Naipaul thanks India after winning Nobel
If you’re too young to read him, he has no time for you
Dead verdict on Calcutta
Author between the covers
Calcutta Weather

London, Oct. 11: 
V.S. Naipaul, the author of Indian origin, was today awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and reacted to his million-dollar award in characteristic fashion — by taking his phone off the hook.

But he issued a warm statement in which he generously expressed his debt to India.

The 69-year-old author, who has long been tipped for the Nobel, is the first Indian to receive it for literature since Rabindranath Tagore in 1913. He is famed for such books as In A Free State, which won him the Booker Prize in 1971, and A House For Mr Biswas. He attacked India in India: A wounded Civilization in 1977 but later mellowed and understands and visits the country more often now.

In a brief statement today, he said from his home in Wiltshire: “I am utterly delighted. This is an unexpected accolade. This is a great tribute to England, my home, and to India, home of my ancestors and to the dedication of my agent, Gillon Aitken.”

With the award, Naipaul edges ahead of Salman Rushdie who has also been a candidate for the Nobel. But Rushdie’s time may yet come.

Sir Vidia, who was knighted in 1990, will appear tomorrow at a literary festival in Cheltenham to publicise his latest novel, Half a Life, after which “he may answer some questions”, a spokesman for a public relations company said.

His Nobel Prize was announced in Stockholm by Horace Engdahl, the head of the Academy who telephoned Naipaul with the good news. “He was very surprised and I don’t think he was pretending,” said Engdahl. “He was surprised because he feels that as a writer he doesn’t represent anything but himself.”

The citation said Naipaul had been chosen — from a secret shortlist of five — for his “incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”. They singled out for particular praise The Enigma of Arrival (1987), calling it “an unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the decline of European neighbourhoods”.

Naipaul did not mention Trinidad, the island of his birth, in his first reaction. But the citation pointed out: “Naipaul’s literary domain has extended far beyond the West Indian island of Trinidad, his first subject, and now encompasses India, Africa, America from south to north, the Islamic countries of Asia, and not least, England.”


Oct. 11: 
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is nothing if not supremely snobby about the young. A few years ago, in Bhubaneshwar on a hot afternoon, I panted across to his hotel room, banged on his door and cravenly requested his company.

Sir Vidia emerged, still brushing his teeth and looking shabbily patrician. “Do go away,” he sighed grandly, “you’re far too young to have read my books”. He might have been right. His first book, The Mystic Masseur, set in Trinidad where he was born, was published in 1957, eight years before I was born!

Twice married, occasionally promiscuous and someone who, according to his estranged friend Paul Theroux, elevated “crankishness as proof of his artistic temperament”, Naipaul has also been an unlikely friend to Hindutva. When the Babri masjid was demolished, he described the actions of the mob as a process of reversing history. And in the context of Operation Enduring Freedom, Naipaul’s vociferous critique of Islamic societies might have strengthened his already powerful claim to this well-deserved award.

Once, Naipaul’s books enraged Indian audiences. An Area of Darkness was controversial, savage, bitter and hopelessly denigrating of India. The title of the book became a metaphor for India-bashing. Naipaul, critics said, had never forgiven India for not welcoming him with open arms and, in a fit of pique, had set about demolishing his ancestral homeland with endless accounts of its degraded filth and perverse ways. That Naipaul loathed India and hated its decline could somehow never be questioned.

But then the years went by and along came A Million Mutinies Now, the famous travelogue that marked a change from Naipaul the nasty critic to Naipaul the compassionate outsider. In Mutinies, he seems to accept he will never belong here, that there is no intellectual or physical space for him in the subcontinent and it’s best for him to comment from a position of distance and displacement.

The Left-liberal establishment remains one of his pet peeves. Just as he recently decried the increasingly plebeian pop culture of Britian and described Tony Blair as a “pirate at the head of a socialist revolution”, he has equal contempt for the Left historians of India. In a conversation with him at a dimly-lit party, while I attempted to shriek questions at him, he shouted back that unless the power of religious identities is recognised, Indian governments will always face insurmountable problems.

He seemed quite dashing that misty drunken evening, in his trademark cravat and jacket, extremely proud of his beautiful and vivacious wife, Nadira, yet irritated by the Indian government’s failure to listen to what he had been saying for so long.

In Bhubaneswar that summer I remember he was setting off to discover the temples. In a recent interview, he castigated Indian writers for being unaware of and for failing to discover their histories. Naipaul laments modern India as well as the modern individual and entreats the young to look to their past. His immense legacy to the younger generation continues to be his tormented quest for a homeland, both material and spiritual.

(Ghosh is author of The Gin Drinkers)


Oct. 11: 
The only major literary prize that eluded Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul has come his way. It comes just after the publication of his latest novel, Half a Life, in which he went over familiar Naipaul territory: People of mixed descent in three countries, India, England and Mozambique, struggling to find their identities.

Indeed, identity has been a constant theme of his writings and is reflected in his own life. Descended from indentured labourers who went from eastern Uttar Pradesh to the West Indies, Naipaul is a man without a country. Though Trinidad-born, he has lived in England since his Oxford University days. In England, he alternates between a country home in Wiltshire and a flat in the trendy Knightsbridge section of London. But he really has no “home” as such.

His lack of roots, however, has enabled him to look at a number of countries and societies with penetrating insight. Some of these insights, particularly on third-world countries, have been quite hurtful. In an interview for Newsweek I once queried him about this.

“When people are wicked, you tell them they are wicked,” he replied. “If people are cruel, you tell them they are cruel. If they are not aspiring and are lazy, you tell them that. You have to do that — that’s part of it, part of writing. The cruelty that is wrong is vindictiveness. I have never used my writing to settle scores.”

His first two books on India (An Area of Darkness was written when he was still in his 20s and making his first visit to India) were extremely critical of the country and its society. The dirt and the filth appalled him (it still does). His telling description of the people squatting and defecating along the railway tracks is an image that has stuck.

But his third book on India was surprisingly appreciative. He spoke glowingly about India’s “vitality” and about how India’s investment in education had paid off.

“There are any number of very intelligent, very educated people in India and this shows in magazines, journalism,” he said, adding, “In Madras there is foolish politics — cowboy politics, and film star politics — but there is vitality.”

His comments about Calcutta (we went there together), however, were not too flattering. “People have been saying for a long time that Calcutta is dying,” he said to me in an interview. “Actually, it is a dead city. All its politics are the politics of death. All its miseries, the miseries of death. I do not know a city more distressing.

Calcutta is being destroyed by a foolish political doctrine which is utterly anachronistic. The Marxist ideology in Calcutta is a form of fundamentalism. It is not to be questioned, the answers are all given. What is wonderful in Calcutta is that it has the most fabulous inversion of Marxist theory — revolution has become its own intoxication and Marxism has become the opiate. Its only appearance of life is that it is part of India. Remove it from the Indian union and it will simply be Bangladesh.”

He came back to India, three years ago, after an interval of nine years, not to work this time, but just to travel. He brought along with him his second wife, the Mombasa-born and Lahore-raised Nadira, whom he had married two years earlier soon after he had met her while researching his second book on Islam, Beyond Belief. That book on Islam, which is still banned in Pakistan, had created a furore in some of the Islamic world. He had called Pakistan “A criminal enterprise”.

But then Naipaul is not somebody who concerns himself about keeping anybody happy, or being politically correct. His gaze has always been uncompromisingly steely.

“It is wrong to corrupt your view by injecting optimism or hope into what you are seeing,” he once told me. “That’s false. If you look truly hard, you can see the seeds of the future. Writers are not pamphleteers twisting the truth, angling it. I would like to be judged as an imaginative writer, a shaper of experience.”

(Rahul Singh has been a close friend of the author for almost 30 years)


London, Oct. 11: 
When V.S. Naipaul recently gave an interview to BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme, Front Row, the interviewer, Mark Lawson, described him as “one of the most talented and provocative writers in the English language”.

The piece opens with Naipaul talking about his new novel, Half a Life.

Willy Chandran, the central character, finds his life transformed by sex and Naipaul argues, “sexuality is important and sexual fulfilment is vital to most people, and probably most people go through life without having that kind of fulfilment.”

Lawson then quizzes him on the famous assertion that the novel was dead.

“I use language in a very particular way. I would never have said the novel is dead. It’s written, people read it a lot. What I said is, the novel had its great days in the 19th century and those of us who’ve come after are just doing, as it were, copies of a programme laid down for us.”

He explains how he works. “I find out the material I wish to write about and then I find a way of dealing with it, and since the material I am dealing with is very particular, I have to deal with it in a special way. My writing is a form of knowledge. It’s a form of learning.”

In his published letters, he wrote about his unhappy time at Oxford. “It was the great solitude, the long holidays, the silence of one’s rooms.

“In 1950, you could imagine, when you rented a room, there would be no radio even. One had very little money. It was very hard, a painful time.”

He admits: “Yes, I had a little breakdown. It ran for about 18 months — dealing with those things.”

He explained he first began to write while working for the BBC.

“I’d been trying for many years before. But it was there as really in quite a desperate way one afternoon, I began writing, took a sheet of paper and without knowing where I was going, began to write.”

Lawson asks him about his public persona of “irascibility”, and about “sounding off” on people like E. M. Forster.

“Well I am always slightly amazed that these things are taken up. If I send away a journalist, I don’t see why people should be amazed. I think one’s entitled to send away a journalist, who clearly has nothing to give one.”

As for his attack on Forster, he says: “To suppress the true emotions in India, he’d written a book, A Passage to India, which doesn’t mean anything, and a book, which he himself wrote about six prefaces for and with each preface, finding a different meaning. And I think there’s nothing.”

Asked whether he had ever read his contemporaries, he replies: “I was a reviewer for about five years. It ended 38 years ago. I am still smarting from the experience. I am still celebrating my freedom to read a book I choose to read, and not a book I have to read. So I have done a fair amount of reading actually. But now I read in my own way.”

Has he read Paul Theroux’s book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow?

“I haven’t looked at it.”

The two had a celebrated fallout.




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