Some of Bangladesh’s writers have taken issue with the way VS Naipaul was not engaged in a conversation about his controversial stance on Indian Muslims when he and his wife Nadira Naipaul were speaking to poet Ahsan Akbar about his life and works on the second day of last month’s Dhaka Literary Festival 2016.
They have pointed out Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Muslims, the ideological positions that he’s nurtured and upheld in his non-fiction, especially in The Wounded Civilisation. Those ideologies correspond directly to the Hindutva movement, the extremist section of Hindu ideologues who believe the demolition of Babri Masjid was a righteous act and the role of the Muslims in India was as invaders and destroyers of Hindu temples and culture.
One might have expected him to stop there, but he did not. While on a tour in India in 2004, he attended a reception accorded to him by the Bharatiya Janata Party, then in power. He went as far as endorsing, though indirectly, the attacks on the Babri Masjid. Writing about this reception, a surprised William Dalrymple said, “It might seem unlikely that a Nobel Laureate would put himself in a position of apparently endorsing an act that spawned mass murder – or commend a party that has often been seen as virulently anti-intellectual.”
It’s still a conundrum to me that a writer with such unsurpassable accomplishments in fiction can be so prejudiced against people of another religion. So there’s no doubt he has failed to stand the test of political and ideological correctness.
Total rejection is wrong
But the important question is whether this failure should mean turning away from him altogether, dismissing all he has achieved, rejecting all he has contributed to the world of English fiction and literature in particular and world literature in general. As a writer and editor working in the English language, I believe the answer is: No, we should not turn away from him, much less dismiss his achievements and reject his contributions.
Nor should we stop criticising Naipaul for his views on Indian Muslims. We should rather give the devil his due, the word “devil” intended both proverbially and metaphorically as a critical principle: praise him for his achievements, criticise him logically for his failures, and if possible, engage him in a productive dialogue.
When Humayun Azad edited a poetry anthology, Adhunik Bangla Kobita (Modern Bengali Poetry), sometime in the late 1990s, he dropped three poets – Al Mahmud, Fazal Shahbuddin, and, if my memory is not betraying me, Abdul Mannan Syed. All three of them are big names in the world of poetry in Bangladesh, with Mahmud topping not only this list but any that you might prepare at any given time. Shamsur Rahman is regarded his only competitor in the poetic world. And yet Azad dropped him as well as the other two.
In his introduction, he used just one short paragraph to explain somewhat curtly that he dropped them because of their literary associations with ideologies and people and forces that opposed freedom fighters and the creation of Bangladesh. I’m not sure about Syed, but everyone knows for a fact about the swerve Mahmud took, both in terms of an ideological shift in poetry and political association.
Much like Naipaul, Mahmud attended receptions accorded to him by Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had collaborated with the Pakistan Army and killed thousands of freedom fighters and Hindus. Whenever they get a chance, they still act to oust Hindus from Bangladesh. I was shocked, and the wounds are not fully healed yet. But what Azad did amounted to total dismissal of everything that Mahmud had achieved. My firm belief is that, with this rejection Azad committed a literary crime.
Put in context, politically Mahmud and Naipaul represent two opposing poles, but structurally they both failed the same test. Even so, both of them must be given due credit because their achievements, in their respective languages, are too great to be turned down.
Frailty of body
As for engaging Naipaul in a dialogue and letting the audience participate, all those who attended the packed session saw that he came on stage on a wheelchair pushed by another person. Sadder still is the fact that he was having frequent problems hearing the questions. When he took them in, after brief pauses, he answered slowly, very slowly, though his short, witty answers, did not fail even once to raise ripples of laughter among the audience. It was obvious that in this physical state he was incapable of answering any serious questions.
This description, I believe, will dispel all concerns and help us understand that the much-needed dialogue was not deliberately avoided. It was, rather, an impossibility. If anything, he must be thanked for showing the courage to fly in this state of his health all the way to Dhaka, where fear of attacks on foreigners has actually been running high.
Why Naipaul’s novels matter
Now to the question of his achievements. An objective analysis might have been more appropriate, but I have decided to take a subjective route.
I studied English literature at a public university. So, reading English fiction was indispensable. Not that everyone read the novels prescribed for a particular course, but when they did, they spoke highly of them, never asking (due to the hegemonic status attached to English studies) why we should be so impressed by works that had nothing in common with our lives or history – a question I’m sure any American or British student would ask incessantly if they were asked to read even one novel by Mahasweta Devi or Akhtaruzzaman Elias for their course-work.
Unlike most of my peers, I suffered an identity crisis caused by what I think was a recognition of absurdity. This absurdity lay in the way our teachers expected us to devote ourselves to foreign authors. Writing essays about their alien works would be recognised neither in the East nor in the West, but that’s what we did, dissecting Lawrence and Woolf, Becket and Pinter, Shakespeare and Webster, reading all those volumes of structural, Marxist, post-structural, psychoanalytic, post-colonial critiques of their works, and garnering so much knowledge that even now, after a gap of almost ten years, I can write more fluently about Lawrence and Shakespeare than about Bangladeshi writers Hasan Azizul Haque or Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, though no one would actually want to publish what I might write.
My alienation from English fiction began to deepen, and I got tired of having to spend most of my reading and writing time over works I could hardly relate to. Until, that is, I picked up Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. It was not as though we were unfamiliar with Mulk Raj Anand or RK Narayan, who wrote about Indians. Anand was too realistic and too focused on Dalits, while Narayan was too fictional and his world too far removed from reality. More important, based in India, they were writing mainly for a South Asian audience, whereas Naipaul, except for the first 18 years of his life, lived in England and was writing mainly for an English audience.
At last, people like us
When I started Mr Biswas, I was overwhelmed by the subject he was dealing with, as well as by the way he depicted the life of Mohun Biswas and his induction to Hanuman House after his marriage with one of Mrs Tulsi’s daughters. I’m not sure whether a European student would love the book in the same way as I did – for the people he was portraying were my people.
This was the first time I felt I was reading an English novel where I had found my kin – the way they value collectivity over individuality, the way they gossip and fight in groups, the way they treat their children and show their greed for money and love for others, even the way they build their houses. He didn’t miss a single thing about that society – the families of Hindu Indian immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago.
There was no great tension in the novel, other than the anxieties felt by Mr Biswas about different people in the Tulsi family. The psychology of the characters is revealed intricately, and the sociology of the war brought to the extent necessary to build the story. But the sparks of wit, humour and sarcasm are such that one cannot stop laughing. The attacks on traditional culture are as sharp and unforgiving as those on the mimic men, or snobs, who imitate the culture left behind by the “sahibs”.
It was an elevating reading experience, one that did a lot more than just appease my thirst for aesthetic pleasure and cultural relevance. It opened a new vista in fiction, full of imaginative possibilities, where the people I had grown up with would constitute the core of the work, and where the very un-Western thoughts of my people would become the thrust of the story. And that is where Naipaul’s biggest achievement lies.
It was Naipaul who first demonstrated to me that even in the English language a great novel could be written about a Bangladeshi or Indian family. It was he who first showed me that what matters most is how one tells the story. Not all of his novels are set in such contexts, but that most of them are is the reason I will always owe my literary aspirations to him.
Rifat Munim is editor, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.
This article was originally published in the Dhaka Tribune.