Editorial / Making the nobel noble
His great subject
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

There is a profound irony in the announcement of a Nobel prize for peace when a raging war engages the entire world’s attention. The prize goes to the United Nations and its secretary-general, Mr Kofi Annan, and it is being given for working for a “better organized and more peaceful world’’, in tackling problems from poverty to terrorism. After September 11, one would have thought that the Nobel committee would have had more than second thoughts about the success the UN and Mr Annan have registered in tackling the problem of terrorism. The committee also applauded the role the UN plays in the maintenance and preservation of global peace. This, in the present context, would strike anyone as being a bit rich. The UN is conspicuous by its absence in the war in Afghanistan. It has exerted no pressure on the parties involved to avoid the conflict and to ease the tension. One cannot readily think of any part of the world that is threatened by violence where the UN has played a crucial role, in the recent past, in establishing peace. The UN has reduced itself largely to an ornamental organization. It is important because of what it could do and does not very often do.

A part of the problem lies in the nature of the peace prize itself. For one thing, it is not easy to find an individual whose contribution to peace in a violence-torn world is universally recognized. Names like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr never raise eyebrows. The recognition of organizations like the Red Cross, the Amnesty International, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and so on always unambiguously fulfils the conditions deserving of a Nobel peace prize. But the choice of some individuals carries with it more than a hint of politics. Thus the 1973 award to Mr Henry Kissinger or the 1994 award to Messrs Yizhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres surprised a number of people; and in the case of the latter trio, the prize was perhaps a trifle premature since the Israel-Palestine conflict remains unresolved. Similarly, the pairing of Mr Nelson Mandela with Mr Frederik Willem de Klerk was strange in its attempt to reconcile opposites. For Indians, there is no better evidence of the politicization of the peace prize than the absence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the list of awardees. Significantly, in 1948, the year of Gandhi’s death, no award was given. It is not unfair to assume that the committee failed to achieve unanimity.

There is a good case for not only reviewing the process of selecting the peace prize winner but also of looking anew at the number of important subjects that are being left out of the ambit of the Nobel prizes. There is no award for mathematics, for example, even though research in this sphere can be defined as the pursuit of knowledge qua knowledge. Outside of science, literature is the only field that gets recognized. The neglect of philosophy is also surprising.

The Nobel prizes, one suspects, are driven by enlightenment notions of objectivity and utility, literature being the only exception. Late 20th century science and knowledge have both questioned the notions of objectivity. There is no reason why the terms of the original bequest cannot be altered to include intellectual preoccupations which were not relevant to Alfred Nobel’s mental horizon. The inclusion of economics suggests that such changes are not impossible. Periodic reviews and less of politics can only enrich the prizes that the world values most.


I first heard of V.S. Naipaul when I was 12 or 13 years old, probably from my father. I encountered the name infrequently, but with a degree of regularity; he was mentioned as a curiosity, an Indian who was not quite an Indian, and his name was uttered with a mixture of disapproval and mischief, as if it were a contraband item.

He apparently visited “our” country, took advantage of “our” hospitality and said unpleasant things about India. He had written a book, An Area of Darkness, in which this hospitality had evidently been described, misrepresented, and thoroughly betrayed. It was barely 25 years after independence; sensitivities were still raw. The economy, nurtured by Nehru, was still a “protected” one, at once suspicious, and desirous, of foreign investment and foreign goods; it is the India Naipaul writes of in the opening pages of An Area of Darkness, where the narrator, approaching Bombay, is asked by a secretive Goan: “You have any cheej?” Naipaul dourly informs us: “He required cheese... imports were restricted, and the Indians had not yet learned to make cheese....” In this atmosphere of self-imposed austerity, Naipaul, when I was a boy, was himself something of a restricted import, his point of view on India — which was, after all, only a point of view — something one presumably had to be “protected” from.

When it came to Naipaul’s work, attention in India focussed almost exclusively on two books about that country: An Area of Darkness, and a later book about Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, India: A Wounded Civilisation. The titles of both books were enough to displease people even before they had read a word of what he’d written. Indeed, I had no idea that Naipaul’s most important achievement, and his special magic, lay in the realm of fiction, in the genre of the novel, till I was about 23 years old. And later, it was in Oxford, when I was a graduate student, that an acquaintance recommended A House for Mr Biswas to me; it was the first time an Indian had spoken to me warmly, or at all, of Naipaul’s fiction. I bought the book; I was astonished (in the light of what I’d heard of his temperament) by its capacity for joy. I had begun to write my first novel; and the description in Naipaul’s book of a Trinidadian Indian family, of the way of life led both inside the house and on the street, clarified to me my own subject matter — a Bengali family, a house, and a lane in south Calcutta. My discovery of Naipaul became part of my discovery of myself as a writer.

This was 1987. Another discovery soon followed: as I read more of Naipaul’s fiction, and as my admiration for him grew, I came to realize, from the early Nineties onwards, that his reputation was in decline. There seemed to be two reasons for this. The first was that his views on a range of subjects, from Africa to Islam, seemed to many often justifiably, to be contentious, if not unpleasant and wrongheaded. In a Britain trying strategically to celebrate its own “multiculturalism”, he made the literary, liberal establishment deeply uneasy. It is a myth that Naipaul is cherished by the English literary establishment; that honour, till recently, belonged to Rushdie; Naipaul, in my experience, has long been an embarrassment to it.

The pessimism of his later work, too, has disconcerted Western readers; for it has fallen to writers from formerly colonized societies to bear the burden of being perennially effervescent. I remember, long ago, discussing The Enigma of Arrival with my supervisor at Oxford, and asking him whether Naipaul would ever get the Nobel. My supervisor noted it was unlikely, given that Alfred Nobel had instructed the prize for literature be given to work with “idealistic content”.

The other reason for Naipaul’s marginalization has been the rise, in the academy, of “cultural studies” and “postcolonial literary theory”. The marginalization of Naipaul is coterminous with the marginalization of the text, of literariness, and imagination. For the brief period I taught “Commonwealth literature” at Cambridge, I found that Naipaul — like R.K. Narayan and Nirad C. Chaudhuri — was hardly read by students, or taught by teachers. Postcolonial literature had become less a critical or imaginative exploration than a political programme, with novelists “writing back” to the Empire that had supposedly formed their recent histories. Writers who didn’t fit into this programme were ignored; their works were like a code that students lacked the tools to break.

On the whole, however, Naipaul is a man who makes even his defenders uncomfortable; for he often says things that are not easy to defend. The teenager Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, has a simple critical apparatus with which he distinguishes between writers; he divides them into writers he’d like to meet, and writers whom he wouldn’t. The teenager in us, too, persists in making such passionate distinctions as a substitute for critical engagement; but should it matter, in our evaluation of Naipaul’s work, that there are many among us who wouldn’t care to make friends with him?

The question we need to ask now is: do we only applaud the sort of writer we’d invite to dinner, or who votes for the same party as we do? For it would be innocent to imagine that great writing necessarily emanates from a place of light and amiable fellow-feeling; too often some of the most moving and transformative of writers — Kipling, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Larkin, Hughes, to take examples only from the English language — have held views or done things thought by many to be untenable. But by asking writers to mirror our own positions, or to tell us what we already know, we risk relinquishing the complexity of not only writing, but of the act of reading itself; for reading, like writing, like, indeed, life, is a complex and difficult thing, and in reading we encounter a universe that is not an escape from reality but which raises as many unresolved questions as our encounter with “reality” does. The awarding of the Nobel prize to Naipaul is no bad thing if it raises questions whose answers, in the current literary climate, we take too much for granted.

The Nobel prize for literature has always been a dubious accolade. It has been awarded, in the past, for political reasons rather than literary excellence; but one can’t think of a good political reason for giving it to Naipaul. Perhaps this augurs well — for Naipaul’s achievement has been to show us that the creation of a corpus of work, and the almost exclusive dedication to a writer’s life and craft, have no less primacy in the life of the postcolonial writer than the nationalist or political impulses. The awarding of this year’s prize becomes an unlikely occasion on which to confirm what is an increasingly endangered and debated point of view: that a writer must be judged and assessed by his writing alone — and writing is Naipaul’s great subject, as it is his great achievement.

I am not arguing, here, for a reading which separates Naipaul’s politics from his fiction, or for an ahistorical interpretation of his work; but one cannot arrive at a historical assessment of that work by noting only his opinions, and ignoring his struggle with his craft, and the historical process that struggle allegorizes, for him and for others.

Again and again, Naipaul has made material, and reified, the act of writing, and emphasized the physicality of the labour: he has written of his implements, the typewriter and “‘non-rustle’ BBC paper”, and the “monkey crouch” he sat in when composing his first novel, in a way that makes writing a metaphor for the immediacy, the obduracy, and the struggle of history itself. For the colonial writer, “forging” a new idiom, “making” up a world, a book, or a sentence, is a way of “making” history; it is no accident that Stephen Daedelus used the words “forge” and “smithy” in his prophecy about the future of Irish writing and his own; or that the early poetry of Seamus Heaney, who gave Irish poetry a new historical direction after World War II, should be full of workmen who make or repair things — people who thatch roofs, blacksmiths at their unicorn-horned anvils.

It is paradoxical, of course, that this grand-sounding award should go to a man who has written so ironically about the makeshift and ambivalent, but perhaps nourishing, role that literature played in the society he emerged from. In Miguel Street, the book he first wrote, young Elias takes tuition but keeps failing, or doing badly in, his Senior Cambridge exams: “Is the English and litritcher that does beat me.” The narrator adds, “In Elias’s mouth litritcher was the most beautiful word I heard. It sounded like something to eat, something rich like chocolate.”

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Look at it this way

A history of sorts. The most chatty baazigar in the great Bollywood roulette who has never expressed any darr in the company of important men, was suddenly found speechless in the middle of a social gathering. The suave, smart Shah Rukh Khan did not know where to look when the president of India threw him an innocent question on the star’s latest film, Asoka. K.R. Narayanan wondered, point blank, whether the film was about the great emperor’s sex life. Quite evidently, Mr President had gathered his own ideas from the film’s promos on TV which show a nubile Kareena bathing in her skimpy white saree and a very hot Khan watching her from the shadows before he joins her for a little swim. Anyway, Khan seems to have received slightly kinder treatment from the home minister of the country. LK Advani’s question was simpler (but only apparently). Shah Rukh was asked if the film was a historical account of Asoka the Great. Ahem!

The beginning line

Khan can rest assured, the president will not be there for too long to embarrass him. Already, the race for his hotseat is on. Among the sprinters is one P Shivshankar, Congresswallah and madam’s eyesore. But he is a Dalit and chances are, given the determination of all parties to see a change at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, he might emerge the lucky guy. The determination is no less obvious on Shiv’s side. Cocking a snook at 10 Janpath, he is already reported to have been lobbying with his Mandal brothers and bits of the third front. For the post of the president’s deputy, the sprinter running the fastest is Najma Heptullah, a Congresswali and second time aspirant. So the stakes are high for her, especially since there will be others hovering close to the finishing line — Kalimuddin Shams, Narain Dutt Tiwari and Pranab Mukherjee for example. Should we wish Najma better luck next time?

Changing face value

Madam is having to contend with things other than dead leaders, although they still haunt. Recently, she is reported to have forced Motilal Vora to travel by road instead of the smaller aircraft. One doesn’t know if she remembered that Rajesh Pilot died in a road accident, but Sonia Gandhi’s primary concern now seems to be keeping Congresswallahs away from small planes. The other is to secure the turf for her brood. There has been demand for a new youth Congress chief. The preferred face is not Priyanka’s but the young Scindia, Jyotiraditya’s. Her faithfuls, naturally, are advising her not to give the yuvraj the platform. So, hurry Priyanka.

Enter Gujarat, minister

Man of ishtyle. One really could not have expected the new Gujarat CM, Narendra Modi, with his designer glasses, gold watch and impeccable suits, to come to office without a bang. So despite the tongue lashing by the Congress that the coronation better be a simple affair in view of the Gujarat catastrophe, Modi had a grand swearing-in ceremony, followed by a lavish lunch in the capital. At night, there was a gala dinner hosted by a Union minister where BJP stalwarts and the Delhi social galaxy were present. The quake relief can wait.

The magic baton

Shahi Imam, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, had promised a lot of action on Friday last to protest against the US attack on Afghanistan. The protest march was however called off. But there had been a lot of hard work in anticipation. At a meeting in the house of Delhi’s lieutenant governor, Vijay Goel, ministers in the Delhi government expressed concern over the imam’s actions. The exception was the Delhi police commissioner, Ajai Raj Sharma, who remained cool and collected and declared that the imam was not going to do anything irrational. After Friday passed peacefully, the establishment has been left wondering what charm Sharma had employed to cool tempers. A wizard in uniform?

Forgive me, madam

Post Balco, the Chhattisgarh CM seems to have been gripped by a new obsession — Nai Sadi Ke Mor Pe. This recently released book is a compilation of Jogi’s articles published earlier in newspapers. The chief guest at the release was madam herself. Unfortunately, what seems to have got her goat was the presence of the book’s editor, a known Sonia baiter. To add to that was Jogi’s eloquent chapter in praise of PV Narasimha Rao, once the bane of most major Congress leaders for his probe into the hawala scandal. When Jogi tried to play up his article in which he had predicted Sonia Gandhi taking charge of the party, madam is said to have remarked stoically, “Are you an astrologer?” Short and the most acerbic. Jogi’s camp has apparently got the message. Which means there will be a sequel, “Nai Sadi Ke Bichh Me”. Guess on who!

Footnote / Kaun Banega Chief Guest?

Can anyone imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood and Regis Philbin being invited to address the Founder’s Day gathering at Eton or Winchester? The answer is an emphatic no. But such a thing can happen in India. Amitabh Bachchan, has been actor and hit as presenter of a quiz programme, has been made the chief guest for Founder’s in Doon School. Maybe, the Board of Governors thought that Bachchan actually knows the answers to all the questions he asks in KBC, so they assumed that he is knowledgeable and a good role model for the boys. At a more serious level, there is cause to ponder why the Big B was chosen to address the gathering. Surely, nobody in his right mind — even in the Board of the Doon School — actually thinks that he epitomizes values which schoolboys should emulate. The choice, not to put too fine a point on it, is a disgrace. In some ways the choice is perhaps fitting as Doscoites have always preferred show to substance. A school that has produced Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Bunker Roy, Bhaskar Menon is more proud of having produced a prime minister whose learning was not his strong point.    


New chapter in the jungle book

Sir — The initiative taken by the West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to stop the poaching of wildlife in the state is laudable (“Bill pill for poachers”, Oct 5). In India, where people’s awareness of the need to protect animals is very low, Bhattacharjee’s move to amend the Wildlife Protection Act is a relief. The government is especially concerned about the Royal Bengal tiger, which is facing extinction. Unfortunately, the utter poverty of the villagers often leads them to kill the beasts. It is not enough to amend the act, larger issues have to be addressed to solve the problem.

Yours faithfully,
Sadhana Mukherjee, Calcutta

Memories of a king

Sir — An obituary is written mainly to highlight the achievements of a deceased person. It is rarely his personal shortcomings, especially if they are not directly relevant to the public life and position of the person concerned. When Madhavrao Scindia lost his life under tragic circumstances, there were two excellent articles written in The Telegraph. “From humble origins, royal dynasty rises” (Oct 1) by Rudrangshu Mukherjee gave a neat and crisp historical background of the Scindias and “Privy purse to politics” (Oct 6), by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray was a warm homage to the personal qualities of the maharaja who could become a common people’s man.

However, it was shocking to read “The making of a modern maharajah” (Oct 7) by Amit Roy. At the beginning, Roy questions Madhavrao’s going to Winchester College, which according to him was and still is “one for the brightest of the bright”. One wonders where he got this invaluable information from. He seems to have missed the hundreds of “not so bright” alumni on the Winchester roll.

One cannot expect this knowledge from Roy. He does not seem to know why the Winchester alumni are called Wykehamists. It is because the college was founded by the Bishop of Wykeham.

Then Roy proceeds with his research to reveal that Madhavrao Scindia was a less than mediocre student as he took five years instead of three to get a third in graduating from New College, Oxford.

He goes on with the details of Scindia’s report card “obtained” from the archivist at New College and lists the maharaja’s failures from the prelims to the Michaelmas and Hilary terms.

Roy had been doing well for himself as a foodie and restaurant hopper. He could have resisted the temptation of commenting on the educational achievements of a person that have no relevance to the person’s career, and that too in some kind of an obituary.

Yours faithfully,
Susanta Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir —- The death of Madhav Rao Scindia has been a rude shock to the people of Gwalior, to whom he was the mai-baap. The question now is whether But the most shocking thing is the way different political parties have started wooing the young prince. Politicking had got into full swing even before the maharaja was cremated. The obvious choice for Jyotiraditya is the Congress, but there are speculations that he might join the Bharatiya Janata Party as well, especially since its leaders have done their bit to entice the yuvraj during the funeral. Everything should be left to Jyotiraditya. It is up to him to pick up the political mantle.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — Tapas Chakraborty in an otherwise excellent summary of Gwalior politics, “Shadow on the palace” (Oct 4), talks of “the bordering districts of Rajasthan, including Mandsaur and Ratlam”. But Mandsaur and Ratlam are in Madhya Pradesh, not Rajasthan.

Yours faithfully,
Gopi Krishna Maliwal, Hong Kong

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