The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: VS Naipaul didn’t hate India, he resented it
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about his meetings with VS Naipaul, who died earlier this week.Updated: Aug 13, 2018, 18:30 IST
The biggest obstacle to writing anything meaningful about VS Naipaul, who died over the weekend, is that there is nothing left to say that has not already appeared in Patrick French’s masterly biography. Naipaul authorised the biography cooperated with French, and then when the book appeared in print (it pretty much destroyed his reputation as a human being while remaining respectful of the writing), said virtually nothing about it though his wife repeatedly trashed the biography.
I was no great friend of Naipaul and was never overly impressed with the fiction. (Yes, I know he won the Nobel Prize for Literature; so this may say more about me than it does about Naipaul’s work.) And some of the early non-fiction, especially the stuff relating to India, left me annoyed.
The young Naipaul called India An Area of Darkness (the title of the book that made his reputation) and in middle age he decided we were merely A Wounded Civilisation (a second book, much praised by the British press but treated with loathing in India).
Looking back, I reckon we were too sensitive about some of the things he said. Many of his observations were undoubtedly valid even if they sounded unkind. But I never quite lost the sense that these were books written by a man with a grudge; somebody who had an axe to grind. Many years later when I read one of his essays about an early trip to India, I thought he was almost comically misguided.
In the essay, Naipaul writes about meeting an old friend from Trinidad in Delhi. The two men talk about how much is wrong with India. Then, they discuss how far ahead of India their own Trinidad is.
I have nothing against Trinidad but I doubt if any sensible person believes that it has been far ahead of India at any time in the last several decades.
Things did not begin to fall into place till I finally met Naipaul.
He had come to Calcutta to research the book that would become A Million Mutinies Now and somebody had given him my number. He would get bored in Calcutta, he was told, so here were the numbers of some people he could talk to and meet up with in the evenings. My name and number were on the list.
There were no mobile phones in that era. So Naipaul called my office and left a message. When I saw it, I was a little taken aback. What was Naipaul doing in Calcutta? Why was he calling me?
I called the hotel, the Oberoi Grand, where he was staying and asked to be connected to his room. The operator went off the line for a couple of minutes before returning and saying “Connecting you sir”.
The phone rang and rang till a voice finally answered. “Main kitchen, can I help you?”
Obviously there had been some mistake. So I called the hotel again. After several tries they finally located Naipaul who was writing quietly in his room. (He wrote every single day, he later told me.)
He was pleased to hear from me but said he was fed up of the hotel. I promised to take him out for lunch the next day. Would he like to try a Chinese restaurant that had just opened? There was a silence on the line.
“No”, he finally said. “Anywhere else?”
So we agreed on a non-Chinese venue and noting his irritation I called the General Manager of the Oberoi Grand. Did he realise that VS Naipaul was staying with him and that nobody could get through to his room?
The General Manager said he would check and call me back.
When he did, he was apologetic. They had a pastry chef called Nagpal, he said. So naturally all calls for any name that sounded like Nagpal were being directed to the kitchen.
This was not a terribly satisfactory explanation and I said so. Oh well, he said, who was this Naipaul fellow anyway?
The next day when we met for lunch Naipaul complained again about how badly he was being treated by the Oberoi. I told him that I had spoken to the General Manager. His mood brightened, we had a good meal and he apologised for turning down my offer of a Chinese meal. “Very dirty,” he said. “You know Shanghai used to be the dirtiest city in the world.”
I thought that this generalisation was a little strange (and inaccurate --- and probably racist) but we agreed to meet again, a few days later.
When we did, Naipaul was annoyed about The Oberoi again “You know, some fool, who said he was the General Manager, came to see me to apologise,” he said.
And this was a bad thing?
“Yes. He disturbed me. I was writing and he made me sign copies of my books”.
Ah okay, I said to myself, this is one complicated man.
I kept that in mind as we met several times again including a memorable dinner at my home where Naipaul drank too much and let his hair down.
It turned out that he had strong views on nearly everything. He hated Salman Rushdie, joked about the Satanic Verses fatwa (“an extreme form of literary criticism”) and said he was delighted that Rushdie now had to seek the help of a woman he had called Mrs. Torture. (Margaret Thatcher.)
He did not like black people. He did not even like the term ‘black’, he said. Much better to call them ‘negroes’ ---which, to be fair, was not always regarded as an offensive term in the late 1980s. And on and on he went.
All of it made me uncomfortable and though we kept in touch intermittently for a few years, we never became friends. There were, however, the odd meetings where he would talk about his life in a surprisingly frank fashion.
He liked India, he said. He thought I was lucky to live here. I reminded him of An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilisation. He responded that a) India had changed since he wrote those books and b) he had never felt he belonged here till recently when India had ‘opened up.”
So where did he belong? His native Trinidad?
“Oh, absolutely not,” he answered vehemently. “I could never live there.”
This was followed by a diatribe about Trinidad’s black population. So much for Trinidad being far ahead of India!
What about England?
“Whenever I think of England, I feel a deep melancholy,” he said. ‘A deep melancholy.” (He had a way of repeating phrases.)
And then came what I thought was the most important admission: “People of your generation can go to places like Oxford, come back to India, made a good living, drink good wine and be happy. We never had that opportunity.”
Perhaps I am oversimplifying but after that conversation, I thought I had cracked it. Naipaul did not hate India, he resented it. What he did really hate was his native Trinidad (no matter what he wrote in his earlier pieces). And he never felt quite at home in England either.
He was, essentially, a stateless person who envied Indians for creating a modern country of our own. Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, did he finally make his peace with the Indian part of his identity. And from that point on, he kept coming back to India.
In the aftermath of his death, there has been a stream of social media abuse. Some of it relates to his views on Muslims. I can understand why his influential 1980s book, Among the Believers, can be considered borderline prejudiced by some but --- let’s be honest --- many of his concerns in that book have been validated by later events.
Naipaul said that Islam was increasingly becoming an Arab religion (even though the majority of the world’s Muslims were non-Arab) and that Muslims were being asked to abandon their own cultures and to accept a severe, repressive, fundamentalist kind of Arab Islam.
Three decades later, can anyone seriously argue that Naipaul was wrong?
There is anger, also, over what people saw as his pro-Hindutva learnings. This stems from an ill-advised visit to a Sangh Parivar operation (which he is supposed to have later regretted) and a few loose remarks.
But in all his body of work, there is not one pro-Sangh Parivar article and as for the charge that he was anti-Muslim (one reason why bakhts love him), he married a Pakistani Muslim and never once showed signs of prejudice against individual Muslims.
So yes, he was a racist when it came to black people. Yes, he often wrote about other people’s countries without fully understanding them in a dangerously naïve and arrogant manner. I once had lunch with him and his British-Argentinean girlfriend of the time and she spent much of our lunch telling me (and him) how Naipaul got everything about Argentina wrong when he wrote about the country.
And he got lots wrong about India too. At the beginning of An Area of Darkness, he writes about touts approaching passengers on the ship he had arrived on and asking if they had any cheese. This provokes a bout of contempt for India. The country still hadn’t learnt how to make cheese, he scoffs! It had to be procured on the black market and bought off visiting passengers.
In fact, as Patrick French points out, what the touts were probably asking was whether passengers had any ‘cheez’. In the early 1960s there were strict import controls and liquor, cigarettes, electronics etc. were much in demand.
But Naipaul did not know what ‘cheez’ meant. And he offered up a diatribe about primitive Indians who did not even know how to make cheese, purely out of ignorance.
As most of the obituaries have noted, Naipaul may been a great writer but he was also a deeply flawed human being. Nobody can dispute how brilliantly he wrote. But let’s not forget that though he called himself a novelist, he was far better known for his non-fiction than for his novels.
Will his novels stand the test of time? Does anybody still read say, A House for Mr. Biswas? Will they read it ten years from now?