In Memorium : V. S. Naipaul

Gautam K Bordoloi

Attempting to write a full-fledged biography of V. S.Naipaul, the celebrated author who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, would certainly be fraught with many difficulties. For one thing, Naipaul’s oeuvre as a writer is too big and varied, but the more daunting task for a chronicler of his life is to delineate authentically his many controversial viewpoints on socio-politically sensitive issues and his personal idiosyncrasies. Having said that one must acknowledge the fact that another prominent writer of our time, Patrick French, however, has done credible justice to the subject—the life and works of V. S. Naipaul—in the authorized biography entitled “The World Is What It Is”. The title was aptly drawn from one of Naipaul’s highly-rated books ‘A Bend in the River’.
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, commonly known as V. S. Naipaul, was born on 17 August 1932 at Chaguanas, Caroni County, in what is now known as the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. His forebears were immigrated bonded labourers brought by the British from the eastern part of India in the late 19th century, to be engaged in sugarcane plantations. Second of the seven children, Vidiadhar’s father was Seepersad Naipaul and mother was Droapati Capildeo. For Vidiadhar the childhood was pretty colourless in the stale colonial set-up. There was nothing much exciting to look forward to in Trinidad of his childhood. Besides, the death of his father in his prime, who was a struggling journalist with the Trinidad Guardian—a newspaper, and an aspiring writer, made matters worse for Vidia. Luckily enough he was then(1950) pursuing his higher study in English Literature in the University College, Oxford on a much coveted Trinidadian government’s scholarship. By then Vidia convinced himself that he would dedicate his life to be a full-time writer drawing inspiration from his father’s life and would never return to Trinidad to settle down there permanently. In the book we find vivid description of Vidia’s economic hardships coupled with intermittent “nervous breakdown” in the initial period of his writing career that truly began in England amid an acute sense of rootlessness born out of a colonial hybrid culture of his childhood. His only solace was the warm companionship provided by Pat —the British girl Patricia Ann Hale, a fellow student in Oxford, whom he married when both were 22 years of age and remained wedded for 41 years till she died in 1996 due to cancer. Although Pat was his legal wife till her death constantly providing all the moral support he needed badly in pursuing the tough career of an itinerant writer-journalist, simultaneously Vidia kept Margaret Gooding, an Argentinian married woman for long 23 years since 1972 as his mistress to pump in all the carnal pleasures the marriage failed to give him, through their many trips together across a good many countries. This triangular relationship eventually compounded the problems of both the women involved. Besides, it exposed Vidia’s inconsistencies as a husband despite having a faithful and caring wife and also a misogynistic streak in his character through his periodic violent behaviour towards his mistress. Well, apparently without any compunction V.S.Naipaul deserted Margaret right after Patricia’s death and instead, got into the wedlock again with Nadira Khannum Alvi, a Pakistani journalist more than 20 years junior to him, and they spent the last years together till his death on 11 August 2018.
V.S. Naipaul‘s relationship with his mother and all the siblings, especially after his emigration to England, had been practically tenuous in the physical sense. It was apparently a kind of epistolary link for most part of his life. As exceptions, his elder sister Kamla always played an advisory role to Vidiadhar and the untimely death of his only brother Shiva Naipaul, another promising writer who made a place for himself in London, left him devastated for a long period.
Keeping aside the disruptions on the personal front, V. S. Naipaul, the writer is someone who inspires awe and adulation in every perceptive reader by his continuous and single-minded devotion to the chosen craft. He could sacrifice everything to reach the pinnacle in his profession. His incisive and concrete prose avoiding abstract has enthralled generations of readers across the world. Patrick French rightly said : “Using simple sentences, he would look at complex modern subjects—extremism, global migration, political and religious identity, ethnic difference, the implosion of Africa, the resurgence of Asia and the remaking of old European dispensation in the aftermath of empire”. Despite the general charm of his books and other writings, Naipaul periodically invited criticism for his controversial views on many matters. His attack on the stagnating culture of the native Caribbean societies, his perceived dislike for the people with darker skin than his own, his critical views on the Islamic world, his baiting of India(though he mellowed down considerably on), his disillusionment with the racism prevalent in England etc. naturally provoked strong responses at times. However, transcending all these, his books are ever shining. In his obituary published in the Guardian, kenneth Ramchand observed : ” Of his 29 books, at least seven are likely to endure, his first collection of stories, ‘Miguel Street'(1959); the three novels—‘A House for Mr Biswas'(1961); ‘The Mimic Man'(1967) and ‘A Bend in the River'(1978); a work of non-fiction, ‘The Loss of El Dorado'(1969), an original and challenging historical work on the making of Trinidad and its polyglot capital, Port of Spain, that Naipaul described as ‘the synthesis of the worlds and cultures that had made me’ ; the global fiction ‘In a Free State’ ; and the ambitious ‘ The Enigma of Arrival’, part autobiography, part fiction, part meditation on life, time, death and the writing life “. In addition, I believe Naipaul’s Indian trilogy—‘An Area of Darkness'(1964); ‘India: A Wounded Civilization'(1977), and ‘India: Million Mutinies Now'(1990) will continue to attract many young readers in future despite the ‘polemics’ contained therein.
To learn about the variegated life and work of V. S. Naipaul, one can take up Patrick French’s authorized biography, ‘The World Is What It Is’ to read or re-read. John Lanchester in ‘New Statesman’ points out succinctly: “An extraordinary book. If it isn’t the best biography ever written of a living subject, I’d be curious to know what is”. Incidentally, the third death anniversary of one of the best writers of the world in English, has just passed by on 11 August last.

Gautam K Bordoloi, a Guwahati-based freelance journalist, can be reached at: gkbordoloi11@gmail.com

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