In Memoriam

VS Naipaul: Severe, Savage, Sublime

Rohit Chawla
S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Remembering VS Naipaul (1932-2018)

GOING BY THE LEGEND, I WAS ATTEMPTING SOMETHING NO INTERVIEWER WOULD DARE. I HAD NOT MET VS NAIPAUL BEFORE, BUT HE WAS ONE WRITER WHO compelled me to return—to the worlds buried in that sculpted sparseness, worlds that lay, abandoned and wounded, in the confused histories of decolonised societies, worlds still struggling to recover from the worst vandalisms of civilisations, worlds that, more than anything else, cracked open to reveal a writer’s struggle for perfection. And there I was, one afternoon seventeen years ago in Delhi, dialling his number in Wiltshire, one of the most beautiful parts of the English countryside, for a telephone conversation with him on his first India novel, Half a Life. The legend had it that Naipaul was a writer of dark moods who dismissed the accidental interviewer with a look or a word. I had the shield of distance, and the books mattered to me. So I dared.

Half a Life came out after his famous declaration: the novel is dead; the art form of the century is cinema. Naipaul was only the last to mourn the demise. Before him, Milan Kundera despaired over the novel’s retreat from Europe, its original homeland, but he was consoled by the sight of its bloom in the tropics. Some even wondered whether it was Naipaul’s way of admitting that there were no more stories to be told, no more cursed lands to be explored. Or, was it the end of a journey that broke the barriers between truth and imagination, a journey through half-made societies? Or, was it the unforgiving wayfarer’s admission of the worthlessness of the project? Half a Life was not Naipaul at his majestic best, it was a master enjoying the enigma of return after a pause.

It was an easy summation of the Naipaul countries we had seen more vividly before. The novel begins with a question, and its seeming simplicity conceals anxieties that are still not resolved by history and ancestry:

Willie Chandran asked his father one day,‘Why is my middle name
Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are
mocking me.’
His father said without joy, ‘You were named after a great English writer. I am sure you have seen his books about the house.’
‘But I haven’t read them. Did you admire him so much?’
‘I am not sure. Listen, and make up your own mind.’
And this was the story Willie Chandran’s father began to tell. It
took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things
were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England
this was the story he had heard.

Willie’s journey will stretch from the nameless Indian town where gods and Somerset come together to shape his past, to England, where he is initiated into the art of seduction and storytelling, to Africa, where he becomes one with lives half lived, setting the stage for a series of departures, a phase of ‘watching without seeing and hearing without listening’. Naipaul would not have been able to write this novel “if I had been writing about India as a series of scenes,” he told me. “The ignorance of day-to-day life would have let me down. The style of the narrative enabled me to write about not only India, but England and Portuguese Africa.”

It was India that flagged off his journey, and Half a Life was a kind of comeback, and when I asked him what the trigger was, he would say, in his typical manner of repetitions accentuated by pauses, “Ancestral… ancestral. You cannot get away from it.” He could not. Three years later, Willie returned, as a revolutionary, playing out his rural romance, a pastoral undone by the absurdities of freedom, in a place resembling Telangana. Willie would escape that only to become part of another absurdity, the welfare state. Revolutions don’t change with landscapes. The betrayals, whether in an English metropolis or in the Indian countryside, persist.

INDIA WAS THE great hurt, and it began with the first trip he made, when he was 29, and it resulted in An Area of Darkness. It remains one of the most painful rites of homecoming. India is the land of his forefathers, but homage and homilies are far from the prose that brings India to an illusionary life. At the end of a one-year journey, in filth and myths, he writes:

The world is illusion, the Hindus say. We talk of despair, but true despair lies too deep for formulation. It was only now, as my experience of India defined itself more properly against my own homelessness, that I saw how close in the past year I had been to the total Indian negation, how much it had become the basis of thought and feeling. And already, with this awareness, in a world where illusion could only be a concept and not something felt in the bones, it was slipping away from me. I felt it as something true which I could never adequately express and never seize again.

It’s this innate struggle, undying and persistent, that propels his journeys. While he travelled across India, a journey that was a subversion of the exotic orient, what he witnessed was an idea ruptured and unredeemed in spite of its inspired, and inspiring, civilisational story. And this story would be told with the same pitiless detachment of the writer who could not, and would not, resist the call of the ruins. India: A Wounded Civilization is an indictment and a lament, untouched by the sentimentality of someone who, no matter how acute his sense of rootlessness, carries within him a lot of India. He traces the footprints of the conqueror to realise the stoicism and suffering of a people. Is it, in the end, a civilisation wounded as much by its sense of defeatism as by the English and the Mughals? He is shocked by the defeatism, the quiet posture of the vandalised—the Hindu sense of submission. Later, in India: A Million Mutinies Now, he updates the original journey in darkness; he sees the glow of a slow awakening. The excesses, the extremities, are overwhelming, but for once, he acknowledges change, the stirrings of an intellectual life in the last wreckage of the colonised mind. India is larger than the sum of its revolts and cruelties.

Excess was now felt to be excess in India. What the mutinies were also helping to define was the strength of the general intellectual life, and the wholeness and humanism of the values to which all Indians now felt they could appeal. And—strange irony—the mutinies were not to be wished away. They were part of the beginning of a new way for many millions, part of India’s growth, part of its restoration.

It took a while for him to step out of the darkness. There was no forgiveness, no kindness, only the nausea of being lost in the rotten heart of India. That was then. Once inside the mutinies, the ‘excesses’ of India do not detract him from appreciating the possibilities of evolution. Darkness of the area has given way to the anxieties of growth.

Home remained a receding image inaccessible to the traveller. In his later years, he has written vividly about what it meant, and how it looked, while he was growing up in Trinidad

Elsewhere, though, the darkness acquires a Conradian depth. Only the form has changed; Naipaul remains the traveller, as unforgiving as ever, in his African novels set in the so-called half-made societies. In In a Free State, a four-part book of reported fiction, a genre attributable to Naipaul alone, which won him the Booker in 1971, the culture clash is as severe as the prose is luminous. The beautiful barely conceals the bloodlust. The novel, after its episodic passages of identity and assimilation in Washington and London, reaches its violent denouement in a nameless African country. (A Naipaul country is too frighteningly realistic to require a name, though it has become a literary parlour game to spot suitable geographies.) In In a Free State, racial and cultural incompatibilities and raw human emotions come together to create a master work of exile and fall. The quest alone remains, even as the idea of home and a search for stability become futile, in the most dehumanising ways. This work has the smartest prologue ever written to a novel, featuring a tramp in a hat and tweed jacket. He might have been a ‘romantic wanderer of an earlier generation; in that rucksack there might have been a book of verse, a journal, the beginning of a novel’. The beginning of a novel, or an exquisite invitation to one.

Naipaul’s travel gets volatile, and linear, in Guerillas. On an island of fantasies, Jimmy is the enforcer, and Jane, English, is an intruder, a traveller chasing a vindication of her own romance. Revolutions, in their sanguineous search for justice, need martrydom, and Jane becomes the easiest choice. ‘She knew only what she was and what she had been born to; to this knowledge she was tethered; it was her stability, enabling her to adventure in security. Adventuring, she was indifferent, perhaps blind, to the contradiction between what she said and what she was so secure of being; and this indifference or blindness, this absence of the sense of the absurd, was part of her unassailability.’ The adventure ends up as surrender, savagely. Revolutions feed on such unsolicited martyrdoms.

His travels in ‘half-made societies’ are a picaresque with no fun. The colonies’ Day After, the controlled freedom, allows none either. As in the nameless African country of A Bend in the River, whose opening lines form the testament of a moral absolutist: ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ The novel, one of my favourites, is Selim’s search for a place in this African country over which hovers the Big Man. No writer wraps the perversions and pathologies of the liberated colonies in words of such measured cadence. Selim, an Indian Muslim, is an outsider, and his observations essay the beautiful and the brutal through a series of set pieces. ‘As I got deeper into Africa— the scrub, the desert, the rocky climb up to the mountains, the lakes, the rain in the afternoons, the mud and then, on the other, wetter side of the mountains, the fern forests and the gorilla forests—as I got deeper I thought: But this is madness. I am going in the wrong direction. There can’t be a new life at the end of this.’ There can’t be.

Naipaul’s Big Man, in his bathetic extravagance and auto- mythification, is assembled with raw material borrowed from the post-colonial history of Africa, controlled by liberator turned tyrants. Nowhere has the corruption of the ideal, the repudiation of the original innocence, been so blatant as in Africa; and no other writer has captured the horrors of liberation with such ferocious acuity as Naipaul, consistently. A Bend in the River still stands there undiminished, as a monumental reminder of freedom’s cannibalised legacies.

Legacies are traps, and it is as if they wait in anticipation of an explanation by the most merciless, and the most precise, chronicler of them all. Unsurprisingly, towards the end, this traveller’s journals were not palatable to angst-ridden liberals.They were too nuanced, stripped of pieties and platitudes, to fit into the custom- made boxes of left-liberal sociology. His travels across Islamic societies—Among the Believers and Beyond Belief—are discoveries of a different kind of cultural suffocationand imperial project: the enduring crisis of Islamic conversion in non-Arab Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Iran. He is harsh, as always, and history is harsher. In Pakistan, he sees through Iqbal’s invocation of the ideal state: the prosody of a Muslim homeland can’t conceal his rejection of Hindu India. It’s the beginning of denial and destruction: ‘In its short life Iqbal’s religious state, still half serf, still profoundly uneducated, mangling history in its schoolbooks as well, undoing the polity it was meant to serve, had shown itself dedicated only to the idea of cultural desert here, with glory—of every kind—elsewhere.’ Later he would say: ‘The story of Pakistan is a terror story.’ They called him an ‘Islamophobe’. It was as lazy an act of liberal labelling as calling him a Hindu nationalist after his observations on the civilisational grievances of Hindus.

Legacies are traps, and it is as if they wait in anticipation of an explanation by the most merciless, and the most precise, chronicler of them all

He remained unassailable to his attackers, for his sense of truth, his clarity of vision, was fierce, unbreakable. He was too busy writing the world even as his compatriot and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott abused him in allusive verses:

You spit on your people
your people applaud,
your former oppressors
laurel you
The thorns biting your forehead
are contempt
disguised as concern,
still, you can come home, now.
Before, in your finical gut,
the bowels of compassion
petrify to a gallstone
and your ink deliquesces
into bile. In your eye
every child is born crippled,
every endeavor
is that of the baboon;
can you hear the achievement
of the chimpanzee typing?

Unintended though, there is one line that is untouched by rancour: Still, you can come home, now. Home remained a receding image inaccessible to the traveller. In his later years, he has written vividly about what it meant, and how it looked, while he was growing up in Trinidad (A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling). It was the memories of his father, a journalist and a failed novelist who died young, that allowed him to imagine a home. A House for Mr Biswas, published when Naipaul was just 29, is a memorial service as well as a longing. The novel still carries its freshness, its comic exuberance and tragic inner life. The house that Naipaul has built for Mohun Biswas, a character as intimately imagined as his father, is a replica of the one the displaced carries within him, even as he crosses continents in search of darkness and betrayals. A house is the most comforting image of return.

The Enigma of Arrival is the logical, even inevitable, extension of A House for Mr Biswas. It is his most radiant work, worthy of being called ‘A Cottage for Sir Vidia’. On his early walks, “because I was writing about Africa, I saw Africa. It took time for me to see the landscape for what it was, something of itself.” Jack’s cottage is part of a beautifully landscaped sprawl in Wiltshire; the book, call it fiction or memoirs, too exudes a calm as soothing as the white garden. And beneath the calm lurks death, seen only through cracks in the meadow.

When I visited him in the cottage a decade ago, Vidia and Nadira took me for a ride through the Enigma country. Late in the evening, before I took a train back to London, we had drinks at the neighbourhood pub. He spoke about the lives of plants and the solitude of writing, and it seemed the meadows were listening in gratitude. Less than two months ago, I saw him a few times in his London flat. For once, we didn’t have a conversation. And now, words fall into the void. Words, he once told me, that were measured by a computer as not exceeding four letters in their average size. “I like to use small words, because they compel you, they force you, to clarify, to be precise.” Such words won’t be imagined again as precisely as the reality of the worlds trampled upon by the Big Men of a cruel history.

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