VS Naipaul (pictured), the Nobel Prize-winning British author who died in London on Saturday at the age of 85, was much admired for his works and attacked for his personal views.
But as Nadira, the author’s wife put it, Naipaul lived a life full of creativity and endeavour.
He was true to himself and that sincerity was reflected in his writings although it may have hurt many of his literary friends and readers.
With a writer’s imagination and intuition, he warned the world about the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism in a 1981 non-fiction work Among the Believers. Writers like Salman Rushdie were upset by his views on Islam and Pakistan. They even thought he was promoting Hindu nationalism.
But the same Naipaul called India a “slave society”. He said Indian women wear bindi, a coloured dot on their foreheads, only to say “my head is empty.” In a sweeping comment, he once attacked Indian writers, including RK Narayan, for lacking a sense of history that keeps their writings “hanging in the air.”
When Islamists declared a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie over his The Satanic Verses, Naipaul said it is an extreme form of literary criticism.
Naipaul’s humorous comments were sometimes taken the wrong way by people leading to controversies without realising the author’s intention.
In a 1988 memoir, American writer Paul Theroux described him a racist and sexist who beat up women. Ten years later, a candid biography by Patrick French confirmed some of Theroux’s claims against Naipaul.
The biography also cited Naipaul’s confession to The New Yorker about his visits to prostitutes. His wife Hale was terribly upset over the book. She died of breast cancer in 1996.
Later, Theroux and Naipaul patched up.
Expressing his profound sadness over Naipaul’s passing away, Theroux described him as “one of the greatest writers of our time”.
Naipaul never wrote falsely and he was scrupulous about his writing, he said.
Rushdie said that despite his differences with Naipaul on various issues, he feels sad as if he lost a beloved older brother.
Naipaul was descendant of impoverished Indians shipped to the West Indies as bonded labourers. He was always painfully conscious that his father, Seepersad Naipaul, who worked as a journalist in Trinidad could have become a great novelist had he been given the opportunity.
Naipaul did not want to meet the same fate like his father. He knew he must leave Trinidad, the place where he was born, to make a future as a writer.
While attending the Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad, he was offered a government scholarship to study in England and he left his family to study literature at University College, Oxford.
Looking back on his days at Oxford, he later said he felt ashamed of the great mistake he made for he found Oxford a second-rate provincial university.
He was sick, depressed and starving. He faced hostility and xenophobia. He even attempted suicide. He knew that an outsider has to struggle harder to make himself noticed.
After marrying Patricia Hale in 1955 without telling his family,
Naipaul landed a job working for BBC’s Caribbean service between 1957 and 1961. He also wrote literary reviews for journals to make ends meet.
Like an editor, Hale went through all his writings carefully before they were sent for publication.
His first novel The Mystic Masseur was published in 1957.
In 1959, his story collection Miguel Street won the Somerset Maugham Award.
In 1961, Naipaul wrote his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, a semi-autobiographical fiction about a man’s life restricted by the limits of colonial society. It is a tribute to his father, the pivotal figure in his life who inspired him to become a writer.
Between 1967and 1987, Naipaul produced works which won honours or praise. His The Mimic Men won the W.H. Smith Award in 1967 and In a Free State won the Booker Prize in 1971. Many consider the 1987 novel The Enigma of Arrival as his best work.
Naipaul was knighted in 1990. While awarding the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy described him as a “literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice.”
While circumnavigating and listening to his inner voice, Naipaul, an Indian by descent, a Trinidadian by birth and a Briton by citizenship, was always searching for his roots.
Despite living in the three places, he felt like an outsider since he was cynical about them. As he wrote about colonialism and colonials who mimic the masters, a self-mocking laughter echoed through his writings.