V.S. Naipaul is a small man, rounded in the middle and eloquently spoken. His accent is educated and British, his movements sparing, as if all his energy has been spent on interpreting the world, then presenting it in text. Naipaul, at 78, is an archetypal, intellectual NRI: born in Trinidad, he’s a postcolonial novelist, often writing on some level about the sense of belonging, or lack thereof, felt by NRIs; in 2007, he called on his fellow Trinidadians to let go of Indian and African, and instead embrace Trinidad. He’s been criticized for his pro-Western views, his stance on the “Muslim invasion”, and his arguably neo-apologist comments.
When I saw Naipaul read from his latest work, The Masque of Africa, in Harvard Square last month, I was struck by two things: His vulnerability, and the lack of Indians in the audience. In his writing, Naipaul is God. Even in his travelogues, he’s removed from the text, yet somehow questioning every detail of every life, slightly awed (and perhaps afraid) of the actions his characters. His novels, as Eliza Griswold says in a New York Times review of Masque,
“...let a story build itself quietly through accretion, through accumulated observations of those he meets. His is neither a romantic’s nor an anthropologist’s tale. It is a collection of voices that make sense only in relation to one another...There’s not a lot of unnecessary scene-setting: what’s important is what’s being said.”
In person, though, the Godhead is gone, replaced by a surprisingly naked need: Naipaul paused often, waiting for help across the stage, or even to catch his breath.
Seated in the back row of the main floor in the theater--a seat I’d picked more for its view of the exit queue than anything else--I saw no Indians (though perhaps one or two half Indians) in the audience, though I did hear one Indian accent. Earlier in the week, an Indian friend had said the Boston Indian community was largely uninterested in Naipaul, but I hadn’t believed her; watching the crowd leave the theater, I saw she was right.
Generally speaking, I keep my authors separate from their lives: I prefer to read a book, and get a sense of it in terms of my own life rather than theirs. After all, a book, a story, is a contract between author and reader--I will bring my baggage to you, you will bring your baggage to me, and together, we will make a story worth reading. Occasionally, I’m forced to delve a little deeper for work, but it’s rare. Watching Naipaul’s audience trickle out of the theater, though, I was left with questions about the man himself. What about Naipaul doesn’t speak to the NRI masses?
Trying to work the problem through, I did what I always do: hit the bookshelves. Pulling down work by the other NRI authors I have around the house--Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh--I laid them out on the floor. Next, I fetched the other post-colonial authors I had on hand, Arundhati Roy, Jean Rhys, and Tsitsi Dangaremba, and started to read.
It was not a long reading. I rarely have time to read deeply unless it’s truly for work nowadays, something I need to review, or take note of (in another life, I’m a books writer and would-be novelist). But even reading short passages in small bites, the NRI novels were paler than their other post-colonial companions. For all their lush descriptions (and overripe prose, in the case of Mr. Rushdie) and careful character work, they were easy for me to identify with yet somehow also removed, in a way Roy, Dangaremba, and Rhys were not.
Full disclosure: I have a predisposition to loving Jean Rhys; I’ve never visited India, let alone lived there. But my sense of these NRI authors, and particularly Naipaul, is that they are in my boat--they’re experiencing India, and Indianness, from a similar place to me, with my nice (albeit untidy) apartment in a good area of town, with a Starbucks down the road and a bookstore within walking distance. Many of them choose to write in English first, which although smart in terms of readership and marketing, peels away another layer of Indianness the books can ill afford. Roy, Rhys, and Dangaremba, in comparison, have characters I can relate to, but settings I cannot. Their lives are not my life. Their homes are not my homes, their families not my family.
Writing is a solitary, personal kind of art. Books are a contract between reader and author, but an author can’t think about their readers, and their readers’ experiences, first and foremost (unless they’re writing a choose your own adventure novel, or an American Girlbook). But NRIs, I think, are looking for novels that ring true, with voices and experiences even writers as talented as Naipaul can’t provide.
Of course, I could be reading (or writing?) too much into the lack of Indians at Naipaul’s reading. Perhaps Amitabh Bachan was in town that night. Or perhaps it’s that Naipaul isn’t representative of the modern NRI--he’s not a software engineer, after all. Maybe it’s his more conservative political views, or his rather colorful personal life, quite out of keeping with the more straight-laced Indian marriage. Most likely, it’s a combination of all of these things, and more.