The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 17, 2003

TGV: A writer of scintillating prose
Darshan Singh Maini

Mr Naipaul’s Round Trip & Other Essays
by T. G. Vaidyanathan. Edited by Pradeep Sebastian and Prasanna Chandrasekhar. Penguin Books. Pages 261. Rs 295.

I have just put down the book under review after a very strenuous bout with it. After perusing the first few pages, I had a somewhat eerie feeling as though I were reading my own "double," or "a secret-sharer," to recall Comrad’s story. The "shock" of discovery or recognition left me awash with amazement—and bewilderment. To pursue the matter further would mean plunging into a story of affinities and affiliations, of departures and differences. So, it is better to leave it here. That our academic and literary careers ran along parallel lines, in terms of time, and that we never crossed each other’s path remains to intrigue me. TGV, as he was affectionately called by his peers and pupils, was truly a rare phenomenon, for his erudition, immense and almost intimidating, overtopped one’s imagination.

The Foreword by Ramachandra Guha and Introduction by an unnamed admirer sum up neatly the features of TGV’s oeuvre. As the latter puts it, "for TGV, one had to connect the prose and the passion of one’s life." The "Master" demanded an exacting exercise, for to critique a writer of such wider interests and passionate preferences is to rise to his baits, and endorse or challenge them as you may. Divided into 6 sections, the 38 essays of varying length constitute a fairly representative selection of TGV’s "many-splendoured" corpus of writings spread over several decades.


The opening section is a long and fascinating "affair" with the game of cricket, and he has packed these pages with all manner of statistics, jokes, yarns and cricketese. From the legendary Don Bradman down to our inimitable Sachin, he brings out the magic of the game played by 22 "flannelled fools at the wicket." (Quote: Kipling). There is virtually nothing that his pen has left untouched, and he laces the discourse with lavish quotations from the writers on this bewitching game. The ‘mystique’ is unfolded leaf by leaf, and the reader is charmed into a secular ‘beatitude,’ if that is the way to put it. To quote his favourite author P.G. Wodehouse who himself worshipped the game to the point of idolatry, here is one example. "Anthony," writes the superb comedian, "would have forgotten Cleopatra if he had had the chance of batting against Grigson." And TGV adds, "Here’s God’s plenty, vintage Wodehouse`85."

In the section devoted to his second ‘love’—cinema, appropriately entitled From Kiss Kiss to Bang Bang, his amazing knowledge of Hollywood and Bollywood classics, of the secret lives and loves of the Oscar celebrities enriches the celluloid lore. Marilyn Monroe, "the blonde goddess’s" bedroom intimacies with the great American President John F. Kennedy is one story he fastens upon. For, indeed, TGV himself had a life-long "crush" on that darling of "the silver screen." And he could cite her "vital statistics" down to her tail and toes, for his vicarious, voyeuristic romance was absolute, unabashed. Brought up on the Tamil cinema, he had feasted his eyes on the lissom, playful beauties of the South, and that’s where his song of celluloid fantasies started, in the first instance.

In the next section under the rubric of The Romance of English Prose, we see him in his element, for his own concern for the health of Queen’s English, and for its multiple beauties could only be styled as infatuation with that language. Starting with his favourite "writers’ writer," V. S. Naipaul whose diatribes against the countries and cultures of the developing nations, and against the preceding Nobel Laureates from Campus and Patrick White to Chinua Achebe, and to one of the best prose-writer`A7 in the English tongue, George Orwell, do not seem to TGV as something uncalled for, almost distasteful.

It appears to me that while the Knighted Trinidadian `E9migr`E9 writer was justifiably agonised our India’s "areas of darkness"—animal poverty, sleaze and graft, dirt and disease, etc.—he, like so many Western visitors failed to see that "Eternal India" which had already become "a state of mind" and a place of nirvana for such writers as Emerson and Whitman, Hermann Hesse and E.F. Forster. Naipaul’s chilly cerebration proves a ‘block’ in his vision, and he is unable to feel the pulse of that India which is struggling to become modern. Naipaul, indeed, makes fun of India’s writers and intellectuals, ridiculing the "second-rateness " and their "mimicry." The essay called The Romance of English Prose is, of course, a prize piece, and it celebrates "the humble English essay" denied the front parlour in the comity of letters, a piece that "held a pride of place" in his canon. We also have in this section, a couple of extremely erudite essays including the one on the German philosopher, Wittgenstein.

In the fourth section, The Indian Approach to Psychoanalysis, a masterly long essay entitled, Authority and Identity in India, he sings paeans to Sudhir Kakar and sees the complex issue of India’s identity through the darkened glasses of the ‘Indian guru’ of erotica. He endorses Kakar’s view that there was a need to move away from the Western Freudian idea of the "Oedipai Complex" to the Indian mother’s ‘fixation’ on her sons. The superficialities and glibness of some cultured pundits irk both Kakar and TGV. E. M. Forster’s question: whether India is a mystery or a muddle, is not addressed directly, though the sibylline charm of subliminal India is recognised. Similarly, Indian myths are seen as vast metaphors which, generally speaking, remain outside of the line of Western vision. It’s an ambitious essay, and requires a close critical scrutiny.

In the fifth section, Umbrella Days, we see Tamil culture and Brahmanical lore analysed, both with irony and indulgence. For instance, the humble umbrella draws out TGV’s witty muses to the full. Again, in The Stainless Steel Culture, he shows a penetrating picture of the South Indian female psyche, and its erotic ‘fixation’ on the steel utensils. The fondling of polished kitchenware almost amounts to an "orgasm," a consummation achieved. "The indiscriminate use of tubelights and stainless steel," says TGV, "amounts to cultural degeneration." In the essay, The Making of a Scientist, he pays a handsome tribute to Brahminical intellect which produced such Nobel Laureates as C.V. Raman and his nephew, S. Chandrasekhar. But in a stray reference to Sikhism, he remarks that this religion has reached a point where to reform it is to hurt its essence. However, his praise for Bhindranwale is inexplicable. In fact, a provocative article on Hitler in the Deccan Herald had, at one time, caused a fierce controversy. He was, we learn, allergic to politics per se. And I’m surprised that a scholar of this order couldn’t understand politics in its widest sense. "In our times," wrote the German novelist, Thomas Mann, "the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms."

The concluding section carries a bouquet of tributes to this writer of scintillating prose, and the five contributors include the present Hindu editor, Nirmala Lakshman, Ashish and Uma Nandy, Sudhir Kakar and a couple of old students. These pieces, then, remain a wreath and a requiem for a writer whose ashes, immersed in some holy river, now set up a song, proclaiming his nirvana. William Hazlitt, the celebrated essayist is reported to have said, there’s not a line in his work that "licks the dust." Well, TGV belongs in such high company, if you like.