Friday, October 15, 2004

Dull as Naipaul

Went to British Council for V S Naipaul book launch last evening. Can’t recall the last time I yawned so much. Let me admit this at the outset: I haven’t read much Naipaul, and almost nothing he’s written in the past 20 years or so. It’s one of my guilts as a book-lover (though it’s almost turning into a guilty pleasure now). But that hasn’t stopped me from forming strong opinions about the obnoxiousness of the man in general and shaking my head in wonder at the stridency of some of his statements. Based on all I’ve read and heard, I could safely have said that I had no inclination to ever be in the same room as him, not even with free cocktails a-waiting after the event.

Which is why, paradoxically, I felt a peculiar excitement while sitting in the auditorium last evening. The way I looked at it was, when expectations are so low, there’s bound to be something interesting to take away from this experience: a hitherto unseen side of the man, an unobtrusive little remark that might suggest he’s more than a caricature. Being open-minded in this way has worked well for me on previous occasions.

Unfortunately, it didn’t this time. The man SO lived up to the caricature. There was nothing interesting beneath the surface. He’s everything you’ve ever read about him. Nothing he said or did fell outside the borders of what I could have conjured up in my own mind had I chosen to just sit at home and imagine what the launch/discussion/reading would be like.

Naipaul sat, legs crossed, looking for all the world like a walrus that knows it’s constipated and is resigned to the fact. He said things I don’t even remember now, they were so forgettable. Death of the Novel, writing when young, writing when old, nationality, identity. Someone in the audience asked him "Sir Viddiyyaa, what do you think of the Hindu nationalist movement?" He replied, "I didn’t hear the question." (At this point I thought, ah, there’s something interesting, he’s side-stepping the question. Cheap tactic for a Lord, or Knight, or whatever he is. But a little later Naipaul responded similarly when asked an innocuous lit-related question and then I thought, what the hell, he’s just deaf, which isn’t very interesting at all, given his age, and all the years of hearing his own thoughts in his head.)

I don’t like being so dismissive about someone, and like I said before I don’t know enough about the man’s work to pass anything approaching a summary judgement. Guess I’m just expresing the disappointment that comes from being in the presence of an important writer for an hour and coming away with nothing worth cherishing.


  1. I was waiting for your piece, and I have to admit, I agree. I think Roshan Seth, when asked by NDTV how he takes the news -- these journalists have a way of taking things so seriously I tell you -- of Naipaul saying that this may be his last book, answered, "With a pinch of salt". I couldn't help chuckling.

  2. Bang on, man. Remember the only time I met him...sat in a general office chair with his stick between his legs and face a study in dullette. Seemed incapable of ever having done or said or thought anything interesting. There was the Lady with him as well... a Parameshwar Godrej like being, though marginally better looking. Anyway...thinking back, he probably had the same constipation problem even then.
    The occasion is memorable mainly because Amitabh Bachchan was in the same room (talking about tehelka and when all these guys arrived, being members of the Board). Though he arrived in an equally constipated state.

  3. Well, I don't think he strikes anyone as a nice fellow. But interesting? He probably is, given his very public and eloquent struggle over several decades with what it means to record what one sees and observes of human idiocy. He's difficult to love, but one admires his tactless intensity.



  4. you should read his book, 'an area of darkness'. it's insulting and reductive and nasty, and has one particularly (unfortunately) unforgettable rant accusing indians of having made public defecation the national pasttime. (yep. charming.)
    but i could understand why he felt so let down: he grew up in trinidad (a little more affectionately and amusingly parodied in 'the suffrage of elvira', and throughout, it was an intrinsic matter of pride (as far as his sense of identity went) to think he was (or his ancestors, rather) originally from india--with its deep spiritual tradition. but then, when he went and got his upperclass education in oxford and went to india, and saw the crowds and er, defecators, he just went beserk and his brain began its rapid self-picking process, which continues deep into his senility today.
    now he's just used to making headlines about the one-dimensional shrill senile rants he's already known for making. his communalist b.s., the "death of the novel"...blah. he's just an anachronism, a misplaced ole dinousaur with a one-lady literary groupie.

  5. I agree. Naipaul is very obnoxious. But if you have never read, "A House for Mr. Biswas", then drop everyhing and go read this book. It's wonderful where all his other books only disappoints. And it makes you go, "ah..I see now where that nobel prize came from"

  6. Factually what naipaul writes often seem to be true.But there seems to be too much of latent paranoia at things not familiar.....too much of a culture shock. I had this problem when I read "Wounded Civilization" but later I learnt to look at the writer writing this as well as the material itself. This kind of writing is very different from Salman Rushdie - with his magical realism Rushdie seems more interested in romanticizing memories rather giving his view of things.I cannot accept either version as my own view but atleast with Naipaul I know where he is going wrong; with Rushdie though, you have to consider it as poetry with little factual merit.

  7. Oh and he won a Nobel on the way (which he should have got 20 years earlier). Naipaul is the king of non-fiction. I agree, he is not a windbag of the Rushdie and Roy species. Read him first and then comment. If his books on India are too close to you to make an unbiased judgment (read A Million Mutinies at least), try his books on England (The Enigma of Arrival) or the US (A turn in the South). Compare his perspicacity with the aforementioned windbags. The man is a bloody genius and afford to be that obnoxious and arrogant.

  8. Being a lefty liberal myself, I loathed Naipul with a passion- I can see the same intensity in your post, or at least some of the same acerbity. However, I finally managed to overcome my prejudice, read his work (get enraged more in the process). Many years on, I have now come to realise, that the man is a bloody genius. He has understood civilizational concepts and not shirked from the brutality of judgement. Most of us would comment, seek to be "fair" and leave at it that. He does not. He is brutal, he is excoriating and says it as he sees it. Age has made me realise that the man has earned his arrogance.
    Rushdie on the other hand, is a self obsessed popinjay twit.

  9. TO Anonymous-I have lOVED A House For Mister Biswas, and am now reading his book on India and one in Islam. His words and perceptions can be bristly at times but I agree, he is masterful as a writer and in his understanding. I mean his A House For Mister Biswas to me had all the genius and flair and suppleness of Wodehouse, and I am an amateur reader. I shudder to think the gems a more "serious"/skilled reader would find in his writing. I have heard a newly celebrated Indian writer, Aatish Taeer, to be quite a fan of Naipual. So maybe he is read and loved more than is known in the popular press or blogs.

  10. Just to wet you palate in case you decide to do the hitherto unthinkable and decide to pick up his works:

    "The state withered. But faith didn't. Failure only led back to the faith ... If the state failed, it wasn't because the dream was flawed, or the faith flawed; it could only be because men had failed the faith. A purer and purer faith began to be called for."
    "Wouldn't it have been better if the creation of Pakistan had been seen as a political achievement, something to build on, rather than as a victory of the faith, something complete in itself? ... Wouldn't it have been better for Muslims to trust less to the saving faith and to sit down hard-headedly to work out institutions?"