In A House For Mr Biswas (1961) by V.S. Naipaul, the opening sentence reads, “Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked.” And with that, sets the tone for this great Dickensian novel.
What a line. So full of irony, pathos, and callousness. I read the novel with my head filled with visuals of my father on a bicycle on his way to work daily, just like the protagonist, grim, in his starched white shirt and trousers, to face his om puteh boss.
A House For Mr Biswas has been compared with the works of Conrad, Joyce, Beckett, Dickens, Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov, among others.
When I read Mr Biswas the first time over 50 years ago, I was still in school. I had thought until then that only dead-white-males wrote such books. I had read most of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi-set tales by then, thoroughly enjoying all, but something told me that Naipaul was the real deal.
Naipaul himself paid tribute to Narayan in his Time magazine story after Narayan’s death in 2001, about how enchanted and influenced he was by the opening line in The Bachelor Of Arts (1937): “Chandran was just climbing the steps of the college union when Natesan, the secretary, sprang on him and said, ‘You are just the person I was looking for. You remember your old promise?’ ‘No,’ said Chandran promptly, to be on the safe side.”
I found that interesting, and surprising. Naipaul was human after all! In the preceding years, he had built up a solid reputation as an irascible, obnoxious man, who didn’t think well of anyone.
Despite my infatuation with Mr Biswas, I had decided by then to intensely dislike Naipaul after reading newspaper accounts of his interviews while he was researching his book, Among The Believers (1981): He said Malaysia was a “shallow pond” and a “country without a mind”. There were other stories too in various shades of truth – true, partly true, half true and untrue.
He was called casteist, communalist and racist by one angry Indian commentator, who also wrote that he, “Spat so much on India that we are actually stinking from his spitting expeditions”.
“A colonial among the colonialist,” was Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s considered opinion.
No, Naipaul didn’t endear himself to many people, but then, that was not his mission in life. He was a writer. He spoke his mind, uncensored. Did Among The Believers and Beyond Belief (1998) insult Muslims? Did India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977) insult Indians? How about India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)? And why was Paul Theroux grovelling like a hurt puppy in Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998)?
Let’s face it, we do get insulted and outraged far too easily. Why? Call it the human condition. Was I insulted by what Naipaul said, or his audacity in saying it? He held a mirror to my face, and I didn’t like what I saw. How dare he bring a mirror to my house? How dare he shove it in my face?
As another Nobel Prize winner sang: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” [It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) by Bob Dylan.]
That was years ago, but nothing much has changed. Too many people still want to be outraged about something every day. We wake up in the morning, open our newspapers (or mobile phones, or computers) and look for something, anything, to outrage us. We want to scream about something daily. (Uplifting news is nice too, but one gets bored quickly.)
V.S. Naipaul – or, to give him his full name, Sir Vidiadhar Suraiprasad Naipaul – was born in Trinidad, went to Oxford on a scholarship, and lived in England most of his life. He was knighted in 1990 and won the Nobel Prize in 2001. He died in Britain on Aug 11, aged 85, with his second wife, Nadira Naipaul, and other family members beside him.
He was his own “mimic man”. In The Mimic Men (1967), Ranjit Kirpal Singh changes his name to Ralph Singh, marries a white woman for easier acceptance into English society, fails, fantasises about a greater India, visits, and is disappointed.
This was Naipaul’s recurring theme: alienation and disillusionment.
Indians arrived as indentured labourers in Trinidad to work in the sugarcane and rubber plantations from 1845 to 1917 under A New System Of Slavery (Hugh Tinker, 1974).
Although born on the Caribbean island, Naipaul hated Trinidadian society, including the lot of his own Indian community.
He moved to Britain with lots of hope, with his scholarship and all, only to feel isolated and alienated again.
No “darkie”, no matter how brilliant, could be unconditionally accepted as English. One can imagine the sniping and backbiting when Naipaul’s work of genius, Mr Biswas, was compared to Dickens. Could Naipaul have restrained himself from letting the “infies” have a dose of his finely-honed sarcasm?
His visit to India was probably supremely disappointing, as his angry rant in The Wounded Civilisation suggests. (I hated the book at first.)
Is there a diasporic middle-class Indian who is not simultaneously proud of and infuriated by India? Naipaul’s Islamophobia was probably part Western, part Indian, and part the fault of some strange Islamists he met. In Malaysia, he also met Anwar Ibrahim and had this to say about him in Among The Believers:
“He (Anwar) was in touch with Muslim movements abroad – in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan. He had been to Iran and met Ayatollah Khomeini; that had added to his reputation locally. For Anwar Ibrahim, Islam was the energiser and purifier that was needed in Malaysia; true Islam awakened people, especially Malays, and at the same time it saved them from the corruption of the racialist politics of Malaysia, the shabbiness of the money culture and easy Western imitation.”
Naipaul was a complicated man but in the end only his literary genius will remain and matter, alongside Dickens, Joyce, Nabokov, and others. No one can take that away.