An Evening For Sir Vidia

Updated: May 26 2002, 05:30am hrs
At Stockholm, during his Nobel Prize lecture, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul declared: “I have nothing much to speak, everything of value about me is in my books, I will say I am a sum of my books.” The writer, in other words, is his work. It’s interesting to note that a man of Indian origin has laid bare the pathologies of India, and this is what explains the continued interest of Indian writers in the author and the person.

An evening launch of a book of essays on Sir Vidia, The Humour And The Pity, at the British Council Library in Delhi, saw a cross-section of Indian writers from Tarun Tejpal to Nirmal Verma and M J Akbar discussing Sir Vidia threadbare.

While this latest book explores the alchemy of a master writer and the contours of his complex influence, the discussion that evening centred around the politics of the man.

While Tarun Tejpal clearly eulogised Sir Vidia, Nirmal Verma, M J Akbar and Urvashi Butalia were not convinced by his criticism of India.

Mr Tejpal said, “Sir Vidia only represents himself and not India, Britain or even Trinidad. He represents certain values.”

Ms Butalia felt that some of the world’s greatest writers were very highly political. Fiction might steer clear, but non-fiction cannot remain away from politics. Said she, “Naipaul’s politics are deeply informed by the politics of location and race.”

Mr Verma was of the belief that while Sir Vidia’s books are very frank and detached, his observations are pretty superficial. “He looks at the stains and not the texture of the material,” he said. According to Mr Verma, the superficiality of Sir Vidia’s observations do not show an enhanced awareness of Indian culture.

M J Akbar, on the other hand, said, “The title of the anthology is very apt—while there is a great deal to enjoy, there is a great deal to pity also.” Mr Akbar does not particularly like Sir Vidia, not only because he criticises India, but also because he is not factual. “What’s wrong with criticising, but he is judgmental without being factual,” he quipped.

He went to explain, “Honesty of conviction is not judgmental. Leo Tolstoy, for instance, had honesty of conviction, so even though he wanted to be judgmental, he is not.”

Mr Akbar went a step ahead in saying that fiction can also be as political. “Can you say Rape Of The Lock by Alexander Pope or Macbeth were not political writings” he questioned.

So while the writer in Sir Vidia kept slipping out of the discussion, the politics of Sir Vidia kept the evening alive.