South Asia

The most bitter writer on earth
The Writer and the World, by V S Naipaul, edited by Pankaj Mishra

Reviewed by Kedar Deshpande

"Indians are proud of their ancient, surviving civilization. They are, in fact, its victims."
- V S Naipaul, 1967

At some point in his life, V S Naipaul turned into a bitter, cynical man. Some say this transformation occurred in the late 1970s, when he conducted an extended tour of the world and witnessed the degradation of nations in Africa and Asia and elsewhere. His 1979 novel A Bend in the River, with its bleak, horrifying description of an unnamed, newly-independent African country, contrasts sharply with his 1960 breakthrough tragicomedy A House for Mr Biswas.

Now a Nobel laureate, the Trinidad-born Naipaul somehow manages to reintroduce himself as a writer who has always been without hope for the world. The Writer and the World shows that Naipaul's metamorphosis from a dark comedy writer into an apocalyptic prophesier was not a gradual occurrence or a product of any journey or revelation. Indeed, the essays in the book prove that Naipaul is cold at heart.

Spanning four continents and three decades, The Writer and the World collects many of Naipaul's essays, which have long been out of print. The book is conveniently divided into three sections: "India", "Africa and the Diaspora", and "American Excursions".

The section about India is the shortest of the book, which is perfectly fitting for a man who has largely shunned his Indian heritage. Naipaul does not mince words, and his essays about his ancestral home of India show that he has nothing good to say about the nation. But he writes fluidly and in broad terms, with a prose so strong that one cannot ignore its confidence and grace, regardless of its content.

An initial reluctance
Perhaps tactful, or perhaps careful, Naipaul is not so heartbreaking and ruthless in his first assessment of India. He is, however, critical and honest, but has no specific vendetta against the country. The first essay of the book, "In the middle of a journey", shows Naipaul writing of India in relation to his own life and experiences. He avoids gratuitous generalizations, and as such, many of his impressions of the country are sharp and simple, yet capture the at times startling grandeur and insanity of India. Even still, Naipaul takes a stab at the underdevelopment and sense of death he detects. "For here is a vastness beyond imagination, a sky so wide and deep that sunsets cannot be taken in at a glance but have to be studied section by section, a landscape made monotonous by its size and frightening by its very simplicity and its special quality of exhaustion: poor choked crops in small crooked fields, under-sized people, under-nourished animals, crumbling villages and towns which, even while they develop, have an air of decay". (p3)

The concept of "decay" is an important one to Naipaul, and it appears frequently in his essays. He is trying to tell us that India may bustle, but general economic growth cannot hide its overwhelming deficiency in maintenance and "sensibility", as he calls it. And immediately after making this observation, he adds, "from this endless repetition of exhaustion and decay one wishes to escape".

Coming off of the success of A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul still retains the humor that characterized that book. In the course of his travels through India, many people ask him where he is from. When he replies Trinidad, the people can only reply, "But you look Indian." He tries to explain that he is Indian, but his family has for several generations lived in Trinidad. The only response is bewilderment, eventually Naipaul abandons honesty and opts to simplify matters by saying, "I am a Mexican, really."

Dialogues and anecdotes such as this one make The Writer and the World a funny, engaging book. Naipaul is writing essays, but his essays read like novels, without losing the scholarly air of more collegiate writings. Here Naipaul proves that he is a gifted writer, and more importantly, an acute observer who knows how to tell a story.

When he keeps the essays personal, Naipaul comes across as more genuine and less angry. He is critical of India perhaps because it is too strange for him and makes him feel less important: "An Indian, I have never before been in streets where everyone is Indian, where I blend unremarkably into the crowd. This has been curiously deflating, for all my life I have expected some recognition of my difference and it is only in India that I have recognized how necessary this stimulus is to me, how conditioned I have been by the multiracial society of Trinidad and then by my life as an outsider in England. To be one of four hundred and thirty-nine million Indians is terrifying". (p5)

And at first, Naipaul seems content to allow India to be a mystery. "Perhaps India is only a word, a mystical idea that embraces all those vast plains and rivers", he states (p7). Such was possibly the case in 1962, when he wrote this essay about India. But the next few essays prove that he is restless and maybe even bitter, and holds nothing back concerning his impressions.

A general idea
For a writer who has said, "To me situations are always specific" (p503), Naipaul does not hesitate to generalize, especially when something bothers him. In a visit to Calcutta, now called Kolkata, Naipaul suddenly becomes a bitter man describing the Westernization of India. He is not so angry that India is seemingly embracing the West, but more so because India denies that it is doing so.

"There in air-conditioned offices may be found the young Indian business executives, the box-wallahs, the new Indian elite ... The box-wallah culture of Calcutta is of a peculiar richness, and if it has not yet been explored by Indian writers this is because they have been too busy plagarizing, or writing harrowing stories about young girls drifting into prostitution to pay the family's medical bills and stories about young girls, poor or pretty, who inexplicably die." (p12)

Naipaul started out by stating the appearance of a new subculture in India, and for no reason drifts into an attack of Indian writers. Rest assured, though, that he does not forget the box-wallahs; indeed, he spares no general expense in describing this new breed of Indians:

"The Calcutta box-wallah comes of a good family, ICS, army or big business; he might even have princely connections. He has been educated at an Indian or English public school and at one of the two English universities, whose accent, through all the encircling hazards of Indian intonation, he rigidly maintains. When he joins his firm his first name is changed. The Indian name of Anand, for example, might become Andy ... Where the Indian name cannot be adapted, the box-wallah will most usually be known as Bunty. It is a condition of Bunty's employment that he play golf; and on every golf course he can be seen with an equally unhappy Andy, both enduring the London-prescribed mixture of business and pleasure". (p13)

Never does Naipaul specifically mention any of these box-wallah youths that he has met. One gets the feeling that he is stereotyping because he cannot control his rage or cynicism. In either case, such generalizations undermine the strength of his prose and the talent he has for thorough observation.

The neutral eye
Clearly, Naipaul had repressed his deep-rooted feelings during his first trip. In 1967 he returned to India and wrote the scathing and broad essay, "A Second Visit".

"We go [to India] with a sense of tragedy and urgency, with the habit of contemplating man as man, with ideas of action; and we find ourselves unsupported." (p16) The reason for this is India's blindness to its destitution and lack of any tangible goal to improve; famines come and go, disease destroys the people, but ultimately, "India was infinitely old and would go on. There was no goal and therefore no failure. There were only events. There was no tragedy." (p17)

Instead of trying to find solutions to its problems, India perpetually falls back on "magic", thereby escaping any responsibility. "[Indians] abandoned intellect, observation, reason; and became mysterious". (p18) And the West does not help matters any, as its beatniks and youth travel to India in search of mysticism and cheap living; in the meantime, real life and concerns go on in the background. "The West [comes] returning mysteriousness and negation to the East, while . . . humiliating deals are made in New Delhi and Washington for arms and food: it is like a cruel revenge joke played by the rich, many-featured West on the poor East that possesses only mystery. But India does not see the joke." (p19)

Naipaul obviously sees the joke, but as a bitter man, will have nothing to do with it. He is not the crusading liberal writer; Naipaul admits that he is past any impassioned despair for India. No, instead he claims to be in a state of "neutrality".

While Naipaul has given up hope (not that he had any to begin with), some Indians do find a semi-solution to their eternal woes. According to Naipaul, Indians abandon responsibility, thereby abandoning their problems, by fleeing to the West. "[It is] a flight to the familiar security of second-class citizenship, with all its opportunities for complaint, which implies protection, the other man's responsibility, the other man's ideas." (p32)

Naipaul is similarly critical of Africa and the Americas. The book, at over 500 pages, is a long read, but a worthy one for anyone trying to escape the world outlooks of liberals and conservatives. Naipaul has no political agenda: he is simply an extreme cynic, bitter at times, humorous at others.

While the essays suffer from generalizations of varying degrees, they do contain excellent anecdotes and colorful, all-encompassing descriptions of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Naipaul never makes for a dry read, and his unscholarly writing style makes this book engaging.

One can doubt the conclusions Naipaul makes, but one cannot argue with his observations, told in strong, clean prose. Clearly Naipaul deserves praise for his talent, and even if his non-fiction can be biased, his fiction is direct. No matter his anger, he is a superbly gifted writer with a sharp eye for the world.

The Writer and the World by V S Naipaul. Alfred A Knopf: New York, 2002. 524 pages, US$29.95.

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Oct 19, 2002


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