V.S. Naipaul – Complex, Controversial but Brilliant

To say that Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was gifted writer is to understate the brilliance of an irascible, irritating and often provocative author. Nor is it enough to describe him as a Nobel Laureate and winner of the Booker Prize. He was an icon. No other term does him justice.

While Sir Vidia made his home in England, he was, as is well known, born in the small town of Chaguanas in Trinidad. His father, Seepersad Naipaul, had an uneasy relationship with his in-laws, the prosperous and then powerful Capildeo family. Much of what shaped the tenor of Sir Vidia’s early writing and to a great extent his prickly personality stems from trying to come to terms with this relationship.

His novels – fifteen in total, reflect the societies in which he either resided or explored. Many of the earlier novels described the complex interplay of identities that comprise Trinidad’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. These reflect, at first, his somewhat contemptuous attitude towards the Indo-Trinidadian society in which he was born. The Mystic Masseur reflected early colonial politics and the deracination that many Indo-Trinidadians actively embraced to progress in colonial society.

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A House for Mr. Biswas, however, was very much a reflection on Naipaul’s father and the relationship with the Capildeos. His reflections on post-colonial societies continued to explore topics from the introduction of Parliamentary elections in Trinidad (the Suffrage of Elvira) to the complicated and often tragic relationship between Indian merchants and African politics as new governments came to the fore in the continent (A Bend in the River).

Yet, I submit, that it was as a non-fiction writer, that Sir Vidia showed not only his absolute brilliance but his evolution. He was initially condescending and pessimistic about post-colonial societies, having some particularly harsh words on India. However, perhaps reflecting his growing maturity, his work increasingly became less judgmental and more open to the positive with A Million Mutinies Now being among his finest works.

Sir Vidia mastered the art of writing about societies without judging them. Among the Believers gave an insight into Islamic societies without ever denigrating them – a trend continued in Beyond Belief. However, his last book, The Masque of Africa, was beyond brilliant. It was a deep, sympathetic and incredible insight into the resurgence of traditional African beliefs in the continent. Few writers before or since have ever delivered works of similar quality and certainly not with an underlying current of positivity.

What will Sir Vidia’s legacy be? He carved out a unique identity. He was comfortable with both his “Englishness” and his “Indianness” although much less so about his “Trinidadianess”. As an author, his levels of identity comfort were reflected in the way he wrote and in his approach to societies. Yet he is an inspiration to any kid from a small town aspiring to be a writer. It is perhaps this last aspect that will be Sir Vidia’s everlasting legacy – that neither origin nor country of origin should stop one from pursuing a passion.

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