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A goodbye to V. S. Naipaul, the most complicated and provocative writer!

Published : Saturday, 8 September, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 1681
Nahid Neazi

'The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow them to become nothing, have no place in it.' _______ V. S. Naipaul, a Nobel Prize winner in literature (1932- 2018)

When I came to know the death news of Naipaul on social media, his taciturn but observant/thoughtful looks (appearance) - - I first saw in Dhaka Lit. Festival held in 2016 on Bangla Academy premises - - came before my eyes. When he visited Dhaka two years back, he was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Sitting in wheelchair he inaugurated the event in a festive manner. I found him quiet though frowning with his wrinkled eyebrows and forehead. I guess this very expression is the reflection of depth of his varied knowledge and essence of realization of his life.

Later in a session titled 'The Writer and the World' at the literary festival, he sounded excited about his first ever visit to Dhaka and shared a lot of things including the struggles of his early writing career. Naipaul was the most compelling and controversial literary figure of more than the last five decades. His brittle and misanthropic personality made him one of the world's most admired and contentious writers. On 11 August 2018, he died at the age of 85 in his London residence.
Critical of colonialism and sceptical of religion and politics, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (popularly known as V. S. Naipaul) was born on 17 August 1932 in Chaguanas in Trinidad - a small Caribbean island - to a family that had arrived from India in the 1880s, part of what he once called 'an immigrant Asian community in a small plantation island in the New World.' It was a community where he never felt at home, in 2008 recalling his childhood as 'pretty awful' and his family as 'terrible ' very large, with too many people. There was no beauty. It was full of malice.'' Throughout his life he experienced a state of diasporic dislocation which gave him a feeling of hybrid identity and a sense of alienation. He considered himself to be an outsider in England.

Being the second child born to Seepersad Naipaul and Droapatie, he grew up in a largely peasant Indian immigrant community (approximately 1.5 lac Indian Hindu and Muslim out of 4 lac population in Trinidad at that time). Though his grandparents had worked as indentured labourers, his father managed to be educated and worked as a journalist. His father's interest about writing and his admiration for the writers inspired Naipaul who aspired to be a writer from the very beginning of his childhood. When he was at the age of seven, his family moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital, and got him admitted into the government-run Queen's Royal College. Naipaul was a very good student, so his academic standing earned him a Trinidad Government scholarship which offered him a chance to escape from his motherland and travel to England in 1950 to study English at Oxford University. Initially, during his study at Oxford, he was very perplexed about his future and tried to focus on writing though he was not at all satisfied with his efforts. At one stage he felt lonely and depressed because he did not find anything to write about.

Being on the verge of a mental breakdown, Naipaul embarked on an impulsive trip to Spain in 1952 and spent all his savings on the trip. The death of his father, the following year, was another emotional blow to him. However, his meeting with a young woman named Patricia Ann Hale in college helped him recover and rebuild his life. Both of them graduated from Oxford in 1953. He got married to Patricia in 1955 without telling his family.

In 1954, he moved to London and found a part-time job as a presenter for a BBC weekly program named ''Caribbean Voices'' where he started writing short reviews and conducting interviews. In 1955, he wrote ''Bogart  the first short story of Miguel Street - and sent it to the publishing company, but the publisher was reluctant to publish the book and encouraged him to write another book. Then very quickly '' casting around in desperation for a subject - he wrote his debut novel titled The Mystic Masseur which was accepted and published in 1957. The novel was about an impoverished writer aspiring to become a successful politician. This is how his writing career began though it sprang from nothing.
With the breakthrough of his first published novel, Naipaul caught the eye of the book reviewers, and he got the Somerset Maugham Award in 1959 for his story collection Miguel Street. In 1961, he published the most celebrated novel A House for Mr. Biswas which earned him the most coveted award the Nobel Prize in Literature. The autobiographical novel - about how a man's life was restricted by the limits of colonial society - was a tribute to his father who wanted to be a writer, suffered a breakdown in 1933 and died in 1953. In this novel, Naipaul told a story of the drawbacks and indignities experienced by a man born to Indian parents in rural Trinidad, his struggles with his wife's overbearing family and his relentless search for his root which he could call his own place.

After writing the novel A House for Mr. Biswas, Naipaul did not find any subject to continue writing. Then he decided to travel for extensive periods to pen essays and travelogues. He first visited India in 1962 and got very disappointed and disillusioned because he discovered his ancestor's native land as dark and poor. This experience helped him write a book - - a semi-autobiographical account of a year in India - - named An Area of Darkness which was published in 1964. Later the government of India banned the book and he was vehemently criticized for his writing.  However, he visited again his ancestral home twice to write about its culture and politics. Another two of his Indian Trilogy, based on his visit, were India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now '' published in 1977 and 1990 respectively.
 
Naipaul also continued to publish the award-winning novels like The Mimic Men which won the W.H. smith Award in 1967 and In a Free State which earned him the prestigious Booker prize in 1971. The Caribbean politicians such as Michael Manley and Eric Williams said, 'V. S. Naipaul's description of West Indians as ''mimic men'' is harsh but true ...'' In 1979, he also received critical reviews and appreciation for his highly acclaimed novel  A Bend in The River '' a book which  was narrated by an ethnically Indian Muslim shopkeeper in an unnamed African country. Later, his life of travel and transitions was reflected in his novel The Enigma of Arrival which was published in 1987. He also visited four Muslim countries'' Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan - and wrote about what he observed while travelling.

Since his literary stature heightened, his reputation '' as a difficult and complicated personality '' did grow as well. With the passage of time, he became a private man and did not have many friends - though his personal life entered into the public domain - when Paul Theroux, whose 31-year relationship with Naipaul had soured, published a stinging memoir about Naipaul in 1998. Theroux's book Sir Vidia's Shadow described Naipaul as a racist, sexist miser who threw terrifying tantrums and beat up women.

The way Naipaul portrayed India, African and Islam in a series of travelogues including 1964's An Area of Darkness, 1980's A Congo Diary and 1981's Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey made him highly controversial around the world. Even he once visited BJP's political office during his stay in India, and supported the demolition of 16th century-Babri Mosque. Six months after the Babri Masjid demolition occurred on 6 December 1992, in an interview with the then editor (Dileep Padgaonkar) of Times of India, Naipaul also termed Hindu nationalism a ''new, historical awakening'' and hope for national regeneration. This interview and his anti-Islam stance - reviled by some and revered by others - triggered anger and rage of the world Muslim community.

However, Naipaul received a knighthood in 1990 and the David Cohen Literature prize in 1993. He was awarded, the most prestigious award in the world, The Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001 for ''having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories''. This is what the Nobel committee said in its statement. It also added, ''Naipaul is a modern philosopher. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.''

Though Naipaul was thought to be complicated, controversial, condescending and confused throughout his life searching for his identity and root, he is considered as one of the greatest writers in the 20th century. He wrote more than 30 books including fiction and non-fiction. While the poet Derek Walcott was doubtful about the results of an account seen through ''Victorian spectacle'', he found Naipaul's writing brilliant. He wrote, ''The people he encounters have an antic, desperate pathos. More often they are vulgar and we can imagine Mr Naipaul recoiling in terror from their exuberance.'' However, his literary works will be re-studied and re-visited in academia though his politics, especially in non-fiction, has been at times indigestible to many. This does not detract from his success as a writer, especially a writer of fiction. But it cannot be ignored!                                

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh



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