Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, who graced the 6th edition of Dhaka Lit Fest in 2016 as chief guest, died aged 85. We republish the following article as a tribute to his memory
Some of our writers have taken issue with the way Naipaul was not engaged in a conversation about his controversial stance on Indian Muslims, when he and Lady Nadira Naipaul were speaking to poet Ahsan Akbar about his life and works on the second day of the festival.
They have pointed out Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Muslims, his ideological positions that he’s nurtured and upheld in his nonfiction books, especially in The Wounded Civilisation. Those ideologies correspond directly to the Hindutva movement, the extremist section of Hindu ideologues who believe the demolition of Babri Masjid was a righteous act and the role of the Muslims in India was as invaders and destroyers of Hindu temples and culture.
One still had expected he’d stop there, but he didn’t. While on a tour in India in 2004, he attended a reception accorded to him by the Bharatiya Janata Party, then in power. He went as far as endorsing, though indirectly, the attacks on the Babri Masjid. Writing about this reception, a surprised William Dalrymple said, “It might seem unlikely that a Nobel Laureate would put himself in a position of apparently endorsing an act that spawned mass murder -- or commend a party that has often been seen as virulently anti-intellectual.”
It’s still a conundrum to me that a writer with such unsurpassable accomplishments in fiction can be so prejudiced against people of another religion. So there’s no doubt he has pathetically failed to stand the test of political and ideological correctness.
But the important question is if this failure should mean turning away from him altogether, dismissing all he has achieved, rejecting all he has contributed to the world of English fiction and literature in particular and world literature in general. As a writer and editor working in the English language, I believe the answer is: no, we should not turn away from him, much less dismiss his achievements and reject his contributions. Nor should we stop criticising him for his views on Indian Muslims. We should rather give the devil his due, the word “devil” intended both proverbially and metaphorically as a critical principle: praise him for his achievements and criticise him logically for his failures, and if possible, engage him in a productive dialogue.
When Humayun Azad, as an editor, brought out a poetry collection, Adhunik Bangla Kobita, sometime in the late 1990s, he dropped three poets – Al Mahmud, Fazal Shahbuddin, and if my memory is not betraying me, Abdul Mannan Syed. All three of them are big names in our poetry, with Mahmud certainly topping not only this list but any that you might prepare at any given time. Shamsur Rahman is regarded his only competitor in the poetic world, and yet Azad dropped him as well as the other two. In his introduction, he employed just one small paragraph, explaining somewhat curtly that he dropped them because of their literary associations with ideologies and people and forces that opposed the freedom fighters and the creation of Bangladesh. I'm not sure about Syed, but everyone knows for a fact about the swerve Mahmud took, both in terms of an ideological shift in poetry and political association. Much like Naipaul, Mahmud attended receptions accorded to him by Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had collaborated with the Pakistan Army and killed thousands of freedom fighters and Hindus. Whenever they get a chance, they still act fast to oust the Hindus from this country. So I was shocked and the hurts I received from this news are not fully healed yet. But what Azad did was a total dismissal of everything that Mahmud has achieved, and in my firm belief, by this rejection Azad committed a literary crime.
Put in context, politically Mahud and Naipaul represent two opposing poles, but structurally they bothfailed the same test. Even so, I firmly believe, both of them must be given due credit because their achievements, in their respective languages, are too great to be turned down.
As for engaging Naipaul in a dialogue and letting the audience be a part of that, I believe those who attended the jam-packed session must have seen he came on stage in a wheelchair that was pushed by another person. Sadder still is the fact that he was having frequent problems hearing the questions and when he took them in, after brief pauses, he answered them slowly, very slowly, and his short witty answers, one perhaps couldn’t overlook, did not fail even once to raise ripples of laughter among the audience. It was obvious that in this physical state he was incapable of answering any serious questions. This description, I believe, will dispel all concerns and help us understand that the much-needed dialogue was not deliberately avoided, it was rather an impossibility. If anything, he must be thanked umpteen times for showing the courage to fly in this state of his health all the way to Dhaka where fear of attacks on foreigners is actually running high.
Now I should move on to the question of his achievements. An objective analysis would do better but I have decided to take a subjective route.
I studied English literature at a public university. So, reading English fiction was indispensable for us. Not that everyone read the novels selected in a particular course but when they did, they spoke highly of them, never asking (due to the hegemonic status attached to English studies) why we should be so impressed by a work that had nothing in common with our lives or history, a question I'm sure any American or British student would ask incessantly if s/he were to read even one novel by Mahasweta Devi or Akhtaruzzaman Elias as part of their course work. So unlike most of my peers, I always suffered an identity crisis caused by what I think was a kind of absurdity. The absurdity for me lay in the way our teachers expected us to devote ourselves to foreign writers, writing about whose alien works you will neither be recognised here (or the east, broadly speaking), nor there (in the west). Yet, that's what we did, dissecting Lawrence and Woolf, Becket and Pinter, Shakespeare and Webster, reading all those volumes of structural, Marxist, post-structural, psychoanalytic, post-colonial critiques of their works and gaining so much knowledge that even now, after a gap of almost ten years, I can write more fluently about Lawrence and Shakespeare than about Hasan Azizul Haque or Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, though no one would actually want to publish them.
My alienation with English fiction began to grow more and I got tired of having to spend most of my reading and writing time over works I could hardly relate to, until I picked up A House for Mr Biswas.It was not like we were unfamiliar with Mulk Raj Anand or RK Narayan who wrote about Indians. Anand was too realistic and too focused on the Dalits while Narayan was too fictional and his world too removed from reality. More importantly, based in India, they were writing mainly for a South Asian audience whereas Naipaul, except for the first 18 years of his life, was based in England and he was writing mainly for an English audience.
When I started Mr Biswas I was overwhelmed by the subject he was dealing with as also by the way he was doing it. The life of Mohun Biswas and his induction in the Hanuman House after his marriage with one of Mrs Tulsi's daughters. I'm not sure if a European student would love the book in the same way as I did, because the people he was portraying were my people. This was the first time I felt I was reading an English novel where I found my own people: The way they value collectivity over individuality, the way they gossip and fight in groups, the way they treat their children and show their greed for money and love for others, and the way they even build their houses. He didn't miss a single thing about that society – the Hindu families of Indian immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago. There was no big tension in the novel, other than those anxieties felt by Mr Mohun towards different people in the Tulsi family. The psychology of the characters is intricately revealed and the sociology of the war brought in as much as is necessary to build up the story. But the sparks of wit and humour and sarcasm are such that you won't be able to stop laughing till you reach the end. The attacks on traditional culture are as sharp and unforgiving as those on the mimic men, or snobs, who imitate the culture left by the shahibs, the former colonialists.
It was a wonderful reading experience that did a lot more than just appease my thirst for aesthetic pleasure and cultural relevance. It opened a new fictional vista in front of me, full of new imaginative possibilities where the nature and people I have grown up with would constitute the centre and where the very un-western thoughts of my people would become the thrust of the story. And that's where Naipaul's biggest achievement lies.
In other words, it was Naipaul who first demonstrated to me that one could write a great novel about a simple Bangladeshi or Indian family as well; it was he who first showed me what matters most is how one tells their story. Not all of his novels are set in such contexts but that most of them are, in my eyes, is something for which I will always owe my literary aspirations to him.