Sir Vid: a prisoner of many histories

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2001 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Sir V. S. Naipaul, displays his Nobel Prize Medal (Internet)

Sir Vid as he was known and enjoyed and liked to be known is gone, a literary genius to all and a controversial person to many. His personal life made him an object of scrutiny, his selfishness was never contested, even by himself. Many anecdotes tell about a person burdened by individual and collective history, a dinosaur of sorts in a changed world where so many of his aspirations were considered vile and his literature was not enough to cover them up.

Its not easy to figure out how much of an outsider or an insider he was since he wanted to be one but never left the other. He was stuck with three roots, one ancestral, one adopted and one aspired for. Naipaul was in a three way street meeting with India, the Caribbean and Albion. Perhaps he had far too many doors to knock on and ask to be allowed in. He never could really decide which his proper address was.

Miguel Street lad

I found Naipaul in my University days through “Miguel Street”, a collection of short pieces which were part anecdotes, part stories, part self portraits. There is a simple charm which is arresting because they were tales told by a young man talking more about his personal world than the bigger world where he was always trying to make a “profound” point.

That book worked for him and readers because they were sent as a teaser by a great writer not yet a full blast. In one of the more “symbolic’ pieces in the collection, the narrator leaves home but fails to take off for London and returns albeit for a short while. Naipaul caught the authenticity of ordinariness, the sublime sounds of a world where even in the Indo- Caribbean, his people were practicing Indian Hindu rituals with devotion, not yet finally decided from which end of the ground to bowl from.

But of course Naipaul grew up.  And it’s the third Naipaul book that the world came to learn most about this world. With his “A House for Mr. Biswas” he had literally found a door. Or so what many thought probably himself.

Tracing his father’s struggle to raise his family on strained financial, economic, social and psychological resources, Naipual showed a maturity that in fiction he never touched again. It was a painful, honest and ultimately heroic tale of a simple man fated to be stuck in an economy that was not strong, a politics that he didn’t belong to and a society he never seemed to grasp.

Naipaul served the language and the tale well. It made him popular and respected. Naipaul knew he could lay his claim as a literary figure on the rise in a distant white land of transported brown people growing up among the once enslaved blacks.

The personal travels

But Naipual had other canvases. His complex personal life, full of sexual struggles and selfishness, misogyny and sexism, his wretched relationship with his English wife, who sick with cancer had to put up with his disdain and rejection, made him closer to the life of his many English literary peers but as a fiction writer he was not eating at the same table.

He was a desi and they are not supposed to relish English breakfasts and women and wine. It was a curious default case as its with many desi writers who copied their lifestyle a little more than their literary ones. In the end he always remained a desi in English eyes.

But soon began his travel and non-fiction phase which ultimately became his Orientalist quest. He found India, Africa and even the Caribbean as some sort of a bug that could be examined under his author’s microscope. He feared the rise of political Islam and the patronage that had begun years back at some English peer’s literary drawing room, finally gave him socio-economic security. By 1995 his long suffering wife died and he ended his defacto bigamous relationship with a married lady to marry his second wife, a Pakistani,  who survives him.

“The Enigma of Arrival”

Yet to me its not his not so special fiction that he should be remembered for but his long autobiographical prose piece which became a book, “the Enigma of Arrival”. The title is of course borrowed from Enrico Chirico’s painting which symbolizes enigma of departure and arrival both. And it fitted him.

Naipaul wrote with a felicity rarely found in his other work. It was about acceptance, about claims and ultimately identity of his own and that of others. Its an internal book, where he didn’t have to pretend to forget that his entire life was one long quest to arrive.

Ultimately the West did embrace him – nothing works like bashing Islam- but by the time they did delivered with the Nobel, he had became outdated. There was no time for him in the Facebook driven world where his behavior reeked of an establishment toad, a sexist, an apologist of sorts for the faded glories of colonialism’s smelly cadaver. Time ate him up better than he danced with time.

But farewell Sir Vid. You did play the violin and many listened even though the tone was confusing. All had a good time though your own may not always have been so cheery.  In the end, the world doesn’t know what to do with Indo-Carib writers who once freelanced for the BBC and wrote about a world few cared anymore about.

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