Winning the ultimate honour in Literature, the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his novel ‘Half a Life’, Naipaul carried forward his literary course with sustained zeal. Earlier, he had been knighted by the British in 1998. Naipaul had come a long way from the ghettos of Trinidad where his ancestors from India were supposed to have worked as bonded labourers. Naipaul first wrote about the life in these ghettos, in ‘The Mystic Masseur’, while as student under a scholarship scheme at Oxford in the first part of 1950s. He penned novels, travelogues and essays, based on lives in Trinidad, India, the Caribbean Islands, and of societies across Asia, including Pakistan and Indonesia. His understanding of societies was intricate. Notably, he had hinted at the gathering storm of Islamic fundamentalism long before it had surfaced. He had married a Pakistani national. His travelogue ‘An Area of Darkness’ in 1964 described his trip through India. Later as part of his trilogy, he wrote ‘India: A Wounded Civilisation’ which was considered by many as being sceptical about India.
Through seasons of poverty, fame, controversies and romance, Naipaul carried on, his head held high. Although many Indians claim Naipaul was essentially of Indian origin, he himself had stated that his ancestors were probably among the Nepali Hindu settlers in Banaras; of which one generation reached up to Trinidad as labourers for the British companies. Hence his surname — Nepali turning into Naipaul, thanks to the British. Naipaul followed on his father’s interest in journalism, eventually becoming an acclaimed writer himself. Through his writings, he often drew sharp criticism as he boldly took stands that did not please the establishment. Quick instances were when he called India a slave society, mocked Indian women by saying the red dot they put on their forehead was a silent declaration that their heads were empty, and took the side of the Whites in Africa much to the annoyance of the Blacks fighting for Independence. Naipaul projected India as an “area of darkness”. And he always preferred to be distanced from India. He stated pithily at one time that he had learnt his “separateness from India” and was “content with being a colonial”.
The literary and narrative qualities of his works overshadowed the controversies he generated. The Nobel Prize panel had noted he, like Joseph Conrad, portrayed the “destinies of empires in the moral sense, what they do to human beings”, and that his “authority of a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten”. Naipaul didn’t follow on the beaten track in his analysis of societies present and past. The world of Naipaul, said one critique, “is charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact”. For Naipaul, as a writer, seeing was believing. His portrayal was matter-of-fact. He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind.
Little wonder, Naipaul’s personal life remained controversial. One among the women he lived with openly complained of physical and mental torture. He spent the last years of his life with a former Pakistani woman journalist, as his wife, after the two met at a diplomatic event in Lahore. His own exposure to the Islamic world, including Pakistan and Indonesia, helped him write on Islam. Notably he was among the first to sense the rising spirit of Islamic fundamentalism — much before the Osama-led attacks on the US took place. When the fatwa was issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie, Naipaul saw it as an extreme form of literary criticism.
Naipaul passes into history — that he has part created, and part left behind for future generations. His works will live on, continuing to enthrall and enlighten readers around the world.