Thank you, Sir Vidia

for all the pleasure and fun you gave us, for the curiosity and interest you contributed to arouse and deepen

We are saddened to hear about the demise of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Book lovers, especially those of Indian origin, have been very keen on opening every single book written by Sir Vidia – to relish his handling of local themes enlivened with autobiographical features, and to grasp his vision of world affairs through the prism of contemporary and colonial history.

The fun we had on reading a collection of short stories compiled in Miguel Street! Indeed, a hilarious social comedy depicting the lives of ordinary folks in the capital of Trinidad where the writer grew up, and written while he took up a part-time job at the BBC in his early student years in London. Picturesque characters converse, answer back, shout, gossip and mock at others in pidgin English.

In sharp contrast with western writers, Naipaul’s characters are not confined to a single role in only one short story. They pop up in other stories thus giving a sense of unity to story-telling, relationships and life in Miguel Street. Bogart, Hat, Man-Man, Big Foot and others are funny characters who give a touch of reality by their continuous presence in the life of other folks. It seems that Naipaul nurtured a fondness for those endearing real-life people and paid them visits during his trips back home from London. He even travelled to Venezuela decades later to pay a visit to Bogart who was cross with him for exposing his life to the public!

Many a young people could identify with him in his portrayal of the woes one encounters in adaptation to a foreign western country, its mores, culture and people during their student years.

V.S. Naipaul’s works scan different continents and historical periods and encompass a variety of themes. A House for Mr Biswas is a semi-autobiographical novel relating the unending efforts of a father struggling through the vagaries of life to improve living conditions for his family, and a story of an extended Hindu family with ties to India and recreating a cultural environment of Indian heritage in an evolving post-colonial Caribbean island society. The Mystic Masseur is a hilarious comedy about characters trying to carve out a place in society by any means even to the extent of fooling others. The Return of Eva Peron highlights political upheavals in Argentina. A Bend in The River explores the meanders of evolving political and social life in Africa and sheds light on multi-ethnic colonial society, descendants of Indian workers in African society and race relations.

What won him the Nobel Prize for Literature after 11 September 2001 was certainly the three books he wrote on religious conservatism and radicalism spreading from the Middle-East to Asia and financed by oil-rich Islamic countries. Naipaul translated his encounters with political leaders, journalists and people from different walks of life in these countries into books, which partly explained why criticism of his works based on interviews, conversations and observation on the topic did not lead to an extreme violent decision against him as Salman Rushdie had to face. Beyond Belief emphasizes the political agenda under religious garb. It may be the reason why the Nobel Prize team probably rewarded him for having issued warnings which went unheeded by the western press and elite from the 1980s – until terrorist acts hit their own people in their own lands.

Understanding and forgiving

Many of us in the islands, amid the Indian diaspora and in India paid particular attention to his books on India. Despite the light tone and mockery in which portrayal of Indian life in Trinidad was made, Naipaul went to India as a promising young writer. Of course, his vision of India was seen through the prism of colonial education, student years in London and his apprehensions of re-connecting with the land of his ancestors. Pessimism on the economic future of India in An Area of Darkness drew harsh criticism.

But Naipaul was quite young when he wrote the book, and his subsequent visits to India amid changing economic pattern led him to alter his view of India and caught up in his latest books to rectify his observations. He admitted that he could not then realize that millions of hands working across the vast subcontinent ridden with poverty in the 60s would gradually but surely make the difference one day.

Sri Atal Vajpayee’s government awarded V.S. Naipaul the highest literary award. The Indian mind is forever understanding, forgiving and loving. Sir Vidia was loved in India. His sharp critical mind and acute observations should be seen as an asset and not dismissed out of misplaced pride.

Unfortunately, Mauritian authorities never thought of inviting a writer of international standing like V.S. Naipaul to Mauritius. Did they keep ‘The Overcrowded Barracoon’ on their mind for decades? Or simply they never thought of it. Neither did the University of Mauritius for that matter. True enough the breed of local politicians have little inclination to promote writers, literature and critical thinking. Robin Sharma’s writings are more in tune with people craving for success in life and the pretty sum of Rs 10000 was worth the effort.

We missed a great opportunity to make Mauritians meet and listen to a writer of Indian origin raised in a multi-ethnic society in a tropical island. People over here would have related to his experiences.

The Enigma of Arrival and Half a Life are relishing autobiographical novels, and as one British critic put it years ago: Naipaul is best when he talks about himself. Naipaul laid bare the complexities of race relations in post-colonial societies with acute observation, mockery and humour: something which did not win the favour of one and all. He was dubbed Brown Saheb by Indians while critics in the Caribbeans in response to The Middle Passage found his tone condescending and contemptuous of local people and the burgeoning island culture struggling for recognition in those years. No doubt V.S. Naipaul did not write to please people. He wrote because he felt it was his compelling duty to relate things and was blessed with linguistic skills to express himself.

The Mask of Africa, one of his last books, is a travelogue like his first writings and was financed by an American organization. A trip which once again led him to explore the nooks and crannies of African countries, study politics, economy, the development of cultural features, religions and traces of Animist culture. His earlier books on Africa were also interesting anthropological accounts which revealed the complex legacy of foreign ideologies in societies which basically had different political and social structures.

Food for thought

V.S. Naipaul debunked the ideological certainties of the West and revealed the ridiculous aspects of their imposition in foreign lands. Masai warriors watching in dismay the Communist salute with hands raised aggressively at the sky wondered why these imported foreign soldiers were so angry at the sky in Africa and Madagascar! The fall of the Berlin Wall was not only the work of Gorbatchev and the will of the erstwhile Pope. Naipaul’s views and findings also contributed from an anthropological point of view to the dismantling of divisive ideologies. His writings were food for thought and made their way into the minds of the elite.

Naipaul’s mastery of the English language was at its best in one book dedicated to England in which the street lamps, the colour of the light, glistening rain on the pavement, the cloudy sky of London were depicted in detail, and the plains, cottages and fields of the countryside described in poetic prose. I felt that no one paid such a tribute to the beauty of England since the Romantics in the early 19th century. And I was glad to find that feeling echoed in a critical study later. The title ‘Sir’ was bestowed also on him by the Queen in homage to his marvellous poetic prose describing English natural landscapes.

In one of his autobiographical novels, he recalls how he felt from early childhood that a camera was always following him from the sky. I have read most of his books and felt like many others with similar cultural background that he opened our eyes to a reality seen from an angle which we can relate to. Our thoughts go to his wife who was very supportive and helpful in organizing his interviews and conferences.

Thank you, Sir, for all the pleasure and fun you gave us, for the curiosity and interest you contributed to arouse and deepen, the wealth of information and the high quality of language and literary style we enjoy. Indeed, the camera high up in the sky has followed you to your last breath.


* Published in print edition on 17 August 2018

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