A great writer of the English sentence, a master stylist and story-teller, keeping a cold, clear eye for the ironies, tragedies and sufferings of mankind, whilst painting unflattering pictures of the societies – be it Caribbean, African, Indian or European – Nobel Laureate and renowned author V S Naipaul was known for never mincing his words. And for that, his works attracted both vicious criticism and acclaims.
VS Naipaul, or ‘Sir Vidia’ as often called, was born on August 17, 1932, as Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul to indentured Indians in colonial rural Trinidad. Vidyadhar was named for a Chandela king, the dynasty which built the temples at Khajuraho. His name means ‘giver of wisdom’.
Of Nobility & Failing
The island of his birth was a complicated post-colonial hodgepodge of racial tensions and subtle hierarchies. His grandparents had been labourers (part of the great nineteenth-century Indian diaspora who had settled in the Caribbean).
The young Vidia was raised as a Hindu, part of a displaced community within a plantation society. It was a blend of histories, customs and ethnic identities which later formed an important part of his work.
Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, was a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian who revered Shakespeare and Dickens. He would read the great works of European literature aloud to his children - giving the young Vidia a burning ambition for writing, a fantasy of nobility and a panic about failing.
A Career of Critical Praise
When he arrived in England as a teenager armed with a scholarship to Oxford, he was a man apart. It was a step on a journey that earned him a career distinguished by extravagant critical praise for works. From there he rose to become one of the giants of the 20th century – writing, publishing over 30 books, ranging from comic novels set in his homeland to memoir and travel writing.
He made visible a landscape beyond the canon that held sway when he began writing. His life experiences frequently appeared as thinly disguised vignettes in his writing, and his references to Trinidad added diversity and depth to his work.
Naipaul’s breakthrough came in 1957 with his first published novel The Mystic Masseur, a humorous book about the lives of people in Trinidad.
He caught people’s eye with Miguel Street (1959), a collection of linked short stories that tend to focus on a character living on Miguel Street. This book was a success and earned him the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award.
Naipaul mined his childhood memories and family history to feed his early novels: The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elivra (1958), Miguel Street (1959), and, his acknowledged and undoubted masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas (1961).
His other most notable books include: A Bend in The River (1979), In a Free State (1971), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), The Loss of Eldorado (1969), Guerillas (1975), etc. He altogether wrote about 16 works of fiction, novels and collections of short stories, and an almost similar number on non-fiction work.
Questions of Belonging
After his first three comedic novels, he explored the questions of identity and belonging to a family, a place in A House for Mr Biswas, which was inspired by his father’s life.
This was his fourth novel which took more than three years to write, and by the time of completion, he knew much of it by heart. Beneath the masterful comic writing lay such a series of raw emotions, he barely ever looked at it again.
It was a sprawling, Dickensian family chronicle about one man’s dreams of independence. Mr Biswas was from Trinidad, continually striving for elusive success. He marries into an overbearing family but, without a house, cannot be the author of his own destiny. He struggles to build it – casting off his decaying relations, creating his freedom and establishing self-respect. Above all, it was the writer’s attempt to come to terms with his own identity and the pivotal figure in his life: his father. Biswas represented Seepersad while the character’s son, Anand, stood for himself.
Describing What He Saw
A House for Mr Biswas was a sensation, published to global acclaim in 1961. But Naipaul felt exhausted and done, for now, with writing literature. He spent the next few years travelling in the Caribbean, India and Africa – describing what he saw and reaching for a greater understanding of his own, displaced identity.
Naipaul used to travel extensively in his endeavours. His writings offer a personal notion of history as a series of tragic and haphazard upheavals, leaving "half-made" developing worlds in their wake.
In Africa, he took up a writer-in-residence fellowship at a university in Uganda, writing The Mimic Men (1967) which won him the WH Smith Award in the same year. He travelled widely about the continent, often depicting its life as “bleak and its people “primitive”.
His In A Free State (1971) won the Booker Prize with its portrayal of a violent, post-colonial continent attracting young, idealistic whites in search of sexual freedom.
Its first line captures Naipaul’s belief that the world is what man makes it; responsibility for its failings impossible to escape: “The world is what it is”, he wrote. “Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place it.”
India – A Civilisation, a Culture
In An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, and India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul commented extensively on subjects varying from politics to religion, from business to films in the country.
In these books, he tried to describe the best and the worst of India as it changed between the 1960s and the 1990s. His conclusions were insightful, even when they were harsh.
For Naipaul’s views of the nation, senior translator and critic Harish Trivedi has described him as an author with “heartless compassion” for India. Naipaul, whenever he talked about India, was not ready to accept it as just a geographical and political entity. In his view, India is a civilisation, a culture, which has gone through many struggles for its survival.
The Indian Influence
Speaking about the Indian influence on his life and approach towards writing, Naipaul in his Nobel speech had said he was greatly influenced by the short stories his father wrote on the Indian community in Trinidad and Tobago.
“If it were not for the short stories my father wrote I would have known almost nothing about the general life of our Indian community. Those stories gave me more than knowledge. They gave me a kind of solidity. They gave me something to stand on in the world. I cannot imagine what my mental picture would have been without those stories,” he said.
In the speech, Naipaul also described as to how he learnt a lot about India from the writings and actions of leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, along with British-Indian writers like John Masters and Rudyard Kipling.
Nobel Laureate ‘Sir’ Naipaul
It was the year 1990 when V S Naipaul was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
He went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 for “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.
To win the Nobel Prize for Literature and receive a knighthood is the pinnacle of international recognition for exceptionalism.
The World Is What It Is
Naipaul never attempted his autobiography saying it can distort facts. According to him, fiction never lies and reveals a writer totally, but an autobiography ‘can distort; facts can be realigned’.
However, in 2008, Patrick French came out with The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul, in which he examined among other things the legendary author’s life within a displaced community and his fierce ambition at school.
A Life Full of Wonderful Creativity
Naipaul passed away at the age of 85 on August 11, 2018. In the words of his wife, Nadira Naipaul, he was “a giant in all that he achieved and he died surrounded by those he loved having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavour”.
of weaving unforgettable stories, Naipaul cared little what people said about him. He rather wondered only how his writing might fare in time. He was a boy from nowhere, who had made a way in the world with the power of his words alone. In the process, he built a magnificent edifice of letters, which have stood the test of time.
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