Naipaul was “the greatest prose writer in the English language of the last 60 years”, wrote Amit Chaudhuri in the Guardian when Naipaul died at the age of 85 on August 11. Others were more measured in their praise. They could not overlook his flaws and prejudices. Naipaul himself provoked criticism by what he said and wrote, admitting he had been a “big prostitute man”, ill-treating his first wife, Patricia Hale, and his long-time mistress, Margaret Gooding née Murray, and offending blacks and Muslims among others.
The historian CLR James, who was born in Trinidad like Naipaul, said Naipaul’s views reflected “what the whites want to say but dare not”. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, however, Naipaul said: “I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political. I have no guiding political idea.” Attributing it to his Indian “ancestry”, he said: “I feel we are more inclined to see the humour and pity of things.”
The humour is evident in his early works. Here, for example, are the opening lines of an essay on Calcutta in 1962:
“You’ve come to Calcutta at the wrong time,” the publisher said. “I very much fear the dear old city is slipping into bourgeois respectability almost without a fight.”
“Didn’t they burn a tram the other day?” I asked.
“True. But that was the first tram for five years.”
For the benefit of those who didn’t get the joke, Naipaul explained: “Like every newspaper reader, I knew Calcutta as the city of tram-burners and students who regularly ‘çlashed’ with the police.” But he also highlighted the British influence on Calcutta and its boxwallahs, the anglicised Indian executives of British firms. “All the four main cities in India were developed by the British, but none has so British a stamp as Calcutta,” he wrote.
Calcutta has changed beyond recognition since then, but Naipaul’s account is valuable for recalling what the city was like. In another essay, The Election in Ajmer, in 1971 he wrote about a poll contest between an uncle and a nephew. The nephew represented the Congress led by Indira Gandhi while the uncle belonged to the old guard that broke with her and allied with the right-wing Hindu Jan Sangh (now the Bharatiya Janata Party). The uncle lost the election because many of the Jan Sangh supporters did not vote for him since he was a former Congressman. Naipaul captured the intrigue and drama in a colourful portrait of Rajasthan replete with poll campaigning in the desert and even the murder of a maharaja.
Naipaul could be harsh. “India is hard and materialist. What it knows about Indian writers and books are their prizes and their advances,” he asserted in the final chapter of his book, A Writer’s People.
But, for all his querulousness, he is immensely readable because of his vivid storytelling. This is from the story, One Out of Many, included In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971. The narrator is a servant who accompanies his master from Bombay to Washington, DC. There he runs away, becomes a chef at an Indian restaurant, and marries a black woman – a maid whose advances he had earlier tried to avoid —in order to become an American citizen. Note the economy of words with which he looks back on this big event in his life:
“The hubshi opened. I saw the apartment where she worked…
“I thought she might have been angry. She looked only puzzled. I was grateful for that.
“I said to her in English: ‘Will you marry me?’
“And there, it was done.”
What is striking about this passage is there is no mention of love. Patrick French’s official biography of Naipaul aptly bears the title The World Is What It Is. It recalls the opening sentence of Naipaul’s African novel, A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing, have no place in it.” This bleak Darwinian view is consonant with Naipaul. One can only marvel at the strength and determination it took to achieve what he did – the indentured labourers’ grandson, whose grandparents spoke little or no English, who won the Nobel Prize.
“I wanted to be very famous. I also wanted to be a writer—to be famous for writing,” he told the Paris Review. “I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer,” he recalled in his essay, Reading and Writing. He wanted to get away from Trinidad, which was too small for him to pursue a career as a writer. “When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpapers of my Latin primer to leave within five years. I left after six,” he stated in his book, Middle Passage. He went to Oxford to read English on a Trinidad government scholarship.
“The ambition to be a writer was given me by my father,” he wrote in Prologue to an Autobiography. Seepersad Naipaul “helped raise cows and goats in the mornings before going to school every day barefoot”, according to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. He was “the paper’s very first East Indian reporter”. Hired in 1929, he left the paper twice for other jobs but returned to journalism and worked for the Guardian till just before his death in 1953. He had a volume of short stories, Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales, published in Trinidad in 1943 when Naipaul in school. Some of his stories were read on the BBC’s Caribbean Service when Naipaul gained an entry there while a student at Oxford.
Between Father and Son, a collection of letters they exchanged after Naipaul went to Oxford, brims with love and affection, showing how close they were and encouraged each other to write. It was Naipaul’s father’s dearest wish to be published in London, but he did not live to see it fulfilled. The Adventures of Gurudeva, with a foreword by Naipaul, was published by Naipaul’s publisher, Andre Deutsch, in 1976. Naipaul’s younger brother, Shiva Naipaul, also made his name as a writer. Writing seemed to come easily to Naipaul’s elder sister, Kamla, too. The letters she exchanged with him are also included in Between Father and Son. Bright and caring, she was at Benares Hindu University on a scholarship while he was at Oxford.
In Prologue to an Autobiography, Naipaul described how he found his voice as a writer. Ten months after leaving Oxford, three months short of his 23rd birthday, “in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my publishable book”. He wrote: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’” Twenty-three words in all, that was the opening sentence in Bogart, the first story in Miguel Street, based on people he had known in Trinidad.
Published in 1959, Miguel Street was his third, not his first, book. The publisher Andre Deutsch did not think there was a market for a collection of short stories by an unknown writer. He wanted a novel first. Which Naipaul duly delivered. The Mystic Masseur, the funny story of how a village masseur became a leading politician in Trinidad, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Naipaul’s first literary award, in 1958. No less entertaining was his second book, The Suffrage of Elvira, about elections in Trinidad.
Isn’t it amusing that the place he wanted to leave behind provided him the material to succeed? “I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical,” he declared in Middle Passage. Yet The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street were all about the island.
Naipaul sealed his reputation with A House for Mr Biswas, his fourth book, published in 1961. Virtually a biography of his father, this is a fanfare for the common man who struggles for a place in the sun. After a lifetime of misery in his in-laws’ houses, Mr Biswas has his own home. He is dying, sacked by the newspaper because he can no longer work, in debt, the house irretrievably mortgaged, but now “he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth. That… seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous”. Anyone who has known poverty and hardship will be able to identify with this. Naipaul’s love for his father created a masterpiece.
After travels in India, Africa, Among the Believers, Naipaul went on to write a thinly veiled autobiography, The Enigma of Arrival, another masterpiece. Published in 1987, it recalls, among other things, his life in the English countryside of Wiltshire. Some may find the narrative slow, but it sheds light on his life as a writer. Here he describes resuming work on a book: “I surrendered to the pictures the words created, the other pictures they trailed…
“Writing strengthened me; it quelled anxiety. And now writing restored me again. My book was given back to me. I began to write slowly, day by day…”
Later, on winning the Nobel, he proclaimed: “I will say I am the sum of my books.” His writing changed with age. Magic Seeds, his last novel, published in 2004, is a far cry from his early comedies with its bleak portrayal of armed guerillas in the Indian countryside. Naipaul never took a rosy view of revolution but could not resist writing about the upheavals in Africa, Iran and elsewhere, dwelling on the displacements they caused, the toll they took. This did not endear him to leftists and revolutionaries, but it made him all the more relevant – a writer who covered the flashpoints in the world. He found his muse in the news of the day and bore eloquent witness to his times.