Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

An area of light: Naipaul in Jaipur

“India had not worked its magic on me. It remained the land of my childhood, an area of darkness; like the Himalayan passes, it was closing up again, as fast as I withdrew from it, into a land of myth; it seemed to exist in just the timelessness which I had imagined as a child, into which, for all that I walked on Indian earth, I knew I could not penetrate. In a year I had not learned acceptance. I had learned my separateness from India, and was content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors.”

– V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (1964)

It is easy to see why, upon encountering a passage like the one above, an Indian would be mad at V.S. Naipaul. But Naipaul demands a lot more from his readers. One ought to, at the very least, pause and consider his entire body of work – over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction in a career that has spanned half a century – before passing judgment on him. Despite his large following, V.S. Naipaul has been often misunderstood.

Part One:

Naipaul’s legacy

Hanif Kureishi, Paul Theroux, Amit Chaudhary chaired by Farrukh Dhondy, Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On Day 1 of the 2015 Jaipur Literature Festival, four contemporary writers – who have either made India the subject of their writing or trace their ancestry to it – assembled on stage in front of a large audience that included V.S. Naipaul himself. They talked about Naipaul from a very personal viewpoint, referring to one of the writer’s most memorable books, A House for Mr. Biswas, as well as his controversial An Area of Darkness. A few highlights follow:

Farrukh Dhondy: When An Area of Darkness came out in India, everyone talked about it. It seemed that people from all walks of life read the book. And most people revolted against it. They didn’t like the way Naipaul portrayed India in the book. But I remember thinking – he is telling the truth.

Amit Chaudhary: I came to literary consciousness in the seventies, when I was around twelve or thirteen. I remember picking up An Area of Darkness because I would hear people calling it an awful book about India. But there’s so much wonder and joy in it. In another book I think Naipaul mentions how “r and s are the liveliest letters in the alphabet.” In that sense, he is a technician – extremely precise and economical – and he has been able to sustain that style throughout A House for Mr. Biswas.

Paul Theroux: I would say that A House for Mr. Biswas is one of the most complete novels I have ever read. It is Dickensonian in the modern age. It has everything – the intricacies of family life and so much history. It is also extremely funny.

Hanif Kureishi (visibly shaken, later admitted that the experience of talking about Naipaul in front of the writer himself was a surreal experience for him): A House for Mr. Biswas is one book that made me want to be a writer. Naipaul is Chekhovian, in the best sense of the word. It’s such a comic book, but is also terrible because it’s about failure.

Reactions to the statement: Naipaul is one of the first international writers. He has no nationality. Literature is his nationality.

Theroux: Naipaul wrote about places, particularly in Biswas, that had never been written about before. No one had written about that small island, or its history, its weather, its daily life, etc. So yes, he is international in the sense that an entire world exists inside Biswas.

Kureishi: I was a mixed-race kid growing up in England. In the libraries, there used to be a section for the regular writers and a separate section for the Commonwealth Writers which was where all the blacks and browns were lumped together. Naipaul could not be contained only within the Commonwealth section. He kinda burst out of it and initiated that desegregation. It was an act of bravery.

Towards the end of the discussion, V.S. Naipaul was escorted to the stage on a wheelchair by volunteers and his wife Nadira. He uttered two sentences, “Thank you everyone for being here. Thank you writers for your generous comments.” He declined to say anything else. I later learned that he had been emotionally overwhelmed by the response and was in tears.

Part Two:

Farrukh Dhondy in conversation with V.S. Naipaul, Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dhondy: Let me begin by asking you Vidya, where did you get the urge to write?

Naipaul: Well my father used to be a journalist. So I got some of that from him. But it started when I went to England. I was working for the BBC on some piece. And I told myself not to leave until I took this piece to the end. That was the beginning of my writing life. I remember making up my mind without having any training on writing or knowledge about what it meant to be a writer. I had to find out what I was going to write about.

Dhondy: So Miguel Street was one of your first books. Can you talk about how it came about?

Naipaul: It was a little bit of luck. I had been writing for a while; had written at least one bad book before. Miguel Street just came to me. I have no great message for the people… (he appears to be at a loss for words). I brought the honesty that was needed when writing about the Caribbean because so far they had been writing dishonestly.

Dhondy: Publishers didn’t want to publish the book at first. Why didn’t Miguel Street get published right away?

Naipaul: Publishers thought the book didn’t deserve to get published. Young men have to face things like that. One must not get angry at publishers for their indifference. I continued to write after the rejection of Miguel Street. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I had great faith in myself and my talent. If I didn’t, that would be the end of myself. So I stuck to it.

Dhondy: You wrote a bit after that, including The Suffrage of Elvira and then you came to A House for Mr. Biswas. It was a serious book with a veil of comedy.

Naipaul: Yes, it’s a serious book. Those were the early days. I thought I had to start small. It was a bit of luck really. I wasn’t getting on with my other pieces. (Pauses to think) It took time; it took time.

Dhondy: One of traits about that book is that it doesn’t imitate anything – which is one of the credos of your writing. You told me once before that you wanted to write fresh.

Naipaul: That’s right.

Dhondy: Let’s move on to The Middle Passage. You went back to the Caribbean islands to write about it again.

Naipaul: The Prime Minister invited me and said, “You should write about the Caribbean.” But writing non-fiction is just as hard as writing fiction. I had to learn. I was at that early stage in writing. There was a lot of learning – how to write a comic book, a travel book, a realistic book. My life as a writer was all about learning. Everything I wrote, I had to learn how to write.

Dhondy: Now let me get to the part that the audience has perhaps been waiting for – your first trip to India. You spent a year in this country and wrote An Area of Darkness. Why did you come to India?

Naipaul: The obvious reason is that it’s my ancestral land. I wanted to get a feel for the land. I was 30, perhaps 31. So I came to India to travel (pauses). I didn’t know how I was going to move inside India. I had to find my way. Again, I had to learn. All the time. It’s been a process of learning. I couldn’t write frivolously, trying to imitate someone. When you do that, it doesn’t come out.

Dhondy: I read An Area of Darkness in college in Pune. And it had the most remarkable description of India. Until that point, I had observed Indian nationalism. But the book made me think that there was a different way to write about India and its middle class, its people and the confusion. But people didn’t like that. An intellectual at the time even called the book “a kind of dirt”. Were you surprised by the negative reaction?

Naipaul: I didn’t write the book out of prejudice. Yet all that was thrown at me. (Naipaul’s wife, on stage behind him, interjects to add, “His mother said to him – Beta, leave India to the Indians.”)

Dhondy: People also said, “How could Vidya call India ‘an area of darkness’? It was the land of Gandhi!”

Naipaul: I was talking about the darkness of a place that was presented to me all my life. I knew nothing about it. I was not necessarily calling India “a dark place”.

Dhondy: Then, a few years later, you wrote another book about India, A Wounded Civilization, which has a negative connotation. People again asked, “Why?” Why did you choose the word ‘wounded’?

Naipaul: It was an attempt to suggest the effect of history and the attacks of various civilizations. That was it.

Dhondy: You mentioned once to me that there was a wound in the civilization and you wanted to explore the outward, physical manifestation of it. You have also written a few books about Africa and travelled across the continent. Please tell us about that.

Naipaul: I was aware of the African population in Trinidad…

Dhondy: You discovered new things there…

Naipaul: Yes, I started thinking about the nature of belief, in the roots of belief. What I saw in Africa led me to explore the beginnings of belief.

Dhondy: Will you continue to live in England? You have written only two books about England and you said you regretted having written one of them.

Naipaul: First thing to consider about a writer’s body of work is that a writer has to continue writing if he wants to make a living out of it.

Question from an audience member: India today and its people seem to require compassion because our systems don’t support us as much. Do you have any views on that?

Naipaul (Raising his voice for the first time, visibly irritated, chides the woman): Why do you think India and its people need compassion more than any other country and other people? Why? Tell me. Why?

Question from another audience member (more of a comment): We want to call India not wounded but alive.

Naipaul: Well, that’s a friendly comment.

V.S. Naipaul is eighty-two years old. Throughout the session, I was amazed at his responses – confident and self-assured, economical and coherent – aspects that shine through his writings. Naipaul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. In its press release, the Swedish Academy describes Naipaul as having a “vigilant” style and someone who “transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.”

Reading Naipaul, whether his fiction or nonfiction, is an educational experience that I recommend to anyone. As the writers in Part One noted, many of Naipaul’s nonfiction books appear remarkable for many reasons – an inventive style that mixes history with personal narrative and travel writing, an insight and perception regarding the human condition that is unparalleled, and prose that is filled with beauty and power.

“The actual world has for Naipaul,” writes Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books, “a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. It is a “world dense with physical and social phenomena, brutally alive with the complications and contradictions of actual human endeavour…This world of Naipaul’s is in fact charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an almost unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact.”

Reading the passage at the beginning of this piece gives one the impression that Naipaul’s experience in India made him feel detached. He “could not penetrate India”, he felt separate from it. I’m now going to end this piece with another passage from the same book, for an entirely different view about India and its people.

“Out of its squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many. Nowhere were people so heightened, rounded and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves so fully and with such assurance. To know Indians was to take a delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure. I did not want India to sink [out of my memory]; the mere thought was painful.”

– V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (1964)

Jan 25, 2015