India has vitality: V.S. Naipaul

India has vitality: V.S. Naipaul

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is widely considered to be among the finest living writers. Author of 20 books, he has been short-listed more than once for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of Indian origin, born in Trinidad, he has lived in England since his Oxford University days. But he considers himself an exile, and rootlessness and alienation form the dominant themes of his best books. He is also fascinated by fundamentalism, and it is likely to be the subject of the book he is now writing on India.

Naipaul has just spent five months in India, meeting Sikh extremists, Tamil militants, Naxalites, Shiv Senaites and Muslim hardliners. Long-standing friend Rahul Singh travelled with him, and found the 56-year-old writer much mellowed and appreciative of India’s progress, yet still critical of certain aspects of the country’s development. Excerpts:

“There are any number of very intelligent, very educated people in India and this shows in magazines, journalism, the quality of people one meets. “

Q. Privately you admire what is happening in India, yet many people here think you are extremely critical of India. How do you explain this?
A. Other people have to explain it. But if one is recording one’s attitude over a long period, one does change – and the country also changes. I think the investment in education has paid off. There are any number of very intelligent, very educated people in India and this shows in magazines, journalism, the quality of people one meets. There is movement, vitality, in Bombay, in Madras, even in Punjab. In Madras there is foolish politics – cowboy politics and film star politics. But there is vitality.

Q. What about Indian democracy?
A. It’s working beautifully. Take Maharashtra undergoing this Shiv Sena nationalism, or Tamil Nadu with its anti-Brahmin movement, or West Bengal with its communism, or Punjab with its terrorism – if all those places were separate, they would decline into nonentity. The union saves them from themselves, holds them back from the brink and gives them a second and a third chance.

Q. But hasn’t democracy put more emphasis on castes as voting blocks?
A. I don’t think there is any harm in that. Here, I am at one with Nirad Chaudhuri, who said that if you take away caste you’ll pound us all into dust. People are not yet ready to be individuals in India. It will take several generations for that to happen.

Q. You seem to have found various positive qualities in Bombay, south India, Punjab, what about Calcutta?
A. People have been saying for a long time that Calcutta is dying. Actually it is a dead city. All its politics are the politics of death. All its miseries, the miseries of death. I do not know a city more distressing. Calcutta is being destroyed by a foolish political doctrine which is utterly anachronistic. The Marxist ideology in Calcutta is a form of fundamentalism. It is not to be questioned, the answers are all given.

What is wonderful in Calcutta is that it has the most fabulous inversion of Marxist theory – revolution has become its own intoxication and Marxism has become the opiate. Its only appearance of life is that it is part of India. Remove it from the Indian Union and it will be simply Bangladesh.

Q. In An Area of Darkness you were upset at the dirt and the defecation. Does that still upset you? What else does?
A. Yes, it still upsets me, I can’t get used to squalor. Also unreliability, lying, I am also upset at the absence of aesthetic sense. The buildings in Bombay are appalling. If people could see nice, pretty buildings around them, it would be an up liftment to their spirits. People need these things. People need drama and beauty in their lives. These give an idea of human possibility.

Q. Fundamentalism seems to fascinate you. Why?
A. It’s part of my background. I look at places which look a little bit like the places I grew up in: a colony, multi-racial, multi-cultural, breaking away or not breaking away from an imperial ruler. I look at places to which I have some kind of link, places of which I have some understanding.

Q. You are in a way Indian, of the Third World so to speak. But why have you been so unsympathetic of it?
A. It has always amazed me that I am taken as a political writer. I am more concerned to be judged as an imaginative writer, a shaper of experience. Many of the heroes that people wanted me to applaud in the ’50s have now fallen on hard times – black scoundrels, Nkrumah, Eric Williams of Trinidad.

I’d have looked an awful fool if I hadn’t exercised my mind, or my humour, or my vision, or looked as directly as I could at what was happening around me. It is wrong to corrupt your view by injecting optimism or hope into what you are seeing. That’s false. If you look truly hard, you can see the seeds of the future. Writers are not pamphleteers twisting the truth, angling it, putting forward a point of view.

Q. But does such criticism upset you?
A. No, I don’t take it seriously. Can you imagine someone saying about Dickens that he should be condemned because he runs his country down in his writing?

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