Remembering VS Naipaul, The Author Who Lives Through His Characters
Through his books, Naipaul looks for answers, struggles between his own desires and the wants of the world, of looking for connections and being crippled by rootlessness. By reading his books, we can find a window into his mind and soul.
Facebook photo of author VS Naipaul.
But everything of value about me is in my books – VS Naipaul during his Nobel lecture.
At the heart of 'A House for Mr. Biswas' is the idea of developing one’s identity which is authentic and rooted. The novel is a metaphor for VS Naipaul’s own life, which encompassed straddling two worlds and a persistent quest for belonging.
I was introduced to Naipaul as part of a literature course. At that point of time, my idea of literature and literary classics was Dickens, Austen, and Bronte. At the most, I could stretch my knowledge of literature outside the classical norm to RK Narayan and Amar Chitra Katha. My experience of literature, therefore, was as Adichie spoke of in her Ted Talks on “The Danger of a Single Story”. I dreamed of afternoon tea and wide English countryside of birch, oak, and pine.
So when I picked up my first Naipaul [which had coincidentally won the Booker Prize and was internationally acclaimed], I was sceptic. No, I think I sneered. My experience of literature until then was that of a subject to its powerful benefactor. Their thoughts were my thoughts; what they believed to be great was also my idea of great. Obviously, when they considered Narayan to be one of the classics [incidentally because Graham Greene was a huge champion of his], I also thought it was so.
Naipaul, then, came as an epiphany. He and his works opened my eyes to a literature beyond. World literature is a platform that makes one realise the enormity of literature. It gives you a sense of the sheer volume of books and ideas produced and consumed around the world. And the different ways they are written. Naipaul was the first author who took my hand and led me down this rabbit hole.
“But, bigger than them all was the house, his house” – The opening lines from the book so poignant speak not just of the desperate wishes of the main character but also on a larger scale of the odyssey of the author to carve out a space for himself. Naipaul’s origins are from Nepal and he was brought up in Trinidad. This provides a fundamental schism in his identity — more so when it comes from minimal information that one has about one’s origins.
In his Nobel lecture, he informed us that except for a list of names from an 1872 gazetteer, he had no knowledge of his father’s genealogical history. Mohun Biswas’s dream throughout the novel was to create his own space — the house he builds become a metaphor for attaining an unquestionable identity of his own. Naipaul, much like his authorial incarnation, is looking for something unquestionable — be it identity or be it calling.
When you are reading Naipaul, you cannot escape his ideas of crisis, alienation and a need to belong. Now, years later I think of another Trinidadian author, Derek Walcott. Walcott talked about indigenous stories which highlight the struggle between needing to be one’s own self and the debilitating effects of having been a colonial outpost in history. Naipaul’s vision, however, is not as nationalistic as Walcott’s. Walcott looked for answers in history, Naipaul is seeking a reclamation of his own soul.
Naipaul repeatedly said that all the value present in him could be found in his books. Through his books, he looks for answers, struggles between his own desires and the wants of the world, of looking for connections and being crippled by rootlessness. By reading his books, we can find a window into Naipaul’s own mind and soul.
Of course, when I read Naipaul, I wasn’t thinking in terms of fancy words. At that time, I was thinking that this was an author who has shown me something exotic. I was fascinated by the descriptions of rural Trinidad much like my later fascination with the worlds of Macondo and Yoknapatahwa. Naipaul’s world was something like mine except laced in a certain novelty — it was the same and yet it was so very different.
But what I ultimately identified with was Mr. Biswas’ absolute belief that by acquiring a house, he would finally acquire a sense of belonging. We all sometime or the other equate emotions with material belonging. It’s very essentially human. Naipaul captures this human instinct in insightful detail.
“… to have lived without attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
When I think of Naipaul’s literary success, I always return to this quote from the prologue of 'A House of Mr. Biswas'. This not only captures the angst of the protagonist living under the Tulsi household of confinement and his need to find a place of one’s own but also serves as a mirror to the author’s journey from his early attempts to write. Naipaul’s father believed in the power of words and the young Naipaul’s dream of becoming a writer stemmed from this belief.
The early Naipaul suffered from the need to write and the belief that what he wrote was not good enough. This personal struggle finds expression in his works in different ways. Mr. Biswas of the novel is just one manifestation of the author’s struggle.
I went back to reading Naipaul later in the academic career [he is after all a literary curriculum standard] and there was some of my childish enjoyment and sense of discovery still intact when I reread 'A House for Mr. Biswas'. I also looked at some of his interviews and read his Nobel acceptance speech titled ‘Two Worlds’. It amazed me that just how much of the author resides in his fictional words. Naipaul’s words are honest and there is a quiet bravery in the way he has injected his own life into the life of his characters.
If one wants a portrait of Naipaul, one needs only to read his words and there he will be waiting for your reading.
(Rujita Das has a PhD in Indian and world literature from EFL University. Views are personal)
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