The merits or lack thereof in VS Naipaul’s writing can split most rooms. While Teju Cole argued that in Naipaul’s non-fiction “the natives…speak for themselves,” Mushirul Hasan points out that Naipaul was “unacquainted with the languages of the people he speaks to. He records and assesses only what he sees and hears from his interpreters.”
Sanjay Subhramanyam further poses the question, “Do the Indian Naxalites in Naipaul’s novels not sound as though they have been ground and thoroughly sifted through his own authorial mill?” Cole’s analysis of Naipaul’s most famous novel, A House For Mr Biswas, is endearing but his claim about the man’s non-fiction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny – at least not uniformly.
The worth of Naipaul’s literature – particularly but not exclusively his non-fiction – rests on the reader’s ability or inability to trust him, to accept that he represented the subjects he covers with honesty, and without prejudice and filter. It’s a difficult task when one takes into consideration a series of controversial actions as well as bigoted remarks, observations and analysis over the years.
However, there do exist a few moments where Naipaul appeared to approach truths that others shy away from, such as his summary of caste in India where he told an American interviewer, “You cannot understand it. No, they cannot rise, cannot ‘pass’ by way of a meritocracy. It is a question of families, villages, ancestors. No escape. It is slavery, maintained on one meal a day. One meal to be shared by the whole family.” It’s also worth considering Rohit Chopra’s argument that Girish Karnad’s famous criticism of Naipaul as Islamophobic is better understood in terms of a larger pattern of the narrow terms in which Islam is viewed by both critics and defenders.
But that does not fully or even in part absolve Naipaul of his oppressive beliefs. Salil Tripathi summarised Naipaul’s complicated legacy best when he said, “he tried to make sense of the world around him in prose that most readers considered stylistically outstanding, but which contained ideas that perpetuated the prejudices of many and mystified and hurt just as many.”
This is a list that captures some of the damage Naipaul caused in his lifetime to the world’s perception of subjects including Africa, Islam, his homelands – India and Trinidad, and women writers.
Naipaul said in an interview in 2011 that he didn’t consider any women writer his match. He dismissed Jane Austen as “sentimental.” He said women have a “narrow view of the world” because “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”
In an authorised biography by Patrick French, it was disclosed that Naipaul berated his wife if she overcooked the fish and told her she did not behave like the wife of a writer, cheated on her and expected sympathy for the guilt he felt, and hit the woman he had an affair with to the point where she couldn’t appear in public for some time.
He thought very poorly of the Trinidadian people. In one remark of many, he said, “I can’t see a Monkey – you can use a capital M, that’s an affectionate word for the generality – reading my work… These people live purely physical lives, which I find contemptible…It makes them only interesting to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies about brutes.” In another, he described Trinidad as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical, a dot on the map.”
He wrote about ex-colonies such as India and Trinidad but for Western audiences. “I do not write for Indians,” he said in an 1998 interview, “who in any case do not read. My work is only possible in a liberal, civilised Western country. It is not possible in primitive societies.”
Explaining to the same interviewer what a bindi or a “red dot” on the forehead of millions of Indian women signified, he said “The dot means: My head is empty.”
He argued that “there is a certain ‘scum’ quality in Latin America.”
Naipaul compared the effects of Islam to the effects of colonialism, and decided that the former had been worse for the world. He claimed that Islam “has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say ‘my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn’t matter’.” He went even further to say, “Islam destroyed India… The intellectual life of India, the Sanskrit culture, stops at 1000AD. Islam was the greatest calamity that befell it.”
Naipaul said “no reconciliation” was possible between Islam and other religions on the subcontinent because Islam “is a religion of fixed laws. This goes contrary to everything in modern India.”
He defended the unlawful demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists as “inevitable retribution” and saw in it a “passion” and “new, historical awakening.” He told Khushwant Singh that it was “an act of historical balancing.”
He thought that the Hindu gangsters he had been brought to meet in Mumbai were Muslim because “As a community they somehow seem to be historically more drawn towards crime than all the others.” When corrected, he asked the gang leader leading questions about the Muslims in the gang.
About religious intolerance, he wrote, “I think people who are not sexually fulfilled are hard people and extraordinarily damaged. They are terribly unhappy and unreliable. Lots of sexual repression comes out in the form of violence. A lot of religious intolerance is a product of sexual frustration.”
He impatiently criticised Shashi Deshpande and Nayantara Sehgal for discussing how gender affects their writing. His habit of interrupting and insulting women at literary events is well-documented here, and here.