Recognising the writing, not the writer

By Raffique Shah
August 29, 2018

Raffique ShahDuring my only visit to India, which I made in 1983, I found myself subconsciously looking everywhere for human faeces. Wherever I went, from the modern quarter of New Delhi where I stayed in what was probably a four-star hotel that overlooked manicured lawns and streets swept clean every day, to the slums that sat like festering sores next to the opulence of Bollywood in what was then Bombay, I kept my eyes peeled, looking for excrement.

Now, this might sound strange to the average person, especially since I was someone of Indian descent who was visiting the land of my ancestors for the first and only time. There is so much to see in that vast sub-continent—ancient historical sites (I did tour the Ajanta caves), the Taj Mahal (which I did not see) and other relics, Mahatma Gandhi’s artifacts and much, much more.

But even as I savoured some of the significant sites, always at the forefront of my mind was: watch out for s*#t!

The reason I was obsessed with this stinky side of a great though complex country is this: in the early 1970s, I had read Vidia Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness”, a scathing book on India—well, the title says it all—in which he repeatedly referred to Indians defecating everywhere. The impression I got was that Indians relieved themselves much the way Trinidadian men urinate when they drink alcohol—on fences and walls, against parked vehicles and available trees, or many times in plain open spaces in full view of anyone who cares to watch.

So I looked and looked—but saw no such thing, although I’m sure it happens, though not as widespread as Naipaul portrayed it.

I had read most of the prolific author’s books, including “The Middle Passage” in which he dissected the West Indian islands with a butcher’s blade rather than a surgeon’s scalpel, so when I travelled to India I should have known that he was prone to casting his undeniably clinical writer’s eye on the bad and the ugly in every country or society he wrote about in fiction and non-fiction, rather than the good.

Regarding his bludgeoning of India, discussing the book with CLR James, who was in my view this country’s greatest philosopher, he said, “How could he (Naipaul) look at a country that produced men like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru and call it ‘an area of darkness’? The area of darkness is in Vidia’s head!”

Almost echoing CLR, the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, questioned Naipaul’s negativity towards her country, asking how could he form such opinions and make blanket pronouncements after a visit that lasted only a few months.

There can be no argument that Naipaul was one of the great writers in English of the 20th Century. His command of the language, his characterisation, his sense of humour, when combined with his prolific production of novels and non-fiction works assures him a prime place in the literary stratosphere that surpasses even the coveted Nobel Prize.

As a voracious reader, I have enjoyed reading his books. For me, his best works were The Mystic Masseur (Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair’s transformation into G. Ramsey-Muir was a classic), The Suffrage of Elvira (primitive electioneering that lingers to this day), and The Mimic Men. I have derived innumerable hours of pleasure from reading Naipaul, and reading about him through the works of Patrick French and Paul Theroux.

At times I was angry over Naipaul’s negative portrayals of people from the land of his birth and other former colonies. I understood that he utilised writers’ license to lampoon political leaders and their invariably blind followers, to have fun at the expense of the ex-colonials, including the intelligentsia, especially the pseudo-versions.

For me, the pity is that Naipaul did not use his writing genius to help uplift his fellow-colonials, to acknowledge that he was one of us who had clambered his way out of the morass through a combination of a gifted intellect and dogged determination.

Instead, he exploited our frailties in all of his early works to gain prominence as an author in a literary world where a miniscule few rise above ordinariness, and having broken through the barrier, abandoned the country of his birth whose education system served as the incubator for his craft.

Look at it this way: had he been born in some remote village in India, would he have enjoyed the opportunities he did here—a solid foundation at the primary and secondary school levels, not to add the scholarship to Oxford University?

While it is true that genius thrives even in hostile environments, the caste system in India in the 1950s was unforgiving as even The Mahatma learned before the assassin’s bullet took his life.

So Naipaul was lucky to have been born and schooled in Trinidad, and it was this country that furnished the characters in his first four novels (Miguel Street is really a collection of short stories) that brought him recognition. It was fellow-Oxonian Dr Eric Williams who commissioned his first non-fiction, quasi-historical book, The Middle Passage, which launched his lifelong career in this genre, some 18 of his 35 published works.

You’d think some acknowledgement if not gratitude was due when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. No one was surprised when he did not, least of all the remaining members of his immediate family who were reportedly not “invited” to his funeral.

I shall continue to read those of his books I haven’t yet read, and re-read some of the better ones I have. But in so doing I’ll be recognising the quality of the writing and storytelling, not the idiosyncrasies of the writer.

4 Responses to “Recognising the writing, not the writer”


  • To amplify your point this undermentioned author really put colour into this submission.

    Naipaul: An Enigma’s Departure

    “He shoulda dead long time; he hated Trinidad,” was the self-righteous, doomsday response of a Trini/American on being informed of the death of Naipaul. This is a Trini who migrated to America near fifty years ago and who has been back here on fewer occasions than Naipaul did (who we have heard often visited Trinidad – if only in a most private capacity).

    This Naipaul-hater not only never read any of Naipaul books but, in fact, never read any books at all other than the West Indian Reader that was compulsory reading at primary school – and which was the highest level of his educational attainment.

    He had however become rich in America and lives now in an exclusive white enclave in New York and boasts that he is the only non-white resident ever accepted there. It is this knowledge of himself as a financial success that makes him feel that he has acquired the transcendence to pass judgement on one such as Naipaul.

    When John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was as if the metaphysical heartbeat that makes the world go round had stopped on his passing; it was assumed that everybody everywhere experienced a heart-stopping moment that day. It was only in recent times researchers revealed to the world that there were Kennedy haters across America who celebrated his death with extravagant all-day and all-night partying.

    I was in NY when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and while for hundreds of millions worldwide her death was as tragic as of one losing a near and dear relative, there in NY were Sikhs handing out sweets and celebrating her death as if it were the most joyous moment in their lives.

    Point is, regardless of who we are, what we have achieved, it seems inevitable that there would always be persons who would let out a big, long steups just at the mention of our names.

    The other point is, those who criticise (us) don’t matter; and those who matter (to us) don’t criticise. This is all within the context of our freedom of choice – that inalienable right to be whatever floats one’s boat.

    Not being another Mark Antony, I am writing here not to bury Naipaul (that is for Nadira) but to celebrate the opportunity and pleasure of having read his writing.

    In a cricket analogy, Naipaul wielded his pen with the pyrotechnical flair of a T20 cricketer, like Gayle, for example, while the writing styles of most others are equivalent to watching the pedestrian stroll-in-the-park batting of a five day test with Geoff Boycott.

    So hear this: Naipaul sees faeces on the ceiling of a toilet in India and wonders what kind of yogic position it required to achieve such a feat. He sees again people exercising and in the matrix of their contortions it looks to him as if it were a yoga Olympiad underway.

    It is not what you say but how you say what you say is an adage that has become cliche to all of us, and Naipaul was the custodian of that truth. He allowed us to see what he saw but in language that painted a thousand pictures in technicolour.

    So on his Islamic journey through Pakistan he comes to a hut after a long, arduous day of lonely traveling where an Indian man and his two daughters host him for the evening and having fed him roti and tarkari (and a cup of Cocoa, I think) – a meal that is so typical of an Indo/Trini one, his admission that he could have surrendered himself to that life of theirs was so vivid that one could not read that experience of his and not identify with it.

    When I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight children, I felt I could actually hear the voices of the people in the background, in the streets, because Rushdie’s writing communicates to us aurally – i.e. we hear what he hears – which is what makes him great, as well.

    Naipaul, however, was more visual, so he let us see what he saw. While his socio-political views generated the greater interest in his books, it was so because he did not see the pen as the weapon of a literary guerilla warrior hiding and sniping, afraid to show his true self, but used it instead as a muralist’s brush for billboard advertising on, say, 42nd street in NY which proclaimed, what you see is what you get. I only tell it as I see it.

    Millions deny who they are, where they originated. Michael Jackson, for example, in his white transfiguration, openly rejected his black heritage because he saw himself white. Did Afro/Americans hate him for that rejection of his and their blackness or did they just focus on his music ignoring his idiosyncratic “white” narcissism?

    And did they also damn him when it became known that he abused little boys and paid out large sums of hush money to keep the matter swept under his bedsheets?

    He without sin cast the first stone is such a profound challenge to mankind that it reiterates the saying, judge not that ye be not judged. Sure, Naipaul’s personal life was imperfect and that he was irascible and crude and a whoring philanderer, but, hey, how many of us could cast that first stone in our holier-than-thou sense of our self as we condemn him?

    VS Naipaul came, he saw and he wrote about it and via his books on shelves across the globe, he has immortalised himself by his own hand while his detractors would be forgotten on the delivery of their own eulogy..

    Although there is no need to say it, one finds it hard to ignore. So: long live one of the masters of the English language.

    L. Siddhartha Orie

    Author of Pyrotechnics in Essays

    __._,_.___

    __,_._,___

    Naipaul: An Enigma’s Departure

    “He shoulda dead long time; he hated Trinidad,” was the self-righteous, doomsday response of a Trini/American on being informed of the death of Naipaul. This is a Trini who migrated to America near fifty years ago and who has been back here on fewer occasions than Naipaul did (who we have heard often visited Trinidad – if only in a most private capacity).

    This Naipaul-hater not only never read any of Naipaul books but, in fact, never read any books at all other than the West Indian Reader that was compulsory reading at primary school – and which was the highest level of his educational attainment.

    He had however become rich in America and lives now in an exclusive white enclave in New York and boasts that he is the only non-white resident ever accepted there. It is this knowledge of himself as a financial success that makes him feel that he has acquired the transcendence to pass judgement on one such as Naipaul.

    When John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was as if the metaphysical heartbeat that makes the world go round had stopped on his passing; it was assumed that everybody everywhere experienced a heart-stopping moment that day. It was only in recent times researchers revealed to the world that there were Kennedy haters across America who celebrated his death with extravagant all-day and all-night partying.

    I was in NY when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and while for hundreds of millions worldwide her death was as tragic as of one losing a near and dear relative, there in NY were Sikhs handing out sweets and celebrating her death as if it were the most joyous moment in their lives.

    Point is, regardless of who we are, what we have achieved, it seems inevitable that there would always be persons who would let out a big, long steups just at the mention of our names.

    The other point is, those who criticise (us) don’t matter; and those who matter (to us) don’t criticise. This is all within the context of our freedom of choice – that inalienable right to be whatever floats one’s boat.

    Not being another Mark Antony, I am writing here not to bury Naipaul (that is for Nadira) but to celebrate the opportunity and pleasure of having read his writing.

    In a cricket analogy, Naipaul wielded his pen with the pyrotechnical flair of a T20 cricketer, like Gayle, for example, while the writing styles of most others are equivalent to watching the pedestrian stroll-in-the-park batting of a five day test with Geoff Boycott.

    So hear this: Naipaul sees faeces on the ceiling of a toilet in India and wonders what kind of yogic position it required to achieve such a feat. He sees again people exercising and in the matrix of their contortions it looks to him as if it were a yoga Olympiad underway.

    It is not what you say but how you say what you say is an adage that has become cliche to all of us, and Naipaul was the custodian of that truth. He allowed us to see what he saw but in language that painted a thousand pictures in technicolour.

    So on his Islamic journey through Pakistan he comes to a hut after a long, arduous day of lonely traveling where an Indian man and his two daughters host him for the evening and having fed him roti and tarkari (and a cup of Cocoa, I think) – a meal that is so typical of an Indo/Trini one, his admission that he could have surrendered himself to that life of theirs was so vivid that one could not read that experience of his and not identify with it.

    When I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight children, I felt I could actually hear the voices of the people in the background, in the streets, because Rushdie’s writing communicates to us aurally – i.e. we hear what he hears – which is what makes him great, as well.

    Naipaul, however, was more visual, so he let us see what he saw. While his socio-political views generated the greater interest in his books, it was so because he did not see the pen as the weapon of a literary guerilla warrior hiding and sniping, afraid to show his true self, but used it instead as a muralist’s brush for billboard advertising on, say, 42nd street in NY which proclaimed, what you see is what you get. I only tell it as I see it.

    Millions deny who they are, where they originated. Michael Jackson, for example, in his white transfiguration, openly rejected his black heritage because he saw himself white. Did Afro/Americans hate him for that rejection of his and their blackness or did they just focus on his music ignoring his idiosyncratic “white” narcissism?

    And did they also damn him when it became known that he abused little boys and paid out large sums of hush money to keep the matter swept under his bedsheets?

    He without sin cast the first stone is such a profound challenge to mankind that it reiterates the saying, judge not that ye be not judged. Sure, Naipaul’s personal life was imperfect and that he was irascible and crude and a whoring philanderer, but, hey, how many of us could cast that first stone in our holier-than-thou sense of our self as we condemn him?

    VS Naipaul came, he saw and he wrote about it and via his books on shelves across the globe, he has immortalised himself by his own hand while his detractors would be forgotten on the delivery of their own eulogy..

    Although there is no need to say it, one finds it hard to ignore. So: long live one of the masters of the English language.

    L. Siddhartha Orie

    Author of Pyrotechnics in Essays

    __._,_.___

    __,_._,___

    Naipaul: An Enigma’s Departure

    “He shoulda dead long time; he hated Trinidad,” was the self-righteous, doomsday response of a Trini/American on being informed of the death of Naipaul. This is a Trini who migrated to America near fifty years ago and who has been back here on fewer occasions than Naipaul did (who we have heard often visited Trinidad – if only in a most private capacity).

    This Naipaul-hater not only never read any of Naipaul books but, in fact, never read any books at all other than the West Indian Reader that was compulsory reading at primary school – and which was the highest level of his educational attainment.

    He had however become rich in America and lives now in an exclusive white enclave in New York and boasts that he is the only non-white resident ever accepted there. It is this knowledge of himself as a financial success that makes him feel that he has acquired the transcendence to pass judgement on one such as Naipaul.

    When John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was as if the metaphysical heartbeat that makes the world go round had stopped on his passing; it was assumed that everybody everywhere experienced a heart-stopping moment that day. It was only in recent times researchers revealed to the world that there were Kennedy haters across America who celebrated his death with extravagant all-day and all-night partying.

    I was in NY when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and while for hundreds of millions worldwide her death was as tragic as of one losing a near and dear relative, there in NY were Sikhs handing out sweets and celebrating her death as if it were the most joyous moment in their lives.

    Point is, regardless of who we are, what we have achieved, it seems inevitable that there would always be persons who would let out a big, long steups just at the mention of our names.

    The other point is, those who criticise (us) don’t matter; and those who matter (to us) don’t criticise. This is all within the context of our freedom of choice – that inalienable right to be whatever floats one’s boat.

    Not being another Mark Antony, I am writing here not to bury Naipaul (that is for Nadira) but to celebrate the opportunity and pleasure of having read his writing.

    In a cricket analogy, Naipaul wielded his pen with the pyrotechnical flair of a T20 cricketer, like Gayle, for example, while the writing styles of most others are equivalent to watching the pedestrian stroll-in-the-park batting of a five day test with Geoff Boycott.

    So hear this: Naipaul sees faeces on the ceiling of a toilet in India and wonders what kind of yogic position it required to achieve such a feat. He sees again people exercising and in the matrix of their contortions it looks to him as if it were a yoga Olympiad underway.

    It is not what you say but how you say what you say is an adage that has become cliche to all of us, and Naipaul was the custodian of that truth. He allowed us to see what he saw but in language that painted a thousand pictures in technicolour.

    So on his Islamic journey through Pakistan he comes to a hut after a long, arduous day of lonely traveling where an Indian man and his two daughters host him for the evening and having fed him roti and tarkari (and a cup of Cocoa, I think) – a meal that is so typical of an Indo/Trini one, his admission that he could have surrendered himself to that life of theirs was so vivid that one could not read that experience of his and not identify with it.

    When I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight children, I felt I could actually hear the voices of the people in the background, in the streets, because Rushdie’s writing communicates to us aurally – i.e. we hear what he hears – which is what makes him great, as well.

    Naipaul, however, was more visual, so he let us see what he saw. While his socio-political views generated the greater interest in his books, it was so because he did not see the pen as the weapon of a literary guerilla warrior hiding and sniping, afraid to show his true self, but used it instead as a muralist’s brush for billboard advertising on, say, 42nd street in NY which proclaimed, what you see is what you get. I only tell it as I see it.

    Millions deny who they are, where they originated. Michael Jackson, for example, in his white transfiguration, openly rejected his black heritage because he saw himself white. Did Afro/Americans hate him for that rejection of his and their blackness or did they just focus on his music ignoring his idiosyncratic “white” narcissism?

    And did they also damn him when it became known that he abused little boys and paid out large sums of hush money to keep the matter swept under his bedsheets?

    He without sin cast the first stone is such a profound challenge to mankind that it reiterates the saying, judge not that ye be not judged. Sure, Naipaul’s personal life was imperfect and that he was irascible and crude and a whoring philanderer, but, hey, how many of us could cast that first stone in our holier-than-thou sense of our self as we condemn him?

    VS Naipaul came, he saw and he wrote about it and via his books on shelves across the globe, he has immortalised himself by his own hand while his detractors would be forgotten on the delivery of their own eulogy..

    Although there is no need to say it, one finds it hard to ignore. So: long live one of the masters of the English language.

    L. Siddhartha Orie
    Author of Pyrotechnics in Essays

  • Naipaul lived in an era that was far diffrent from this present era. Colonialism, self hate, aristocracy, all dances in his mind and comes out in his writing.

    But it is correct to say all those events shaped his thinking and causes us pause for reflection. Colonialism created a social order of British superiority and those subjected to British imperialism embraced the superiority of the white man. I see it quite often in those who are over 70 years. It is almost like a worship of the colonial masters. They are quick to put their own down but easily embraces massa. We see it in tnt with the untouchable 1%, who are billionaires whilst the masses suffer.

    It is self hate reflected in his writings when it comes to human defecation all over the place in India. How can an astute man identify with these barbaric practices. But that self hate moved him to Britain where he felt most comfortable. ….

  • so he was an ahole, so was steve jobs, so is elon musk and the oxygen wasting parasite in the white house.

  • Naipaul saw things which were current and he had good judgement and was not afraid to write. Because of this he was ridiculed.
    Look where we are today? PETROTRIN for instance???
    The people in charge I would not say leadership do not have the capacity to discuss the future? to allay the fears.If that company was experiencing a loss what was the benefit to T&T maybe employee income taxes but did they pass it on to the BIR?
    Naipaul had great discernment but in T&T people of such high ability are considered troublemakers as Ghandi, MLK, JC, Mandela etc. Look at T&T now who are the beneficiaries?? The MPs who get a salary by trickery they are all hustlers??
    Who is going tt stand up and speak to the country about the future with knowledge and truth and conviction. No one ??
    You see Williams and Bhadase did not fall into that category.
    Neither Hochoy or Hassanali

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