Naipaul: The Writer and His World

He will be 79 years old on August 17. His best known book was published 50 years ago. When he won the Nobel Prize seven years ago, he said it came too late in his life to make any difference. Is Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul still relevant to young readers today?

Yes, if we have dreams and want to move on; yes, if we want to see the world and understand how it is changing with globalization. Naipaul writes about aspirations and restlessness, immigration and seeking a new life in a foreign land. He describes how individuals and families cope with that experience.

It is his own story. “I am the sum of my books,” he declared in his famous speech when he won the Nobel Prize in 2001. Naipaul is an autobiographical writer. He found his voice and material by chance. He was 22 years old, an Oxford graduate working freelance for the BBC when one day while he was pecking away at the typewriter, the words suddenly came to him unbidden. He recalled the experience vividly in his essay, Prologue to an Autobiography, in 1984:

“It is now nearly 30 years since, in a BBC room in London on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth “non-rustle” BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book…

“It was … late one afternoon, without having any idea where I was going, and not perhaps intending to type to the end of the page, I wrote: Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’

“That was a Port of Spain memory…

“Hat was our neighbour on the street. He was a Port of Spain Indian.”

And Bogart was a distant relative who lived with the Naipauls for some time in Port of Spain before moving on to Venezuela.

The story, called Bogart, appeared in Miguel Street, a collection of short stories about life in a neighbourhood of Port of Spain. It was one of Naipaul’s funniest books, published in 1959, two years after his first book, The Mystic Masseur (1957), the equally funny story of an Indian conman in Trinidad who starts life as a masseur and ends up as a politician honoured by the British government for his defence of colonial rule, and one year after The Suffrage of Elvira (1959), another entertaining story about politics and Indians in Trinidad.

Naipaul was writing about the life he knew. In his Nobel Lecture, he affirmed this relationship between a writer’s life and his works. It was impossible for him to write about anything else. As he confessed in another essay, Reading and Writing, in 1998:

“I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition…

“With me, though the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham. I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with no margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters: there was no one to write them to. I wasn’t especially good at English composition at school; I didn’t make and tell stories at home. And though I liked new books as physical objects, I wasn’t much of a reader.”

Yet, at the age of 18, in 1950, he was at University College, Oxford, reading English on a Trinidad government scholarship. How did he do it? “I won my scholarship – after a labour that still hurts to think about,” he recalled in Reading and Writing. “I didn’t do this for the sake of Oxford and the English course; I knew little enough about either. I did it mainly to get away to the bigger world and give myself time to live up to my fantasy and become a writer.”

And this ambition did not grow in isolation. He confessed in Prologue to an Autobiography: “The ambition to be a writer was given me by my father. He was a journalist for much of his working life.”

Naipaul revealed in this long essay what an enormous debt he owed to his father: A House for for Mr Biswas (1961), his finest novel, was based entirely on his father’s life. The protagonist, Mohun Biswas, a poor sign painter who becomes a journalist and eventually buys a house of his own after years of living unhappily with his rich in-laws, mirrors the struggle of Naipaul’s father: he had the same uneasy relationship with his wealthy in-laws. Naipaul portrays himself too in the novel as Mr Biswas’ studious son, Anand, and his elder sister, Kamla, as the daughter, Savi.

Mr Biswas’ struggle to become a writer reflects Naipaul’s father’s own ambition. Seepersad Naipaul wanted to be a writer too. So intense was his ambition it became a matter of life and death. When he fell seriously ill in 1953, Kamla – who was then studying at Benares Hindu University on an Indian government scholarship – wrote to Naipaul at Oxford: “According to Ma and (younger sister) Sati, Pa’s greatest worry is that he cannot get his stories published. Sati wrote saying that he sent you one but you have done nothing about it so far. Now something immediate regarding the publication of his stories means life or death and consequently life or death for us, especially those poor little children at home. Now, will you, in the name of Pa’s life, see immediately to his short stories and write him a nice, cheering letter.”

Between Father and Son: Family Letters (1999), a selection of letters Naipaul exchanged with his family, shows how father and son encouraged each other to write. In one letter, in 1952, Naipaul told his father: “You know that I can’t write as well as you. You manage a type of humour I cannot manage. Your view of life is surprisingly good-humoured.”

After recovering from his illness, Seepersad Naipaul mailed his son the manuscript of The Adventures of Gurudeva. But the book was published only in 1976, long after his death in 1953.

Naipaul could not return home for his father’s last rites, which were performed by his younger brother, Shiva, who became a writer too. Devastated, Naipaul wrote to his mother: “It hardly seems necessary for me to tell you how lonely and unprotected I feel. Everything I did and did well, as I thought – always prompted the thought, ‘Pa would like to hear this.’ He didn’t know, for instance, that my translations in the (final) examination were the best in the year. In a way I had always looked on my life as a continuation of his – a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfilment.”

Later, he confessed why he did not return home after graduating from Oxford in 1954 when his family needed him most. “Our family was in distress. I should have done something for them, gone back to them. But, without having become a writer, I couldn’t go back,” he confessed in Prologue to an Autobiography. And the inspiration came. “In my eleventh month in London I wrote about Bogart. I wrote my book; I wrote another. I began to go back.”

He did not “go back” physically but began to write about the life he had left behind in Trinidad. A House for Mr Biswas replays his father’s life to the very end. Mr Biswas dies like his father after being discharged from hospital. Like Mr Biswas, Seepersad Naipaul too was nursed by his eldest daughter, Kamla, who returned home from India.

The family letters show how close the Naipauls were. Naipaul wrote not only to his parents and Kamla but also to his younger sisters, Mira and Sati, and to Shiva, who was more than 10 years younger than him. He was in Oxford when his sister, Nalini, was born in 1952. Kamla told him about the impending birth in July 1952: “This will pain you: but your Ma will have another baby – in September or October… I know it’s a mess, but there we are.”

Naipaul wrote to his mother a month later:

“My dear Ma,

“I have heard the news from Kamla about ten days ago, and I was rather surprised. But I have got over my surprise and I am writing to you to tell you that I think it makes little difference, except perhaps for you. I hope the girls are helping you. Please write me if they are not and I shall write them – if my advice counts for anything.”

By then his parents already knew he would never return home. During his summer holidays in 1952, they received a letter addressed to him, forwarded by his college on the mistaken assumption he was spending the holidays with them. They opened the letter and saw it was from a young Englishwoman. They wrote to him teasingly asking about her. He replied: “I would have written before, but I had no idea things would develop as they have. I have had girl-friends before who have rejected me. In none I found the qualities I found the qualities in Pat – her simplicity, her goodness, her charm.”

His father responded by asking him to think it over before committing himself: mixed marriages were seldom successful, people did not accept them in Trinidad.

Naipaul replied: “I don’t want to break your heart, but I hope never to come back to Trinidad, not to live, that is, though I certainly want to see you and everybody else as often as I can. But Trinidad, as you know, has nothing to offer me.”

He married Pat – Patricia Hale – three years later, in 1955. She died of cancer in 1996. He then married Nadira, a Pakistani former journalist.

Naipaul found success as a writer just three years after graduating from Oxford. His first book, The Mystic Masseur, was published in 1957 to glowing reviews. Elated, he dashed off a letter to his mother quoting the entire review published in the Daily Telegraph. It praised him as “a young writer who contrives to blend Oxford wit with home-grown rumbustiousness”.

The two years he spent writing his fourth book, A House for Mr Biswas, which appeared in 1961, were the happiest years of his life, he later wrote.

“But when it was over I felt I had done all that I could do with my island material. No matter how much I meditated on it, no further fiction would come,” he said in his Nobel Lecture.

“Accident, then, rescued me. I became a traveller. I travelled in the Caribbean region and understood much more about the colonial set-up of which I had been part. I went to India, my ancestral land, for a year; it was a journey that broke my life in two. The books that I wrote about these two journeys took me to new realms of emotion, gave me a world-view I had never had, extended me technically.”

He became a globetrotter, exploring the post-colonial world. The “accident” that “rescued” him was a Trinidad government grant in 1961 to travel and write about the Caribbean. It resulted in his first non-fiction book, Middle Passage, published in 1962. An Area of Darkness, about India, came next, in 1964. More were to follow: India, A Wounded Civilization (1977), Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), A Turn in the South (1989), about the southern United States, A Million Mutinies Now (1990), also about India. He was documenting change, or the lack of it, in downtrodden societies: African Americans were the focus of A Turn in the South, the Dalits or Untouchables in A Million Mutinies Now.

His travels enriched his fiction too. His African sojourn led to A Bend in the River (1979) and provided much of the material for In a Free State (1971), which won the Booker Prize, and Half a Life, which is also partly set in India (2001). Like his travelogues, his fiction too is written from the point of view of the outsider who finds himself in an alien society: hence his relevance in this age of globalization and mass migration.

The mood is often bleak and sombre. The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is the rare exception where the protagonist, a Trinidad Indian like Naipaul himself, settles down as a writer in England and finds peace in his new life. More often than not, the protagonist feels displaced like the Indian servant who accompanies his master to Washington in One Out of Many, one of the short stories in In a Free State. Some are even forced to leave their new homes like Salim in A Bend in the River and Willie Chandran in Half a Life: both of them flee from violence in Africa. Even before the violence, Willie is bored with life in Africa; that is another theme explored by Naipaul: ennui, the modern malaise.

With stories and themes like that, Naipaul hardly seems an inviting writer. But that would be missing the entertainment he has to offer in The Mystic Masseur and Miguel Street, the heartwarming humanity of A House for Mr Biswas, the cinematic tension of his African stories and some of the sharpest observations on the state of the world by one of the most perceptive writers in business.

Naipaul is criticized as a brown sahib and a Hindu revivalist among other things. But he can be remarkably astute. He appreciated the genius of Nirad C Chaudhuri and wrote knowledgeably about the Bengali culture which produced Renaissance men like him and Satyajit Ray. Though he was criticized for Among the Believers, he was prescient in his admiration for Anwar Ibrahim, then a young Malaysian Islamic leader who later became the country’s deputy prime minister and is now a charismatic opposition leader.

And for Indians he has a special relevance. When he won the Nobel Prize, he said: “It is a great tribute to England, my home, and India, the land of my ancestors…” His Indian heritage is prominent in his works. A Brahmin, he has written frequently about his distaste for meat. Temples, priests and pundits feature regularly – his father briefly trained as a pundit before becoming a journalist. Mr Biswas also trains as a pundit and Ganesh Ramsumair the “mystic masseur” turned politician attracted devotees as a pundit. Willie Chandran comes from a family of priests and his father’s ashram is described in Half a Life and Magic Seeds. The sacred thread ceremony features in A House for Mr Biswas and The Mystic Masseur. The Brahminical – and now Indian middle-class – preoccupation with learning and education runs through Naipaul’s works, from The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas to his most recent works, Half a Life and Magic Seeds. Another recurrent theme is the departure for foreign lands. Naipaul describes the traditional family farewell for Indians journeying abroad in A House for Mr Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival.

We will conclude with a look at Magic Seeds (2004), Naipaul’s latest novel. It is a sequel to Half a Life. Terse and dry, they do not have the warmth of Naipaul’s early works. Here is an older Naipaul whose emotions have been drained by loss and suffering. He has lost his parents, his first wife, his younger brother and experienced other tragedies. In the final chapter of The Enigma of Arrival, he wrote about the death of his younger sister, Sati. And typically he described the pundit who officiated and happened to be his cousin, the son of his father’s brother. This description of ritual, ceremony and family relationships shows his Indian heritage.

Magic Seeds is the most Indian of his novels, with most of the action taking place in India. Willie, after leaving Africa, stays with his sister, Sarojini, in Germany, but he cannot stay there permanently, and Sarojini, a rebel, encourages him to join her friends in India. Improbably Willie ends up joining armed insurgents and is captured and jailed. His sister comes to his rescue and gets him released on the grounds that he is a writer and will leave the country and return to Britain. Willie had been to college in Britain and published a collection of short stories there, where he still has friends. The novel ends with Willie among friends in England.

What gives the novel its edge is the poverty and suffering it depicts. Naipaul shows the emaciated, helpless Indian villagers and has little sympathy for the insurgents, whom he sees as interlopers. He vividly describes the devastation of Vijaynagar, the last great Hindu kingdom in the south. He also portrays the tension between upper castes and lower castes, Hindus and Christians, as he traces Willie’s family history. He describes how Willie’s father, a Brahmin,  married a low-caste fellow student and was never happy. Estranged from his wife and children, who attended a school run by Christian missionaries, he set up his own ashram, attracting visitors from far and wide. It was one such visitor who helped Willie go to college in England.

Willie finds some kind of peace when he returns to England. The story ends with an interracial wedding ceremony Willie attends with a friend. The bride is white, the bridegroom of mixed race, with a West Indian African father and an English mother. The African music gives Willie a headache. He spends a restless night thinking what to write to his sister who is caught in an interracial relationship, too, with a German documentary maker. This is how the story ends:

“All night it seemed to him as well that he had found something good to write to Sarojini about. This thing eluded him. He looked for it, through all the slave music, and in the morning all he was left with was: ‘It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling. But I can’t write to Sarojini about that.’ ”

Is that all Naipaul has to say: “It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world”? But notice the last words: “But I can’t write to Sarojini about that.” Willie may have become blasé after his experience with the insurgents. But he cannot bring himself to mock the idealism of others. That is the voice of Naipaul: knowing and ambivalent. He has travelled widely and seen too much to give the world as it is today more than a mixed report card.

Bibliography for this article:

The essays quoted here are from the book, Literary Occasions, edited by Pankaj Mishra, published by Vintage Books in 2004. It also includes the Nobel Lecture titled Two Worlds.

The letters are from Between Father and Son: Family Letters, edited by Gillon Aitken, published by Alfred A Knopf in 2000

A Complete Naipaul Bibliography  (this is not for the article; this list is from Wikipedia)

Fiction

The Mystic Masseur – (1957) (film version: The Mystic Masseur (2001))
The Suffrage of Elvira – (1958)
Miguel Street – (1959)
A House for Mr Biswas – (1961)
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion – (1963)
A Flag on the Island – (1967)
The Mimic Men – (1967)
In a Free State – (1971)
Guerrillas – (1975)
A Bend in the River – (1979)
Finding the Centre – (1984)
The Enigma of Arrival – (1987)
A Way in the World – (1994)
Half a Life – (2001)
Magic Seeds – (2004)

Non-fiction

The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America (1962)
An Area of Darkness (1964)
The Loss of El Dorado – (1969)
The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles (1972)
India: A Wounded Civilization (1977)
A Congo Diary (1980)
The Return of Eva Perón and the Killings in Trinidad (1980)
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981)
Finding the Centre (1984)
Reading & Writing: A Personal Account (2000)
A Turn in the South (1989)
India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)
Homeless by Choice (1992, with R. Jhabvala and S. Rushdie)
Bombay (1994, with Raghubir Singh)
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998)
Between Father and Son: Family Letters (1999, edited by Gillon Aitken)
The Writer and the World: Essays – (2002)
Literary Occasions: Essays (2003, by Pankaj Mishra)
A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling (2007)

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