Celebrated for his extensive commentary on both, colonisers and colonised, in fiction and non-fiction, V S Naipaul walked the controversy tightrope, admired for his prose but scorned by those who perceived him as an apologist for imperial powers.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, or Sir Vidia, as he was sometimes known died at his London home at the age of 85 today, leaving behind a legacy of lucid prose and unapologetic narratives strewn across dozens of works that earned him both applause and brickbats, say experts.
Looking back at the Nobel Laureate’s elaborate literary career of over five decades, Patrick French, the author of his biography “The World is What It Is”, remembered him as a “very funny and witty” person who was “always conscious of his Indian family background”.
Born to an Indian family in Trinidad, Naipaul’s portraits of Africa, India, West Indies and the Islamic faith brought him hostility for his views.
“In his books, he tried to describe the best and the worst of India as it changed between the 1960s and the 1990s. His conclusions were insightful, even when they were harsh,” French told PTI.
After his first three comedic novels, he explored the questions of identity and belonging to a family, a place in “A House of Mr Biswas”, which was inspired by his father’s life.
While the book won him accolades in the literary world, the novel “destroyed some memories”, according to the biography.
Naipaul’s prose were strung around the themes of loss, identity, oppression and exile, said author Chanchal Sanyal, describing him as an “unapologetic author” who was not writing to please an audience.
“Naipaul, not only in his writings but also in whatever he said, was completely unapologetic. For example, his views on Islam, on colonisation, immigration, or even his writings about his visits to prostitutes, he was his own man. We all are pleasing an audience, he was courageous and unapologetic,” he said.
Sanyal’s “The Glass House” can be compared to “A House for Mr Biswas”, both following the theme of a man aspiring to own a home.
“Honestly, I have read a lot of Naipaul, but I don’t think anything moved me as much as House for Mr Biswas. But I did read with great interest his writings on America’s deep south. In some of his short stories in his early writings, there was a certain style they were not completely finished and you could make out the writer was a bit raw, but you certainly felt he showed promise,” he added.
Naipaul’s views against the commonplace perception towards colonised countries and their people were not the only thing controversial about the famed author.
In an interview in 2011, Naipaul raised eyebrows when he said he did not consider any female author to be his equal. And then there were also reports of him physically abusing his mistress Margaret Gooding.
Looking at him as a “flawed genius”, international publishing consultant Jaya Bhattacharji Rose said Naipaul will nonetheless be “remembered as a giant among writers”.
“V S Naipaul was a titan of 20th century English literature, who made visible a landscape beyond the canon that held sway when he began writing. His life experiences frequently appeared as thinly disguised vignettes in his writing, and his references to Trinidad added diversity and depth to his oeuvre,” Rose said.
His 1971 book, “In a Free State”, won him the Man Booker prize. In “An Area of Darkness”, “India: A Wounded Civilization”, and “India: A Million Mutinies Now”, Naipaul commented extensively on subjects varying from politics to religion, from business to films in the country.
According to Saugata Bhaduri, professor at School of Language Literature and Culture Studies, JNU, his critics loved him too despite the general perception of his writing as a “problematic rightist kind of politics”.
“He has been somewhat of a trigger in making Indian writing in English become so global, and all Indian writers in English, in spite of him not being an Indian technically, looked up to him.
“His writing style, general mode of characterisation was so good and it often has been perceived as problematic rightist kind of politics. So he transcended it, and his greatness is mocked by that. His art is so good, his craft is so good that even his harshest critique would read him with lot of love and passion,” Bhaduri said.