The crisis-ridden identity of V S Naipaul

Dhaka,  Sat,  03 December 2016
Published : 24 Nov 2016, 20:53:05

The crisis-ridden identity of V S Naipaul

Shihab Sarkar
It turned out to be a memorable experience to see one of the global literary celebrities talk at an event at Bangla Academy on last  November 18. The person was V S Naipaul, the Nobel-winning Trinidad-British novelist. The occasion marked the second day's programme at the 3-day Dhaka Lit Fest 2016. As expected, this year's festival, the event's sixth, comprising ninety literary and allied sessions, was eventually found centring round V S Naipaul. A total of sixty overseas authors participated in the Fest apart from the local writers and performers.

Naipaul is a third-generation descendant of the Indian diaspora. His veins carry the blood of his grandparents who migrated to Trinidad andTobago in the 1880s. Despite being an offspring of Trinidad-born parents, Naipaul could never fully come free of his legacy of migration. The Asian lineage has kept haunting him throughout the major part of his writing career. Being a writer in quest of varied types of both objective and subjective topics involving man, Naipaul could end up as just a brilliant author. Thanks to his prolific nature, he has been seen tirelessly exploring the inner worlds of the individual, as well as communities. In his around 50 fictions and non-fictions, the author presents his peripatetic self out to the readers. 

In the mundane sense, Naipaul was a passionate traveller. He loved to move from one place to another, and watch humans in their varied identities.  At the same time, the author kept diving into the inner recesses of man. The area is shrouded in twilight. But the seemingly indefatigable author has never stopped swimming through the undercurrents. When it comes to understanding the modern man in general and him in particular, the reader appears baffled. 

As the 84-year-old writer appeared on dais in a packed Bangla Academy auditorium with his wife Nadira Naipaul, the host Ahsan Akbar, co-director of the festival and also a poet, had already presented a brief introduction on him. The programme was titled 'Writer and the World --- V S Naipaul with Ahsan Akbar'. Eventually, the session turned out to be an informal conversation with Naipaul.  

The wheelchair-bound author looked serene, composed and engrossed in thoughts. The very opening of the nearly one and a half hours talk slipped into the areas of the artist's angst, and also restlessness, which Naipaul had to pass through in the budding period of his literary career. For the author in his early twenties, the virtually unexplainable problem of difficulty beginning a writing career and choosing the subjects later developed into an entrenched dread. He could not find what to write about, an impasse of sorts that had plagued him for long, even after he emerged as a famed novelist.

 In his Lit Fest appearance on dais, the author was found repeatedly going back to those tormenting days when he did not know what he would write about. To add to this psychological ordeal, he had to undergo derisive queries as to why he had decided to pick the writing career. At one point of the conversation, the writer was found lost in the recollections of his past days, when Ahsan Akbar came to his rescue. On behalf of the writer he told the audience that one day in the early 1950s, Naipaul found himself in the dark corner of a room at BBC in London. And in a flash of a moment he found something to write about.

"It was a bit of magic," the author says assuming an air of being relieved of a terrible crisis. Thus began the non-stop journey of a writer, who did not want to do anything but write. With his stint with BBC over, Naipaul picked writing as his profession. He wanted to remain free of all kinds of bondage to observe things. He had to pay dearly for this artist's freedom. On occasions, he would discover himself lost in a void, a euphemism for financial and material crisis. But he somehow managed to stick to writing. Naipaul let the Dhaka audience know that financial worries and uncertainties had shadowed him throughout his life. 

Early in his career, he made a trip to Spain. It almost turned out to be futile and sheer loss of time.  The aspiring novelist was still an obscure figure in the British literary circles until he published his A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). It was the very book that had brought him world-wide recognition of a powerful author. Henceforth Naipaul did not have to look back. In the following decades, he wrote around 50 books, most of them fictions. The most widely read books by him include A House for Mr. Biswas, An Area of Darkness, In a Free State, A Bend in the River, Half a Life, etc. His publications also included travels and autobiographical sketches. In a unique style blending reflective thoughts with forthrightness, he wrote about his socio-cultural experiences in his birthplace, Trinidad, some African countries, India, and the Islamic world including a few Asian nations. 

As an author preoccupied with colonial legacies, the working of beliefs, especially those related to religion and migration, Naipaul had been eagerly expected to produce a work like Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). It is the chronicle of a six-month journey across the Islamic world in Asia after the Iranian Revolution. Thanks to the writer's penchant for incisive analysis of society and civilisations, a few of his observations in the book provoked stir. The critically acclaimed book eventually gained wide readership throughout the world. 

Naipaul's quest for delving into history and socio-cultural edifices of communities at times appeared to be indomitable. He could not stop at Among the Believers. In 1998, the author published the book's sequel Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples.

Perhaps considering Naipaul's frail physical condition, the Lit Fest host Ahsan avoided asking the writer serious questions, although the audience seemed to be eager to hear from him his views about serious topics. In his answers, the writer was often found stopping half way through and asking Ahsan to repeat the questions. The fumbles, however, were overlapped, and thus had faded away, with the writer's punches of sharp humour. 

With the writer remaining reticent throughout a pretty good length of the session, his wife Nadira Naipaul talked for him. Naipaul married her in 1996 after the death of his first wife Patricia Ann Hale. A former Pakistani journalist, Nadira passed her teenage life in Dhaka in the 1960s. Fondly recalling her sweet days in Dhaka, she told the audience how she had been nurturing a piece of Dhaka in her. It's by using this piece of information that Nadira could succeed in persuading Naipaul to visit the Bangladesh capital. 

Nadira shared with the audience a few interesting incidents from the life of Naipaul the writer. Although it may sound idiosyncratic, a vow of Naipaul had once been to unlearn the lessons of Oxford University. The writer at one time turned against all formal channels of learning, and began preferring real life experience to class room, Nadira told us. However, Naipaul told the audience several times he could have done nothing in life without taking up the writer's career.  "I would've nothing to do. It could have been too awful," he confessed.

Apart from the relieving moments of subtle humour, Naipaul's was, in fact, a serious presence. Coming to a writer's self, he said an author would be benefited by assuming country-specific identity. He himself had several of them. A certain country builds the writer's creative self in accordance with its basic features. Although focused on the Caribbean-Creole region, the writer Naipaul has kept growing on the British, French and Dutch identities. The West Indies and South American ambiences also had major impacts on his development as a writer.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul has shown his keen interest in socio-cultural crises of the world all through. But finally, he stands out with his life-long anxieties about adapting to the realities of being nowhere --- a predicament from which immigrants and their later generations struggle to come out throughout their lives. His non-fiction An Area of Darkness (1964), an account of his trip to India in the 1960s, and novel Half a Life (2001), set in India, Africa and Europe, record this agony in sharp details. 

Like in the last few fests of the 6-year Dhaka international literary festival, the 2016 event also drew large crowds of arts-loving people. Apart from literary programmes, this year's Lit Fest also presented sessions of Bangla and English folk songs, film screenings, staging of a play, talks, etc. This year's book fair witnessed the participation of around two dozen publishers with the fairground covering a wider area.

shihabskr@ymail.com  

 
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