The greatest test of a writer is that of time. It is a test Vidia Naipaul passes every time. To read him on India is to read someone as if they were writing today. “To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.” This is from A Million Mutinies Now, published in 1990, but it may as well be speaking of India as it is today, with its “disruptive, lesser loyalties” of clans, castes, religions and ethnicities raging against each other.
Naipaul’s travels to India were always accompanied by fear and loathing. (Photo: AP)
There has been much criticism of Sir Vidia for his misogyny, as there should be. Those looking for female agency in his books will find none. Those looking for terrible treatment of women in his personal life will find much, to their horror and disgust. My own tiny experience of him was when I was part of a small group hosting him at a conference in Delhi — he had a particular way of making women invisible. It was not that he did not make eye contact. It was that he looked at them and then through them, as if to dismiss them entirely.
My charitable explanation then was that he obviously had greater things occupying his mind. But the more I read of him, the more I realised being direct to the point of rudeness was part of his often abrupt persona. Or his mistreatment of his devoted first wife, Patricia Hale, cheating on her with an Argentinian mistress, and getting Lady Nadira to move into their house the day after her funeral.
It did not preclude Sir Vidia from making associations, of taking under his wing protégés as varied as Tarun Tejpal and Aatish Taseer. So dazzling was the breadth of his work that he could be appropriated to attack the right wing, on the basis of his India trilogy, as much as the right wing could appropriate him to justify their hatred of Islam, by quoting his Among the Believers.
And the generosity that saw him give access to Patrick French to write an extraordinarily frank biography was converted into equally strong malice that resulted in Paul Theroux's rather stinging account of their friendship, Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents.
Naipaul’s travels in India were always accompanied by fear and loathing. Fear of the unknown and loathing of what colonialism had left behind. This was most potently visible in his first of three works of non-fiction based in India — An Area of Darkness — in 1962.
His words were searing and so true: “It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain? It is better to retreat into fantasy and fatalism, to trust to the stars in which the fortunes of all are written.”
It was enough to have An Area of Darkness panned widely for its negative portrayal of India, and anyone who acquired copies of this largely “banned” book in the early days could feel a frisson of excitement akin to reading DH Lawrence's quite different Lady Chatterley's Lover.
His second non-fiction work set in India, India: A Wounded Civilisation, based on the period between 1975 and 1976, carried on from where An Area of Darkness had left. India is without an ideology, he wrote in it, describing it as a failure of both Mahatma Gandhi and India.
“Its people have no idea of the state, and none of the attitudes that go with such an idea: ho historical notion of the past, no identity beyond the tenuous ecumenism of Hindu beliefs, and in spite of the racial excesses of the British period, not even the beginnings of a racial sense. Through centuries of conquest the civilisation declined into an apparatus for survival, turning away from the mind (on which the sacred Gita lays such stress) and creativity (Vinoba Bhave finding in Sanskrit only the language of the gods, and not the language of poets), stripping itself down, like all decaying civilisations, to its magical practices and imprisoning social forms.”
Such was the breadth of his work that he could be appropriated by the right wing, and also to attack the right wing. (Photo: PTI/file)
In A Million Mutinies Now, Sir Vidia refines that idea further: “Independence was worked for by people more or less at the top; the freedom it brought has worked its way down. People everywhere have ideas now of who they are and what they owe themselves. The process quickened with the economic development that came after independence; what was hidden in 1962, or not easy to see, what perhaps was only in a state of becoming, has become clearer. The liberation of spirit that has come to India could not come as release alone. In India, with its layer below layer of distress and cruelty, it had to come as disturbance. It had to come as rage and revolt. India was now a country of a million little mutinies.”
The astonishingly vast reportage Sir Vidia did for the book is the template for much of non-fiction that followed. From Namdeo Dhasal to the publishers of Women’s Era, from Shiv Sena members to film critic Chidananda Dasgupta, he realised India is “a hybridised cultural formation where Hinduism and parliamentary democracy, mantras and transistor radios, bullock carts and nuclear power can co-exist perfectly.”
In India: A Wounded Civilisation, Sir Vidia writes, yet again presciently, of how the nation grieved for the scientist Har Gobind Khorana, who, as an American citizen, won a Nobel Prize in medicine for the United States a few years ago. “India invited him back and feted him; but what was most important about him was ignored. We would do everything for Khorana," one of India's best journalists said, "except do him the honour of discussing his work."
Let us not do yet another Noel Laureate that dishonour. Good, bad, ugly, let’s discuss his work and examine him for what he wrote. In that, we will find truths about India only his brutal honesty could illuminate.