives barely distinct from those of animals, wretched half-naked, half-starved, and from whom every drop of sap had been wrung out by their predatory masters, Muslim as well as Hindu…

“At the height of Mughal splendour under Shah Jahan, over a quarter of the gross national product of the empire was appropriated by just 655 individuals, while the bulk of the approximately 120 million people of India lived on a dead level of poverty. No one gave a thought to their plight. Famine swept the land every few years, devouring hundreds of thousands of men, and in its wake came, always and inevitably, pestilence, devouring hundreds of thousands more. In Mughal India the contrast between legend and reality was grotesque.”
This from the epilogue of Abraham Eraly’s history of the Mughal invasion and rule, The Mughal Throne. Curiously, the back cover of Eraly’s book has an endorsing quote from a review: “ An excellent introduction to this period and the sometimes forgotten moment of multicultural assimilation it represented….. one of the most crucial and misrepresented periods of Indian history.”

The review is by William Dalrymple.

Eraly’s history, 550 pages of it, is replete with the wars, the slaughter, the cruelty and finally the crushing poverty in which a foreign satrapy of central Asian monarchs, chieftains and their courtiers, those 655 individuals, left India.

One cannot presume to speak for Dalrymple but his remarks presumably mean that this era of Muslim rule has been characterised as other than the summation that appends Eraly’s history. It is also a new and startlingly original definition of ‘multiculturalism’.

One knows the word as defining the liberal aspiration of today’s Britain and Europe, which have over the last few decades imported millions of people from their ex-colonies to work, mainly in the lower reaches of their economies. The social programme to assimilate these people into a civil society free of racial strife has been dubbed ‘multiculturalism’.

Dalrymple points us to a more deeply historical use of the word. The imperial impulse, the conquest, slaughter, suppression, cruelty, shame, degradation and subsequent victimisation must be taken together with the benefits of having a braver, more intelligent, monotheistic, fratricidal race which brings all the pluses of kebabi cuisine and the flora of Central Asia – together with their sartorial, poetic and polygamous inclinations, to the culture. Multiculturalism is this rich amalgam, surely? The bottom line is what counts, what?

Black academics in America would profit from accepting the Dalrymple definition and revisitng the ‘multiculturalism’ of America and the benefits of the great cotton economy before and after the civil war. All that Jazz?

Perhaps all imperial endeavour ought to be seen as bestowing the benefits of ‘multiculturalism’.

And though the world has had centuries of imperialism and even more centuries of multicultural exchange and familiarity, since the Sumarians came to the Indus (or vice versa?, we have by no means laid the foundations for real multiculture in our modern world.

There are indeed as many definitions of ‘culture’ as there are cultures. And yet with the narrowing of the world, with the ability of information, people, armies and hatreds to get from one end of the earth to the other before the sun, these cultures have inevitably come into contact and conflict and in some instances to gentle co-existence.
At a meeting a few months ago in which V.S.Naipaul addressed members of the cultural wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (an organisation which may strike some people as oxymoronic and as full of enlightenment as the Pope’s sex manual, he was asked what he thought of the fundamental clash of civilisations in the world today. His reply was that he didn’t recognise that there was a clash of civilisations, though he said he could guess what the questioner intended. He articulated his guess. The intention was an invitation to see the central clash in the world today as that of the civilisation of the West pitted against the forces of fundamentalist Islam. And further, the question was perhaps an invitation to denounce the culture and intentions of Islam itself. Naipaul said he was going to do neither.

He didn’t himself believe in that clash of civilisations. He didn’t denounce the culture and intentions of Islam.

He never has.

Naipaul’s two books which deal with the stories of Islamic countries and the stories of people who live in them, have no exposition of the religion to offer. They are not in any respect theological tracts. They are journeys through four ‘convert’ countries undertaken in 1979 and 1997.

The books are made up entirely of encounters with people in Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. They use the stories to explore the interstices of a thesis, the elements of which are modified and expanded as the stories provide new insights. These are stories of change. Nothing is fixed.

Except the given historical fact that the societies that Naipaul is examining are ‘convert’ societies, made up of people who were converted to Islam after the initial formation of the religion in Arabia. I don’t know if Naipaul would consider the Arab diaspora, which stretches to Morocco as a partially ‘converted’ society, but that remains an academic question. The non-Arabs, the Zoroastrians of Persia, the Hindus of Pakistan, the Hindu, Buddhist and animistic populations of South East Asia were converted to Islam. Iran and the Indian subcontinent by bloody conquest and conversion. South East Asia by the missionaries who in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries took this third religion from India, after Hinduism and Buddhism, further east. The Muslim conversion of Malaysia and Indonesia was the doing of missionaries from the subcontinent.

“There was no Arab invasion, as in Sind; no systematic slaughter of the local warrior caste, no planting of Arab military colonies; no sharing out of loot, no sending back of treasures and slaves to a Caliph in Iraq or Syria; no tribute, no taxes on unbelievers. There was calamity, no overnight abrogation of a settled world order. Islam spread as an idea – a Prophet, a divine revelation, heaven and hell, a divinely sanctioned code – and mingled with older ideas. To purify that mixed religion the Islamic missionaries now come; and it is still from the subcontinent- and especially from Pakistan- that the most passionate missionaries come.

“They do not bring news of military rule, of the remittance economy, the loss of law, the Bihari Muslims, now wanted neither by Bangladesh or Pakistan. These events are separate from Islam, and these men bring only news of Islam and the enemies of Islam.”

That too is in broad brush-strokes a story of change, of the arrival of a religion and of a real and unforced multicultural amalgam.

Very different from the multiculturalism of the Mughal emperors, the best of whom, Akbar, could boast after his several wars of attrition, “some of my best wives are Hindu”.

Naipaul admits that he knew nothing of Islam before his first journey began. His idea that he was travelling among converted peoples who perhaps carried in their folk memory in their traditions, something of the people they had been before their conversion, came as he travelled. As Muslims and as Muslim nations they took on the history of the conquerors and convertors. They became turkeys rooting for Christmas and spread its message of birth and rebirth. Pakistani history texts judge their history from the invasion of India by Arabs, not from the remains of Mohenjodaro and the civilisation of the Indus Valley that lie within their state. The Taliban blow up the Bhumiyan Buddhas as remnants of the heresy of a past which by definition is innocent of the coming of prophecy.

This obliteration of the past has a very particular effect on the convert societies. Their ‘culture’ may consist of kebabs and courtesans, of verse and venery, but their ‘civilisation’ is finally the tenets and observances of Islam.

Critics of this idea of converted people observe that all religious people are converts. The Arabs are themselves the first converts, Christians in England and Germany were converted to a religion born in Bethlehem.. and so on.

Fair enough. But for Christians all over the world there has never been a surrender of their own history to that of the Middle East. Their national allegiance defines them more clearly than their Christian religion and their secular texts and history probably more so than the bible and all its interpretations. The ‘civilisation’ of the Russian peasant six centuries ago may have been circumscribed by that of the Russian Orthodox church, but that narrative ended some time ago. In the Islamic world it has been revived time and again and lives. In the boastful words of the Indian poet Iqbal, whose Hindu grandfather was the family’s first Muslim convert, “phir kissney zinda keeya tasgara-e-yezdaan ko?” -- Who resurrected the tales of the supreme God?

For a writer like Naipaul, who travels to discover, the central value is that of civilisation which he defines implicitly as the progress of human ideas -- ideas that refresh the possibilities of life.

Such a dedication must arise from faith in a universal human culture or at least from faith in a common humanity beyond belief.

Naipaul’s yardstick for behaviour is that common shared humanity though he never stoops to define it, as defining such a tremulous creature would cause it to fly away.
Instead the stories make their own appeal in terms that any reader, idiosyncratically inclined or religiously dedicated can understand.

The stories of the people he meets in the convert countries contain the narrative of the past, present and possible future of those countries.

In 1979 he meets the editor and publisher of the Teheran Times. Iran has undergone a revolution. Students who call themselves the followers of Imam Khomeni have seized the American embassy and are holding its diplomats hostage. Naipaul talks to the newspaperman:

“I said ‘ Mr Parvez, you are a good Muslim and good Shia. Your paper used to be full of criticism of materialist civilizations. Why are your sons studying in the United States?’

“It wasn’t the time to push the question. He was too weary. He said, speaking of the second son, the one who hadn’t been able to get the visa, ‘It’s his future. He’s studying computer engineering. And Britain—it’s expensive.’

“So, deep down, he was divided. With one part of his mind he was for the faith, and opposed to all that stood outside it; in a world grown strange, he wished to continue to belong to himself for as long as possible. With another part of his mind he recognized the world outside as paramount, part of the future of his sons. It was in that division of the mind – as much as in the excesses of the Shah – that the Islamic revolution had begun in Iran. And it was there that it was ending.”

Naipaul’s conclusion is not that the Islamic revolution is breathing its last in Iran, but that “In Iran and elsewhere men would have to make their peace with the world which they knew existed beyond the faith.”

It is an optimistic conclusion to the harrowing journey, to the narrative of a half-made world in turmoil. And the duality, the internal dilemma that faces the zealot, the faith on the one hand and the world as it insists on being, beyond faith, is the clash that Naipaul sees. This, rather than the ‘clash of civilizations’ about which he was asked at the BJP meeting.

And the fate of the revolution?

“It was the late twentieth century – and not the faith – that could supply the answers – in institutions, legislation, economic systems.”

For the fundamentalist there are no answers outside the faith and it is heresy to look for them. The prediction that Islamic countries would have to look beyond the revealed text for modern answers for the ordering of modern society and the generation of a modern culture, is self-evident. It can’t be the basis of a reputation for being ‘anti-Islam’.

In his second book of travel through the same countries, Naipaul meets some of the same people and takes their stories on. He also comes to the conclusion that

“There is another way of considering the theme of conversion. It can be seen as a kind of crossover from old beliefs, earth religions, the cults of rulers and local deities, to the revealed religions – Christianity and Islam principally – with their larger philosophical and humanitarian social concerns…. In some of the cultures described in this book the crossover to Islam is still going on. It is the extra drama in the background, like a cultural big bang, the steady grinding down of the old world.”

Since that sentence was written the world has seen increased turmoil in the Middle East where militant Zionism lays claim to lands given to the Jews in revealed texts. It has witnessed the war of terror waged by a confederation of Muslim fundamentalist groups against the West, again going by the book; and against insufficiently fundamental rulers of Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Algeria and the Yemen – more prompting from text.

And yet the war of terror is brutally ‘modern’ in its use of information and the media to organise and coordinate its finances, its raids and its videoed execution of civilian captives such as the journalist Daniel Pearl and the two American Engineers in Iraq who had their heads severed with blunt knives.

Freedom for Palestine, Chechnya or Kashmir are quoted as their passing aims. But the others are beyond the politics of nation states fighting to be. They have declared that their final aim is to live in a world ordered by their own beliefs, in which there will be no unbelievers – a universal Islamic state. Dream on, one may say in a society in which thought and expression are free, except that this dream has turned to the recurrent bloodletting of the innocent.

By the text of course.

In what seems an apparent paradox, this murder, the bombings and the beheadings are planned, controlled and carried out by men who have in other ways embraced the modern world. They are engineers, scientists, economists, university graduates, some of them trained in the USA. They are by now means the wretched of the earth pushed into the corner of rebellion.

They too must live a divided existence – on the one hand the lure of modernity through all they have learnt and all that reading or knowledge of the wider world may have brought, and on the other: the faith. And if they claim and declare it’s their faith that has taken them there, who can condescend to attribute other motives to such highly motivated assassins? In their case, divided souls though they are - faith won.

And they were ‘ordinary blokes’ as their astounded erstwhile neighbours in Germany and Newcastle later said.

But doesn’t that mean that there are millions who suffer the same divide, experience the same dilemma in different degrees and in whom the opposite forces will win – despite and without destroying faith?

In Iraq in September the British Engineer Ken Bigley was captured by a jihadi group who demanded the release of all women prisoners held by the US or UK in Iraq as the price of his release. A video of him blindfold, pleading for his life and calling on Tony Blair to negotiate his release was sent by his captors to an Arab TV channel and was transmitted all round the world.

The Muslim Council of Britain joined the rest of the country in pleading for his release and sent two respected teachers of Islam to Iraq to try and make contact with kidnappers and plead for Bigley’s life. It was the first time since the Rushdie affair that a Muslim religious body came out on the side of a hostage held by men calling themselves jehadis. The Muslim Council even declared the kidnapping illegal under Sharia law.

On the face of it, this is the furthest that a British Muslim body has gone in support of a non-Muslim hostage. They declared that killing the innocent was strictly and expressly forbidden by Islam.

The two-man delegation was careful to say that they also condemn the killing by the US and its allies of Iraqi civilians and such a declaration presumably goes some way to providing them cover for asking for Mr Bigley’s release. They need the cover. It is by no means certain that all Muslims in Britain accept their leadership or agree with their initiative.

It is very doubtful that the Muslim council will go further than that. They are not about to call on Hamas to stop the suicide bombing of innocent civilians who may be Israeli citizens and Jews. Or are they?

Is their theological declaration about the slaying of innocents a strategic move to demonstrate that ‘ordinary’ Muslims whom the Council purports to represent are as British and concerned about the headline case as anyone else? Silence in this case was not an option.

And yet their declaration, supported by theological judgement or not, is not representative. A book of discovery among the Muslims of Britain, delving into the very divide that Naipaul identifies in Mr Parvez the newspaper editor of the Teheran Times, could certainly be.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Books on Naipaul

* Conversations with V. S. Naipaul / by Jussawalla, Feroza F.
* Naipaul's truth : the making of a writer / by Feder, Lillian.
* Sir Vidia's shadow : a friendship across five continents / by Theroux, Paul
* V.S. Naipaul / by Kelly, Richard Michael
* "V.S. Naipaul : Second Edition" by Bruce King
* "V. S. Naipaul (Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature)" by Fawzia Mustafa
* "On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V. S. Naipaul" by Timothy F. Weiss

Thursday, October 07, 2004

என். சொக்கன்

வி. எஸ். நைபால் பற்றி குஷ்வந்த் சிங் (தோராயமாய், 1995ல் எழுதப்பட்டது !)

இப்போது எழுதுகிறவர்களில் சிறந்தவராக நான் கருதுவது வி. எஸ். நைபாலைதான்.

நான் முதலில் படித்த அவருடைய நாவல், 'A House for Mr. Biswas', அப்போது அவரை ஆங்கில இலக்கியத்தின் வளரும் நட்சத்திரம் என்று வர்ணித்துக்கொண்டிருந்தார்கள்.

தன்னுடைய முன்னோர் வாழ்ந்த இடங்களைப் பார்க்க விரும்பிய நைபால், இந்தியா வந்தார். அவரோடு அவரது ஆங்கிலேய மனைவியும் வந்திருந்தார்.

அவரது சொந்த ஊர் நிலங்களையெல்லாம் பார்த்துவிட்டு, அவர்கள் இருவரும் டெல்லி வந்தபோது அவர்களது முகத்தில் ஏமாற்றம் அல்லது ஏதோ ஒரு பிம்பம் கலைந்துவிட்டதைப்போன்ற வெறுமையுணர்வு வெளிப்படையாய்த் தெரிந்தது !

இந்திய மண்ணின் மைந்தனாக தன்னை உருவகப்படுத்தி எல்லோரும் பாராட்டு மழைகளைப் பொழிவார்கள் என்று நைபால் எதிர்பார்த்திருந்தாரோ என்னவோ, சொந்த ஊரில் தனக்கிருக்கிற புகழை, தன் மனைவியின் முன் நிரூபிக்கவேண்டும் என்று அவர் விரும்பியிருக்கலாம். அவர்கள் இருவருக்குமே ஏமாற்றம்தான் கிடைத்தது - ஏனென்றால், அப்போது இந்தியாவில் நைபாலைப் படித்திருந்தவர்கள் மிகச்சிலரே !

அந்தப் பயணத்தின்போது நான் அவர்களுக்கு வழிகாட்டியாக பணியாற்றினேன். அவரைப் படித்திருந்த என் நண்பர்களிடமும், அவரது புத்தகங்கள் நன்கு விற்ற கடைகளுக்கும் அவர்களைக் கூட்டிப்போய், நைபாலின் சரிந்திருந்த இமேஜை, ஓரளவு சரிபண்ண முயன்றேன் !

நாங்கள் Suraj Kund சென்றோம். அப்போது, அங்கிருந்த அழகிய பள்ளத்தாக்கையும், பழைய டில்லியின் பூக்கள் நிரம்பின அழகையும் விட்டுவிட்டு, பக்கத்து கிராமத்திலிருந்து வந்திருந்து, அங்கே வேடிக்கை பார்த்துக்கொண்டிருந்த ஏழைச் சிறுவர்களைப்பற்றிதான் விரிவாக கவனித்து எழுதினார் நைபால் !

ரொம்பவும் கூச்ச உணர்வுடையவர் நைபால். அவரை யாராவது தொட்டால் அப்படியே சுருங்கிப் போய்விடுவார், யாராவது அவரைக் கட்டியணைத்து வரவேற்றால், கேட்கவே வேண்டாம் ! அவருக்கு ஆகாத இன்னொரு வி"யம் - கேமெராக்கள், அவரை யார் ஃபோட்டோ எடுத்தாலும் அவருக்குப் பிடிக்காது !

ஆனால், வெளியே செல்வதென்றால் அவருக்கு ரொம்பப் பிடிக்கும், அப்படிச் சந்திக்கிற மனிதர்கள்தான் அவருடைய அடுத்தடுத்த புத்தகங்களாகிறார்கள் !

நைபால் மீண்டும் இந்தியா வந்தபோதெல்லாம், அவர் எதிர்பார்த்த பாராட்டுகளும், புகழும் அவருக்குக் கிடைத்தது.

வி. எஸ். நைபாலுக்கு நோபல் பரிசு கிடைக்கப்போகிறது என்ற செய்தி பலமுறை இங்கிலாந்து மீடியாக்களில் அடிபட்டது. குறிப்பாக, நியூயார்க் டைம்ஸ் இதழின் ஆசிரியர், இரண்டு முறை என்னைத் தொலைபேசி அழைத்து, நைபால்பற்றிய கட்டுரையைத் தயார் செய்துவைக்குமாறு சொல்லியிருந்தார், இரண்டு முறையுமே, 'இந்த வருடம் அவருக்குதான் நோபல்' என்று அடித்துச் சொன்னார் அவர், நானும் என் கட்டுரைக்கான ஏற்பாடுகளைச் செய்துவைத்தேன் - ஆனால் ஏனோ, தகுதியுடைய அவருக்கு நோபல் பரிசு கிடைக்கவேயில்லை !

ஆங்கிலத்தில் எழுதினாலும், அவர் ஒரு கறுப்பர் என்பதால்தான் அவருக்கு நோபல் கொடுக்கப்படவில்லை என்று தோன்றியது அப்போது. இங்கிலாந்து அரசாங்கம் அவருக்கு 'சர்' பட்டம் வழங்கியது, ஆனால் அவர் எப்போதும் அந்தப் பட்டத்தைத் தன் பெயருக்குமுன் பயன்படுத்திக்கொள்ளவில்லை !

இதில் வேதனையான வி"யம் என்னவென்றால், இந்த ஏமாற்றங்களினால், தனக்கு நோபல் பரிசு கிடைக்கப்போவதே இல்லை என்று முடிவுசெய்துவிட்டாரோ என்னவோ, அவருடைய எழுத்தின் தரம் தானாய்க் குறைந்துவிட்டது !

நைபாலின் அம்மாவையும், அவரது தம்பி சிவாவையும்கூட எனக்கு அறிமுகம் ஏற்பட்டது. அவர்களுடன் பேசியபிறகு, அவர்கள் இருவருடனுமே வி எஸ் நைபால் அதிக நேரம் செலவிட்டதில்லை என்பதை என்னால் புரிந்துகொள்ளமுடிந்தது ! அதனால்தானோ என்னவோ, நைபாலின் அம்மாவுக்கு சிவாவைதான் அதிகம் பிடித்திருந்தது. புத்தகக் கடைகளில் வி எஸ் நைபாலின் புத்தகங்கள் அடுக்கிவைக்கப்பட்டிருப்பதைப் பார்த்துவிட்டு, 'நீங்கள் என் மகன் சிவாவின் புத்தகங்களை ஏன் அதிகம் விற்பதில்லை ?' என்று அவர்களிடம் கேட்பார் நைபாலின் அம்மா. அவருக்கு ஏனோ இந்தியா பிடிக்கவேயில்லை, ஆனால் சிவாவுக்கு இந்தியா ரொம்பவே பிடித்திருந்தது !

- 'Truth, Love and a Little Malice' புத்தகத்திலிருந்து

V.S. Naipaul and Khushwant Singh in Conversation

Author: Bhaichand Patel
Publication: Outlook
Date: May 8, 2000

I had this idea of moderating a discussion between two of my favourite writers. One of them, V.S. Naipaul, or to give his full name, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, is ethnically Indian but Trinidad born. He has won almost every major literary award and has reportedly been considered for the Nobel Prize several times.

He was in India recently with his charming wife, Nadira, to pick up another award, this time from the Maharana Mewar Foundation. This was Sir Vidia's ninth trip to India. He has written 25 books, three of them on India. The Editorial Board of Modern Library has considered A House for Mr Biswas one of the best novels of the 20th century. In both fiction and non-fiction, Sir Vidia has explored the emotional and political geography of what he calls half-made societies. His unforgiving prose has won him many admirers but there are also many in the liberal establishment who see him as a force of reaction for not holding a more optimistic view of the developing countries. I first met him when he had come to New York in November 1980 to collect the prestigious Bennett Award given by the Hudson Review in recognition of
"his outstanding accomplishments as a novelist and man of letters".

The other writer, Khushwant Singh, is the doyen of India's writing fraternity and the author of the First Great Indian Novel of post-Independence India, A Train to Pakistan. Lawyer, diplomat, editor, broadcaster, parliamentarian, novelist and columnist, Khushwant is now in his eighties and still going strong. He won the Grove Press Award in 1954 for the best work of fiction. The two-volume History of the Sikhs received rave reviews when it was first published 35 years ago and is still in print. He is probably the most widely-read Indian writer. I have been a friend of the family for many years except for a six-month period in the 1960s when he wouldn't talk to me due to a youthful indiscretion on my part.

The three of us met on a hot Saturday morning in Delhi with photographers and lights in tow. I am sorry to relate I was largely redundant. It was a love fest between the two writers. My role was to hold the tape recorder, interjecting occasionally, naam ke vaaste.

Bhaichand Patel: How long have you two known each other?

Khushwant Singh: We first met in 1962 when he had come to research the first of his three books on India, An Area of Darkness. Even then, almost 40 years ago, I was completely overawed by his stature in the literary world. I was surprised to find him such a gentle, soft person.

V.S. Naipaul: I was 29 years old and you were 20 years my senior. Yet you greeted me as if we were of the same age. It was extremely generous of you.

Singh: I remember taking you to a party hosted by some industrialist at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. We were the first to arrive and lo and behold there were half a dozen whores lined up at the party. I tried to engage them in conversation but found them totally illiterate. Only then it occurred to me who they were. They had been provided by the host for the benefit of any guests so inclined!

Naipaul (laughs): I don't remember that at all.

Singh: I also took you to a mela at Surajkund on the outskirts of Delhi. The view of the valley at sunset was spectacular. You stood there silently for a long time. I thought you were moved by it and would write a lyrical description. But when I read the book I found that you were more moved by the village children in rags with flies hovering around them.

Naipaul: I was not in a position to appreciate what you were showing me. Earlier you had taken me to the Qutab and showed me the pillars taken from a Hindu temple for its construction. You told me that Surajkund was one of the few Hindu structures still standing in that area. I was just beginning to comprehend, in an historical sense, the Indian calamity.

Singh: The New Yorker magazine recently carried an exchange of letters between your father and you while you were at Oxford. Writing seems to run in your family. Your late brother, Shiva, wrote a number of books, including that very fine novel, The Chip Chip Gatherers. Your father worked on a newspaper and had writing ambitions of his own. But you seem to have written letters only to your father, none to your mother or your brother.

Naipaul: Shiva would have been too young. He was only eight when my father died. My relationship with my father was very close, unusually close. My mother may have read some of the letters I wrote to my father but she wouldn't have known what to make of them. My mother was not a reading woman. I don't think my mother read a line of what I have written or a word of the newspaper pieces my father wrote.

Singh: Which part of India does your family come from?

Naipaul: We are now several generations away. It is very hard after a hundred years to pinpoint the ancestral homeland. There would be eight great-grandparents from different parts of India. I know my mother's father came from eastern Uttar Pradesh, a village near Gorakhpur. I went there in 1962. That was one firm address we used to have. Now we have lost even that connection.

Singh: Did you speak Hindi in your family?

Naipaul: Hindi faded away as a house language in Trinidad in the forties when I was a child. English overcame Hindi.

Singh: I found A House for Mr Biswas amazing. Good writing, humorous and evocative. Is it based on your father?

Naipaul: There is a great difference between real life and fiction. Real life is often very messy and does not lend itself to neat episodes. My father was a very serious man. Mr Biswas, on the other hand, is more of a comic figure. I took a family structure and elaborated on it. The novel was an exercise in imagination. Much of it takes place in the twenties. I was born in 1932.

Singh: It received a rare full-page review in The Observer of London.

Naipaul: It was a big gesture on the part of the critic Colin MacInness. He asked the editor for a full page. It was largely due to him that my career took off. I suppose writers need a bit of luck like that.

Patel: Do you think English is becoming more and more part of the large group of Indian languages?

Naipaul: It certainly is much better spoken and written in this country these days.

Singh: There is no question about it. The new Indian writers are much more at ease with the English language. The Jhumpa Lahiris and the Arundhati Roys are much better writers than the R.K. Narayans and the Raja Raos of the past. They handle the language much better.

Singh: In a Free State won the Booker Prize. Would you consider it your best book?

Naipaul: Yes, I suppose that one and A House for Mr Biswas. The Booker Prize judges wanted to give me a prize and they used In a Free State to hang it on. Prizes are a new innovation. In the old days there used to be end of the year round-ups of worthy books. Some books faded and some stayed afloat. Publishing has changed so much over the years. The novel has become a kind of a commercial product.

Singh: You were obviously very disappointed with India when you first came in 1962. That disappointment was reflected in your book, An Area of Darkness.

Naipaul: I was wounded. It wasn't disappointment. It was a great wound. You must remember we were a very depressed community in Trinidad. There were no stories about India. We assumed that our ancestors must have left some rather awful place to come to a place like Trinidad. Our idea of India was a grim one. It was a country never physically described to us and therefore never real. I was not equipped to deal with India when I first came here.

Singh: I thought there was a sense of disenchantment. You came here with a notion of a great civilisation and culture and you didn't find it.

Naipaul: No. It was India's poverty that laid me low.

Patel: In Beyond Belief, your last book, you differentiate between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims.

Naipaul: It was a later discovery on my part. In its origins, Islam is an Arab religion. Everyone who is not an Arab is a convert. Islam is a demanding religion. A convert to Islam changes his view of the world. His holy places are in another country, his sacred language is Arabic. He rejects his own history and turns away from his own historical background. In a profound way the converted Muslims are a colonised people.

Singh: Can you explain your disenchantment with Islam?

Naipaul: I have been misinterpreted. It is not disenchantment. I am being realistic. I have been trying to penetrate and understand Islam. The fundamentalists in places like Malaysia and Indonesia want to get rid of everything that reminds them of their non-Muslim past. This is also true of Iran. Persia was a great country. It rivalled the Roman Empire. It challenged classical Greece. Now they are saying that the pre-Islamic period is not important. Ayatollah Khalkhalli, Khomeini's hanging judge, tried to destroy the ruins of Persepolis and the remnants of Cyrus' palace built 2,500 years ago. This is madness. This is the direction fanaticism will take people. One has to compare that with other societies where the past is cherished and endlessly explored.

Singh: You see that more sharply in a country like Egypt. Islamic Egypt is totally different from the Egypt of the pharaohs. They will exploit their rich cultural heritage for tourism and at the same time disown it as idol worship. You see this dichotomy also in Pakistan. The fact that once they were Hindus and were once ruled by the Sikhs has been wiped out from their memories.

Patel: Any opinion on the new Hindu nationalism that is creeping into the mainstream of Indian politics?

Naipaul: I haven't gone into it in any great detail: Khushwant, tell me about it.

Singh: It distresses me. There has been an uprise of intolerance towards everything that is not Hindu and it is gaining momentum. A good example of this is the action taken against M.F. Husain when he painted a Hindu goddess in the nude. They destroyed his paintings and ransacked his house. I am pretty certain such vandalism wouldn't have occurred if he were a Hindu. You can walk into any antique stop and pick up a carving of Shiva and Parvati coupling. There are many paintings of Radha and Krishna making love in the most graphic manner.

Naipaul: Surely there is an element of mimicry in this. The Hindu revivalists are mimicking the Islamic fundamentalists.

Singh: I think they feed on each other. The Hindu fundamentalists are reacting to the constant calls by their Muslim counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan for jehad against the non-Muslims in India.

Naipaul: But these are minor eruptions.

Singh: Like destroying the Babri mosque in Ayodhya? You can't call that a minor eruption.

Naipaul: I would call it an act of historical balancing. The mosque built by Babar in Ayodhya was meant as an act of contempt. Babar was no lover of India. I think it is universally accepted that Babar despised India, the Indian people and their faith.

Singh: One had always imagined that we had made a new beginning in 1947. The past would be left to the past. Unfortunately that hasn't happened. The Hindu fundamentalists are asserting themselves and are targeting the adherents of the two religions that have come from outside, Islam and Christianity.

Naipaul: Christianity and Islam have been so intolerant themselves. Their history has been a history of intolerance. Christianity too has a dark history. Christianity that was brought here by the Portuguese was very dark intellectually and very, very cruel. The twentieth century Christianity is much more humane.

Singh: Still, I wish the venom would go out of Vishwa Hindu Parishad. They have 300 mosques on their list for destruction. Two of them have been accepted for destruction even by the BJP, those in Mathura and Varanasi. This kind of insanity will spell disaster for the country.

Patel: Vidia, I hear you are writing a new novel and this time it's about love.

Naipaul (laughs): I am not even going to deny it. There are all sorts of rumours. I am doing a piece of work. I am afraid that if I talk about it I will lose it. Khushwant, tell me about love. What aspect of love interests you?

Singh: The earthy aspect, the physical aspect, the lusty aspect, all aspects of love. But I find the whole concept so elusive that I never try to define it, either to myself or in anything I write. I do understand lust but, as hard as I try, I can't understand the concept of love.

Naipaul: I think people who are not sexually fulfilled are hard people and extraordinarily damaged. They are terribly unhappy and unreliable. Lots of sexual repression comes out in the form of violence. A lot of religious intolerance is a product of sexual frustration.

Singh: I said to L.K. Advani once, "You are a good and an honest man. But you don't drink, you don't smoke and you don't womanise. Such men are dangerous!"

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

V. S. Naipaul (Writers and Their Work) by Suman Gupta Books: V. S. Naipaul (Writers and Their Work): "This was a hard-nosed analysis of Naipaul's work as a whole. Without being overly jargonistic or heavily literary it managed to show the links between different phases of Naipaul's development, and give a sense of the overall development of Naipaul's thinking. It is not a pretty picture, and one that many of Naipaul's admirers will find objectionable. But the argument is persuasive and cannot be dismissed lightly. It is also valuable in providing the context for Naipaul's many books, which are often set in vastly different countries and cultures. "