Monday, 30th October 2017

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 22.11.02

The Writer and the World By V.S. Naipaul, Picador, Rs 395

This book is a collection of Naipaul’s observations and reflections during his many travels around the globe from the Sixties to the Eighties. He weaves the history of the country and the peoples together with the present, carefully removing layers of superficial trappings to get to the heart of the matter. By doing so, Naipaul betrays an intuitive knowledge of the follies and foibles, the whims and weaknesses of the human race.

Although at times Naipaul seems a little outdated in his observations (some of his visits were as long as 40 years ago), he is nonetheless always brutally and unashamedly truthful in recounting his experiences. His physical descriptions of people and places are, without fail, short and sweet, but they offer a plethora of information to the reader. They provide a glimpse into the psyche of the people. Ultimately, it is the simplistic style of writing that gets the reader inexorably hooked.

Elections in New York or in Rajasthan, present or past dictators in a small island in the Caribbean or in Argentina, heroes of America or Africa — whatever it is he is writing about, Naipaul’s speciality is that he makes the reader feel as though he has come full circle by the time the book is finished. In the end, people are the same everywhere, and life goes on regardless. This philosophy is lucidly illustrated in this book.

Some might accuse Naipaul of being unforgivingly harsh, but the author does nothing more than present a clear and undiluted picture of the world around us. For example, “New York in places is like Calcutta, with money”; “among the green and hilly islands of the Caribbean Anguilla is like a mistake, a sport” or “luxuries were small in India and little gestures were fundamental acts of defiance” and “even when the money ran out, Peronism could offer hate as hope”.

He takes a fresh look at famous figures like Eva Peron, Christopher Columbus and Indira Gandhi, and introduces lesser-known but equally colourful personalities in the more remote parts of Africa and the Caribbean. The tall and short tales are packed with joyful and poignant memories, happy and sad moments through which Naipaul effortlessly portrays how the positive and the negative are, inevitably, just two sides of the same coin.

Naipaul’s cynicism and occasionally judgmental attitude, perhaps, are the only things that might be held against him. This also, at times, disillusions the reader. In these passages, the author leaves no room to look at things any differently from the way he wants us to, but since they are his reports of his adventures he has the prerogative to do so. If this flaw is forgiven, then The Writer and the World would become a deeply moving encounter.

Nisha Lahiri