The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 6, 2002

Acerbic and insightful meditations on the world
Rajnish Wattas

The Writer and the World
by V. S. Naipaul. Picador, India. Rs. 395. Pages 517.

"A writer in the end is not his books, but his myth.

And that myth is in the keeping of others."

— V. S. Naipaul

The Writer and the WorldSIR V. S. Naipaul, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, can hardly escape myths. It's the destiny of a living legend. And his strong opinions, acerbic tongue and consistent crustiness don't help much. But his brilliance is never in doubt.

The man and his manners may spawn many stories, but none can deny his deep sense of wonder for the past laced with abiding faith in modernity. "No one has shrewder intuition of the many ways the world works … And no one has put forth a more eloquent defence of the dignity of the individual and the value of civilization."

The Writer and the World brings out some of Naipaul's finest essays of reflection and reportage — works of sustained meditations on the world; written mostly in the 1960s and 70s. Many of these later defined his oeuvre in non-fiction. In these reflections, Naipaul almost fulfils his younger days' aspiration of donning the classical persona of the writer as a being who is "aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing …" when he journeys to remote lands on the margins and the periphery of the world. In a way, he brings his own diaspora a full circle from the tiny Trindad to the centre of civilisation: London. Therefore his travels are both voyages of discovery as well as self-discovery. His 'pained,' partial identification with his subjects has a detached arrogance — but always unflagging intensity and seriousness. He is a writer whom most writers love to hate for his 'I told you so' attitude of a prophet, but none can challenge the significance of his sour views and bitter truths.


The book has three major parts titled: India, Africa and the Diaspora, and American Occasions.

For most readers here, the essays on India hold the keenest interest. In the Calcutta of the 60s he finds a decaying city with mimic men and mock architecture of the Victoria Memorial. The Calcutta box-wallahs are Jamsheds nicknamed Jimmys and Anands called Andys, playing golf and lunching ritualistically at the Firpos every Friday. In New Delhi, he finds "India's ancient culture defiantly paraded, making Ashoka Hotel the most ridiculous architecture outmatched in absurdity only in Pakistan's High Commission, which defiantly asserts faith." Even if his graphically searing comments on Indian cities make most architects wince, including this reviewer, they are worth reproducing. "All the four main cities in India were developed by the British, but none has so British a stamp as Calcutta. Lutyen's new Delhi is a disaster, a mock imperial joke, neither British nor Indian, a city built for parades rather than people …"

When he travels through the large expanse of India, peeping out of the train windows, he only sees poor fields, stunted animals — "an exhausted, plundered land … India as an ache for which one has great tenderness, but from which at length one always wishes to separate oneself."

He is also unsparing when he talks of the typical Indian trait of dealing with real-life issues and problems with ambiguities. "There always came a moment when Indians … slipped away like eels into muddy abstractions. They abandoned intellect, observation, and reason and became mysterious." How true, even today our society and polity is governed more by ritual, magic and philosophical hysteria than any real introspection! And this comes out most vividly and colourfully in his coverage of an election in Ajmer. His caricatures of the candidates, including a prince, the theatre of the absurd and the mass entertainment through elections, is laced with his special sardonic wit. It has both humour and pity for his subjects.

He is equally unsparing with others. His essay on writer Norman Mailer's election trail for the post of Mayor of New York is also marked with the same irony, pungent humour and a hawk's eye for the ridiculous.

His pen-portraits of the less-travelled parts of the world like St. Kitts and the tiny Anguilla island of the Caribbean go beyond the touristy, picture-postcard travelogues. They scratch the surface exotica to reveal 'suppressed histories' and political shenanigans of their rulers. With his special blend of travel, reportage, personal histories and study of societal convulsions, he tries to make sense of the superficialities of the world. Race and rage in the colonised worlds, trapped in their small self-deceptions, are a recurring theme.

"Naipaul's works have a peculiar tension and richness," writes Pankaj Mishra. "His accounts with their intellectual tension produce his hallmark, short sentences, swift paragraphs and briskly summarised arguments …" And no one will argue with Naipaul's prose being one of the finest in the world.

His acerbic but delightful piece A New King for Congo deciphers the stratagems that small-time despots and dictators employ to perpetuate power, while keeping their subjects impoverished in the name of fake nationalism. His understanding of how 'power' works among rulers, leading to the ultimate decay of their lands and people has a clairvoyant quality. He writes, "I go to places, which however alien, connect in some way with what I already know."

One of the finest readings in the anthology is in the end: the Postscript. A reproduction of his address ‘Our Universal Civilization,’ delivered at the Manhattan Institute of New York in 1992, it holds the key to Naipaul's encounters with the world and the crystallisation of his perceptions. "To me situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes … when I became a writer those areas of darkness of childhood became my subjects. That is what I meant when I said my books stand one on the other; and I am the sum of my books."

Thus the writer and the world are bound together beautifully in this volume of vintage Naipaul nuggets. A godsend for his large fan following as well his critics. A flamboyant picture of the young, cigarette-smoking, rakishly handsome Vidia on the cover of the book is sure to add to his mystique. And the myths are still in the making.