V S Naipaul: The man the world loved to hate

Last Updated: Tue, Aug 14, 2018 15:19 hrs
V.S. Naipaul dead, admirers say legacy will live on

It has never been politically correct to like V S Naipaul. You could get away with loving his language as long as you hated what he used it to write.

His opinions on India, of Islam, on writing, on censorship, on caste, and so much else have made him enemies in both the literary and the flag-bearing-liberal worlds, which have unfortunately begun to coincide in the last few decades.

Writers have gone on public rants against him, had feuds with him, and traded barbs through the press.

It seems undisputed among those who knew him that it was hard to get along with him, that his mastery of words was often used to make acerbic remarks to which few could think of comebacks, that he was convinced of his superiority over all others, and that all these made him believe he was entitled to special treatment, down to expecting that his bills would be covered by someone else.

Yet, there are few people who illustrate a writer’s purpose better than Naipaul does.

His works reflect the unflinching honesty with which he saw the world. His willingness to allow his diaries and letters to be used for Patrick French’s authorised biography is indicative of the honesty he was willing to share with the world.

To read Naipaul is to understand what a writer must do to affect his audience – he must uncover truths about a place and its people through his nonfiction; he must connect to the lives of multitudes through his fiction. And he must always, always tell the truth, even when he is lying.

The truths in An Area of Darkness are among those that made Naipaul such a hated figure in India.

The insistence of Naipaul on choosing authenticity over diplomacy is the characteristic that regularly kept him entangled in controversy.

India had a difficult relationship with him, as he did with India.

His family had not been Indian for at least two generations, but he seemed to find a homeland in India, making repeated visits to the country, using its language in speech, searching for the land his ancestors left behind and kept alive through food and music and speech and religion.

India wanted to claim him as a son of the soil, particularly after he had won the Nobel Prize. But how could a man who had never touched the soil until he came to write about it, and found so much to dislike in that soil when he eventually made contact with it, be a son?

My first encounter with V S Naipaul occurred through the accidental discovery of A House for Mr Biswas in the bookshelf of my ancestral home. I was fourteen at the time, too young to know the pain of unfulfilled ambition, but old enough to marvel at the talent of a man whose work could be so funny and so sad at the very same time.

His novel The Suffrage of Elvira became such a favourite that I named my first girl, a feisty little puppy, Elvira. She looks askance at most people and things, is picky about meals and beds, and makes up her mind about nearly everything at first sniff. Little wonder, perhaps, given the nature of the person in whose honour she is named.

I would often mull over the sentence that brought up the tail end of Naipaul’s author bio until he won the Nobel Prize: “Naipaul wrote his first novel at the age of 23 and has never had any other career.” Or was it “has never held any other job?” In my head, the two were synonymous.

It spoke of such confidence in his writing, in the certainty of success, that he never felt compelled to do anything else even when he was in desperate need of money. How did he manage, then? Was he so sure of his genius and the duty of others to support it that he had no qualms about asking his parents to fund his life in England, or asking friends and lovers to buy him essentials and luxuries in equal measure?

I would later learn that he had indeed had other jobs, if not careers. He had worked boring jobs in government offices in Trinidad; he had worked for radio in England. But he had never wanted to acknowledge those as prospective career paths. He was embarrassed that he was as old as 23 when he was published. He was angry that writing was not as lucrative a career as others which required less effort and less talent.

He was constantly wracked by guilt over his treatment of the people who loved him, and who perhaps did not know how much he loved them – his father, his brother Shiva (a brilliant writer himself who looked up to his elder brother and strove unsuccessfully for his approval all his life), his wife Patricia.

He was constantly frustrated by his inability to finish the projects he had started. His notes detail all that he could do with the material he has collected and observed, the ways in which they could take shape and form, the genres to which he could lend themselves. He converted several of his notes into books which straddled fiction and nonfiction, conviction and dilemma, and The Enigma of Arrival may be among the most exquisite examples of these.

More than anything else, he was a writer’s writer. In reading various accounts of his life and habits over the years, I was most touched by Patrick French’s description of how paranoid Naipaul was about losing his work. He would save his writing in hard copy and soft, with backups of each in paper and on digital devices.

He fretted over his work all the time – was it good enough to bear his name? Was he good enough to meet the standards he had set? Was the world intelligent enough to understand how good he was?

How can a writer not love another who was insecure about himself and his writing even after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?

On August 11, the world lost not only a great writer, but a chronicler of truths, a chaser of dreams, an icon whose career was crafted by his vulnerability.


More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

The legacy of Karunanidhi

"Rapistan": There are no safe places

The "most dangerous country" poll should not make us defensive

The illusion of secularism

When hooliganism is state-sanctioned

Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury

Karnataka: Death of democracy

India shining as ecosystems die?

Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless

When death does not deter

Power play at a time of crisis

A country in denial

The gods have left the temples

What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show

Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private

No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?

Do we really have the right to die with dignity?

Democracy has no place for mobs

The Sridevi South India lost 


Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

More from Sify: