The Tribune - Spectrum

, October 21, 2001
Lead Article

Finding the centre despite a million mutinies
Rajnish Wattas

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul

To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave. Actually to write. It was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self knowledge.

—V.S. Naipaul


IT is no surprise that Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. The surprise is that it took so long. At long last, Naipaul’s literary journey, through half lives, half societies, comes full circle.


The enigma of his arrival as the Nobel Laureate, whispered every October, is now settled. As India celebrates, Naipaul’s erstwhile Area of Darkness now shines as the proud land of his ancestors.

Nearing 70, the prize comes at an important point of his life. There is a turn in the course of his literary path. He returns to the novel form — with his just-released Half a Life — after 22 years. Having debunked it earlier as a dead genre, Naipaul had fumed, "The novel is so bastardised a form, and it’s so passing. Everyone writes a novel, and it’s so much a copy,..." But that’s history now.

Having won almost every major literary award, including the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Hawthornden Prize, the W.H. Smith Award and the Booker Prize; only the Nobel had eluded him so far.

Naipaul with his wife Nadira
Naipaul with his wife Nadira

But the climb to the literary summit has not been an easy one. Especially, when compared to the present era of fly-by-night, gilded million-dollar ‘new stars’ on the literary firmament, who fade away into oblivion after their debut books. In fact, Naipaul was the first writer of the now much-hyped ‘Indian diaspora writing’ — and without any pretensions and hoopla!

Born in Trinidad in 1932, he migrated to England to study at Oxford on a scholarship. In 1954, Naipaul took the important decision to become a writer and live in London. Recalling his aspirations, he wrote: "The ambition to be a writer was given to me by my father...I was 11, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer, and then very soon it was a settled ambition."

His struggle as a writer and discovery of the process of becoming a writer are revealed beautifully in one of his most elegant books —Finding the Centre. To sustain his lofty — if quite dreamy — ambition, he worked briefly for the BBC, free-lancing for the Caribbean Service. He started work on his first novel Miguel Street on BBC notepaper, composing classic opening lines like: ‘Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart,’ and closing his narrative with, ‘I left them all and walked briskly towards the aeroplane, not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac.’

Naipaul’s first published book was The Mystic Masseur in 1957, as there were no takers for his earlier novel. Even though The Mystic Masseur earned him the John Llewwellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, it was a time when writers of the Third World were not taken seriously. In an anguished voice he wrote in The Times Literary Supplement: "I have written three books in five years and made $ 300 out of them. The Americans don’t want me because I am too British. The British don’t want me because I am too foreign."

Because of his particular background, Naipaul spent a lifetime preoccupied with the predicament of post-colonial societies. His travel in these emergent Third World societies resulted in perceptive books about the forces of history at work.

Naipaul’s grandfather, a Brahmin hailing from eastern India, had come to Trinidad as an indentured labourer. Naipaul’s father, Sreepersad, was a gifted writer, a journalist with the Trinidad Guardian who encouraged the young Vidiadhar to pursue the writer’s calling. Naipaul deeply admired his father and he was the inspiration for the ‘eponymous hero’ of A House for Mr Biswas. Naipaul writes of him in the novel as, "He had lived in many houses.... In none of these places he was missed because in none of these places had he ever been more than a visitor, an upsetter of routines." This fourth book, published in 1961, was hailed as a modern classic, considered almost Dicknesian in its range of characters, emotion and action. It established Naipaul’s long-deserved literary reputation and ended a period of terrible deprivation and despair. "He is among the few major writers who have steadfastly refused to be browbeaten by intellectual fashion or political correctness. He never feels the need to play to any gallery, or to write to any brief. He is always honest and almost always profound. He is also always seeking," says an avid Naipaul-watcher. The most impressive thing, by far, about Naipaul is that, "he never stops writing. That is, literally, all waking hours of the day. He has trained himself for so long and so assiduously that he never ever switches off... Naipaul is always and only the writer. Always observing. Always analysing. Always arriving at conclusions."

As far back as 1970, he used a series of different narratives to construct a novel, In a Free State, which won him the Booker Prize.

However, what makes Naipaul compelling reading is essentially his clear, long-focused, insights and vision; and even more, his unfogged, crystal-clear, precise writing. There is never an extra word. Though, he usually prefers small words; yet he can construct very long sentences, without the reader ever losing track or pausing for breath. In fact, at times, the deliberate length only amplifies its meaning or substance. For instance, the following in Half a Life:

‘And that was how, when he was twenty, Willie Chandran, the mission-school student who had not completed his education, with no idea what he wanted to do, except to get away from what he knew, and yet with very little idea of what lay outside what he knew, only with the fantasies of the Hollywood films of the thirties and forties that he had seen at the mission school, went to London.’

While the novel has received mixed responses worldwide, it fascinates as a fusion of three different settings and periods. It takes Willy, the protagonist, through pre-Independence India, post-War London and a Portugese province in Africa. And the central theme is of displacement - of a man looking for a life, perhaps, having to borrow a life. Never living life to the full. It draws oblique parallels to Naipaul’s own displacements in life, and to the larger audience of most of us, who never really live life to the full.

But all this magic with words did not descend as a divine benediction. It is the austere rigour of a monk and the toil of one possessed. As a writer, Naipaul is fastidious. Only when he is satisfied with the way the writing has gone, does he transfer it to a computer. "I spend a lot of time writing in my head when I am working on a book," he says, "I have never written an unconsidered sentence. I have never even put in an unconsidered punctuation mark."

He even has a way with his book titles. The reader’s seduction begins with the cover itself. Take for instance the sounds and cadences of titles like: Mimic Men, The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World, Among the Believers, Beyond Belief and, of course, the latest Half a Life.

Naipaul works in his cottage in Wiltshire in pastoral England, needing the silence and solitude for concentrated work. "A new piece of writing is perhaps the only thing that truly engages my mind. It is still wonderful to me when a piece of writing catches fire. I live truly then..." What makes Naipaul such an uncanny observer and predictor of human transactions is the extensive research and notes that he makes. His notes are said to be meticulously and carefully categorised. Paul Theroux, his one-time great friend and disciple, has said of Naipaul that he literally stays home, indoors, for weeks or months on end, just thinking, doing nothing more than developing a whole train of thought. "I don’t know anyone quite like that."

India, the land of Naipaul’s ancestors, inspired the famous triology. The first was An Area of Darkness, the second, India: A Wounded Civilisation, published in 1977 and the third, India: A Million Mutinies Now in 1990. They earned him enormous criticism for putting forth a biased "Brown Sahib’s view of Third World subjects." Even Salman Rushdie accused Naipaul of lack of compassion and a hostility towards post-colonial Third World societies. But the books, for all their notoriety, made him a household name in the world of Indo-Anglian readership. Later, Naipaul admitted: "What I hadn’t understood in 1962, or had taken too much for granted, was the extent to which the country was being remade," adding: "India was set on a new kind of intellectual life; it was given new ideas about its history and civilisation." And he partly atones for the great hurt with his more understanding last and major work, India: A Million Mutinies Now, exploring the theme in great detail. In fact, this book marked an experimentation by Naipaul in developing his peculiarly distinct style of using narratives and voices of his characters to tell their stories.

Women — barring his recent book — rarely find much mention in his writings. "And this is in fact was one of the reasons for the poor sales of his earlier, even critically-acclaimed books," writes Diana Athill, his Editor with publishers Andre Deutsch in her memoirs — Stet. But in real life, he has not been so aloof or forlorn.

The death of his first wife Patricia in February 1996 was followed a mere month later by his marriage to Nadira, a Pakistani journalist some 20 years younger than him. It is believed that they met in Lahore at a dinner party in late 1995, when Naipaul was researching his latest book, a sequel to Among the Believers. Nadira Alvi, as she was known then, walked up to the famous author and bluntly asked: "Can I kiss you?" and promptly proceeded to do so. The dumbfounded, crusty author’s response was: "I think we should sit down."

Also, between his past and present wives was the sensuously beautiful Argentinian mistress Margaret, whom I also chanced to meet along with Naipaul on his brief visit to Chandigarh, researching for India: A Million Mutinies Now in 1989.

Nadira, with her cultural affinity, is said to have brought a new energy and cheer to Naipaul’s life. As he puts it: "Later passions are very fulfilling and very energising, like now, for example." Perhaps it was this energy that brought out — in the hitherto prudish Naipaul — a first-time exploration of sensuality and sexuality visible in Half a Life. And with his Nobel Prize, Nadira, "curates a literary treasure. She is the keeper of greatness."

With a literary oeuvre of 24 books comprising fiction, non-fiction and a uniquely characteristic fusion of narrative styles; the life and work of Naipaul carry too much import and gravitas to trifle with. His are the concerns of a global interpreter of human maladies and the struggles of both the individual and the societies to come to terms with their unsettled destinies. His is not the voice that soothes but sears. But it is always honest — brutally honest.

For Sir V.S. Naipaul, writing is not just a mere passion or profession. It his way in the world, his calling. "The contemplation that goes with writing, and the clarity it requires, make for calm. It is for me the equivalent of religion." And for millions of his devotees, reading him, too, is a religion.

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