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Sunday, March 09, 2008

On Sir Vidia, some thoughts

Usually I manage to resist reading a review before I read any book. But when it is reviewed as the main article at the London Review of Books, it becomes incredibly hard to ignore. And impossible, either due to the reaction to it or because of my admiration for the writer, if it is a Naipaul book. So, through such travails of reading the book after having read about it, and, amidst reverberating echoes of such canon-shots booming between the pages, I finished Naipaul's latest book Writer’s people -Ways of looking and Feeling, last week.






It deals with one of the expansive and original subjects one can read about in the post-modern world. Naipaul typically, with no allegiance to anyone and no belongingness anywhere writes about writing and the writers - whom he had read or come across in his lifetime; and how, with their ways of looking and seeing, they helped to shape his own way of seeing.

Admittedly, the book is quite airily written and lacks the eye for detail that one usually associates with Naipaul. Given the vastness of the domain chosen for the book, it is at best a selective summary. It is fragmented, flaky and even in the best of its pieces surprisingly incomplete. Also, I must add, for anyone who has keenly followed Naipaul’s works, it would not be a subject entirely unfamiliar. At least I wasn't when I read the book.

Though there are liberal transplants of sentiments from his earlier books ( we all know about the influence of Huxley’s Jesting Pilate and Vidia's positive takes on Gandhi and RK Narayan), still The Writer's People doesn’t fail to give you a clearer understanding of his perspective. Yet, somewhere while translating the cynicism into criticism, in a passage here and there, one finds his shameless malice unmasking itself . Many pages on Anthony Powell have little relevance and are presumably prompted by his personal differences that existed between them. ( Naipaul briefly alludes to how Powell stopped seeing him before his death even while he continued to see others). The chapter was, as Naipaul claims himself at the very beginning - difficult to write - making the reader who has read it wonder, what exactly was the need to go through such hardship? More so, at a premise when it is least pertinent? Difficulty or malice, whatever it is, the sentiment has been given the treatment it deserves by many a critics. However, that shouldn’t make us overlook other segments of the book: there are wonderful observations and assertive judgements on others which, as hard as they are to digest, cannot be reasonably refuted: The takes on Vinoba Bhave and Flaubert for instance. I haven’t read any Salvon so I cant make a valid personal judgement. And the well-known Walcott-Naipaul bitching duel that's been running on for a while also finds it's share in the book. Pity really.


In all, personally the book was a welcome, coming during the hackneys and baloneys I have been letting myself read over the last few months. From a larger view, it wasn't an incredibly outstanding book but neither was it a dull put-aside. Which other writer would research to tell you that an Indian Bullock-cart did 24 miles a day in 1890s? And going back to the reviews, after having read the book was - sort of irony of relevance – because the book is all about ways of looking.


It’s always amazing to see how reviews on Naipaul often aid to propagate their own perception of him; the most commonest transference that goes into his reviews are that he is an arrogant, provocative prude who defines himself by criticism. But readers, who are able not to let themselves carried away by their own prejudices and loyalties often, if not eventually, bring themselves to admire his work - fiction and otherwise. But, for almost repeating his own old material and the apparent offence he has wrapped it in, I am not sure if that would happen with this book.


That regardless, a larger audience, as often as it is seen, continue to draw a great consolation by running a Naipaul work down the drain of their perspective ignorance. Here is one such insalubrious effort related to the book in question.


Half-way through the review, I had to go back to check who was able to write with so much self pity. Must admit though, if I was asked a year back about Dalrymple I could have convinced you that it’s a rare Belgian dish. It was only during my last visit to India I found he was a Scot writing about Delhi's history while living in Delhi! ( God save him). The only bit I have read of anything by Mr Dalrymple is a small essay while glancing through one of his book in a library; it was about the protests against the Miss-World competition that was to be held in Bangalore sometime last decade.

It was a typical western-modern eye looking down confusedly - about the Indian fundamentalists threatened by the erosion of their value, culture etc. To cut the long trauma short, nothing was placed in perspective-- Whys were blatantly ignored for the Hows and the Whats? The running sentiment was of sympathy and hopelessness for people who were opposing a beauty pageant; There was no effort made to really understand the underbelly of the emotions involved, no history was palpable; as if it was all read in readily available books: Kali, Kamasutra, Khajuraho? The impression was as much shallow as the oremise it was made from. After reading that piece, naturally, even the strongest recommendation of his work went into my fourth waiting list. The unread City of Djinns, sitting somewhere in my attic, must be as old and as sarsenic brown as a Delhi Minaret. May be someday when they cleanup Delhi, perhaps?


It is a similar sentiment he entertains here in the review: For the first five paragraphs in his review Mr Darlymple takes upon himself to introduce to the Sunday Times reader, Mr Naipaul, a Nobel laureate. The biased account of a perceived deterioration is so well articulated it conveniently ignores his Booker in 1971 and The Nobel in 2001. Perhaps the only thing the summary lacks is his obituary. Further, in the latter part Mr.Dalrymple contests equally in malice with Naipaul and completes the travesty of the review by making a grocery list of all the negative adjectives in the book. Not surprisingly there is no perspective, not even judgement of why Naipaul is or may be wrong. The defense is based on the irrefutable reputations of the people, Naipaul seemed to have challenged in the book. It might as well have been called a gospel and the writers apostles. The Naipaul dynamic, that so often has become to define his work and the response to it is thus complete. It is no wonder Mr Dalrymple writes about courtesans and Moghul jewellery - things that cant even beseech a judgement by a post-modern reader.


In areas where he reluctantly does offer some judgement ie Gandhi, he comes across as in grave need of reason. Kathryn Tidricks’s Biography of Gandhi is available on Google; anyone can make out it is far from the bounds of brilliance forget relevance, in fact is a curriculum vitae of Gandhi a la carte. What Mr Darymple terms as dull and superficial of Naipaul's judgement of Gandhi is perhaps one of Naipaul’s brilliant insights in retrospect ( not for the first time though) of Gandhi’s battle with reverse-culture-shock, a phenomenon now not unfamiliar to the Indian Diaspora and undoubtedly beyond the realms of Mr Dalrymple’s imagination.

Naipaul’s statement on the lack of autonomous intelligentsia in India is a fact; any average Indian blog has it written all over its template. Mr Dalrymple’s Indian universities - buzzing with the same vibrancy of commerce - is either at its best a rush to be recruited for a plum post in the farthest MNC or at its worst, the bass of some local wannabe ( invariably somehow they would never be) rock-band covering the ancient 80s Guns and Roses number. If that is autonomous, India might as well claim Rudyard Kipling as her literary masthead.

As I have said, its often hilarious to see why people who don’t know a penny about what Naipaul writes about, have an urge to put him down. This isn’t first time people have found it hard to figure him. A chunk of the criticisms railed against him is a confused literary babbling of a response obligated to say something mean, often about him rather than something valid against his work.

Part of the confusion I have always supposed, arises from people’s lack of understanding his place. Whenever I think of his position I am reminded of Archimedes saying that if given him an appropriate place to stand out and a suitable lever, he would move the earth. Naipaul, not belonging anywhere and no influences from his background, holds that enviable position which makes it possible for him to see the cultures and civilizations as crystal as sunrise : what he himself described as..' looking through multiplicity of impressions to central human narrative'.

His Area of Darkness is a mirror representation, a testimonial of the so called socialist state that was India. His judgement on half-formed African societies are as true today as much as they were when it was said. And it took twenty years for the world to understand what Naipaul had written - on his own, without any influence or motive - about Islam, what Edward Said had dismissed as 'Intellectual catastrophe' and what Mr Darlymple still calls in his review: persistent negative assessment of Islam is turning out to be a prophecy of sorts. But thankfully, it took less than a month after 9/11 for the Nobel committee to endorse Naipaul's views. This ability to see things - as they are, were and going to be - was more loftily put by the Nobel committee as : having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.

I remember in his Nobel acceptance speech Naipaul had said - He is the sum of his books. I dont think many of us can actually comprehend the meaning of the phrase. It is an accurate self-judgment, a rubric which in my opinion can only be accorded to two other writers of the twentieth century: Joyce and Kafka. This unique position is also reflected in Naipaul’s unwillingness to have any children as they would come between him and his work. For what is incomprehensible for many a writers or critics, that is just a symbol of how unique his position is and the possible layers it conceals.

I always believe, a reviewer who is reflecting on a writer; who cant stand in where the writer has stood should take special care to separate the works from the person. Unfortunately in Naipaul’s case, either by his own doing or as a package of consequence beyond him, people carry around his negative image wanting to fit him into it somehow. As said before, there is almost a palpable negative precept and a compulsion to offer an opinion on him, rather than his writing.

Here is one, dare I say Indian version that I found while scouring the Indian blogosphere. Admittedly the chap hasn’t read Naipaul recently, and in the event mentioned in the post, found him uninteresting and thought he looked liked a constipated Walrus. Further, much to his disappointment, he found Naipaul deaf (wow) and ERGO Naipaul is everything that he was told about. Well, there goes your autonomous intelligence. If you are not nice enough to me, you are bad or wrong. Or boring! You simply must be. The absurdity, is unbearable even for any humour. The only acknowledged interesting writer of the last fifty years, (apart from the oulipo) being dismissed as uninteresting. If people want to read beautiful, tender sentiments why dont they just go and read Neruda? It reminds me of what Naipaul had written about long back - The absurdity of India can be total, it appears to ridicule analysis. It takes the onlooker from anger beyond despair to neutrality.

Perhaps it was this neutrality that made him ask to repeat the question again. It’s not all that hard to imagine - someone getting up and asking in his or her best haryanvinglish in one go, “Sirrrviddiyyaa, whatdoyouthink of the Hindunaaationalist move-menntt?” (Just like on Ibnlive)

Of course, you are bound not to hear and not understand the question. It's just courteous to ask to repeat again. I couldn’t tell in the Delhi airport if the PAS was in English or Welsh or Urdu. Thankfully, Naipaul is deaf only in Delhi; when he was elsewhere he was just as fine as a fiddler - as Finny told me once when Naipaul was asked by another nincompoop - What do you think of Indian Roads? He had answered " Well, You deserve it." I bet it cant get any more interesting than that.

If you look at it in toto, it is a very interesting dynamic: Given his incorrigible inclination, Naipaul can see only cultures and societies as accurate as numbers. These in turn, just like the reviewers above, would just go on to validate what he had said. The thing speaks for itself, as it has been for the last fifty years. Well, what can one say? While Naipaul would want us to believe that he is the kind of writer that people think other people are reading, the world, with all its blemishes and glories, is what it is. Men who are nothing, men who allow themselves to become nothing have no place in it. Men who want to tell other people what other people are not reading and still want to find a place in the world for that.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very much in agreement with your views of Naipaul. The man's a bloody genius and deserves to be "arrogant". The critics can go jump.

Anonymous said...

i think mr biswas is next on my list really.
-Finny

Anonymous said...

Read his non-fiction instead. That's where the genius shows.

sanjana said...

Well written article. It will be great if you can publish your articles in SiliconIndia also as I am a member of Siliconindia, I am sure that most of the members will like reading it. http://www.siliconindia.com/register.php?id=T49I1Fh5

Ubermensch said...

Hey anon
Critics jump anyway, Who is this btw?

Finny,
sure. But i agree with the anon, if ur upto it, do the nonfiction. It's niche. In every sense of the word.

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