New Age Fiction - The supreme life of mind
by VN Narayanan
Over the past 25 years, any year would have been appropriate for awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born English writer of Indian origin. In that sense the decision of the Nobel Prize committee to grant it to him this year is an old wrong, belatedly righted. However, it comes with a suspicion that the prize has been given to him, not because he is among the countably few finest writers of the English language alive, but because of his recently expressed views fitting in with the current Western thinking on the "clash of civilizations".
Of course, Naipaul's views on the life and attitudes of the Islamic people have been brilliantly expressed in writings and talks over the past two decades. A master of the craft of narration, he blended fiction with reality in a manner that led to unmistakable conclusions without the author himself offering or drawing any 'conclusions'. Sir Vidia, as he is known in literary circles all over the world, in his later life and fiction tended to be morbid and bitter in sharp contrast to his earlier writings where he fashioned himself to be "a comic writer".
I met Naipaul in Chandigarh in 1993, and my first impression of him at that meeting was of a man (to borrow Bertie Wooster's vivid imagery) who looked perpetually disgruntled about everything and everybody around him and quite unwilling to reveal any sign of "gruntling". Questions I asked about his literary journey from the cheeriness of A House for Mr Biswas, The Suffrage of Elvira and The Mystic Masseur to the gloomy and painfully autobiographical The Enigma of Arrival only evoked grunts accompanied by frowns as response. At that moment I left him in the company of admiring but uninquisitive guests—socialites and bureaucrats—and returned some time later when he started talking about India and Pakistan.
The Nobel Prize citation, while entirely right in its assessment of Naipaul's travel books which "allow witnesses to testify, not least in his powerful description of the Eastern regions of the Islamic world, beyond belief", gives the game away. It has become routine to expect American preferences and prejudices to influence the award of Nobel Prizes for Peace, Economics and Literature. All too often, the prize is a Nobel 'reward' rather than an award. In this case however, the motives of the giver do in no way diminish or disprove the worthiness of the receiver.
Naipaul's travel books on India and the Islamic world are masterpieces of reportage, besides being top quality literature. His ability to move from one character to another, one place to another and going back and forth on events never fails to grip the reader.
Coming back to Naipaul on India, I guardedly enquired him about a discernible change of perceptions about India as 'An Area of Darkness' and 'A wounded civilization' to the more sympathetic 'A Million Mutinies Now' as a movement towards a more realistic and mature understanding of India. Not inhibited by modesty in any way to even think of the possibility of his earlier views being immature, Naipaul ignored me and addressed his answer to audiences other than me.
"What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening," he was saying. "Gandhi used religion to marshal people for the cause of independence. Though he invoked Hindu scriptures to mobilize people for the freedom struggle, many of his social reformist ideas drew inspiration from Christianity. But Indian academics and intellectuals had a distorted vision of history and the common people had no awareness of their own history.
"India's intellectuals must rise to the occasion. Their prime duty is proper use of the mind. To use the mind is to reject the grosser aspects of this vast emotional upsurge…There is a big, historical development going on in India. Wise men should understand it and ensure that it does not remain in the hands of fanatics. Rather they should use it for the intellectual transformation of India."
The Swedish Academy's description of Naipaul as a "literary circumnavigator" is aptly chosen. Not only has he elevated travel writing into a sublime art but also embellished it with an inimitable technique of speaking through the mouths of nondescript people of different societies and arriving at truths about whole civilizations. Here's a sample from Beyond Belief on the basis of three conversations with three forgettable characters over "bad sips of coffee" at three different places. "At the very beginning, the new religious state was touched by the old idea of plunder. The idea of the state as God was modified…It didn't have to pay its way. It became the satellite of the United States; it didn't develop a modern economy; it didn't feel the need. Instead it began to export its people; it became a remittance economy.
"Then there came the Afghan war against the Soviet puppet regime…entered into as a kind of religious war. And again, the loot was prodigious. American arms and Afghan drugs followed the same route for eight years. Hundreds of millions of dollars stuck to the hands of the faithful all along the way. After the cynicism and idleness of four decades, the state (of Pakistan), which at the beginning had been to some like God, had become a criminal enterprise."
The point about the above is that it was not written after much reading of history and meeting of influential people in government and media but through travel and contact with ordinary folk. Naipaul saw things all too clearly and wrote in precise and delicate prose of the highest quality. The Nobel award is a cause for celebration because it has been given to someone who elevated 'essaying' on life and reality into a supreme literary form. He put, according to Salman Rushdie, "the life of the mind" above all forms of life.
Writer Paul Theroux, who called himself Sir Vidia's 'shadow' but broke off a long friendship in utter disillusionment over the Master's distinctly unlikable qualities of head and heart and wrote an engaging account of it all, dwells at length on Naipaul's quest in life. Somewhat cynically, he said that the quest would end with a million dollars.
Quite unfair. Whatever else he was, Naipaul was not after money, just as he was not anti-Islam or Christianity merely because he found a lot that was wrong in the practice of these religions.
No, the quest of the 'literary circumnavigator' will go on. And it should. The man, who began the search of life with A House for Mr Biswas and went on to hoist A Flag on the Island somewhere In a Free State taking A turn in the South and Finding the Centre, Among the Believers negotiating A Bend in the River to visualize The Enigma of Arrival, Beyond Belief, has just managed to complete Half a Life (his latest book). The literary world expects the other half too from him.
Maybe for a million dollars more!
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