January 24 2015
Once famous for his acerbic and tart comments on anything from women writers to India being a ‘dark place’, one of the world’s best known writers has mellowed…or so it seems… and feels, perhaps, a little misunderstood as he tried to explain to the thousands gathered in Jaipur to hear him…
ONE OF the most controversial and grandest men of English letter appears to have gone soft.
Looking well, if restricted to a wheelchair these days, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad (better known as) VS Naipaul was the epitome of a good guest and didn’t offend anyone in his one and only session at the Jaipur Literature Festival today.
In conversation with longtime friend and influential critic and writer Farrukh Dhondy, Naipul was the very picture of reasonableness and good grace and humility. Strange.
The two men, who are both based in Britain, discussed ‘The Writer and The World’ with Naipaul illuminating the huge audience – estimated to be 5,000 – on an extensive career, writing novels, travelogues, and essays which culminated in 2001 with the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Now 82, he was helped throughout by his wife Nadira, who held his microphone and there were a few pauses where the grand old man of English literature lost his train of thought or said simply and politely, “Is that all right?” to answering one of Dhondy’s questions.
Dhondy refused to be too deferential, sometimes acceding, while on other occasions, gently teasing more from the writer who many regard as traversing all national boundaries and some consider an institution in his own right.
Though Naipaul has written much about India, his relationship with the country of his family’s origins has been awkward – some have never forgiven for him for calling his first book on the country, “An Area of Darkness” and writing about how people defecated on the streets.
Naipul said the darkness he was referring to in the title was his own – not India’s and he had travelled to India in search of enlightenment and knowledge about his forbearers, but as Dhondy pointed out that history had already been long erased before his arrival.
“I was not at the time aware (of the controversy), it was only afterwards and I was slightly bewildered by it,” Naipaul confessed. He said he was simply being “true to the facts” in writing about as Dhondy put it, “Indians committing a nuisance on the street”.
“I was not writing it out of prejudice or anything like that,” Naipaul expanded.
Wife Nadira, who was on the stage with him, explained further: “His family were taken aback (back in Trinidad). His mother, who in all her Indianness, knew only one word, said: ‘Beta, leave India to the Indians’.” There were significant ripples of laughter.
His next book on India, “India: A Wounded Civilisation” was prompted, Naipaul said, by reading about the magnificence of the 200-year-old Vijaynagar Empire which came into decline in the middle of the 16th century and the ruins at Hampi (in present day Karnataka). Naipaul said he was excited by the discovery and it had inspired a long and arduous journey.
Writing about his experiences and observations, he had concluded that collective colonial invasions had had a profound effect on the country and that was what he was referring to – in terms of a civilisation being wounded.
The march of democracy and previously underrepresented groups entering into Indian national politics Naipaul said, had been a welcome development – and for Dhondy and others, “India: A Million Mutinies” had signalled a more optimistic note about India, even though to some it looked like a nod towards right wing nationalist groups such as Shiv Sena.
And though the book might be read as being somewhat more ambiguous in its conclusions about whether this would ultimately be a good thing, these groups were doing something Naipaul recognised and welcomed, he felt.
“People like myself and others were trying to establish an identity for themselves in the world,” he explained.
Earlier the two men talked about his early life and writing.
Leaving his native Trinidad in the 1960s for Oxford University on a scholarship, he set up in London after graduating, with nothing much as coherent as an ambition, he confessed.
“I wanted to be a writer, but I had no training or qualifications,” he said disarmingly, and described the early years as being difficult as he faced rejection from publishers Andre Deutsch and practically lived in a room set aside for freelances at The Langham.
Dhondy explained to the predominantly Indian audience, that The Langham was a hotel, which was owned at the time by the BBC and close to broadcasting house, where Naipaul worked in the Caribbean service, before being able to earn a living as a writer.
Both Naipaul and his wife Nadira thanked the audience and there was a certain satisfaction that permeated all sides.
On the first day of the festival, Naipaul had made a surprise and emtional appearance after Hanif Kureishi, Amit Chaudhuri, and Paul Theroux discussed the legacy and impact of “A House for Mr Biswas” (1961) in a session chaired by Dhondy.
To hear what happened, click below and hear Dhondy tell www.asianculturevulture.com what it was like being there…