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VS Naipaul: Man of letters, strong views

This great Trinidadian author of Indian descent wrote over 30 books that included both fiction and non-fiction in a career spanning five decades. Although his views aroused controversy many a time, he was still widely admired for his prose.

inspiring-lives Updated: Sep 24, 2019, 17:49 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
In the early 1960s, author VS Naipaul began work on a novel based on the life of his journalist father. Titled A House for Mr Biswas (1961), it won him recognition and is also known to be a significant contribution to 20th century literature.
In the early 1960s, author VS Naipaul began work on a novel based on the life of his journalist father. Titled A House for Mr Biswas (1961), it won him recognition and is also known to be a significant contribution to 20th century literature. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Born on August 17, 1932 to a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian, Naipaul was 7 when the family moved to the Port of Spain. His father, Sreeparsad Naipaul, who encouraged him to read and write, passed away in 1953 before Naipaul became a successful writer.

Early life, Education

After graduating from the Queen’s Royal College, Naipaul won a Trinidad government scholarship which allowed him to study abroad. He decided to study English literature at the coveted University of Oxford in United Kingdom. Although he aspired to become a writer, he struggled to get started. This made him depressed to the extent that he tried to overcome this fear of by setting off on an impromptu trip to Spain.

It was around this time that he met Patricia Ann Hale who helped him recover and overcome his fears. They got married in 1955. However, Ann Hale died due to cancer in 1996, and Naipaul later married Pakistani journalist, Nadira Khannum Alvi. After graduating from Oxford in 1953, he began to work as a broadcaster for the BBC’s Caribbean Voices. He also worked as a reviewer for the New Statesman magazine.

Life as a Writer

During the 1950s, Naipaul’s works The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel Street were published. In the early 1960s, he began work on a novel based on the life of his journalist father.

Titled A House for Mr Biswas (1961), it became of his major works and won him recognition. It is also known to be a significant contribution to 20th century literature. Initially, Naipaul’s books received critical acclaim but they failed to do well commercially. His non-fiction works on India include An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilisation, and India: A Million Mutinees Now. The first work was pessimistic in tone, but the last one exuded optimism about the country’s development. His novels Half A Life and Magic Seeds are set in India, UK and Africa.

Several of Naipaul’s earlier works draw on the experiences from his own life in Trinidad. He soon began travelling with the aim of writing and many of his later works were inspired by his travels and interviews with ordinary people in different countries.

Awards, Legacy

In his work, In a Free State, which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1971, two young expatriate Europeans drive across an unnamedAfrican country. Although, there are indications that point towards this place being Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. It describes how Africans governed themselves following the end of the colonial era.

In 1989, he was awarded the Trinity Cross, the highest national honour of Trinidad and Tobago. He received a knighthood in Britain in 1990, and in 2001, the Nobel Prize in Literature.His last non-fiction work was The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). The book, which revolved around indigenous beliefs and rituals in Africa, was based on insights he received during a visit there.

Naipaul died at his home in London on August 11, 2018, at the age of 85. Following his death, Sir Salman Rushdie paid this tribute, “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother. RIP Vidia.”

Interesting Facts

1.On the 50th anniversary of the publication of A House for Mr Biswas in 2011, Naipaul dedicated the work to his first wife Patricia Anne Hale. She was the first reader, editor, and critic of his writings.

2.Peter Bayley, Naipaul’s Oxford tutor once said that Naipaul “had not quite forgiven us for giving him a second-class degree.” Significantly, the author was, to a large extent, self-educated.

3.The noted author was once asked to write an original script for an American movie. He wrote a novella named A Flag on the Island. The director did not like it and the movie was never made.

4.During a visit to India, Naipaul wrote the novel Mr Stone And The Knights Companion. The work,set in London features European characters. It brought him much critical and commercial acclaim.

5.His first few books received little commercial attention. This made Naipaul so unsure of writing that like a crossword puzzler, he refused to write his next book with a pen and only used pencil.

Sources: Biography: The World Is What It Is, Wikipedia, famousauthors.com

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