In defence of V. S. Naipaul


I have been reading an article written by Hamid Dabashi for Al Jazeera. His article or comment is on the late V. S. Naipaul who just passed away. Seems Mr. Dabashi finds  Naipaul as a product of colonialism who perpetuates or personifies that in his writing. I grant you that Naipaul was quite condemning of India, but maybe because he was of Indian heritage born in Trinidad and not of the sub-continent. He would not view India through native-born eyes, but through non-native Indian eyes.

My first trip to the sub-continent was in 1982, Indira Gandhi and I-Cong were still in power, I think thumbing their noses at the US and they were a major force in the Non-Alignment group. Prior to my coming to India, I took a rather circuitous route from Bangkok to Nepal then overland to Bombay (as it was called then). Prior to flying to Nepal, I had been robbed in Bangkok–too long a sordid and perverted story to tell here. At any rate, in India, I needed to report my stolen traveller’s cheques (TCs), and I was instructed to go to a 5-star hotel where a representative of Thomas Cook’s which was located in a very posh hotel area of New Delhi with its own security gate.

I made the acquaintance of a worthy adversary in Mr. P. C. Sen. Seems many Indians like to use initials in their first names or it could be that their initials are just plain difficult to pronounce for non-Indians. Over the course of a number of days and visits, we enjoyed each other’s company and regaled each other with our own stories of India and travelling.  He would only interrupt our conversations to order cups of steaming chai from the office boy whilst nibbling on Ginger Snaps or Glucose biscuits.

For whatever reason, I mentioned to him the books I was reading on India at the time: Gore Vidal’s Creations, E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola, and a couple of books by V. S. Naipaul An Area of Darkness and some short stories. I thought I should read about India from the time of Buddha (Creations) to the British time during the Raj (Passage to India) then independence (Freedom at Midnight) then 1960s (An Area of Darkness) up to modern-day India in the 1970s (Karma Cola).

When I mentioned Naipaul’s name, Mr. Sen’s ears and eyes pricked up which us led into a number of discussions.

As fate would have it, P. C. Sen had been a classmate of Naipaul’s at Oxford, so naturally I asked him about his former buddy as there couldn’t have been too many other Indian students in that class. Mr. Sen reflected on that, but he seemed perturbed with Naipaul and wondered about the way that Naipaul had viewed India. Truth be told, Naipaul was or could be as much of a visitor or traveller as anyone else who came to India for a first time. In Naipaul’s case, back to his ancestral land after being raised in Trinidad.

India could be everything or it could be nothing.

There is a great line in “The Party” by the character played by Peter Sellers who plays a bumbling but loveable failed Indian actor Bakshi. Nowadays, I would not shocked if the role is viewed as a ‘racist portrayal’ by Sellers, but I also read that it has become a “cult” favourite. I just found out that my favourite line in the movie was also Indira Gandhi’s favourite too. Seller’s character Bakshi is asked by the Hollywood movie producer,”Just who do you think you are?” to which Bakshi answers, “In India we don’t think who we are, we know who we are!”.

I often tell other travellers who are thinking of going to India that if they don’t like to be around people (like a lot) and being asked a constant barrage of questions then maybe India is not for you or your cup of chai. And to that, maybe Naipaul didn’t like the constant haranguing from fellow Indians because, after all, he probably sounded more British than Indian, but maybe that is just my take on it. Be that is it may, Mr. Sen was not happy with Naipaul’s portrayal of India in his books, but he was a traveller after all, for his first time in India too.

Dabashi also wrote about Naipaul that “throughout his travels – in Africa he saw darkness, in India banality and destitution, in Muslim lands fanaticism and stupidity”. Paul Theroux might well have agreed with Naipauls’ view on Africa since Theroux wrote about returning to Africa in 2001 trip by the name of Dark Star Safari (2002). Both aspiring writers had been English teachers at the then renown Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda back in 1966. Their sometimes tempestuous friendship lasted until Naipaul’s death. Those who have read Dark Star Safari also believe that Theroux has his own dark vision of Africa, a place where he taught and had been a Peace Corps worker (Malawi).

As a result of Naipaul’s “negative portrayal of India and its people”, his An Area Of Darkness (1964) book was immediately banned in India. Dabashi continues, “the world, wherever he went, was the extension of his Trinidad, the darkened shadows of his own brutally colonised soul”.

Dabashi goes on “I read his Among the Believers (1981) cover to cover when I was writing my book on Iranian resolution – shaking with disgust at Naipaul’s steady course of stupidity, ignorance, and flagrant racism. He knew next to nothing about Iran or any other Muslim country he visited. In all of them he was a vicious Alice in a whacky wonderland of his own making. How dare he, I remember thinking, writing with such wanton ignorance about nations and their brutalised destines, their noble struggles, their small but lasting triumphs!”

The truth is that Naipaul was a traveller and an observer and maybe he had his own prejudice of things as many of us do when in a new country for the first time. Maybe it is just ignorance. Not all who travel are lost, and just as important, not all that travel, read, but maybe those of us who travel need to research better, but that is not a prerequisite–is it?

Dabashi adds: “In both his brilliance and in his banality, in his mastery of the English prose and cruelty of the vision he saw through it, VS Naipaul was a witness, as Edward Said rightly wrote.”

Maybe, as Mr. P. C. Sen did, you don’t agree with what Naipaul saw, but that was Naipaul’s own vision, surely.

One thought on “In defence of V. S. Naipaul”

  1. Em, excellent piece you wrote about Naipaul. He may not have written what we wanted him to on India-but he wrote what he saw and felt and that is the writer’s prerogative.


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