Vidyadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, famous by his initials VS, was one of the most accomplished writers in the Indian diaspora. Today on his birth anniversary, let us try to understand why his writing resonates with the ethos of the new India.
He embarked on a vision of India with the eternity of civilization and the tiredness of a long, arduous journey. The journey was full of ignominy and violent struggle for mere existence. That India has come out of it alive but with huge wounds and a general sluggish attitude towards life is pretty evident in his works.
In one of his letters later published, he expresses his surprise at the continued existence of India since eternity in a similar form.
“The destiny of India was to pass off as another Christian or a Muslim Nation… how did [it] manage to pull it off?”
Public intellectuals such as Galbraith, Naipaul, and Octavio Paz gave poetic legitimacy to the spirit of a Nation at whose rampart the sun of freedom had finally risen.
Naipaul was known for his vast and beautiful digressions which added up to his main subject in a lucid way and made him more flamboyant.
The best illustration of that would be his now much-famed trilogy on free India. His trilogy starts with his travelogue in free India during the sixties, “An Area of Darkness”. His second journey to India during the emergency gave him one of his most famous books, “India: The Wounded Civilization”. He wrote the final part, “India: A Million Mutinies”, in the context of these two books. His understanding of India was the commingling of his visualization of India and what it had actually become.
The protagonist of his first novel ‘ The mystic masseur’, Ganesh Ramsumair goes on a trajectory of a career spanning a number of odd jobs throughout the diaspora society in Trinidad. His last job is that of a politician, albeit one of the most loved ones in the nation. the spirit of his character, however, remains constant. The spirit of a detached yogi in an illusory world, where he exists solely to fulfill his karma- and leave.
This was a love affair that Naipaul had with this nation which often took barbed turns too. At the height of emergency in Sonia Gandhi’s India, he visited India and lamented the loss of agency of common people in the nation to determine morality for themselves.
He received a lot of flak for not toeing the line of contemporary politics in India, and the State made sure that his works remain out of reach for the common Indians for most of his writing career.
It was only when he was awarded the Nobel prize in 2001, that he finally captured the imagination of the newly rising middle class in India. The BJP government too, for its appreciation of the ‘Hindu’ stand taken by him, was disappointed with his inconsistency when it came to taking the ‘right’ political lines.
Moreover, this was a hallmark of a writer who refused to bend in front of the Western pervasive hegemony while simultaneously not being dogmatic about the aversion. The synthesis of the Indian ethos and his western upbringing introduced a magical realism in his other works such as his vast collection of travelogues.
One may confuse him to be a writer who travels, but he described himself as a traveler who is also fond of writing. The subplot of some of his iconic characters such as Mr. Biswas; among others is thus, different reflections of his own tryst with different cultures.
For most of his post-colonial tilt of literary expression, Naipaul showed a remarkable semblance of composure when it came to ‘talking back’ to imperialism. Another famed post-colonialist Gayatri Spivak’s iconic work ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ feels as if an academic iteration of what Naipaul practiced in his literature, after being read in conjunction with his works.
His works on India were an ode of a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to the holy land which his ancestors left almost a century before his birth.
The fleeting glimpse of ancient glory amid the impending chaos all over contemporary India was the literary signature of Naipaul in his works.