My first encounters with Naipaul’s work made me think of Joseph Conrad and in particular The Heart of Darkness: because Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” was clearly the feeling that India invoked in Naipaul, as he detailed in An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization.
As a young man, I found these books deeply disturbing, I thought in the same category as the naïve but malevolent writings of a Katherine Mayo or a Barbara Crossette, full of imperial hauteur about superficialities that do not matter, missing the essence.
However, on re-reading those early India books years later, I realized that Naipaul was not wrong: he merely documented what he had observed. The culture shock must have been brutal. For the India of his imagination and of his ancestral memory, of the resplendent culture, was not visible: it was hidden under the weight of a thousand years of shame and grime.
It is this hidden India that he discovered later in A Million Mutinies Now. For Naipaul had grown mellower and wiser, not so impatient. And he realized that there was, below the surface, the stirring of an Indic renaissance: India was renewing herself, yet again, from her own inexhaustible stream of history and civilization, her native genius. This, he said, is cause for celebration.
Naipaul is right: India is capable of infinite rejuvenation, and this is happening once again, right in front of our eyes. The Asian century will become the Indian millennium; the feminine principle and the Empire of the Spirit will vanquish the war-like, patriarchal mindset of the last two thousand years.
I once wrote that I preferred Naipaul’s non-fiction to his fiction, and in particular that I loved The Enigma of Arrival.
To me, although it is billed as a novel, this is mostly autobiography. It is when I read this book that I understood how well Naipaul has realized the state of exile, and even hallowed it, bearing it as his personal crown of thorns. I could see the enigma of my own arrival in San Francisco, beloved but never mine, explained in Naipaul’s bittersweet Salisbury.
I also realized, to my surprise, that behind the cranky, arrogant, imperial façade there was a human being, vulnerable, uncertain, insecure. Then, the collection, Letters Between Father and Son, sharpened that feeling: this was a man who owed a great debt of gratitude to his father, and who repaid it, immortalizing Seepersaud in A House for Mr. Biswas. Quite human, our Mr. Naipaul has turned out to be, after all.
In our time, there have been other exiles writing hauntingly about their lost homes: for instance, Pablo Neruda or Ariel Dorfman. But none writes better or more evocatively about the experience of exile, about being dispossessed, than V.S. Naipaul. The Nobel is a richly deserved tribute that is an acknowledgement of the “suppressed histories” of exile, one that speaks to all of us in the floating population of voluntarily and involuntarily displaced persons.
I never expected that V.S. Naipaul would win the Nobel Prize in Literature because he is the very antithesis of political correctness: he has picked on the entire Third World, most especially India; and most recently, on Islam.
The Swedish Academy usually picks safe, mediocre, politically-correct people. But this time, the Academy made an aggressive decision: perhaps they wanted to acknowledge vicariously some of the blunt assertions Naipaul has made about Islam and its particular brand of colonialism. Thus, blowback: Naipaul wins the Nobel because of Black Tuesday!
Naipaul’s prize is the second time in recent memory that the Academy has taken a brave stand: the first was in the case of Gunter Grass, caustic left-winger and fabulist. But a number of leftists are berating Naipaul for his views: and they are examples of what Naipaul himself once called “Fourth Worlders”—meaning the formerly colonized. The “formerly colonized,” a complex phrase, implying, among other things, that the person is no longer colonized, or that only his or her ancestors were thus afflicted.
The problem, however, is that the effects of colonization do linger—many Indians still have extra-territorial loyalties.
Naipaul has chosen his response to this unhappy status of being formerly colonized. He is the perennial outsider, the curmudgeon who derides every culture he comes into contact with: the Indian culture of his ancestors; the hybrid culture of the Trinidad and Tobago that he grew up in; the post-colonial confusion of Africa; the world of non-Arab Muslims; and the decaying culture of the Britain that he has lived in for most of his life.
Many of us in the diaspora deal with our Fourth-World-ness with our own defense mechanisms: perhaps by embracing the culture and customs of our host country wholeheartedly; perhaps by finding roots for ourselves wherever we go.
I personally have discovered that for me, roots are important; and those roots are in Kerala, in the verdant village of my ancestors. But I do have another home: San Francisco, where I have spent some of my happiest days. Yet, even so, when I listen to the heart-breaking cries of migrating Canada geese on a cool California night, I hear in their cries the whisper, “Exile! Exile!” I realize I am dispossessed, vaastuhaara, as in the superb Malayalam film by G. Aravindan.
Many of us remain singularly attached to India: the home country exerts a magnetic influence. We who are voluntary exiles have given up one of the truly important elements of self-hood, our home, in the not unreasonable pursuit of a fortune. Nevertheless, as Vikram Seth said in his perceptive Diwali:
I know the whole world
Means exile of our breed
Who are not home at home
And are abroad abroad …
This may as well be my home.
Because no other nation
Moves me thus? What of that?
Cause for congratulation? …