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The Masque Of V.S. Naipaul

The Masque Of V.S. Naipaul

November 20, 2010

Thoughts on critically acclaimed NRI author V.S. Naipaul...and why he doesn't draw an Indian crowd.

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.


  • dr_idli
    15.12.11 04:05 AM
    Hi Peta ,

    A feedback on this post must be coming quite late to you. But it's only because i recently came across this site. And quite liking it.

    What I do want to say on Vs Naipaul. Or rather I should start a little on my background before i elaborate . I like Naipaul , and like you come from an island with a large Indian community who migrated many years back - i probably come as a 5th generation Indian background settled in Mauritius and also half Sri Lankan, I have a unique perspective of being "indian" ! in that i am , but at the same time I'm not . I look and come from the same ethos and culture . Yet when i am in india ( i did my undergraduation in Mumbai ) I feel out of place. referred to as "NRI" , certainly not "phirang"( foreigner) yet at the same time connected by something I cant describe.
    And here is where Mr Naipaul books , right from his 1st fiction , his autobiographical fiction of his father ( house of mr Biswas) and his extensive travels in 3 volumes on India were really enlightening . It was for me , like say a grandfather who somehow gave me a story , a sense of connect , a sense of insight I would never have had. Of migrant indians who had had left Bharat generations ago and was telling a story- the way of thinking , behaving , carrying on life . And while I was in India , also noticing little things which would have eluded me , had i not read his books.

    So I have a great respect for Sir Naipaul- and to me, he might not have a connect with indians and less with the modern day "software engineer NRIs" , but for someone coming from a little unknown island, he did bring a connect somewhere, somehow to my "indianess"
  • sell my house myself
    sell my house myself
    30.03.11 11:28 AM
    Naipaul is a new world's pride. 20th century is proud to find him. i think that if his grandfathers were indian he cannot be an indian. He was not born and raised in India. He have no cultural influence of india no influence of indian civilization. People should not call him indian. We should not dragg artists and writers into racism and nationalism we should not trap them into the borders of country they are world heritage. They are free birds. They were born for every human of the world. They are above anyone and anything.

    sell my house myself
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    08.12.10 04:53 AM
    Hi Peta,

    I didn't think you were using the whole "software engineer" thing pejoratively. I was just pointing out that expat Indians do show up at literary events, but a reading by Naipaul isn't quite where you'd run into a lot of us.

    And I did understand where you came from with that "software engineer" reference. While the Indian expat demographic is changing in the US, it is still quite common for a lot of it to be dominated by all flavours of engineers. That's just the net result of basic economics.

    Re how Naipaul is perceived by Indians in general, I am by no means justifying our rather childish reaction to the man based on a small fraction of his work. While some of his work did tick me off it would be foolish to deny his prowess as an author. Generally speaking however, we NRIs do tend to be very touchy (and prickly) when reading anything resembling a non-trivial, grown up analyses of anything remotely Indian. In a way, for most expat Indians, India is a chip on our shoulders - in addition to the ones we designed for your home PC ;-)

    I hope what I said about Naipaul didn't come across as me questioning his Indianness. If it did, mea culpa, that wasn't what I meant. I was trying to shed light on why I thought those two/three books of his made for poor analyses.

    "..I think it’s important to recognize that we each own our heritage differently." Well said, couldn't agree more.

  • Peta Andersen
    Peta Andersen
    03.12.10 10:53 AM
    Hi Alfred,

    Thanks for stopping by. The software engineer thing wasn't meant to be derogatory in any way, but rather an observation based on my (albeit limited) experience. All but two of the Indians I know here, in the US, are software engineers. In my family, there are no software engineers at present, but my uncles are all engineers--environmental, chemical, civil--and my father studied electrical engineering for a while, before transferring to law. The older generation of non-family Indians I know back home are exclusively engineers or doctors.

    Naipaul mightn't be the only Indian author shunned like this, but so far, he's the only one I've actually seen, so I can't really offer on-the-spot insight. At the Rushdie talk I attended this week there were a good number of Indians, though, several of whom asked questions.

    I do like Naipaul. I like his work, and I think he has a talent for words. I don't agree with everything he writes; I love Jonathan Swift, but I don't agree with everything he writes, either.

    I'm not sure it's fair to cast aspersions on his Indianness. I can see that he doesn't speak to everyone, and I can, I think understand why--particularly when it's well-explained (thank you for that). But as someone struggling with Indianness & identity, I think it's important to recognize that we each own our heritage differently.
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    26.11.10 10:20 PM
    "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."

    Now t.h.a.t is unfair. Yes we NRIs flock to events featuring Indian pop culture icons but we don't do that to the exclusion of our literary noteworthies. I've been to plenty of standing room only events showcasing Seth, Mistry, Roy, Lahiri and other lesser known Indian writers. The issue with Naipaul and NRIs comes down squarely to his books about India (both the essays and travelogues, e.g India: A Wounded Civilization) and what he says about the place and the people - and how he says it. Granted his body of work spans a lot more than his two or three books about India but for NRIs those books have come to represent the man and his work.

    While I try to keep an open mind about my homeland, my fellow Indians and our predilections, idiosyncracies, blind spots etc I found it excruciating to read Naipaul when he wrote about us. The man is laudably erudite about India but only in a tediously pedagogical sense, what he lacks is a "feel" for the place - and it showed big time. No question though, like other great authors he is searingly insightful about the human condition and all of its foibles, and that is on grand display in a lot of his work. But that insight doesn't quite work when he gets into the sweeping survey mode of an entire civilization. Net result, he ended up ticking off a whole generation of Indian readers with his broad brush observational travelogues disguised as historical analyses. Like a reviewer wrote about his ..Wounded Civilization, what he actually wrote was "India: A Wounded Heart", his heart that is. And we lot tend to be (unreasonably) touchy and unforgiving of Indian authors we find guilty of this sort of crime. And no, this is not to say we only fawn over authors who paint unfailingly flattering portraits of us.

    Naipaul isn't the only (barely?) Indian author to be shunned this way, not by a long shot. Nirad C. Chaudhuri wrote one of my favourite books by an Indian author, "Autobiography of an Unknown Indian". But his blatantly anglophile mannerisms and fairly caustic (but similarly learned) analyses of India and Indians earned him a similar fate. I never got to see him in person but would have loved to.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    23.11.10 06:20 PM
    3 books a week, wow, that's a LOT more than me. I'm wondering if I should get a Kindle - it would make reading much easier, but I enjoy the feeling of a book in my hands so much (not to mention the lack of screen glare on the printed page)... although I can imagine priorities would be quite different if I had a young kid!

    I read about two a month now, depending on their length; this is after years of very sporadic reading (like, one or two books a year on average since I was 18). I'm kind of only just rediscovering the joy of books.

    I'm very much interested in novels and non-fiction that illustrate India's place in the world, and various Indians' place within their own culture. In the last couple of years I've read Midnight's Children and The Inheritance of Loss, both of which had a huge effect on me. In general, though, I'll read anything that provides insight into some aspect of the human condition. My favourite author is an Englishman called Rupert Thomson - his novels are always set in a recognisable but off-kilter universe, with memorable and psychologically fascinating characters, and remind me of watching a great, unsettling film.

    As for YAlit, Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother is the first one I've picked up since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about five years ago.

    Circling back round to the topic, I've never read any VS Naipaul. In fact, I've never read Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahiri either, to name just a few Indian leading lights. As I say, I'm just rediscovering the magic - plenty of time yet...
  • Peta Andersen
    Peta Andersen
    23.11.10 09:28 AM
    @Barnaby - It's funny--I do read a lot, for work (I average around 3 books a week, more if Mir is sleeping well). That covers a lot of YA, kidlit, and the odd piece of memoir or historical fiction, but almost nothing Indian-related (though truth be told, I have just started a novel called "A Good Indian Wife" for a post). Aside from when I'm actively reading for a purpose, I simply don't gravitate toward NRI authors now, though I did when I was in college. I'm not sure if it's that my focus has changed--after all, I'm no longer taking lit courses--or simply that the stories don't fascinate me as much as they used to.

    I don't often read non-fiction, unless it's writing related, although I will read Masque. I do find a read more with the Kindle, too, largely because I can read anywhere, and I can impulse buy at 2am when I'm rubbing a grumpy baby's back.

    Do you get a chance to read much? Genre?
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    23.11.10 09:20 AM
    "Or perhaps it’s that Naipaul isn’t representative of the modern NRI–he’s not a software engineer, after all."

    Absolutely. And I think that's also why this is the first comment on an intriguing article about NRI-ness... that happens to also be about books. It seems that like you, most people don't get (or make) the time to read very much nowadays; maybe this is particularly true of NRIs in general.

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