October 22, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Triumph of the dispossessed: Naipaul and the enigma of exile

I predicted quite confidently a few weeks ago (in my column In Memoriam: Narayan, Greene, Desani and Adams) that V S Naipaul would never win the Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily because of his skin colour, and partly because he is the very antithesis of political correctness: he has picked on the entire Third World, most especially India; and most recently, on Islam. I am delighted that I have been proven so wrong so quickly.

Based on prior form, however, I was entirely justified in my assertion then: the Swedish Academy tends to play politics and usually picks safe, mediocre, politically correct people, often inoffensive white males. For instance, it chose Sully Prudhomme over Leo Tolstoy. (Right, "Sully who?") But this time, the academy made what must have been for them a terrifyingly aggressive decision: because they apparently wanted to acknowledge vicariously some of the blunt assertions Naipaul has made about Islamic colonialism.

It is hard to escape the feeling that the Swedes were trying to make a point: milords do protest too much that it was not a political decision. But they were saying, in effect, that they saw merit in the Naipaulian position that the sacrifice required of Muslim converts -- the violent extinguishing of their former cultures and histories -- was a sign of a xenophobic mindset that is the very antithesis of the global culture that has emerged primarily from secularised humanism. Thus, blowback: Naipaul wins the Nobel because of Black Tuesday! Ironic, indeed!

Now I wish the Academy would fulfil another longstanding dream of mine and award the Literature Nobel to O V Vijayan in the near future. This extraordinary fabulist of immense power is, in my humble opinion, the best of India's few world-class writers: one whose pellucid, crystalline prose in both Malayalam and English makes him one of the most compelling voices of our time. And he is a master of the transcendent, a truly Indian original in a melange of faddish and imitative writing.

But I do realise that awards are intensely political, and that you need an influential lobby behind you to garner any of the major ones. Alas, even for the Jnanpith, says a rumour from reliable sources, Vijayan's nomination was spiked this year by none other than a fellow Malayali laureate, who felt that enough Malayalam writers had already received the honour! The great Indian crab trick, I suppose.

Naipaul's prize is the second time in recent memory that the academy has taken a brave stand: the first was in the case of Gunter Grass, caustic left-winger and fabulist. We all applauded that selection, but in the case of the acerbic right-winger Naipaul, India's leftists are whining, which is quite ironic. Because here is Naipaul, famously despising all religions, and therefore a true secular liberal. But he doesn't selectively bash Hinduism: he generously spreads the wealth all around, bashing Islam as well. Therefore he's a bad guy. It goes to show, yet again, that the 'secular' 'progressives' are neither secular nor progressive.

In addition to attacking Naipaul, the Indian Marxist rogues' gallery has also complained about the banning of the violent secessionist SIMI: the fact that they advocate the breakup of India is of no consequence to them -- after all, SIMI doesn't ask for the breakup of their precious fatherland, China. Ergo, the SIMI must be good people. QED.

These Marxists deserve to be lined up and shot for treason. Or sent to a Chinese gulag for 're-education'. They are stunning examples of what Naipaul once called "Fourth Worlders" -- meaning the formerly colonised. The 'formerly colonised': that is a complex phrase, implying, among other things, that the person is no longer colonised, or that only his or her ancestors were thus afflicted. The problem, however, is that the effects of colonisation do linger -- as we see in many resident non-Indians -- they are colonised in their minds, and their allegiances are to Beijing, Moscow, Rome or Mecca: never to India.

Naipaul has chosen his response to this unhappy status of being formerly colonised, and he has stuck with it. He deals with it by being the perennial outsider, the curmudgeon who derides and even insults on occasion every culture he comes into contact with: the Indian culture of his ancestors, the hybrid culture of the Trinidad and Tobago that he grew up in, the post-colonial confusion of Africa, the world of non-Arab Muslims, and the decaying culture of the Britain that he has lived in for most of his life. No, Naipaul is not colonised in his mind -- he is a free thinker.

Many of us in the diaspora deal with our Fourth-World-ness with our own defence mechanisms: perhaps by embracing the culture and customs of our host country wholeheartedly; perhaps by rooting ourselves wherever we go. I wrote about this in my earliest column on, Under two flags: the existential pleasures of the expatriate.

I personally have discovered that for me, roots are important; and those roots are in Kerala, in the verdant village of my ancestors. But I do have another home: San Francisco, where I have spent some of my happiest days. Yet, even so, when I listen to the heart-breaking cries of migrating Canada geese on a cool California night, I hear in their cries the whisper, "Exile! Exile!" I realise I am dispossessed, vaastuhaara, deprived, in a way, of self-image, as in the superb Malayalam film of that name by G Aravindan.

In the aftermath of Black Tuesday, the alienation that many Indian Americans have felt has increased. The singular feeling of being unwelcome that I used to feel when in Germany or the UK is now present with more vehemence in the US as well. I know Indian women who have started, rather desperately, to wear a bindi to signal that they are Hindus, and hence harmless. There have been many instances of hate crimes against anybody who is not mainstream WASP. The slightly worn-out welcome mat is now truly threadbare.

And many of us remain singularly attached to India: the home country exerts a magnetic influence on us. We who are voluntary exiles have given up one of the truly important elements of self-hood, our home, in the not unreasonable pursuit of a fortune: nothing to be ashamed of. Nevertheless, as Vikram Seth said in his perceptive Diwali:

	I know the whole world
	Means exile of our breed
	Who are not home at home 
	And are abroad abroad.... 

This may as well be my home. Because no other nation Moves me thus? What of that? Cause for congratulation?....

Naipaul clearly does not feel this way about India, or about his native Trinidad. In fact, in a truly rude gesture, he mentioned only India and the UK in his Nobel acknowledgement speech -- not a word about Trinidad. He has become a true internationalist, even though being so entirely rootless must be a chore.

My first encounters with Naipaul's work made me think of Joseph Conrad and, in particular, The Heart of Darkness because Kurtz's "The horror! The horror!" was clearly the feeling that India invoked in Naipaul, as he detailed in An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization. As a young man, I found these books deeply disturbing, I thought in the same category as the na´ve but malicious writings of a Katherine Mayo and a Barbara Crossette, full of imperial hauteur about superficialities that do not matter, missing the essence.

However, on re-reading those early India books years later, I realised that Naipaul was not wrong: he merely wrote what he had observed, and he had been horribly disappointed. The culture shock must have been brutal. For the India of his imagination and of his ancestral memory, of the resplendent culture, was not visible: it was hidden under the weight of a thousand years of shame and grime.

It is this hidden India that he discovered later in A Million Mutinies Now. For Naipaul had grown mellower and wiser, not so impatient. And he realised that there was, below the surface, the stirring of an Indic renaissance: India was renewing herself, yet again, from her own inexhaustible stream of history and civilisation, her native genius. This is cause for celebration; and he said so, instantly gaining the wrath of the 'secular' 'progressives' for his pains.

But Naipaul is right: India is capable of infinite rejuvenation, and this is happening once again, right in front of our eyes. The Asian century will become the Indian millennium; the feminine principle and the Empire of the Spirit will vanquish the war-like, patriarchal mindset of the last 2,000 years.

I once wrote that I preferred Naipaul's non-fiction to his fiction, and in particular that I liked The Enigma of Arrival. To me, although it is billed as a novel, this is mostly autobiography. It is when I read this book that I understood how well Naipaul has realised the state of exile, and even hallowed it, bearing it as his personal crown of thorns. I could see the enigma of my own arrival in San Francisco -- beloved but never mine -- explained in Naipaul's bittersweet Salisbury.

I also realised, to my surprise, that behind the cranky, arrogant, imperial fašade was a human being, one who was vulnerable, one who was uncertain, who was terribly insecure. Then, the collection, Letters Between Father and Son, sharpened that feeling: this was a man who owed a great debt of gratitude to his father, and who knew it, immortalising Seepersaud in A House for Mr Biswas. Quite human, our Naipaul has turned out to be, after all.

In our time, there have been other exiles writing evocatively about their lost homes: for instance, the poet Pablo Neruda or Ariel Dorfman (who has, incidentally, written about another September 11th: the day of the coup against Salvador Allende). But none writes better or more evocatively about the experience of exile, about being dispossessed, than V S Naipaul. The Nobel is a richly deserved tribute that is an acknowledgement of the 'suppressed histories' of exile, one that speaks to all of us in the floating population of voluntarily and involuntarily displaced persons.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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