VS Naipaul’s words may have inspired as much love as scorn. But, as Paul Theroux says, he wrote the cold, abject truth.
Sir vs Naipaul was a difficult man to peg down. His politics in writing, as in life, earned him as much praise as it did mordant scorn. But, his art, only respect—even some measure of worship. That many literary greats he sparred with—amongst them, Paul Theroux, with whom he had a 15-year long feud before a thaw some 10 years ago—should have voiced a personal loss at his demise, is a measure of his unsparing, deeply critical genius as a novelist. When he turned his gaze on people, places and histories as a writer, he could strip away all bombast, pageantry and make-believe to put in words, as Theroux told NPR in an interview, the cold, abject truth. So, he wrote of the Western, colonial powers without an iota of awe of their grand pasts and present power, and he wrote of the colonised countries’ ambiguities and the chaos, the jaundiced outlook of colonised nations and their refusal to see themselves with a critical lens. India would continue to haunt him for decades—his grandfather, an indentured labourer who had to migrate to Trinidad—and he would put it all on paper with his India trilogy, An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilization and A Million Mutinies Now. In the first two, he poured scorn on almost everybody, and everything Indian—and invited it in good measure in return. A contrarian to the hilt, he managed to write off the country, angering simultaneously its Right, Left and Centre.
In his later decades, critics would talk of his Islamophobia. It stemmed perhaps from his inability to tolerate dogma wherever he saw it, or perhaps it was indeed a fatal flaw. Nevertheless, his ability to write a masterful sentence in English—biting, humourous and melancholic, and often all the three together—each time should prove his lasting legacy. Theroux talks of Naipaul being the scourge of any one using a “cliche or an un-thought out sentence”. Fellow Carribean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott may have cruelly called him “VS Nightfall” in verse, but averred once that he was “our (the Caribbean’s) finest writer of the English sentence”.