SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Open letter to Sir Naipaul
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
Dear Mr. Naipaul,
Forgive me for not calling you Sir Vidia. Somehow, that doesn’t trip off my tongue easily. Perhaps it is the democratic ethos of our country. Or perhaps, as you say about most things, it’s all a matter of identity. In any case, I hope you will not treat this as lese majeste or whatever is the equivalent for acquired nobility.
And if you have forgiven me, allow me to introduce myself. I am an Indian. Born in India, grew up in India. Also a writer of sorts, with two modest books under my belt. Only two; and only rooted in my own country, not an icon of rootlessness. So you see, we are different and it is no surprise that you do not know me. We have met once. Sorry, I should say that we have crossed each other once, in the lobby of a five-star hotel, a place which is a far cry from the area of darkness that you had once come to when your attention had been gripped by so many people defecating in the open. I suppose these hotels provide you a tranquil environment, where you can formulate in peace, with many servile Indians standing by to serve you, your next attack on an already wounded civilisation. You passed me by; you were, as truly great and perceptive writers should always be doing, looking into the middle distance. I felt the rush, nothing else.
Never mind that we are strangers; we have the relationship of the word. I buy and read your books. And I have just put down your latest creation: A Writer’s People. Unmatched lucid and elegant prose with each phrase turned just right. About 200 pages of the wanderings of your mind, which can go, in its characteristic withering sweep, from Caribbean recollections to Roman civilisation, from Greek classics to the woes of Carthage.
At a cursory reading one may be forgiven for thinking that the book is a loose collection of random thoughts, rambling opinions, chance recollections. But that would be wrong. Of course, there is a link — the link of your masterly contempt, your lofty scorn, your noble disdain, your habitual dislike, particularly when it comes to all the literary figures you ever encountered. I know you try to be generous about them but what can you do if, sooner or later, they fall below your standards and can only be discarded and dismissed.
Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet whom you so admired once, ended up being “ordinary, a man in need of a job”. Graham Greene was, in any case, not good enough; you said that he didn’t make his subject clear.
Evelyn Waugh gave you trouble and there wasn’t anything to learn from Somerset Maugham. “Not because Maugham was bad”, you mercifully add, but because your material was too far away from his! You enjoyed the literary encouragement and friendship of Anthony Powell without reading his major works and when you finally did, of course the work was appalling, shapeless, careless, over-explained and nakedly autobiographical. Flaubert, after showing some early promise, became shallow and self-congratulatory.
You admire Gandhi’s autobiography for its narrative ease but only till the halfway mark, when it becomes “fractured”. And Gandhi was a complete blank about his early days in London, you say, just as Nehru was about the same city, or about Harrow or Cambridge. It couldn’t be, could it, that these gentlemen had more on their minds than the angst of a foreigner in England, or how was it that you put it, ever so elegantly, the enigma of arrival?
Nirad Chaudhuri (and I must confess that as a young student, I used to regularly commit sacrilege by thinking of him and you in the same breath, two Indian origin big names who had made England their home and wrote uncomfortable things about us), well, Nirad babu “had no idea what scholarship meant” and whenever he tried his hand at analysis he became “vain and mad.”
Actually I shouldn’t say anything more. Wisdom dictates that one should step aside when titans clash…only, in this case, all the other titans are conveniently dead. Life is short, Mr. Naipaul, don’t tell us anymore whom you don’t like. Instead, tell us, is there anyone you like at all? I have a feeling that will not need another book. Probably a one-liner will suffice.
But there is also the small matter of the other nameless Indian writers — the entire post-Rushdie generation, whom you have reduced to a post-script and damned on several counts… the novels are by and large autobiographical; they are all daddyji, mamaji, nanee, chacha stories; we are a one-author-one-book country; we imitate; Indian novels are only published abroad, read abroad, analysed abroad; there is no Indian literature or Indian soul of the Russian kind; we in India are hard and materialistic, bothered only with advances and prizes, not with literary worth…. And so on.
First, Mr. Naipaul, the Indian novel was not born with “India’s improved English education…” Great novels have been written in several Indian languages before Midnight’s Children. Remember Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Prem Chand, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Nanak Singh…all real Indian novels creating Indian literature, depicting the Indian landscape, Indian dilemmas and exploring and enriching the Indian soul.
But I am sorry. We have too many languages and not enough translation. One cannot expect you to have read all these writers. If you did, you may not have been able to write your own books.
Even if we restrict ourselves to those writing in English (clearly you do not have in mind the Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan group), there are several authors — Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Tharoor to mention only three — who have been both prolific and also tackled much larger themes than the extended family.
And in any case what’s so wrong in being autobiographical. Have you never drawn from people you knew, your own life and experience? Wasn’t A House for Mr. Biswas based on someone close to you? And in your new book we read several pages about your mother’s mother (nanee in our philistine world) and even about her mattress-maker.
And the literary landscape in India today? Surely when you are interviewed by carefully selected admirers, when you argue whimsically at some literary festival in Rajasthan, when you allow your book to be excerpted by prominent magazines, you must be aware of our publishing industry, our reading public, literary magazines, the adulation of writers, the respect and so on. And you must like it. Else why would you be here so often? And besides, I am sure it has not escaped you, India has only one major literary prize and that too with negligible money attached and for most writers, virtually negligible advances. But yet people write, and people read.
This letter is already too long and I doubt that it will ever get to your orderly Wiltshire home, with its English roses and dahlias. Just one parting request: if this country is so hopeless, its literature so bankrupt, its literary soul so vacuous, then why not just let us be? You see, we are like this only.