Naipaul: An Enigma’s Departure

Naipaul: An Enigma’s Departure
Photo : Lester S. Orie

“He shoulda dead long time; he hated Trinidad,” was the self-righteous, doomsday response of a Trini/American on being informed of the death of Naipaul. This is a Trini who migrated to America near fifty years ago and who has been back here on fewer occasions than Naipaul did (who we have heard often visited Trinidad - if only in a most private capacity).

This Naipaul-hater not only never read any of Naipaul books but, in fact, never read any books at all other than the West Indian Reader that was compulsory reading at primary school - and which was the highest level of his educational attainment.

He had however become rich in America and lives now in an exclusive white enclave in New York and boasts that he is the only non-white resident ever accepted there. It is this knowledge of himself as a financial success that makes him feel that he has acquired the transcendence to pass judgement on one such as Naipaul.

When John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was as if the metaphysical heartbeat that makes the world go round had stopped on his passing; it was assumed that everybody everywhere experienced a heart-stopping moment that day. It was only in recent times researchers revealed to the world that there were Kennedy haters across America who celebrated his death with extravagant all-day and all-night partying.

I was in NY when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and while for hundreds of millions worldwide her death was as tragic as of one losing a near and dear relative, there in NY were Sikhs handing out sweets and celebrating her death as if it were the most joyous moment in their lives.

Point is, regardless of who we are, what we have achieved, it seems inevitable that there would always be persons who would let out a big, long steups just at the mention of our names.

The other point is, those who criticise (us) don’t matter; and those who matter (to us) don’t criticise. This is all within the context of our freedom of choice - that inalienable right to be whatever floats one’s boat.

Not being another Mark Antony, I am writing here not to bury Naipaul (that is for Nadira) but to celebrate the opportunity and pleasure of having read his writing.

In a cricket analogy, Naipaul wielded his pen with the pyrotechnical flair of a T20 cricketer, like Gayle, for example, while the writing styles of most others are equivalent to watching the pedestrian stroll-in-the-park batting of  a five day test with Geoff Boycott.

So hear this: Naipaul sees faeces on the ceiling of a toilet in India and wonders what kind of yogic position it required to achieve such a feat. He sees again people exercising and in the matrix of their contortions it looks to him as if it were a yoga Olympiad underway.

It is not what you say but how you say what you say is an adage that has become cliche to all of us, and Naipaul was the custodian of that truth. He allowed us to see what he saw but in language that painted a thousand pictures in technicolour.

So on his Islamic journey through Pakistan he comes to a hut after a long, arduous day of lonely traveling where an Indian man and his two daughters host him for the evening and having fed him roti and tarkari (and a cup of Cocoa, I think)  - a meal that is so typical of an Indo/Trini one, his admission that he could have surrendered himself to that life of theirs was so vivid that one could not read that experience of his and not identify with it.

When I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight children, I felt I could actually hear the voices of the people in the background, in the streets, because Rushdie’s writing communicates to us aurally - i.e. we hear what he hears - which is what makes him great, as well.

Naipaul, however, was more visual, so he let us see what he saw. While his socio-political views generated the greater interest in his books, it was so because he did not see the pen as the weapon of a literary guerilla warrior hiding and sniping, afraid to show his true self, but used it instead as a muralist’s brush for billboard advertising on, say, 42nd street in NY which proclaimed, what you see is what you get. I only tell it as I see it.

Millions deny who they are, where they originated. Michael Jackson, for example, in his white transfiguration, openly rejected his black heritage because he saw himself white. Did Afro/Americans hate him for that rejection of his and their blackness or did they just focus on his music ignoring his idiosyncratic “white” narcissism?

And did they also damn him when it became known that he abused little boys and paid out large sums of hush money to keep the matter swept under his bedsheets?

He without sin cast the first stone is such a profound challenge to mankind that it reiterates the saying, judge not that ye be not judged. Sure, Naipaul’s personal life was imperfect and that he was irascible and crude and a whoring philanderer, but, hey, how many of us could cast that first stone in our holier-than-thou sense of our self as we condemn him?

VS Naipaul came, he saw and he wrote about it and via his books on shelves across the globe, he has immortalised himself by his own hand while his detractors would be forgotten on the delivery of their own eulogy.

Although there is no need to say it, one finds it hard to ignore. So: long live one of the masters of the English language.