A forceful idea called Sir Vidia

Updated: Aug 15, 2018, 08:26 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Should a writer's words be examined separately from the writer himself? Yes. Unless you're a politician, or a preacher man

A forceful idea called Sir Vidia
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1932-2018). Pic/AFP

Mayank ShekharThe world is what it is," a line from writer VS Naipaul (1932-2018), quoted out of context here, is an apt commandment to live by. For what choice do we have, but to assume so anyway? That line is also the title of Naipaul's brilliantly written, authorised biography, by Patrick French.

The defining portrait of the writer that emerges from French's account is from a random evening, when Naipaul's niece (I think) is over at his place. Both are seated in a semi-dark drawing room for hours, perhaps? He doesn't once say a word. She probably can't. They simply sit still like that.

In the early part of his career, Naipaul used to write at dawn, right out of bed, in his pajamas. That's when he felt he was at his sharpest. Later, as his concerns as a writer grew weightier, he'd spend the day thinking -shaping his thoughts into written words (the distance between both, as for any great writer, being zero), only by evening (around 6 pm). Either way, for his niece, anybody who's read anything about Naipaul, the person, will know he must've been a quiet, crabby old uncle (what else), hardly a cuddly, gracious host.

Deeming himself as above all, and more so his books as above himself, Naipaul evidently had no time for politeness, or even political correctness, in life, as with his writings. This is sort of obvious, if you view individuals who make up the world, mainly on civilisational and racial terms, and movements, and passions thereof - and perhaps, by extension, perceive religion to be a race as well, rather than a contestable, dynamic idea alone.

Naipaul also did not always hide behind fiction, making his complex conclusions crystal clear, being excessively sharp and blunt at the same time. It's unsurprising then that the idea of Sir Vidia got usurped by all kinds of folks; in India, for instance, by champions of Hindutva (or political Hinduism, which is chiefly based on real/imagined notion of inter-generational hurt, caused by successive Muslim invasion/tyranny).

This is perhaps because Naipaul shone a light on the fall of the 'Hindu capital' Vijaynagar in A Wounded Civilisation (1976), his second of the India non-fiction trilogy (after An Area Of Darkness); each a masterpiece, without doubt, that got all sorts of even local, brooding writers starting to observe "squalour" in their desi travels thereafter!

Or, maybe this anti-Islam image of the writer came first from Among The Believers, where he literally takes pit-stops over seven months flat, in 1979-80, in non-Arab Muslim countries (Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran) to report on the rumblings of Islamic fundamentalism/fanaticism in these parts. This proved prescient only some years later. He profiled the Shiv Sena taking root in cosmopolitan Bombay in Million Mutinies Now, in the late '80s. Denying himself the position of a literary prophet, Naipaul, self admittedly, "looked hard at the present, without having a political view about it," and he could sense the future seemingly contained within it.

Which perhaps explains my favourite Naipaul story, from A Million Mutinies Now, where he first senses a conflict between a Jain stock-broker's competitively cut-throat profession, and the extreme non-violence that his religion preaches. He then interviews this stock-trader's son, who's ready to take over from his dad and topple his much older contemporaries.

In my profession, what matters is not "how many Diwalis you've celebrated, but how many phatakas have you phodoed," Naipaul quotes this young man, in Hindi, hinting perhaps at an economic boom propelled by the restless, urban young that India could be at the threshold of.

That Naipaul, the recluse, who couldn't suffer fools - landing up without any knowledge of local languages, let alone, apparently, even news-level understanding of an unknown world he attempted to survey through his non-fiction - could stick his neck out with a sweeping generalisation about a people, and even turn out to be accurate, speaks far more of an insightful mind than his crabby nature, or his sensational statements could. He also saw himself as a writer who everybody thinks somebody else has read!

Which may be true. He would've put off a lot of his potential readers by his public persona of a supposed bigot (defined in my head as someone bundling together varied individuals into a singular gender/ethnicity/colour/religion). It's still hard not to be swayed by his forceful intellect, and some of his misanthropy, if you're in your 20s.

Which I was, as I went up to him in Mumbai about a decade or so ago, while his wife wouldn't let him autograph my copy of A Million Mutinies Now. Had to pick up a copy of Magic Seeds, the book he was promoting, if I fancied his frickin' signature.

I asked Naipaul why he hadn't written a non-fiction on India since the trilogy. Can't recall his exact words, but it was something to the effect of how writing on India in the present, would be within the domain of journalism - there was no larger arc to decipher/report. Meaning, it is what it is (even transient, perhaps)? I'll take it. For what choice do we have, but to assume so anyway?

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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