An all-round sceptic is a great binding force. He can get everyone together to condemn him. The communalist and the secularist, the democratic and the dictatorial, the Leftist and the Rightist; the spiritualist and the nihilistic; the racist and the humanist; even the Centrist is compelled to use words to flay him. The sceptic, when he possesses special skills that make him a genius, thus becomes a maverick, and is not just hated but also respected in equal measure. Few people in the world can aspire to reach those levels. VS Naipaul was one of the lucky ones.
Fellow Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott called him a “racist” and VS “Nightfall”. William Dalrymple admired him for the “brilliance of his laster sharp vision”. Paul Theroux claimed Naipaul never “wrote falsely” and that he was a “scourge of anyone who used a cliche or an un-thought out sentence”. Whether it was fiction — A Bend in the River or A House for Mr Biswas — or non-fiction — An Area of Darkness or India, a Wounded Civilisation or the Masque of Africa — Naipaul never flinched from his opinion, even if it meant hurting sentiments and enraging those who were his targets. He respected people, their societies and customs, but that regard didn’t come in his way of being scathing in his criticism of what he considered ridiculous and even demeaning.
At times a critic of tradition — he once commented on the bindi used by Indian women as a sign to indicate “an empty head” — he also flabbergasted opinion-makers with ‘un-secular’ comments. The fall of the Babri mosque was, in his view, not such a great deal. He said the mosque had been “an act of contempt (by a Mughal king) for the country he had conquered”; and that it was an “insult to an ancient idea… the idea of Ram”. He viewed the rise of nationalism in India as a “new, historical awakening”. He was promptly dubbed a communalist by the Centrist and Leftist forces. It can be said with certainty that Naipaul enjoyed the condemnation, more so by those he would have considered intellectually inferior to him in many respects.
By extension and as a result of some of his works which were considered to have taken a dim view of Islam, it would appear that he was anti-Muslim. But he had a Muslim wife —she came from Pakistan — and he had adopted her Muslim children as well. From all accounts he loved her deeply, and she was at his bedside in his final hours. His problem was not with Islam per se but its persecutory nature and the zeal of Islamists to propound and thrust upon others their dogmatic views. Naipaul was critical of the Nehruvian worldview which glossed over Muslim atrocities, especially directed against other religions, including the majority Hindu in India.
Naipaul had no time for and patience with trivialities, or “banalities”, as he called them. For him, life was too short to encourage such elements. He had no issues with differences in opinion; he clashed often with the celebrated author Salman Rushdie on literary approaches and on ideological matters too. But both shared genuine respect for each other. On hearing of Naipaul’s death, Rushdie said that, while they “disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature”, he felt “as if I just lost a beloved older brother”. In his life-time, Naipaul had made light of the fatwa issued by an Iranian cleric against Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, saying that the order to kill was an “extreme form of literary criticism”. And yet, he could not have endorsed it. Naipaul had regard for well-read and articulate people, even if they did not necessarily conform to his viewpoint. Author Hari Kunzru, who once interviewed the Nobel awardee for BBC, recalled that the first thing Naipaul asked him before beginning the interview was about the things the former had read about him; Kunzru was firmly told not to “lie”.
Naipaul was doubtful about everything that may have seemed to be game-changing in public perception but was superficial when the surface was scratched. He was both disdainful and contemptuous of revolutions, uprisings and political idealism, because he had seen societies and people harmed and scarred as a result of those events. He spoke of the “absurd fantasies” these ideas generated and the “troubles they (the people who used them) wrought as a result”. He was speaking of the “New World” which he came from “in large measure”, but it could well be true of the rest of the world.
One of the biggest criticisms against Naipaul has been that he was harsh on the colonised and relatively soft on the colonisers. This was attributed to his gaining residency in the UK — barring the first eighteen of his life, Naipaul spent the rest of his time rooted, at least mentally, in England, though globe-trotting all the while. The criticism is unfair. According to media reports, he once abandoned a publisher because it had listed him as a “West Indies novelist”. He hated labels, and once said that “if a man picks himself up and comes to another country, he must meet it half-way”. Perhaps this rootlessness, despite having roots both in India and the West Indies — not to speak of the later roots that emerged of the West — left him isolated at times. He admitted to the fact in the following words: “Before I became secure as a writer, it was a long, unbroken period of melancholy”. This feeling, of course, could have been both on account of civilisational reasons as well as the period of struggle that an aspiring writer undergoes.
Strip him to the last fabric, condemn him in the harshest terms, denounce him in the vilest language — and yet one cannot take away from him, his brilliance as an author and chronicler of our times.