Iteration of Royals?
`You said that yours had been a solitary struggle. When you began you had few well wishers, and little practical help.' Novelist RANGA RAO writes an open letter to V.S. Naipaul.
V.S. Naipaul at his home near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Letter to Sir Vidiadhar
"YES, yes, yes..." You may be Sir Vidia even Vidia to friends and former friends: you can only be Sir Vidiadhar to your fans in India; and they are, I can assure you, legion.
You are reputed to shun even the telephone: "intensely private, hating proximity and confidences"; your Indian admirers can reach you only through an honourable consul like The Hindu.
Iteration of Royals for Sir Vidiadhar? Not the first time you walk up to a monarch, complete in coattails, top hat in hand or will it be a bandgala? And your readers will be richer by another piece of marvellous English prose.
Certain things, Sir Vidiadhar, we Indians alone can grasp, probably because we have had the benefit of your guidance for the last 40 years. You are a vegetarian and you relish prawns. You claim to hate music and you turn out to be knowledgeable on Calypso. You tell a friend, "I think the novel as we know it is dated"; and "I'd have a lot of trouble writing straight fiction now, because I've done my fiction": and you come out with another novel. (You know better than anyone that such obituaries issue from effete societies.)
You denied being Indian and dedicated the Nobel to Britain and the land of your ancestors, India!
Contradiction, we happen to know, is the law of the creative mind. "You must allow me my contradictions. I contradict myself all the time." That was R. K. Narayan.
"The idea of an address" obsessed you.
"I'm an exile. I have no country to call my own. I am placeless." "I have been a nomad". "You can go home" you tell an American friend. "You have a large, strong country. I have nothing. No home for me."
You noted in The Middle Passage, one of your best-known traveloquies:
"When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bedsitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad... It was a place where the stories were never stories of success but of failure: brilliant men, scholarship winners, who had died young, gone mad, or taken to drink... The threat of failure, the need to escape: this was the prompting of the society I knew."
A pity. You have always been solitary. Like an acacia in the wind-ravaged Serengeti. You have not had the advantage of someone like Narayan who claimed to Ved Mehta: "I have roots in family and religion."
And you have been a Brahmin gypsy.
The consequences you described to a friend: extreme torpor, fatigue, dizzy spells in public places, frayed nerves. When you were just 39 you felt "a very deep fatigue and a great anxiety" about your future. No wonder: literature for you is of the wounded, the damaged. At times, though, it sounds like you are playing the court jester striving for the mot jeste (not simply juste), giving in to epigrammatic proclivity, or the Caribbean mamaguy. "Hate the oppressor, but always fear the oppressed".
Fear of rejection haunted you all the time.
Cruel asthma can be psychosomatic?
This resulted in a limiting perspective. (Your English garden had only green-coloured plants.) "To all relations, every encounter, there's always a time to call them off. And you call them off." You did.
A settler's sense of alienation. Privately, Derek Walcott called you Nightfall. You and Narayan: two Indians: both Brahmins: one with surplus perspective, the other severe.
You said that yours had been a solitary struggle. When you began you had few well wishers, and little practical help. "I have had to do it all out of my own reserves..." Where the Hemingway adventure for me? you lamented; try to understand this and see the effort to make art out of destitution and alienation, you suggested. Sad! No Indian can have an accurate idea of your sense of being "unnecessary and unaccommodated"; for you there is no question of going back to Trinidad because "you cannot beat books out on the drum".
You are a barefoot colonial, you said.
True. But is that something new? A Walcott? A Mulk Raj Anand? Have you heard an Indian novelist say that before him "There were no Indian novelists to speak of." That was R.K.Narayan again.
You wrote A House for Mr. Biswas under great stress.
"Great anxiety. Great poverty. Extraordinarily squalid conditions in London, especially for people like myself. Very hard to get accommodation."
Heard of Mulk Raj Anand's struggle in England in the 1920s? He too had contemplated suicide.
Not just stress: even distress: at the mere mention of A House for Mr. Biswas, you confided to Indian friends, "I am reduced to tears I hide from it really".
Your creative spirit is capable of self-criticism. "I do not have the tenderness more secure people can have towards bush people". How canny!
The best of self-analysis we get from you in A House for Mr. Biswas, your masterpiece by inclusive consensus. This novel is autobiography turned into art, and "every statement modified to a paradox", as Landeg White, the critic, discovered early. A modern epic, with marvellous attentiveness to the smallest details, it is not only the life of a man but also the history of a culture; with a comprehensive setting for a comprehensive history
What stands out in the book is your self-portrait Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul in his formative years in the character of Anand, Mr. Biswas's only son: the broken father "needed his son's interest and anger." Which you give in abundance decades later, after his death. Now the "anger" is as much against yourself; you failed your father: when he needed your support, you were missing. The novel is an act of atonement.
Equally remarkable is your artistic self-distancing. Your celebrated contempt for people and things originates in that menagerie of the Tulsi household in the novel. You observe about Anand:
"His satirical sense kept him aloof... but satire led to contempt and at Short Hills, contempt, quick, deep, inclusive became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable."
That should rank as a memorable self-portrait in modern literature, as accurate and cool as Joyce's.
"When I wrote this book I wore out a pen. The nib was worn down to the gold. It was a little stump. Imagine the labour." It was worth it.
Yet, for you it is in retrospect "very much a South London book." England is suggested in the novel as the alternative anchorage. Not long after the publication of the book you doubted that England was a good place to live in. It was sterile, unlike England in the novel, which has the force of a metaphor: a better place.
"Not so much the contradictions as the limitations," you gently corrected Shyam Benegal, the film-maker in another context. The real problem in this novel concerns control of sympathy. Mrs. Tulsi and the Tulsis end up with as much compassion from the reader as Mr. Biswas.
The signboard of Mr. Maclean, the black "builder" in the novel invites anything but derision from the reader.
"Just over the gutter a badly-written notice board announced that George Maclean was a carpenter and cabinet-maker; this announcement was choked by much subsidiary information scattered all over the board in small and wavering letters; Mr. Maclean was also a blacksmith and a painter; he made tin cups and he soldered; he sold fresh eggs; he had a ram for service; and all his prices were keen."
That piece of lumber is pathetic, a symbol of the after-effects of colonial pillage which leaves the economy in a shambles. We too have experienced it first hand.
The Creoles in the novel do not merit your consideration; they are peripheral or worse.
Mr. Theroux mentions in his book, Sir Vidia's Shadow, the private joke you enjoyed in the novel: "there are three Negro workmen in the book just simple fellows with shovels. Do you remember them? They only have first names, Edgar, Sam, and George."
Each of them is the first name of a West-Indian novelist.
It is like an Indian novelist ridiculing our dalits.
The famous image in the van Gogh painting, "Potato Eaters," said everything about the Dutch culture, you observed to a friend: "ugly, moronic, famished peasants in a greasy kitchen, crouched over a basin of spuds and cramming them into their mouths." This too is an astonishing misinterpretation the class angle overlooked, as is the artist's compassion. Are criticism and feeling two poles for Sir Vidiadhar?
Yet, Sir Vidiadhar, your early struggle has given you a great theme: Art vs. Mimicry; you are at your best as an adversarial author in your literature of complaint.
You "took a harmless pleasure in seeing people wince." You are used to such reproaches. You said, "I think unless one hears a little squeal of pain after one's done some writing, one has not really done much." You are writer as leech, in the medieval sense; but are not all the squeals from the same dark corner? Proletarian censure clashes with upper class acclaim! We recall that master of the genre: Jonathan Swift; he preferred, please remember, "the middle flight." Paul Theroux cites you: True satire grows out of the largest vision.
Perhaps the fault lies in the vantage; London is not the proper eyrie for a Third World writer to work from; for your younger brother, Shiva, it is the "Turd World". If, as you suggest in India: A Wounded Civilization, aiming at "first publication in London" impairs an Indian writer's work, writing from London or New York deprives a non-Western writer of wholeness. Your masterpiece is indeed "very much a South London book."
The early trauma of "Anand Biswas", it seems, has left its scars.
Fear of rejection has given you superiority. "I'm not everyone".
"I don't like mobs at all."
"I'm brutal, you know". You are "bluntly present or silently absent," as your writer friend Paul Theroux puts it. Your former editor of long decades at Andre Deutsch, Diana Athill breathes in relief: "At least I'm not married to Vidia." When you take your manuscript away and move to another publisher, her feeling is the same. "For at least two weeks I seethed... and then, in the third week, it suddenly occurred to me that never again would I have to listen to Vidia telling me how damaged he was and it was as though the sun came out."
It has made you on occasion self-solemn. You never spoke about your work "except in tones of utmost solemnity". You never give a second chance to anyone.
Consider R. K. Narayan's humour, which doesn't spare its author. He is a product of a more stable environment. "If I had to live again, I would want nothing different. Nothing really has gone wrong with me. I am deeply interested in life as a writer. That is perhaps why I have not gone mad."
Not unassailability, but despairing vulnerability seems to make you a creative writer.
There is so much we admire in you.
You can be disarming. "But I don't think it matters what I think (and I don't know what I think)."
You have much to offer the aspirant in the Third World. Immense intellectual appetite supported by uncommon candour: "Tell the truth"; "a good writer is dauntless": Adil Jussawala calls you "the interlocutor of piercing intelligence"; punctiliousness ("If you make a rule, keep to it"), applied at its best in your prose: "extraordinary precision without having to expand your vocabulary too much," comments Shyam Benegal acutely. Your literary mission has been nothing short of a Quest for the Holy Grail. Your message to the neophyte in the field: you're on your own. Any freelancer, you say, needs the confidence to believe that in spite of occasional setbacks, everything is going to be fine in the end. "This faith your friends cannot give you: it is something you have to discover in yourself..." For "the only consolation of the writing profession is that it is fair".... A worthy book makes its own way and a gifted author never fails to be rewarded. "And, sometimes, miracles happened."
Though you can act like a kick-boxer or a hieratic writer, you can be so gentle and sensitive. "In this profession," you wonder, "is satisfaction ever attained?"
Perhaps nothing more sage has been uttered in post-colonial literary history. You are no doubt the writer's writer.
"I want to be immensely famous!" You are. "I will get my million." You now have got two. Here is an ancillary wish list for you: everyday happiness, of small talk, and of matrimony. Live life a now-thing. Do keep away from solemn occasions, such as literary festivals and interviews, to avoid those Macaulay-like annotations.
Everything you have written might not have been worth writing; anything you write is worth reading.
"Yes, yes, yes, yes..."
p.s. the average length of the words in the note above, you will kindly observe, is just not four letters.
Ranga Rao's third novel, A River is Three-Quarters Full (Penguin India), was released in September.
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