V.S. Naipaul's Nobel Prize

Yes, he proves the persistence of Indian culture over time


I must admit that I, too, have felt vaguely uneasy about claiming V.S. Naipaul as part of the Indian diaspora. In my defense, I did this much before he won the Nobel; in particular after I read India: A Million Mutinies Now. I had thought of him as a racist and poseur, a brown version of Joseph Conrad, up until then. Both Conrad and he, uprooted from backwater societies (Poland in the case of Conrad) had become unquestioning admirers of imperial Britain.

I had also dismissed Naipaul’s very critical essays on India, An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization as “drain-inspectors’ reports” when I first read them. But, over time I began to understand: India had been, literally and metaphorically, in Naipaul’s blood. And his pilgrimage to the land of his ancestors had shocked and repulsed him. It was doubly shocking because the perverse India of the Nehruvian kind was very much like the rootless, hybridized Trinidad that he abhorred so much, and which he had abandoned forever.

It is precisely because the Indian heritage persists that a third-generation emigre like Naipaul could be rattled so much by the India that he observed. We have all noticed how Indian-ness is indelible: we have perhaps even been exasperated by that persistence of memory. Especially for second-generation Indian-American children, it is most annoying that their parents carry a code of conduct in their heads that is a frozen India of thirty years ago; whereas the real India has moved on, and is sometimes startlingly different.

I would venture to claim that it is precisely because Naipaul has that inherited civilizational center of Indian-ness (and he acknowledged it in his Nobel speech when he mentioned India first, and Trinidad not at all) that he is able to be the uber-wanderer, the rootless one. He is able to make any place his home because he is self-sufficient. He has said in so many words that his reason for living in the U.K. is primarily the network there of editors, publishers, reviewers, readers et al that enable him to make a living out of writing. The snooty “Englishman” act probably would have come to him, a natural snob, even if he lived in Timbuktu.

It is because of his innate Indian-ness that Naipaul has, in his more recent work, been able to see beyond the superficiality and recognize that there is an renaissance brewing in India: the nation is rousing itself out of centuries of torpor. It is not unfair for us to celebrate him as a cousin.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Trivandrum, India.

No, he is merely a brown-skinned Englishman


In his trail-blazing book “Chutzpah,” Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University discusses an Ivy League university technique to puncture attempts at assertion by the Jewish community.
The key lay in obtaining the support of “in-house” Jews who enthusiastically espoused the mainstream view, their Jewishness notwithstanding. “In-house” Jews became engines for undermining the movement and reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes. The technique of putting a Jewish face to an attack on Jews automatically destroyed any allegations of racism while undermining the movement from within.
A wonderful and effective technique indeed!

Except that the British, with their genius at dividing and ruling the colonies, had discovered the same centuries earlier. “Set an Indian to undermine other Indians” runs the logic of a tradition that produced Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Nirad C. Chowdhury initially and V.S. Naipaul and his ilk presently.
A review of Naipaul’s works in the non-fiction genre will help illustrate the hollowness of his understanding and the virulently anti-Indian nature of his work.

No specialist in sociology or history, indeed with no qualification other than being a “rootless wanderer,” Naipaul published a tome called “An Area of Darkness” about India (the land of his ancestors). Despite being written in the early 60s, an era of happiness and optimism in India’s star crossed history, Naipaul’s description of India is infinitely darker than Katherine Mayo’s infamous “Mother India.”

Not surprisingly, the book was greeted with panegyrics in the West since it told them exactly what they wanted to hear. India had become the pedestal on which the monument of Naipaul’s fame would eventually be erected.

While his “India: A Million Mutinies” (1977), doesn’t have as pronounced an anti-Indian flavor, it is possibly because by then Naipaul had discovered a better horse to flog towards fame and fortune: namely, Islam.
The late 70s were marked by much tumult in the Middle East and the emergence of a new villain in the Western psyche: Ayatollah Khomeini. In obvious contradiction of cherished Indian values such as peaceful co-existence, Naipaul traveled through Islamic countries with the explicit intent of denouncing Islamic fundamentalism, often sounding shriller than the shrillest of Islamic fundamentalists. When the anti-Islamic fervor had reached a hysterical pitch in the late 90s, Naipaul’s encore of an anti-Islamic tirade “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples” made him a front-runner for the coveted Nobel Prize.

Denouncing India and Islam have been the milestones of Naipaul’s literary history. His work contradicts Indian identity and values. The west-worshipping Brown Saheb’s winning the Nobel Prize is truly a slap across the face for Indian culture.

S. Gopikrishna observes Indian society from Toronto.


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