A home for Sir Vidia
What can we take away from V.S. Naipaul's work, much of it riddled with controversies, at this juncture in the 21st century?
In an interview with The Observer, the late Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul once described how his writings have always circled a sense of home. “From time to time…there is a sentence that comes into my head…. It’s time for me to go back home now…. Home is I suppose just a child’s idea. A house at night, a lamp in the house. A place to feel safe." Like most of us in today’s world, the Nobel laureate was never at home anywhere. Willie Chandran, the protagonist of his last fictional work Magic Seeds (2004), admits as much: “It is the one thing that I have worked at all my life, not being at home anywhere but looking at home."
Home today is at the centre of a raging global debate, with reportedly more than 68.5 million people being displaced the world over. Mass immigrations, refugee crises and migrations across man-made borders are the order of the day. Over two-thirds of the world’s refugees are from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.
Exile, then, is a fundamental condition of the postcolonial world—one we must all experience to a greater or lesser extent. This is what makes Naipaul—often denigrated as a man for his version of “truth", but elevated as a writer—universally relevant in the current sociopolitical landscape. His books underline that in a world increasingly characterized by exile, migration and diaspora, there is no room for the absolutism of the pure and the authentic. Nor is there a permanent home that one can call one’s own.
Admittedly, Naipaul’s predicament is ours too. We are constantly on the move, sometimes mapping a mental terrain, at other times negotiating with physical space, and now a virtual one too. Everything is uncertain; the only constants are change, insecurity, a melancholic sense of loss and fear of the future. As a Naipaul scholar, I have often been locked within the horns of this exile’s dilemma. “My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly complex," he underlined in his Nobel lecture in 2001. An Indian in the West Indies, a West Indian in England and a nomadic intellectual in a postcolonial world, Naipaul was one of those writers who had, perhaps unwittingly, succeeded in collapsing the binaries of the colonial and postcolonial, subjugation and oppression, colony and metropolis, self and other.
What ruffled feathers at the time he won the Nobel for literature was his acknowledgement that the prize was “a great tribute to both England my home, and India the home of my ancestors". Trinidad merited no mention. When asked about it, he said it might “encumber the tribute".
Ironically, it was the Caribbean isles that shaped his identity and enabled him to make an indelible impression on the global literary canvas. Even his style of conversation, “picong" as Trinidadians call it (teasing or satirical banter, blurring the boundaries of good and bad taste), can be attributed to his growing-up years in Trinidad. Patrick French, in his authorized biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, mentions Naipaul’s flippant comments, one of which was in reference to a friend’s daughter—“a fat girl, and she did what fat girls do, she married a Zulu". That explained Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s comment, “He’s a living example of how art transcends the artist ’cos he talks a load of shit but still writes excellent books."
The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, A House For Mr Biswas, rated as some of his best work, stem from that landscape. A House For Mr Biswas reflects Everyman’s struggle. It shows Mr Biswas’ revolt against any value system that denies the autonomous power of individuals to live on their own terms. What perhaps has seen this work feature among the 100 best English novels is the fact that Mr Biswas, modelled on Naipaul’s father, stands for the human right to fail in one’s unique way. Although he dies in possession of only a caricature of his dream of freedom, Mr Biswas’ heroism, the importance of his struggle and what it represents, don’t go unnoticed.
A Bend In The River, based in Africa, saw Naipaul accused of racism. On the face of it, Salim’s story articulates a vision of disorder and decline in a moment of post-imperial upheaval. But reading against the grain of the text, the novel seems to point to Naipaul’s inherent fear. Ferdinand, who urges Salim to flee for his life, works as the author’s mouthpiece when he says: “We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones....Nothing has any meaning…. It’s a nightmare—nowhere is safe now."
This is what makes Naipaul’s books significant for our times. They transgress man-made borders to project a reality in which individuals realize that diaspora is a way of life, that wherever they turn, they can find people whose place isn’t more certain or secure than their own. His works, in this sense, unite all of us, though it is a paradoxical unity of disunity, whereby we enter a perpetual state of struggle and contradiction, ambiguity and anguish, disintegration and renewal.
Poised at this juncture in the 21st century, the range of issues he addressed—extremism, global migration, political and religious identity, ethnic difference, implosion of Africa—appear to be of particular import, enveloped as we are in an inexplicable sense of homelessness. Therein lies Naipaul’s universal appeal.
The author is a former journalist and independent research scholar. V.S. Naipaul was the subject of her doctoral thesis.