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By Ratan Bhattacharjee
He was the colossus of Caribbean literature. He was the ever angry man who represented the Third World people not with sugary realism but with their demons, their misdeeds and horrors in the way Joseph Conrad wrote about the colonial people. This made us feel about them as less victims and more humans.
Probably this is where Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad ‘Vidia’ Naipaul, the 2001 Nobel Laureate of Indian origin, was so innovative and original as a thinker and left behind a huge legacy for the writers of the coming age.
The honesty of a writer is missing today and Naipaul showed the direction for all novelists of later times though he saw himself as a lone stateless observer, free of ideology, politics and illusion where he was nearly without any rivals.
He never forgot that he was the grandson of an indentured labourer. He was not white but writing English more impressively than the white people. So he was not writing as a non-white man as expected and that is why many misunderstood him and criticised him for his severity but his wife knew him better than many and Lady Naipaul called him “a giant in all that he achieved”.
Naipaul was born in Trinidad, lived in London and died aged 85 living a life full of wonderful creativity and endeavour. Among writers who wrote honestly with inimitable style he was the best. Ever scrupulous about his words and syntax, he was brilliant for his perspective on the post-colonial world.
Salman Rushdie regarded him as his beloved older brother and praised for his ‘window pane prose that made us look through a very clean, polished glass window at the object beyond and this is true of all his post-colonial narratives’.
The political turmoil of 1970s’ Africa darkened his vision but it could not take all his love of life. His masterpiece, A House of Mr Biswas, which mysteriously did not get any prize, can be a lifelong memory for any reader. This book contains the story of Mr Biswas, a man of little means and Naipaul with shadowy memories of his own father depicted his character who married into a powerful but crass Trinidadian family.
The transformations and travails are delineated with a wonderful fidelity to facts in all the 500 pages which have an appealing immediacy.
Naipaul was the first winner of the Booker Prize for In a Free State in 1971. He can be called a modern philosopher with a vigilant style. His legacy is complex for his outspoken nature but his writing is always an occasion for celebration. His comments about Islam, women and Africa sparked off huge controversy as Amit Chaudhury said “unpleasant and untrue” but they were his literary forte and a part of his creativity.
In 1962, he came to India where he wrote An Area of Darkness. He was amazed to see the evasive Indian reaction to poverty and suffering. Naipaul expressed only contempt for Westerners looking to the sub-continent for a spiritual awakening. He criticised their blindness to the dirty atmosphere and suffering of the people here. He also wrote Mr Stone and the Knights Companion and started writing a monthly column Letter from London for the Illustrated Weekly of India.
He faced great financial trouble and his wife too joined teaching. He spent time on writing an original script for an American movie and in the next few months on writing a novella — A Flag on the Island. It is a story of an American set in the Caribbean Island. The effort to find tidy solutions to the island’s social problems is noticed in many of his novels and also in the next novel was The Mimic Men.
The depiction of West Indians is harsh but true. The language was allusive and ironic.
The Enigma of Arrival was written when post colonial studies and the epic Indian novel in English were having their heydays. At this time Naipaul entered an autumnal phase with The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World where he combined personal experience with the broad historical sweep of post war migration from developing world. He wrote The Loss of El Dorado in 1969 to ferret out an older deeper history of Trinidad. At that time he was unhappy with the political climate of Britain. Their animosity towards Asian immigrants, especially from British colonies irked him. Naipaul wrote in 1974 the novel Guerrillas and wrote non-fiction too, the last being The Masques of Africa in 2010. Here he gave a graphic picture of real life as bleak as possible and the people as primitive.
The Swedish Academy praised him for “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”. The comparison between Naipaul and Joseph Conrad is justified if we see him as the “annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense what they do to human beings”.
We may not forget the dark patches of his personal life where he was accused of misogyny and chronic physical abuse of his mistress of 25 years Margaret Murray. He did not see the world as void but as one which is dense with physical and social phenomena brutally alive with the complications and contradictions of human behaviour to which even Nissim Ezekiel also reacted by writing the 1984 essay ‘Naipaul’s India and Mine’ as reply to Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness.
The Mystic Masseur was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958 and Miguel Street the Somerset Maugham Award in 1961, but the book for which he did not get any prize was his best A House for Mr Biswas.
Naipaul is criticised for his unsympathetic portrayal of the Third World and some fellow novelists called him “racist and repulsive” though Edward Said believed that Naipaul’s worldview may be most salient in his book length essay The Middle Passage.
The ever greatest novelist, however, believed that novel is dead and did not accept the autobiographical property in his writing. His sense of humour was devastating. When Rushdie went into hiding after the Satanic Verses, Naipaul described the fatwa as “an extreme form of literary criticism”.
Poverty chased him all his life and he even attempted suicide at one point of his life. His father supported him and much about it is published in Letters Between a Father and a Son in 1999.
This book can justify why he was called “a magical craftsman of English prose”.
(The author is International Visiting Faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey. He may be reached at [email protected])
Naipaul and Singh’s photos: Google Images