V S Naipaul: An enigmatic man

In recall

On August 11, 2018, V S Naipaul, Nobel laureate, writer and thinker, died in his home in England. Following his death, there has been an outpouring of writing about him, writing marked by one common feature — that of mixed feelings for this man who was a brilliant writer but who seemed to be somewhat flawed as a person. 

The facts of Naipaul’s life are well known. He was born in 1932 in Trinidad into a family of modest means and much of Naipaul’s childhood was marred by economic deprivation, something that made an indelible impression on him.

Naipaul’s father was a journalist who had a passion for writing fiction, a talent that not only took seed in his son but grew into legendary proportions. In 1950, thanks to a government scholarship, V S Naipaul made his way from his island to Oxford, after graduating from which he embarked on a literary journey that is now legendary.

Sometime in my early teens, I was given a slim paperback as a gift. In those days, books were treasured objects in modest families like mine where after providing for the necessities, funds did not always stretch to buying books. I opened this crisp Penguin paperback and held it to my nose, revelling in its fresh paper smell. Then I began to read it.

The book was Naipaul’s first novel, The Mystic Masseur. By the end of the first page, I was hooked, and by the end of this incredibly funny yet sad and tender novel, I was a fan. One only had to read the first conversation between the child Ganesh and his mother to know that a deliciously inventive journey was in store.

When Ganesh’s mother says of Trinidadian doctors ­— “They think nothing of killing two-three people before breakfast.” ­— one could not but smile, and when the narrator explains that this wasn’t all that bad since in Trinidad the mid-day meal was called breakfast, I laughed out loud.

The novel is about a failed writer, Ganesh Ramsumair, who in an attempt to rise up from his impoverished circumstances, becomes a masseur — local medicine men on the island — and a famous one at that. In the end, he ascends to rarefied heights of power, becoming a Member of Legislative Council, and even an MBE. This is an oddly tender story of a man trying to outmanoeuvre the workings of his destiny. A theme Naipaul returned to again in his second novel, the book that established him as a literary heavyweight,  A House for Mr Biswas, said to be inspired by his own father’s attempts at constructing a house and a family.   

In these two novels and in Miguel Street, the stories that came in between, Naipaul displayed a rare compassion for those less-fortunate men struggling with adversities that thwarted them from realising their potential.

He also alluded to the great injustice of colonisation where one group of people thoughtlessly, capriciously controlled the fate of another group of disempowered people. The indentured Indians in the Caribbean were placed into a world and a future more reductive and isolated than the one they could have known back in India.

Homeless, that was what this transplanting had made them, and this homelessness was a feature in most of Naipaul’s writings. The richly comic and sympathetic early work I read left me unprepared for the later Naipauls that fell into my hands.

Scathing, he raged and rebuked India, Africa, the Caribbean, the Islamic world, and last but not least, women. For the same struggling, developing world that he had such intelligent sympathy for earlier, he now had only unreserved contempt.

Somehow, somewhere on his journey, he had changed, crossed over to the other side. In India, he fixated on the ugliness of poverty and I was disappointed. Surely India had redeeming features, ones that a man of such obvious intelligence could glean from the less palatable ones. When he said women writers could never equal men because of their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” my disappointment was complete. 

Anecdotes of Naipaul’s churlish behaviour, his insensitive comments made the rounds in the past few decades and are being passed around again now. No excuses can be made for his cantankerousness and lack of generosity to many fellow men and women, but I wonder if this should intrude in our assessment of the writer Naipaul. Should any writer be judged for his personal opinions or behaviour, or should we, as readers, judge only his or her written work?

That then leads to another even more fundamental question. Can a writer really keep himself or herself out of his or her writings? For instance, can a dishonest person with a spirit less than generous really write generously? I struggled and struggle with that question still. As a writer, I can speak only for myself and I know I represent myself in my writings. That I bare a slice of my soul with each written page. Yet, I cannot help but think of Naipaul’s own words in his Nobel lecture where he said, “But everything of value about me is in my books.” He goes on to say, “I will say I am the sum of my books.”

So it is the books, the early ones, I will remember him by, and I know I will open, each time, with anticipated delight, the yellowing pages of my copy of The Mystic Masseur.  

  • V.S. Naipaul