VS Naipaul: realist or imperial apologist?

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Aug 19,2018

Art and Culture

Nahid Riyasad writes on the death of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul.

Naipaul graduated from Oxford in 1953 and his father passed away the same year. Back then, the young prodigy did not have just the right amount of confidence and clarity to find his ground as a writer- what he wanted to be, what his father also wanted to be and what his father wanted him to be. In the next year, during his masters studies, he accused his supervisor of racism and quit Oxford, putting an end to his formal education.      

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932, in Trinidad. His grandparents came from India to Trinidad as indenture labours, to work in the plantation, back in 1880s. His father, Seepersad Naipaul was married to Droapatie Capildeo, member of an influential family and always wanted to be a writer. A journalist by trade, the senior Naipaul only managed to publish a book consisting of travel stories. But his son will grow into one of the finest prose writers in English language of the last century.  

In his five-decade long literary career, Naipaul has published some thirty books, both fiction and non-fiction. He has extensively travelled through South America, Africa and India-many of his books are stories of his travel. He published A House for Mr Biswas in 1961, from England, which is regarded one of his finest works by critiques. The story line is influenced by his father’s life and the book eventually becomes one of the most celebrated novels written in English in recent times. This book, to some, propagate European idea of individualism, creation of own identity around a property-- dehumanising the very essence of life. 

Naipaul’s identity and life experience has made his a classic example of a transnational- a person who ventures among multiple nationalities. His family background, being an Indo-Nepalese born in Trinidad, taught in Oxford, extensively travelled through continents and living more than two decades in England—all add up to his global or transnational identity. Moreover, he was a writer of English language, nonetheless, he had written about different cultures of Afrtica, India and South America, of different time, on the context of his transnational identity— giving his readers a broader perspective developed by his background and travel.

‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it’—this is how he started his critically acclaimed 1979 masterpiece A Bend in the River, published from New York. This sentence, in one hand, embodies the very essence of empire-that is only the prosperous will get a front seat and on the other, this is a harsh criticism of entire European civilization. This sentence makes the first paragraph of the book, giving us the reminder that without economic prosper, the existing system recognises no one. Moreover, the system we are living in, triggered by the imperial endeavour of ambitious Europeans, is nothing but a system of repression and squishing the last drop of profit off people.

Naipaul’s description of India, his ancestral land, as experienced through his first travel in 1960s was of disillusionment and disenchantment. An Area of Darkness, published in 1964 from England, was the first of his India trilogy, portrays India under such grim light that the book was immediately banned in India. This brings out the big question-was Naipaul a colonial or imperial apologist? Had he adapted the voice of the white Europeans and looked down on the people of ‘colour’, at he himself was, and their culture?

The fictional works of Naipaul, are apparently, tales of the aftermath of empire-how it had controlled, manipulated and forcefully defined lives of millions. Philosophical ideas in his works are dominated by two major sections: his seeking of identity in a nihilist world which is created by European imperialism and how that searching has been jumbled us by the triumphant empire. The both factors mixed up creating Naipaulic narration—an extremely pessimist and nihilist way to look on the debris of empire, littered across the paths of post-colonial time. ‘It isn't that there's no right and wrong here. There's no right’—this is how he saw empire, am empty vessel full of blank rhetoric.

Naipaul’s Walter B. Wriston lecture at the Manhattan Institute in 1990, popularly known as ‘Our Universal Civilization’ gained him fare share of criticism and for that, many considered him as colonial-apologist. In this lecture, he demonstrates that at this point of time, for the last five hundred years, our world is dominated by a single culture-European white-supremacy based culture. European idea of individualism, achievements, self-actualisation, life of intellect and pursuit of happiness within a certain spectrum—these cannot be comprehended by a person living outside the empire. Nonetheless, the empire has managed to drive the entire population of the world towards goals specified from a European point of view. In fact, Naipaul deconstructs the traditional view of imperialism through irony and pessimism, ‘It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unravelling...’ he said in his Magic Seeds.

The man accused of bearing the voice of colonial imperialism and racism died on August 11, 2018, merely a week before his 86th birthday. In my reading, I have found him a sufferer of existential crisis, which was a common way of thinking among many European writers and philosophers in the post-colonial world of 60s and 70s. His nihilistic portrayal of the word as well as the victims of empire is devoid of apathy and full of disdain. Arguably, he was one of the finest novelists of the post-colonial era who can offer a rather ironic, pessimistic and non-traditional read of colonial empire and how it ruptured and devoured time, culture and history from collective psyches of multitude of people.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.


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